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Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806) Timeline, Bio and Selected Poems

1749 — Charlotte Turner was born on May 4, 1749 in London and baptized on June 12, 1749; she was the oldest child of well-to-do Nicholas Turner and Anna Towers. A now-neglected English poet and novelist who once had her foot "firmly in the door" of Romanticism, she has been called the "first substantial" female English poet after Mary Sidney. In his Poetical Works, William Wordsworth remembered Smith as "a lady to whom English verse is under greater obligations than are likely to be either acknowledged or remembered." Samuel Taylor Coleridge and others credited her with revitalizing the English sonnet. Sir Walter Scott said that in her landscapes she preserved "the truth and precision of a painter." Such painterly landscapes would become a hallmark of Romantic poetry and prose to follow. Stuart Curran, the editor of Smith's poems, claimed that she is "the first poet in England whom in retrospect we would call Romantic" because she helped shape the "patterns of thought and conventions of style" for the period.

1755 — Charlotte Turner, age six, attends school in Chichester and takes drawing lessons with the painter George Smith. He may have influenced her poetic and prose landscapes.

Huge Vapours Brood above the Clifted Shore

Huge vapours brood above the clifted shore, 
Night o'er the ocean settles, dark and mute, 
Save where is heard the repercussive roar 
Of drowsy billows, on the rugged foot 
Of rocks remote; or still more distant tone 
Of seamen, in the anchored bark, that tell 
The watch relieved; or one deep voice alone, 
Singing the hour, and bidding "strike the bell." 
All is black shadow, but the lucid line 
Marked by the light surf on the level sand, 
Or where afar, the ship-lights faintly shine 
Like wandering fairy fires, that oft on land 
Mislead the pilgrim; such the dubious ray 
That wavering reason lends, in life's long darkling way. 

1756 — Around age six or seven Charlotte Turner begins to compose poems and submits some of them to the Lady's Magazine, which did not print them.

1765 — Charlotte Turner's father marries her off at age fifteen to the violent and profligate Benjamin Smith; forty years later she will accuse her father of having turned her into a "legal prostitute." 

Sonnet: On Being Cautioned Against Walking
on an Headland Overlooking the Sea,
Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic

Is there a solitary wretch who hies 
   To the tall cliff, with starting pace or slow, 
And, measuring, views with wild and hollow eyes 
   Its distance from the waves that chide below; 
Who, as the sea-born gale with frequent sighs 
   Chills his cold bed upon the mountain turf, 
With hoarse, half-uttered lamentation, lies 
   Murmuring responses to the dashing surf? 
In moody sadness, on the giddy brink, 
   I see him more with envy than with fear; 
He has no nice felicities that shrink 
   From giant horrors; wildly wandering here, 
He seems (uncursed with reason) not to know 
The depth or the duration of his woe.

1783 — Charlotte Turner Smith writes Elegiac Sonnets while in debtors' prison with her husband. The book's financial success allows her buy back her family's freedom. Her sonnets would eventually appear in nine editions, fill two volumes, and help create a revival of interest in the English sonnet. All her writing would be published under her own name, "a daring decision" for a woman of her day.

1784 — Charlotte Turner Smith's husband Benjamin Smith flees to Dieppe, France to escape his creditors. She joins him there, begins translating French works into English, and is able to help him return to England the following year. They settle near Midhurst, Sussex.

1787 — Charlotte Turner Smith leaves her husband, because "his temper had been so capricious and often so cruel" that her "life was not safe." She would turn to writing novels to support her twelve children, two of whom did not survive to adulthood.

On the Departure of the Nightingale

Sweet poet of the woods, a long adieu! 
   Farewell soft mistrel of the early year! 
Ah! ’twill be long ere thou shalt sing anew, 
   And pour thy music on the night’s dull ear. 
Whether on spring thy wandering flights await, 
   Or whether silent in our groves you dwell, 
The pensive muse shall own thee for her mate, 
   And still protect the song she loves so well. 
With cautious step the love-lorn youth shall glide 
   Through the lone brake that shades thy mossy nest; 
And shepherd girls from eyes profane shall hide 
   The gentle bird who sings of pity best: 
For still thy voice shall soft affections move, 
And still be dear to sorrow and to love!

1788 — Charlotte Turner Smith publishes her first novel, Emmeline, and it's a success, quickly selling 1,500 copies. She would publish nine more novels over the next ten years. Smith challenged the norms of the women's fiction of her day by incorporating political commentary, "narratives of female desire" and "tales of females suffering despotism" (as she had herself). Smith's life experiences prompted her to argue for legal reforms that would grant women more rights, and she made the case for such reforms through her novels, which were largely autobiographical. Smith's groundbreaking work contributed to the development of the novel of sensibility and Gothic fiction. Smith's novels were satirized by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey, but Austen has been accused of emulating Smith.

Oh, Hope! thou soother sweet of human woes

Oh, Hope! thou soother sweet of human woes!
      How shall I lure thee to my haunts forlorn!
For me wilt thou renew the withered rose,
      And clear my painful path of pointed thorn?
Ah come, sweet nymph! in smiles and softness drest,
      Like the young hours that lead the tender year
Enchantress come! and charm my cares to rest:
      Alas! the flatterer flies, and will not hear!
A prey to fear, anxiety, and pain,
      Must I a sad existence still deplore?
Lo! the flowers fade, but all the thorns remain,
      ‘For me the vernal garland blooms no more.’
Come then, ‘pale Misery’s love!’ be thou my cure,
And I will bless thee, who though slow art sure.

1789 — Charlotte Turner Smith publishes her second novel, Ethelinde.

1791 — Charlotte Turner Smith publishes her third novel, Celestina.

1792 — Charlotte Turner Smith becomes involved with English radicals and writes an epistolary novel, Desmond, whose protagonist supports the French Revolution and contends that England should be reformed as well.

1793 — Charlotte Turner Smith publishes a book of poems, The Emigrants. She also publishes her fifth novel, The Old Manor House, which is set during the American Revolutionary War and allows her to discuss democratic reform.

1794 — Charlotte Turner Smith publishes her sixth and seventh novels: The Wanderings of Warwick and The Banished Man.

1795 — Charlotte Turner Smith publishes her eighth novel, Montalbert, and begins to publish children's books with Rural Walks.

1796 — Charlotte Turner Smith publishes her ninth novel, Marchmont.

1798 — Lyrical Ballads, written primarily by William Wordsworth with a few poems by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is published. This book becomes the foundational text of the English Romantic Movement. The longest poem included is Coleridge's dark, gothic poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." It would inspire other poems in a similar vein. Charlotte Turner Smith publishes her tenth, last and most radical novel, The Young Philosopher. Its protagonist leaves Britain for America, because there is no hope for a reform in Britain.

1799 — Charlotte Turner Smith's play What Is She? is published.

1803 — The Louisiana Purchase means the United States is suddenly a LOT bigger.  The Napoleonic Wars begin when Great Britain declares war on France. Charlotte Turner Smith becomes so destitute and ill that she can barely hold a pen; she sells her books to pay off her debts, but lives in fear that she will be sent back to debtor's prison for the remaining balance of twenty pounds!

1806 — Lord Byron publishes his first book, Fugitive Pieces, at age eighteen. It is savaged by the Edinburgh Review. The birth of the English poet Elizabeth Barrett (1806-1861), who would marry the poet Robert Browning and become better known as Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The birth of the English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). The death of Charlotte Turner Smith. Her Beachy Head and Other Poems would be published posthumously in 1807. Stuart Curran, the editor of Smith's poems, called her "the first poet in England whom in retrospect we would call Romantic." She helped shape the "patterns of thought and conventions of style" for the period, and William Wordsworth admired and was influenced by her Romantic poetry. She has also been credited with the revitalization of the English sonnet, with helping to develop "painterly prose," and with influencing the development of gothic fiction, the novel of sensibility and modern blank verse.

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