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.
          Charlotte Smith may be entitled to rank as co-creator of the School of Radcliffe. Her early novel Emmeline, or the Orphan of the Castle, published early in 1788, was enormously successful and widely imitated, and firmly established the tradition that the heroine must be an orphan. The technique of introducing poems into the narrative also may have derived from Emmeline, which includes an ‘Ode to Despair’ and a Sonnet addressed to Night. Though primarily a novel of domestic sensibility, the heroine finds herself alone in a castle, hears hollow sounds, footsteps and whispers; her candle is almost extinguished as the lock to her door slowly turns; there is a flight through winding passages and galleries. Emmeline and Ethelinde; or, the Recluse of the Lake (1789) influenced Radcliffe, though in turn Radcliffe influenced Smith’s The Old Manor House (1793), which in turn influenced Radcliffe’s Udolpho, which in turn influenced Smith’s later novels, which became more decidedly Gothic; there is a vampire in Marchmont (1796), a gang of banditti in Montalbert (1795), and the spectre of a dead mother haunts ‘The Story of Edouardo’ in The Letters of a Solitary Wanderer (1799). Smith’s novels are generally less elegant and less evocative of terror and unease, and she was more clearly interested in social and political issues related to her treatment by men.

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‘There was, an please your honor,’ said Corporal Trim, ‘There was a certain king of Bohemia, who had seven castles.’
          A modern Novelist, who, to write ‘in the immediate taste,’ has so great a demand for these structures, cannot but regret, that not one of the seven castles was sketched by the light and forcible pencil of Sterne: for if it be true that books are made, as he asserts, only as apothecaries make medicines, how much might have been obtained from the king of Bohemia’s seven castles, towards the castles which frown in almost every modern novel?
          For my part, who can now no longer build chateaux even en Espagne, I find that Mowbray Castle, Grasmere Abbey, the castle of Roch-March, the castle of Hauteville, and Rayland Hall, have taken so many of my materials to construct, that I have hardly a watch tower, a Gothic arch, a cedar parlour, or a long gallery, an illuminated window, or a ruined chapel, left to help myself. Yet some of these are indispensibly necessary; and I have already built and burnt down one of these venerable edifices in this work, yet must seek wherewithal to raise another.
          But my ingenious contemporaries have fully possessed themselves of every bastion and buttress – or every tower and turret –; of every gallery and gateway, together with all their furniture of ivy mantles, and mossy battlements; tapestry, and old pictures; owls, bats, and ravens – that I had some doubts whether, to avoid the charge of plagiarism, it would not have been better to have earthed my hero, and have sent him for adventures to the subterraneous town on the Chatelet mountain in Champagne, or even to Herculaneum, or Pompeii, where I think no scenes have yet been laid, and where I should have been in less danger of being again accused of borrowing, than I may perhaps be, while I only visit

‘The glympses of the moon.’

          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 –

‘Qui rien n’est beau que le vrai.’
[‘Nothing is as beautiful as truth.’]

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.
          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

A woman’s story at a winter’s fire
Authoriz’d by her granddam,

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, that

Fancy still cruises, when poor Sense is tired.

* * *
. . . [Friend.] – But on some future occasion I may give you more fully my opinion of English novels. I speak not of the trifles which issue everyday from the press to satisfy the idlest readers of a circulating library, but such as deserve to be read by persons who have other purposes in reading than to pass a vacant hour, or to escape for a few moments from the insipid monotony of prosperity, by engaging their minds in the detail of impossible adventures; of fables, that only a distempered imagination can produce, or a vitiated taste enjoy.
          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. iii–vi, x–xi]

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