THE BANISHED MAN (1794)
CHARLOTTE SMITH (17491806)
Charlotte Smith’s biography is a Dickensian tale of calamities. Her husband’s wealthy father died in 1776, leaving a complex and confusing will, whose trustees acted so slowly (and fraudulently) that her children (there would be a total of twelve) could derive no benefit from their legacies, and the family sank into appalling poverty as she persevered her suit in Chancery, making many enemies and detractors. Her husband, a mad spendthrift, was declared bankrupt, and she spent seven months living with him in debtors’ prison, while her brother looked after the children. It was during this period of voluntary imprisonment that she began to write in order to earn money for the release of her husband; her Elegiac Sonnets (1784; see in the Poetry section) was very well received by the public and the critics. Her husband was released and their property was sold, but he quickly found himself in debt again and fled to France to evade his creditors. Mrs Smith reluctantly followed, and lived in an unheated château near Dieppe for one winter, but eventually separated from her foolish husband in 1787. She wrote one novel a year for the next ten years (plus translations), to support her children and send occasional payments to her husband. As the years progressed, one son had his leg amputated, one daughter died, arthritis crippled her fingers. At the time of writing The Banished Man (1794) she said that ‘long anxiety has ruined my health, and long oppression broken my spirits’. The bequests due under her children’s grandfather’s will were finally paid six months after her death.
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‘There was, an please your honor,’ said Corporal Trim, ‘There was a certain king of Bohemia, who had seven castles.’
On giving the first volume however to a friend to peruse, and hinting at the difficulty I was sensible of in finding novelty for my dark drawings, he bade me remember the maxim so universally allowed ‘The glympses of the moon.’
I asked him how it were possible to adhere to le vrai, in a work like this. But I believe I shall be better understood if I re-relate our conversation in the way of dialogue.‘Qui rien n’est beau que le vrai.’
Friend. ‘I do not mean to say that you can adhere to truth in a book which is avowedly a fiction; but as you have laid much of the scene in France, and at the distance of only a few months, I think you can be at no loss for real horrors, if a novel must abound in horrors; your imagination, however fertile, can suggest nothing of individual calamity, that has not there been exceeded. Keep therefore as nearly as you can to circumstances you have heard related, or to such as might have occurred in a country where murder stalks abroad, and calls itself patriotism; where the establishment of liberty serves as a pretence for the violation of humanity; and I am persuaded, though there may be less of the miraculous in your work; though it may resemble less
yet it will have the advantage of bearing such a resemblance to truth as may best become fiction, and that you will be in less danger of having it said, thatA woman’s story at a winter’s fire
Fancy still cruises, when poor Sense is tired.YOUNG.
Author. I shall be extremely obliged to you for your opinion, which cannot fail to entertain and edify me; though I believe, as far as relates to the business of novel writing, I shall never have occasion to avail myself of your judgment.
Friends. Why so?
Author. Because I think I have taken my leave for ever of that species of writing.
Friend. Your imagination then is exhausted?
Author. Perhaps not. In the various combinations of human life in the various shades of human character, there are almost inexhaustible sources, from whence observation may draw materials, that very slender talents may weave into connected narratives: but in this as in every other species of composition, there is a sort of fashion of the day. Le vrai, which you so properly recommend, or even le vrai semblance, seems not to be the present fashion. I have no pleasure in drawing figures which interest me no more than the allegoric personages of Spencer: besides, it is time to resign the field of fiction before there remains for me only the gleanings, or before I am compelled by the caprice of fashion to go for materials for my novels, as the authors of some popular dramas have lately done, to children’s story books, or rather the collection which one sees in farm houses; the book of apparitions; or a dismal tale of an haunted house, shewing how the inhabitants were forced to leave the same by reason of a bloody and barbarous murder committed there twenty years before, which was fully brought to light.
Friend. Well! but if you should change your mind, I can furnish you with such a ghost story.
Author. I thank you but I have no talents that way; and will rather endeavour, in whatever I may hereafter produce, (if I am still urged by the same necessity as has hitherto made me produce so much,) to remember, whenever it can be remembered with advantage,
Qui rien n’est beau que le vrai.
[SOURCE: Charlotte Smith, The Banished Man, 4 vols (London: T. Cadell, Jun. and W. Davies, 1794), vol. 2, pp. iiivi, xxi]
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