In 1833, William Wordsworth, England’s greatest living poet, praised one of his contemporaries, Charlotte Smith, as “a lady to whom English verse is under greater obligations than are likely to be either acknowledged or remembered.” Sadly, his words rang true, for by the end of the nineteenth century, she had been almost forgotten. In recent years, however, Smith’s literary accomplishments have been rediscovered. Some scholars, in fact, now consider her to be one of the founders of English Romanticism.
In addition to reevaluating Smith’s works, scholars are also piecing together the story of her life—a challenging job considering her family burned most of her correspondence after her death in 1806. The Collected Letters of Charlotte Smith, published by Indiana University Press in 2003, brought together almost 500 of her letters, all that were known to survive at that time. Several more have now been located in the George De Forest Collection in the LSU Libraries’ Special Collections.
The seven letters relate mostly to a long and convoluted court case involving Smith and her children. Born in 1749 to a wealthy family, Charlotte had been married off at the age of fifteen when her father fell on hard times. Her husband Benjamin’s father, Richard Smith, was a West Indian planter and also a director of the East India Company. He recognized that his son was a spendthrift who cared little for his wife and twelve children. When Richard died in 1776, he left his money in a trust for his grandchildren. The will was badly written, however, and it took 37 years of legal wrangling before it was finally settled—litigation that one scholar thinks was the model for the case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce in Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House.
Benjamin Smith found ways to extract money from the trust against his father’s wishes, but it still wasn’t enough to cover his debts. Unable to pay them, he spent seven months in a debtor’s prison in 1783. Charlotte voluntarily joined her husband in prison and began writing poetry to earn the money needed to get him released.
Her book Elegiac Sonnets was published in 1784. Critics loved it, and it would eventually help revive the English sonnet as a literary form. Nine editions were published during Smith’s lifetime, inspiring two of England’s greatest poets, William Wordsworth and John Keats. The book was not enough of a financial success, however, to give Charlotte and her family the stability they needed. Benjamin fled to France to evade creditors shortly after it was published. Charlotte joined him briefly but then returned to England. In 1786, they formally separated. Even then, her troubles were not over.
Benjamin by that time was hiding out in Scotland but frequently slipped back into England to squeeze money out of Charlotte, who had begun publishing translations of French literature and received interest payments twice a year on her marriage settlement. Although British law at that time stipulated that a husband had a legal right to everything his wife owned or earned, Charlotte was astonished that Benjamin would take it, leaving her and her children nearly destitute. Her publisher, Thomas Cadell, assisted her by keeping some of her earnings in a special account where Benjamin couldn’t find it.
Finally recognizing that her husband had abandoned her for good, Charlotte redoubled her efforts as a writer, turning to novels, the most lucrative if not most prestigious form of writing in the late eighteenth century. She did so for two reasons. One was so she could write at her leisure, rather than to avoid poverty. She also wanted to establish her children in life. In particular, she needed money to launch her sons in their careers in the military, where officers’ commissions had to be purchased. But despite critical acclaim and modest financial success as a novelist, Charlotte couldn’t get Richard Smith’s will out of her mind.
Things seemed to be looking up in 1794 when the Earl of Egremont, an influential and generous man known for his philanthropy, stepped in and tried to settle the case. It is not entirely clear why things went downhill, but within a few years, Smith and Egremont were no longer on good terms.
The Smith correspondence that is now at LSU picks up around 1803, by which time there had still not been a settlement in the case. Two of the seven letters are to her publisher, Cadell and Davies. The others are to a lawyer, Samuel Rose, and reveal the extent of Charlotte’s desperation. Her health was then so bad that she could hardly write, and to raise money, she had sold her library of 1,000 books. There was apparently little left for her to do besides criticize Lord Egremont, her husband, and Britain’s unfair laws.
“It seems to me a strange thing,” Charlotte wrote in one of the letters, “that a man should be allowed to refer the question whether he shall support his wife and children from his wife’s property or take it himself and leave them utterly destitute….” As for Egremont, she wrote: “His whole conduct is such that I know not where to act. It is savage towards me, to a degree which is as incredible as unaccountable…” Her youngest son George, she told Mr. Rose, was in need of money to advance his career. “This boy has never cost his unnatural and cruel father twenty pounds since his birth… I have now sacrificed all I possessed, my books, my little furniture, all the few comforts I might have at this time of my life. What can I do more? … What is my crime? Only having dared to say [to Lord Egremont] that which a man of his rank is too little accustomed to hear; the truth… Lord Egremont is now doing what is undoubtedly illegal.”
The ending of one letter is especially poignant. “All he wants is money, money, money, of his children’s and mine,” Charlotte wrote, referring to her husband. “But I must be brief or miss an occasion of sending this to the post. I am so very unwell and become every day so weak that I fear… that a little earth and the means of carrying me to hide me under it will soon be all that will be required on account of Dear Sir, your greatly obliged servant, Charlotte Smith.”
She died not long afterwards, in 1806, at the age of 57, never having seen the case resolved. When it was finally settled in 1813, court costs (and Benjamin’s unauthorized spending) had reduced the value of Richard Smith’s estate from £36,000 to just £4,000.
Want to learn more? Feel free to visit Special Collections and read all seven of Smith’s letters (location: George De Forest Collection, range 77:44). Middleton Library has several books by and about Smith, and the Rare Book Collection contains an edition of Elegiac Sonnets published during her lifetime, as well as works by her contemporaries, including other women authors (for suggestions, see our guide to Eighteenth-Century British Literature).
The letters will also be on display at our next Afternoon in the Archives, celebrating Women’s History Month, on March 31 from 1:00-4:00. Stay tuned for more information—and we hope to see you there!