The Poetic Footsteps of Charlotte Smith

The Strangers’ Burial Ground, Lower Clifton Hill, Clifton in Bristol.

Val Derbyshire
University of Sheffield
2015/6 Cohort

Just recently, I was fortunate enough to have received an award from WRoCAH in order to carry out a primary research trip.  The trip involved consulting archives from one of end of the country to the other, as well as visiting disused cemeteries to find derelict gravestones, and following in the footsteps of a poet who created an epic poem to one of Britain’s grandest landmarks.  My research into poet, novelist and writer of educational works for children, Charlotte Smith (1749-1806), involved consulting archives from County Durham to Plymouth, as well as visiting the sites she lived in and wrote about, and has been a voyage of discovery and an exciting adventure.

The archival material I  have consulted revealed fascinating links between Charlotte Smith and a number of visual artists of her day, including James Northcote (1746-1831), George Romney (1734-1802) and George Smith  of Chichester (c. 1714-1776).  The research I have uncovered here, including a previously unpublished letter by Charlotte Smith, has enhanced the argument within my thesis and demonstrates how Smith was very much an artist who accessed the tropes of visual artistry within her literary corpus.

Perhaps the most exciting part of this research trip was the location of Charlotte Smith’s daughter’s grave.  It has been hinted that the words of the epitaph upon this marker were written by Smith herself and so in a moment reminiscent of an Indiana Jones film, I set off for Bristol to locate the grave in the disused Strangers’ Burial Ground at Clifton Hot Wells, Bristol.  Smith’s daughter, Anna Augusta was Smith’s eighth child, born in Hampshire in 1774.  She died in 1795 after being married to the French Catholic émigré Alexandre Marc Constant de Foville for just under two years.  Her death was caused by complications resulting from consumption which were exacerbated by the difficult birth of her son.  Her health was precarious throughout her pregnancy, but after the loss of her son who died just three days after being born, Smith began to seriously worry about the potential that her daughter too might die.   Writing just after the birth of her grandson, Smith writes,

…being 70 hours in the greatest peril & in most excruciating tortures, [she] was deliver’d on thursday night of a very fine boy, but it was so much bruised & injurd that it lingered till this morning & then died in my arms – […]  She is so weak that we keep from her the death of the infant.  What the effect will be when she must know it, I tremble to think of.  Perhaps I shall lose her too. [1]

Smith’s worst fears were realised when her daughter began to decline.  Ordered to Bristol Hot Wells to recuperate, Smith made desperate attempts to raise money for her medical treatment, but it was all to no avail.  Her daughter died on 23rd April 1795.

After searching the graveyard extensively, clambering through bushes and over iron railings, I finally located what I believe is Anna Augusta’s grave marker.  The poor condition of the gravestones can be seen from the photographs.  Epitaphs have generally been washed away by over 200 years of exposure to weather.  The evidence suggests that this is Anna Augusta’s grave, although from the general deterioration of the grave marker, it is difficult to be certain. Leading Smith scholar, Judith Stanton, when describing her visit to the grave writes, ‘[t]he map, which now made sense, led to Augusta’s grave, a flat granite marker under the drooping limbs of an ancient yew.  Kneeling beside it, I gently wiped the short dry spiky needles off its inscription and copied it down, feeling, in its syntax and cadences, the protest, the prostrate grief of the mother whose prose by then I knew so well.  Smith had penned not only her daughter’s obituary but also the inscription on her grave.’ [2]  The flat marker in the photograph was beneath the only yew in the churchyard, although the inscription, as can be seen, was very difficult to read.

The corner of the disused burial ground where Smith’s daughter Anna Augusta’s grave lies.

Using Photoshop and notes taken on the scene, it became possible to make out certain key words.  At the grave site, the words ‘Anna’ could just be made out, along with ‘daughter’ and ‘their child,’ indicating that Anna Augusta was buried with her dead son.  Although it is hard to read the inscription, and a certain element of guesswork has gone into this, it becomes possible to determine, as Stanton asserts, ‘in its syntax and cadences,’ the prose of Charlotte Smith.

Although the evidence is somewhat inconclusive, this has proven a key part of my research.  I have used this in the introduction part of my complete thesis which discusses Anna Augusta’s role in Charlotte Smith’s use of botanical illustration in her sonnets, in which Smith utilises a scientific language of botanical accuracy in order to remember (or re-member) the bodies of her dead daughter and infant grandchild.  I will also be presenting a paper on this research at the Pint of Science Festival public engagement event to be held on the evening of Monday 14th May at the Old Queen’s Head Pub in Sheffield.

The most magical part of my research trip, however, was following in Smith’s footsteps to visit some of the key locations she wrote of and lived in during her lifetime.  This woman has become such a large part of my life and I sometimes feel I know more about a woman who has been dead for over 200 years than I do about members of my own family.  It was wonderful to visit Beachy Head and stand, as Smith did, ‘[o]n thy stupendous summit, rock sublime!’ just as Smith did in her epic poem Beachy Head (published posthumously in 1807) and connect with the writer who has become so important in my life. [3]

Beachy Head as visited on Monday 9th April 2018.

The sense of the landscape and the place itself is very strong within the poem – much more so than in any other of her poetic works.  The natural details, such as crumbling chalk cliffs, the cerulean blue of the sea, views of ships, caverns carved out of the rock face, and the noise of the jackdaws is still present in this place.  Within the poem, Smith emphasises how nothing endures and human ambition is mere vanity.  The crumbling nature of the cliffs (marked out in various warning signs along the cliffs) made me consider how Smith has purposely used this location in order to show that nothing endures (even rock) and that not even the solidity of the landscape can be relied upon.  This is a theme which she has also written of within her novels (Montalbert 1795), where the scene of earthquake and natural disaster marks out the fragility of societal structures.

Later, I visited Brighton, explored the archival holdings and also saw The Old Ship Inn, which was the site where many French émigrés, including Anna Augusta’s husband (and Smith herself stayed) during the French Revolution.  Smith, during her time in Brighton provided accommodation for many refugees, for whom she felt a great deal of empathy.  The frontage of The Old Ship Inn is now an ‘American style bar,’ which I felt that Smith might approve of.  Many of her novels, i.e. The Young Philosopher (1798) resolve themselves by the heroes and heroines emigrating abroad to America to what they perceive to be a more just society, becoming ‘citizens of the world,’ as indeed, Smith saw herself.

In conclusion, the trip provided me with a real sense of the place which formed the backdrop to Smith as a poet and artist.  It has also thrown light on many aspects of my research such as the close connections between herself and many visual artists and painters of her day, but also how the real landscape feeds into renderings of her work.  Thank you WRoCAH for your generous award and continuing to support my research.

[1] Smith, ‘Letter to James Upton Tripp dated 27th July 1794’ in The Collected Letters, pp. 140-2 (pp. 140-1)  [sic].

[2] Judith Phillips Stanton, ‘Recovering Charlotte Smith’s Letters: A History, with Lessons’ in Charlotte Smith in British Romanticism, ed. by Jacqueline Labbe (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2008), pp. 159-173 (p. 167).

[3] Charlotte Smith, ‘Beachy Head’ in The Poems of Charlotte Smith, ed. by Stuart Curran (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993),  pp. 227-247 (p. 227).