Charlotte Smith: A Critical Biography by Loraine Fletcher

By Loraine Fletcher

'Sold, a criminal prostitute' while married off on the age of fifteen, Charlotte Smith left her wastrel husband to help herself and their young ones as a poet and novelist who may have an enduring impact on William Wordsworth and Jane Austen. Combative and witty she grew to become a thorough, debatable and intensely renowned writer: at a time while the French Revolution was once elevating excessive hopes of Reform, she argued for switch in England too. Loraine Fletcher's bright scholarly biography is as readable for the newcomer to the 1790s as for the expert, tracing the embattled lifestyles within the splendidly self-dramatising fiction.

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If their plans were more modest than Hoare's, they were still too costly for their income. Charlotte, expensively brought up and half-justifying these outgoings, which she could not in any case prevent, tried to convince herself that the benefit to Benjamin's health and morals was worth the cost. Outwardly, to callers and casual acquaintances, her life was prosperous, even splendid. 'At a delightful place near this spot [Bramdean] Charlotte Smith passed the brilliant years of her early life',20 wrote Mary Russell Mitford.

He told her how often bodies were thrown over the side when disease broke out. Sometimes they died for no apparent reason, he said. About forty-five in a hundred did not survive the voyage, on an average run. Sometimes the whole cargo was lost. Occasionally they broke loose and killed the crew, so the investors lost their ship as well. But on a good run, immense profits could be made. Benjamin talked to captains of slavers and was fascinated by their stories. They were not the sort of men to be welcome even in Elizabeth Smith's drawing-room, however, and Charlotte never met one.

He told her about the thirteen inches width allotted to women, sixteen inches to men, on the specially designed slave decks where they were chained except for a brief daily period of exercise. He told her how the crew were encouraged to rape the women repeatedly on the voyage so they would be pregnant with mulatto children, and worth more, when they were auctioned. He told her how often bodies were thrown over the side when disease broke out. Sometimes they died for no apparent reason, he said.

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