Rotten as Touchwood

Loraine Fletcher

  • The Poems of Charlotte Smith edited by Stuart Curran
    Oxford, 335 pp, £35.50, March 1994, ISBN 0 19 507873 X

Charlotte Smith was the first English novelist to make a castle or great house into an emblem of the state. Before her, houses in novels provided appropriate settings or confined rebellious heroines: Smith introduced the house as a microcosm of the condition of England and a site for the subtlest display of an author’s political loyalties.

In Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in November 1790, Burke likens the Ancien Regime to an old building badly in need of repair, whose inhabitants, however, still ‘possessed in some parts the walls, and in all the foundations, of a noble and venerable castle. You might have repaired those walls, you might have built on those old foundations.’ He uses the house metaphor throughout Reflections, warning the English against ‘pulling down an edifice that has answered to any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society’ and recommending that the parts be firmly secured so they cannot warp and ‘start from their allotted places’. The architecture of the state and, especially in cartoons, the state as architectural folly became familiar images in the decade that followed the French Revolution and remained common well into the next century.

Sceptical and pro-Revolutionary, Smith saw satirical possibilities in Burke’s architectural metaphor, and in her novel Desmond, two emblematic buildings represent the old regime and its replacement. Parodying Burke’s lament over the imprisonment of Marie Antoinette, the hero predicts that ‘a hundred pens will leap from their inkwells’ to refute Burke. Desmond is one of the very few contemporary novels to deal directly with the Revolution; even the English Jacobin writers were waiting to see how the cat would jump before committing themselves.

Smith expands Burke’s metaphor in The Old Manor House, a grimly witty account of England under authoritarian rule. Rayland Hall needs to be completely rebuilt and to have a better owner than the tyrannical aristocrat, Grace Rayland. Her housekeeper reflects that the building is ‘as rotten as touchwood, and the rats are forever coming in. I never saw the like of this old house – it will tumble about our ears I reckon, one day or another, and yet my lady is always repairing it.’ The inheritance and running of the Hall are disputed by corrupt clergy, tricky lawyers, upper and lower servants representing capitalist and lower-class interests, and a gang of criminals hiding in the cellars. Smith’s plot weighs the claims of the Hall’s actual owner, its would-be owners and its most deserving owners as part of a skilful reformist argument about the ownership of England and the political and social divide between the over-privileged and the dispossessed. She began writing the book in the summer of 1792 and the doubts produced by the massacre that September of prisoners in Paris are written into the plot. Though her hero and illegitimate heroine are obviously the most deserving owners, they have no legal right to the Hall – this is of course Smith’s point. They are torn between obedience to parents and authority figures, and the wish to make a new life independent of tradition. In this way the familiar ingredients of the love story are turned into a contemporary political fable. The house metaphor was used in her later novels, but never so successfully after the Terror.

Jane Austen read Smith’s novels as they appeared through her teens and early twenties. At 14 she professed to idolise Delamere, the impetuous half-mad lover who loses the heroine of Smith’s first novel, Emmeline, to a naval officer. Austen’s Catharine in The Bower, a fragment among the juvenilia, refers to Smith’s novels as ‘books universally read and admired, and that have given rise perhaps to more frequent arguments than any other of the same sort’, and Catharine is quite a good reader. Austen enjoyed Smith’s acerbity and the emotional extremism of her characters, though as a Christian and a Tory she grew increasingly hostile to her ideas. As well as being pro-Revolution, Smith was mildly deist and soft on fallen women and divorce. But Austen saw what Smith was doing with her political houses, and created her own great estates – Pemberley, Mansfield Park and Donwell Abbey – as reassuring emblems of a more just England where some improvement might be needed, but no change of ownership. Of all Rayland Hall’s descendants, Mansfield Park, Chesney Wold, Howards End, Wragby Hall and many others, only Mansfield Park fills its novel so completely.

Smith was born Charlotte Turner in 1749 to a landed Sussex family. Her mother died in childbirth when she was three, and her father overspent his income sufficiently in the next 11 years to take the advice of friends and find himself an heiress. Charlotte was by now fully grown, attractive and witty. She disliked what she saw as the pretentiousness of her middleaged future stepmother. But the heiress objected to being made fun of by a satirical 14-year-old, and stipulated that Charlotte shouldn’t live at home after the marriage. A match was arranged for her with the son of a wealthy West India merchant, and at the age of 15 she was ‘sold, a legal prostitute’, as she put it long afterwards, to Benjamin Smith. There followed a rapid succession of children, some of whom died; Benjamin meanwhile grew more feckless and violent. When he was sent to the King’s Bench prison for embezzlement, she joined him there, using the time to prepare Elegiac Sonnets and Other Essays for publication. It was printed in Chichester in 1784 at her own expense and was very popular, although she didn’t make as much money from it as she hoped. The night before the Smiths were released from King’s Bench a group of prisoners tried to blow the walls down with gunpowder, but the couple got safely away and went to Normandy with their children: Benjamin was still in debt and had to stay out of England. Living in a ruinous unheated castle during the winter of 1784-5, Smith translated Manon Lescaut for an English publisher and, after a labour she didn’t expect to survive, had her 12th and last baby. The success of the Sonnets, combined with her determination not to risk another pregnancy, seems to have led her to insist on a separation when the family returned to England. She looked after their surviving nine children while her husband settled in Scotland to avoid his creditors, making occasional forays south, in disguise, to try to collect his wife’s book money which was legally his. His father left a complicated will meant to provide for his grandchildren and guard against his son’s extravagance, but it was so badly drawn up that it was almost certainly a model for the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit in Bleak House. The suit wasn’t settled until 37 years after Benjamin’s father’s death; by then, his son and daughter-in-law were dead, and the little money left by the lawyers came too late to help their children.

Smith died in 1806, leaving 65 volumes of poems, novels and children’s books. Her poems have been collected and admirably annotated by Stuart Curran at the Brown University Women Writers Project. The edition gathers together all the Elegiac Sonnets that appeared in the 1780s and 1790s, and two longish blank verse poems, ‘The Emigrants’ and ‘Beachy Head’, as well as animal fables and occasional verse more jaunty than she generally allowed herself to be. Lacking the wit of the prose, the sonnets blazon the author’s sensibility, her capacity to suffer and to sympathise. Curran describes her as the first poet in England whom in retrospect we could call Romantic and claims that she anticipates Wordsworth. But the characters in Lyrical Ballads are the poor and outcast, whereas in Smith’s sonnets sensibility in grief is generally restricted to the better educated. ‘Written in Farm Wood’ contrasts the peasant’s lot with her own:

                                                           all his hours
To wholesome labour given, or thoughtless mirth,
No pangs of sorrow past, or coming dread,
Bend his unconscious spirit down to earth.

But she could sometimes treat the same subject in a less patronising way. In ‘To Sleep’ she writes:

Clasp’d in her faithful shepherds sheltering arms
Well may the village girl sweet slumbers prove,
And they, O gentle Sleep! still taste thy charms
Who wake to labour, liberty and love.

Her early verse is preoccupied with death and suicide; in six sonnets the speaker, Werther, is presented without irony. The sonnets are only loosely related to The Sorrows of Young Werther, a cult book with spin-offs in teacups and yellow britches. Goethe’s Werther actively defies society, killing himself before he can be corrupted. There’s little energy in Smith’s Werther sonnets, and some are just an assortment of inert metaphors. Metrically, however, she is sensitive and flexible, and this is her great distinct ion as a sonneteer. Her most successful tone is gothic and macabre. ‘Written in the Churchyard at Middleton in Sussex’ describes graves gutted by the sea as the coast erodes. The tide

Tears from their grassy tombs the village dead
And breaks the silent Sabbath of the grave,

stripping the bones among shells and seaweed while the speaker looks on in envy. Although she could be belligerent in person and in her letters, in the sonnets she only shows her vulnerable side. In the octave of ‘On some rude fragment of the rocky shore’, a female speaker sits on a bleak beach watching a storm where

O’er the dark waves the winds tempestuous howl,
The screaming seabird quits the troubled sea,

and compares herself in the sestet to a shipwrecked sailor. The conceit is drawn out with strained ingenuity to the final lines:

Faint and more faint are heard his feeble cries
Till in the rising tide, the exhausted sufferer dies.

In her blank verse Smith developed the reflexiveness of landscape setting and speaker with more philosophical and political overtones. ‘The Emigrants’ concerns the exile of French aristocrats and clergy lucky enough to have escaped in 1793, and the violence spreading through France. Her loyalties were changing fast that year, and her dedication refers to the ‘dreadful scenes that have been enacted in the past summer’. The poem reminisces about her childhood freedom, wading into the Arun for willow herb and flags – a freedom lost in marriage. Her sorrows may seem intrusive, but like The Prelude, the poem is about the growth of the poet’s mind and her angle of vision: the external world is inseparable from the sensibility that contemplates it.

Passages of self-revelation contained within a larger subject show the growing confidence of her poetic voice. She makes her bleeding heart a pageant for England as Byron supposedly did for all Europe, and includes her personal history, motherhood, family quarrels, debts and lawsuits. Like other Jacobin writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays and Elizabeth Inchbald, she was defining for herself attitudes which were just starting to be termed ‘radical’: beliefs connecting the private with the national life and so politicising sex and the family.

During her last illness she was still working on ‘Beachy Head’, which combines reflection with striking land and seascapes. It was published posthumously by Joseph Johnson, who had published many radical writers in the 1790s, though Smith met him when the more exciting times for his house were over, and only her last few books have his imprint. ‘Beachy Head’ brings together botanising, speculation on fossil forms, Sussex history including the Viking and Norman invasions, a scholar-gipsy figure, looters of ships wrecked on the coast and a hermit in a cave at the cliff base. It sounds like a ragbag but coheres thanks to its sense of the permanence of nature, from which the marks made by human societies are easily effaced.

Many of her poems appeared first in the novels. Smith’s heroes and heroines are often poets whose verses are given in full, and then transferred to new editions of Elegiac Sonnets as they came out. The effect of this is to pull the fictional characters out of their stories and to link their distresses more closely with her own. This is especially true of her last novel, The Young Philosopher (1798), written after her daughter Augusta had died, possibly from TB. Smith believed that crooked lawyers had deprived Augusta of the money that would have bought her a chance of survival. In the preface to her previous novel, she violently attacked the legal profession, and Smith wrote herself into The Young Philosopher as the older heroine, Laura, who goes mad after the abduction of her daughter by a crooked lawyer.

The literary value of most of the sonnets is doubtful, but the blank verse and fiction have style and wit and I very much hope that this volume will be followed by a reissue of some of the novels.