George Justice, Editor

A Writer Imaginative and Vital

The Collected Letters of Charlotte Smith

Edited by Judith Phillips Stanton.
Indiana University Press, 2003. xlv + 813 pages.
Hardcover. $59.95.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Kraft.

Charlotte Smith defies all categories. As a poet, she wrote sonnets that revitalized the form for her own generation and that are numbingly lugubrious to many readers today. Her long poems, “The Emigrants” and “Beachy Head,” offer sharply observed revolutionary visions that still resonate, but Smith’s fame rested on her sonnets, and we have yet to recover the aesthetic that allows us to understand why that should have been so and whether or not her poetic fame should be perpetuated along the lines by which it was first achieved.

As a novelist, Smith has fared better literary fate, largely as a precursor of things to come (generically) and as an influence upon the later, “greater” writers like Austen and Dickens and Eliot. Smith wrote hybrid narratives that combine Gothic plots with sentimental characters and overtly political themes. She created hybrid female characters who refused to rest easy in what seems to us, retrospectively, the only available categories for women of the past: victim of male aggression or beloved spouse of benevolent, enlightened man. Smith wrote hybrid prose—clumsy, rambling, colloquial language interspersed with passages of stylistic beauty and bitingly satiric wit. Charlotte Smith, the writer, was intelligent and aware, imaginative and vital. As Judith Phillips Stanton’s volume of Smith’s collected letters demonstrates, the same is true of Charlotte Smith, the woman.

Those who take Charlotte Smith seriously as an author obviously will benefit from the publication of this volume of letters. Students of 18th Century culture in general stand to profit as well, for the letters reveal much about the world of literary production and consumption and celebrity in 18th Century England. What we discover in reading this collection about Smith’s dealings with booksellers and agents complicates our sense of the 18th Century publishing world. For example, letters to the Reverend Joseph Cooper Walker, who served as Smith’s “agent” in Ireland, reveal a dimension of the book trade that is under documented. We are familiar with Irish piracies of early 18th Century English works, but Smith’s own practice suggests that by the late 18th Century more cooperative arrangements could be struck between the Dublin and London markets–with the author herself retaining control of her works and a share of the profits.

Literary celebrity had already defined Charlotte Smith by the time she penned the sixth letter included in the volume, and we discover unexpected details relating to that celebrity throughout the rest of the collection. In 1794, for example, she is approached by an impecunious young woman who tries to persuade Smith to “let her publish or sell [a novel]…in my name.” Smith refuses.

Another dimension of celebrity is revealed in Smith’s letters to Charles Burney asking advice about daughter Anna Augusta’s marriage to a French émigré. Smith addressed Burney not because she knew him or his daughter, novelist Frances Burney, well, but because she had read in the newspapers of Burney’s marriage to French émigré Alexandre D’Arblay.  Charles Burney appears to have answered her queries forthrightly and satisfactorily–one celebrity to another.

While the letters often focus on events in Charlotte Smith’s personal life, the volume can best be described as a collection of business letters, as they are all addressed to people with whom Smith had professional or financial dealings. She writes to many of her correspondents in terms that reflect trust and friendship, but all of the relationships revealed in this volume are relationships mediated by Smith’s status as a successful author. I mention this fact not as a weakness of the collection, but as its signal strength. Indeed, The Collected Letters of Charlotte Smith provides an extraordinarily illuminating view of the life of a professional woman at a crucial point in western history. The issues at stake in these letters are basically the issues of intellectual property, individual rights, and the “bottom line.” Charlotte Smith is struggling with this complex of intersecting problems before there are firm conceptual categories through which to filter any one of them, let alone the entity that results when they all coalesce in one cultural commodity, a commodity that, in this case, happens to be female.

These letters will be a useful resource for critics of Smith’s novels and readers interested in Smith’s life; but cultural critics may be the true beneficiaries of Stanton’s monumental achievement if they mine this volume (as they certainly should) for what it tells us about one woman’s place and participation in the business of cultural production.

Elizabeth Kraft is a professor at the University of Georgia. She is the author of two book-length studies of 18th Century
fiction, the co-editor of two collections of the works of Anna Letitia Barbauld, and the editor of Charlotte Smith’s 1798 novel, The Young Philosopher (University Press of Kentucky 1999).

JASNA News v.20, no. 2, Summer 2004, p. 18 

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