08/03/2010

18th and 19th Century Women Writers Challenge - Charlotte Turner Smith and her Elegiac Sonnets

Many of us have heard or studied great Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge or know about early romantic poets as William Blake, Thomas Gray and William Cowper. But very few have read or studied the numerous Romantic women writers and poets we have in English literature. So I thought I could dedicate my first post in the 18th and 19th Women Writers Challenge - hosted at Becky's Book Reviews -  to one of them, one of the most representative.


Charlotte Turner Smith ( 1749 – 1806) was a successful writer : she published ten novels, three books of poetry, four children's books, and other assorted works, over the course of her career. She always saw herself as a poet first and foremost .

Smith's poetry and prose was praised by contemporaries such as Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge as well as novelist Walter Scott. Largely forgotten by the middle of the nineteenth century, her works have now been republished and she is recognized as an important Romantic writer.

But more than by her works, I have always been attracted by her unfortunate hard working life which inspired her novels and poetry.

Charlotte was born into a wealthy family and received a typical education for a woman during the late eighteenth century. However, her father's reckless spending forced her to marry early. In a marriage that she later described as prostitution, she was given by her father to the violent and profligate Benjamin Smith. Their marriage was deeply unhappy, although they had twelve children together. Charlotte joined Benjamin in debtor's prison, where she wrote her first book of poetry, Elegiac Sonnets. Its success allowed her to help pay for Benjamin's release. Benjamin's father tried to leave money to Charlotte and her children upon his death, but legal technicalities prevented her from ever acquiring it.

Charlotte Smith eventually left Benjamin and began writing to support their children. Smith's struggle to provide for her children and her frustrated attempts to gain legal protection as a woman provided themes for her poetry and novels; she included portraits of herself and her family in her novels as well as details about her life in her prefaces.

Among her novels, Emmeline, The Orphan of the Castle (1788) and Celestina (1791)

For this challenge I read , little by little, and from time to time, many of her ELEGIAC SONNETS ( on line HERE).

Smith wrote in response to a public that could pay: she urgently needed revenues from her subscriptions, which opens a difficult ground for considering the relations between form and public expectation. Important also in this regard is Smith's decision to write poetry at all, when clearly the real money to be made was in prose fiction. She did eventually make her mark as a prolific novelist, but she defined herself primarily in terms of the dignity afforded the lyricist. In insisting upon her status as lyric poet, she asserts her membership in a cultural elite, one to which she would claim rightful inclusion in spite of her financial dependencies. She defiantly locates herself within the very public that knows what is worth paying for.

Smith appropriates the form that during  the  Renaissance, was linked to a particular kind of "mythologizing the woman", one that absolutely cancels her physicality. Great sonneteers had depicted idealized unreacheable beautiful women whose chastity and spirituality were basic features of their personality.

Now in her Elegiac Sonnets- written while she was in a debtors ' prison with her husband - Charlotte, a woman trying to make her way in a largely inhospitable world, tormented by the dross of domestic despair and financial crisis, laments emphatically real losses through the same 14-line-layout  that conventionally had been used to suspend the concrete actuality of the feminine in favour of mythic presence. This is Smith’s absolute novelty in her revival of the sonnet.
Romantic poetry is pervaded by a deep sense of loss and mourning that renders much of it elegiac in tone, reflecting as it does a sense of the world in which it was written as alienated, broken and torn. The affective individual, newly shaped by contemporary debates on sensibility and feeling, was expected to respond compassionately, if dejectedly, to the ruination engendered by Britain’s war with France, the failed revolution, rural poverty and an enclosed and ravaged natural landscape. The elegiac mode thus offered Romantic poets a form in which to address the perceived devastation of society through subjective explorations of grief, death, bereavement and consolation. The latter is what is difficult to find in Smith's poetry. Her sonnets are defined elegiac but the melancholic tone of loss and sorrow are not followed by the conventional consolation which is , instead , typical of elegy. Here is an example of this attitude.

SONNET XL. FROM THE SAME.
FAR on the sands, the low retiring tide,
In distant murmurs hardly seems to flow,
And o'er the world of waters, blue and wide,
The sighing summer wind, forgets to blow.
As sinks the day-star in the rosy West,
The silent wave, with rich reflection glows:
Alas! can tranquil nature give me rest,
Or scenes of beauty, soothe me to repose?
Can the soft lustre of the sleeping main,
Yon radiant heaven, or all creation's charms,
"Erase the written troubles of the brain,"
Which Memory tortures, and which guilt alarms?
Or bid a bosom transient quiet prove,
That bleeds with vain remorse, and unextinguish'd love!

Here’s a sample of how her sonnets are strictly linked to her condition of woman totally deprived of rights and freedom. She,  thus,  defies the male canon:

To Dependence

Dependence! heavy, heavy are they chains,
And happier they who from the dangerous sea

Or the dark mine, procure with ceaseless pains

An hard-eard'd pittance--than who trust to thee!
More blest the hind, who from his bed of flock
Starts--when the birds of morn their summons give
And waken'd by the lark--"the sheperd's clock."
Lives but to labour--labouring but to live.
More noble than the sycophant, whose art
Must heap with taudry flowers thy hated shrine;
I envy not the meed thou canst impart
To crown his service--While, tho' Pride combine
With Fraud to crush me--my unfetter'd heart
Still to the Mountain Nymph may offer mine.

William Wordsworth wrote: “ A lady to whom English verse is under greater obligations than are likely to be either acknowledged or remembered”

William Cowper, instead, a close friend of hers, witnessed her exhausting hard work to financially support her family: “Chain’d to her desk like a slave to his oar, with no other means of subsistencefor herself and her numerous children, with her broken constitution, unequal to sever labour enjoined by her necessity, she is indeed to be pitied (…) she will and ust ‘ere long die a martyr to her exigencies”
She couldn't recognize, in her condition of mother-martyr, the consolatory power of Art.

Slow in the Wintry Morn, the struggling light
Throws a faint gleam upon the troubled waves;
Their foaming tops, as they approach the shore
And the broad surf that never ceasing breaks
On the innumerous pebbles, catch the beams
Of the pale Sun, that with reluctance gives
To this cold northern Isle, its shorten'd day.
Alas! how few the morning wakes to joy!
How many murmur at oblivious night
For leaving them so soon; for bearing thus
Their fancied bliss (the only bliss they taste!),
On her black wings away!—
(from THE EMIGRANTS Book I lines 1-12)

In these lines,  she identifies herself with the exile from France, those tormented people escaping from a country at war. She, a woman at war against an entire society and their injust laws, conventions and istitutions which had made  her  sublime and solitary like a byronic hero. A real forerunner of the romantic mood, she conveys the same desperate restllessness we will recognize Byron's reckless atypical figures, his outcast and rebels .

11 comments:

Steph said...

This was a really interesting post. I'll have to read some more of her sonnets when I'm not so busy with school.

MARIA GRAZIA said...

So, thank you Steph, to find some time to read and comment my blog. Now, I'd like to read at least one of her sentimental novels. After reading about her unfortunate life and many of her sonnets, I'm extremely curious. Best wishes for school!

Alexa Adams said...

This is a beautiful post. I had almost forgotten about Charlotte Smith in my years since college. I would love to know what you think of her prose, when you get the opportunity to read one of her novels.

MARIA GRAZIA said...

Thanks for being such a regular and kind commenter, Alexa. I'm really interested in getting to know Charlotte Smith's work better and deeply.

lunarossa said...

Hi MG, to tell the truth I've just found our about Charlotte Smith reading your post, thanks. I was never taught or read anything about her before, You see, you learn somwthing new every day. Hope your shoulder/arm is better. Ciao. A.

MARIA GRAZIA said...

Hi, A.
My shoulder and arm still hurt, especially because I'm working a lot these days both at school and at home. But I have no choice. It'll be better litlle by little. I have to be patient. As for Charlotte Smith, there are so many barely unknown women writers from the 18th and 19th centuries. She is one of the most popular among them. The world of knowledge and art, culture and education, has been ruled by male intellectuals for so long. May we say it has changed nowadays?

MARIA GRAZIA said...

Thank you, A. It's going better little by little. I'm back running between teaching and the housework and that doesn't help, indeed.
I'm glad I've helped you to discover something new!

missbluestocking said...

You're amazing, did you know that? This was an amazing article, so rich in information. I was actually studying about Charlotte Smith of late. I'm working on my history paper about the romantic period

MARIA GRAZIA said...

Good luck with your history paper, June! I'm glad to be of any help with my posts. Thanks for commenting.

Judy said...

Commenting belatedly, I'm delighted to see you writing about Charlotte Smith as I like her too - in the last year I've read two of her novels. They were 'Desmond', which I loved, a romantic novel in letters set during the French Revolution, and 'The Old Manor House', which is more famous but didn't grab me so much as I found it very slow. I also love her poetry.

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