Slave, mother of 10, genius

CHARLOTTE SMITH: A CRITICAL BIOGRAPHY BY LORAINE FLETCHER, MACMILLAN PRESS, pounds 47.50

THE PATTERN looks just a bit too familiar: a modern academic, whose weapons include extravagant claims of neglected genius and a variety of -isms, attempts to free yet another forgotten author from obscurity. It is even more convenient if that author just happens to be a damsel whose distress is attributable to male exploitation.

Familiarity there certainly is, but it should not breed contempt. Charlotte Smith (1749-1806) may be a modern biographer's dream, but her restoration to the Romantic literary vanguard is in no way dependent on present-day whims.

Loraine Fletcher's suggestion that Smith became "the most popular English novelist of her time" is no exaggeration. And, had anyone compiled a top- ten list of popular poetry around 1790, Smith's Elegiac Sonnets would certainly have been there. This was why the unknown 21-year-old William Wordsworth dared to pay her a visit, why contemporaries such as William Cowper used terms such as "genius" about her and why she is Jane Austen's "strongest single inspiration".

Yet had not Charlotte Turner - while still two months short of 16 - been (as she put it) "sold, a legal prostitute" to Benjamin Smith, the 23-year- old son of a West India merchant, she might never have published at all. Charlotte, with her brother and sister, then lived with her aunt at Bignor in Sussex, where the children were "free to explore the Downs and seashore". To find herself transported to a residence above a Cheapside warehouse must have been a shock to the system. But this was just the first of many.

In April 1767, still only 17, Charlotte was pregnant for the second time. A diphtherial infection swept through Cheapside, causing the death of her first son on the same day as her second child was born. Social historians sometimes attempt to construct the past as another world altogether. High infant mortality rates, they argue, made death something parents accepted without the lifelong grief they feel now. But passages in Charlotte's novels about the death of a child, as Fletcher shrewdly comments, show that it was no easier then than later.

By now it was clear to Charlotte what kind of a man she had married. Benjamin had no head for business. He spent most of his time at the races or at boxing-matches, was often drunk and then violent, and ran up enormous gambling debts. To escape from his creditors he fled to Normandy in 1784, and ordered Charlotte to join him. Fletcher compellingly uses this traumatic experience to open her narrative.

On a cold evening in October 1784, Charlotte and her nine children, aged from 16 to two, boarded the packet to Dieppe. That winter, in the dilapidated chateau Benjamin had rented, a tenth child was born. At the same time, two decisions were born in Charlotte's mind. The first was that she would leave her husband - although divorce was impossible - and the second was that she would try to support her family by writing.

Over the next two decades she was to publish 10 novels, six books for children and several collections of poetry. Popular though each of these became, they never quite brought her financial stability or even happiness, as Cowper's description of her - "chained to her desk like a slave to his oar" - forcibly demonstrates.

I shall select just two aspects from a biography in which there is so much to praise. The first is Fletcher's sheer admiration for Smith. An undisguised partiality wafts from the pages like a breath of fresh air amid the stuffiness of academia. Second, Fletcher's analyses of the novels are some of the most valuable pieces of criticism ever written on Smith. She is particularly adept at using material from the fiction to supplement details of Charlotte's life. Only once or twice does this practice threaten to spill over into conjecture.

Fletcher is aided by some of the extraordinary events that Charlotte experienced. Not many would-be Gothic novelists ever woke up in a Normandy chateau to find in the bedroom eight robed monks, who then proceeded to kidnap a newborn child and carry him two miles through the snow to their monastery for baptism.

That did not prevent Charlotte from sheltering emigrant French clergy fleeing from revolutionary persecution in 1792, even though she could scarcely afford to support her own family. Desperately sad though they are, perhaps some lines from her poem "The Emigrants" remain the best epitaph on her life: "For never yet could I derive relief,/ When my swol'n heart was bursting with its sorrows,/ From the sad thought, that others like myself/ Live but to swell affliction's countless tribes!/ Onward I labour; as the baffled wave,/ Which yon rough beach repulses, that returns/ With the next breath of wind, to fail again."

Paul Jarman

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