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The woman behind Romanticism: introducing Charlotte Turner Smith

ByGrace Shaughnessy

Feb 21, 2021

Remember Nikki Grahame’s ‘Who is she?’ tantrum on the 2006 series of television’s Big Brother? No? For those who haven’t spent all of quarantine studying hun culture history (no need to show off, get onto Youtube), her ‘Who is she? Who is she? Where did you find her?!’ meltdown recently became an unlikely inspiration for my Literature professor, who, when I suggested writing an essay on Charlotte Turner Smith, launched into a similarly outraged tirade. Boo hiss. His response was alarming as it expressed the tiresome view that only educated white men contributed to Romanticism and, indeed, all literary movements – but also because it was nonsense. Charlotte Turner Smith helped Romanticism to its feet, playing a crucial role in the innovation of a genre at the heart of English literature. As Wordsworth writes, Smith was ‘a lady to whom English verse is under greater obligations than are likely to be either acknowledged or remembered’.

To be clear, Smith’s achievements are not only as a remarkable writer, but also as a remarkable individual. In my view, her writing career entwines both feats. Smith struggled to gain respect from her fellow Romantics because her motivations were mainly commercial; though born into relative privilege, she became destitute after marrying her husband, Benjamin Smith. Only nine of their thirteen children survived to adulthood, and Benjamin was an abusive and absent father who gambled the family’s money away before abandoning them. 

Some of her fictional works reflect on these events. A single mother forced into poverty, Smith wrote to live and lived only to write. Her biographers claim that while writing “The Emigrants” – one of her most acclaimed poems and forerunner for the Romantic theme of introspection – she breastfed her youngest child in her lap. All this happened before those poets my professor affectionately named ‘the Big Three’ – Byron, Coleridge, Wordsworth – were even born. Smith was that good. 

While writing for a living is an acceptable if slightly unrealistic career path nowadays (hello tortured artist seeking validation on Bumble), the eighteenth century literary scene was ruthless for excluding writers driven by commercial success. ‘Inspiration’ was the preferred source of literary accomplishment – something much easier for men to seek in the public sphere than women compelled into domestic roles. Perhaps in response to these constraints, Smith wrote fiction that engages in a form of world-making. Unlike her contemporaries, Smith writes mothers into the novel, and their struggles provide the raw materials for plot, such that female experience is not only seen, but valued and even respected. 

Smith’s novel The Old Manor House places her amongst my favourite women writers, indeed favourite writers, of all time. On the surface, The Old Manor House looks like a hackneyed romance in which the chivalrous knight (Orlando) seeks to rescue the enchained heroine (Monimia) and complete their courtship away from the novel’s villain (Mrs Rayland). But a second glance reveals that something more intelligent, more subversive is afoot. There is a kind of double-plotting going on as Smith narrates not only Orlando’s courtship of Monimia, but Mrs Rayland’s courtship of Orlando. Bear in mind that Mrs Rayland is Orlando’s benefactress – and about 100 years old. Smith ingeniously parodies the conventions of chivalric romance as she recasts Orlando as meek heroine and Mrs Rayland as gallant knight. Take the brilliant scene substituting Monimia’s giving of her favour to knight Orlando for decrepit Mrs Rayland’s sober gift of a bank note. That’s like getting a fiver on a V-Day when you expected an M&S dine in for two, bottle of fizz, and a card you pretend you’ll throw out. 

Smith’s point is that ‘real life’ must weigh upon even the most romantic among us, that thoughts of ‘happily ever after’ are not enough to sustain lovers – a notion to which her own biography testifies. And so, on this merry point, I implore you to join me in a cheers to Charlotte Turner Smith: matriarch of wary women and Romantic poetry. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image depicts a portrait of Charlotte Turner Smith