Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806) was a Sussex writer who lived through the tumultuous period of the French Revolution and produced some of the most accomplished and influential poetry and novels of her period. Her family seat, Bignor Park, remained a focal point for her, even though she did not live here past her youth. Following the ways of the times, the estate passed to her brother on the death of her father. But she set many of her poems at and around Bignor Park, and mourned what she saw as her personal loss through her sonnets.
Throughout her life, Smith remained deeply attached to the South Downs. Besides Bignor Park, she lived in a variety of Sussex locations: Stoke Park near Guildford as a child; and Woolbeding, Wyke, Brighton, Storrington, Frant, and Elsted near Godalming as an adult. She is buried at Stoke Church, near Guildford. Her poetry is suffused with a love for and understanding of Sussex in general and the South Downs in particular. Smith wrote three widely-admired collections of poetry. She also wrote eleven novels and five books for children. Her novels combine Gothic images with realist plots, and are politically radical. They are also modern in their use of a narrator who often takes center stage. Her works for children assume that her young audience was capable of understanding both science and poetry and encouraged experimentation, both scientific and literary.
Smith was married young to an equally young scapegrace, Benjamin Smith, who never accepted his role as husband and father. After twenty years of marriage and twelve children (three of whom died in early childhood), Smith took the highly unusual step of separating from the husband who had proved abusive and unfaithful. Thereafter she raised her nine living children herself, earning the money to care for them through her writing. She had a deep and lasting impact on other writers in her own time and after her death. Both William Wordsworth and Jane Austen were heavily influenced by her writing, and Charles Dickens drew some of his most resounding imagery of the vagaries of the law in Bleak House and the desperation of debtors’ prison in Little Dorrit from her novels.
(With thanks to Professor Jacqueline Labbe and the University of Warwick for the Charlotte Smith section of the website).