Dear friends and readers,
This is the sixth and last of my reports on the the Charlotte Smith conference this October, to which I will add a lecture given by Carole Brown on the history of St John’s Church in Guildford where Charlotte Smith was baptized and lies buried. The first I told of of the building, grounds, the social world of the conference; the second, my paper on the post-colonial Ethelinde and Smith’s The Emigrants (as well as plans for women artist blogs, Anne Killigrew, Dora Carrington and Remedios Varo); the third was on the Elegiac Sonnets; the fourth on Smith’s poetry again, this time from the point of view of the marketplace, natural world, and the use of paintings in her novels; the fifth, Smith as a novelist and playwright. We began and ended the conference papers with her poetry. Desmond and the places of her birth, upbringing, wandering and burial were part of this last phase.
Hubert Robert (1733-1808), The Demolition of the Bastille (1789)
On Saturday afternoon of the second day of panels, there were two papers on Smith’s Desmond. Grace Harvey presented a group of ideas she was working out. She talked of Desmond as the most important radical novel of the era; it was the first to present the French revolution, and in is earliest phases, and made a strong case for radical reform. She had trouble finding a publisher. An epistolary novel, it has two central voices in the dialogues about revolution, which are connected to Desmond’s choices in life and couched in terms of their friendship: Desmond is the idealist “voice of reason,” his arguments show William Godwin’s influence; Bethel, the older man, is the “voice of experience, primarily there insistently to counterbalance and modify Desmond’s arguments. Desmond is unable to embrace Bethel’s advice, which takes the form of warnings, his own idealism untempered will become a source of unhappiness for him. Smith’s later books for children show the double voice again but in different terms: Mrs Woodfield, the teacher urge repression of discontent, cheerful submission to what is, a sort of Bethel attitude; but she also checks flippancy and superficiality in Henrietta and Elizabeth, urging on them a kind of serious earnestness. Grace didn’t mention how strongly Smith was influenced by Rousseau in both all these books, especially Julie ou La Nouvelle Heloise (for the novel) and Emile (for pedagogy)
Katrin Roder contextualized Smith’s Celestina and Demond with a discussion of sensibility in the era: her radicalism is rooted in ideas associated with the feelingful character of sensibility. These novels centrally question unconditional obedience to authority. They show how social sympathy creates human bonds; how important concern for others, for one’s home,and the limits of interpersonal support. Desmond loves his house too. she quoted interesting passages where Celestina attempts to help her servant Jessie, and Desmond listens to Geraldine, whose husband has sought to sell her and whom he marries at the end of the novel, where both identify and sympathize with these intelligent victims. Typical patterns for the sentimental novel show a hero’s suffering rewarded, morally superior victims who obey patriarchal norms. In Smith’s novels suffering is not inevitable, there are salutary reward, but the happy ending is often an afterthought. The reflections of the characters and narrator and what happens during the fiction of more important. Characters endure internal and external exile. In the discussion afterward it was remarked that if you cut Smith’s endings off, stop say at a penultimate chapter, they are deeply pessimistic.
Helen Allingham (1848-1926), Near Beachy Head — this feels so appropriate as until they grew older Smith would often have had her children with her
One could say the last part of the day was devoted to Charlotte Smith’s unfinished (it’s a long fragment) poetical masterpiece, Beachy Head. Three excellent papers dependent on close reading, followed by a recital in the nearby St Nicholas church. Melissa Cow began with how Beachy Head, Smith’s most ambitious poem, lacks clarity of vision. The poem shows the inadequacies of science, geology, history, paleontology which are difficult to assemble produces a sense of strangeness. She begins with a strong sense of locality: the narrator is at the top of Beachy Head, and looks to see what is buried under his feet. While in Gilbert White we feel nature is a system, a good one which can be comprehended, Smith’s questions complicate and upset what we know. She goes beyond her reading of Erasmus Darwin to anticipate modern ideas about extinction; 17th century ideas about the immensity of the earth, catastrophes that have occurred, fossils of mammoth elephants. Her poem works through a range of associative leaps. Samantha Botz suggested Beachy Head invites pivotal readings of history as well as implied politics. Wordsworth saw himself as a man speaking to men, someone with a more lively sensibility, led to create in his mind what he does not find in the world. Smith gives us wandering silent fugitive figures, a contemplative antiquary, a lively anecdotal voice, as well as a critically analystical one, with visible nature showing contingency, and the vanity of science’s boasts.
Amela Worsley’s “‘Death Alone: Charlotte Smith’s hermits” provided a fitting close to the conference and a lead-in to the musical setting of the poem. The idea of a poet as a lonely figure begins in the later 17th century, solitary introspective males in a landscape, to which the sublime is added in the later 18th. The lone woman is ever at risk of sexual assault. Her multiple solitaries are male hermits whose outlook she likened to that of Milton’s Comus, the unknown poet of the “Elegy written in a country churchyard,” Mary Robinson’s “Anselmo, hermit of the Alps. Amelia said Smith uses geology to de-familiarize the local. She offered a careful comparative readings. The figures seek safety and run great risk (psychological too), know intense suffering and rhapsody, and often end in the peace of death. This is one of the passages she dwelt upon:
Then, of Solitude
And of his hermit life, still more enamour’d,
His home was in the forest; and wild fruits
And bread sustain’d him. There in early spring
The Barkmen found him, e’er the sun arose;
There at their daily toil, the Wedgecutters
Beheld him thro’ the distant thicket move.
The shaggy dog following the truffle hunter,
Bark’d at the loiterer; and perchance at night
Belated villagers from fair or wake,
While the fresh night-wind let the moonbeams in
Between the swaying boughs, just saw him pass,
And then in silence, gliding like a ghost
He vanish’d! Lost among the deepening gloom.—
But near one ancient tree, whose wreathed roots
Form’d a rude couch, love-songs and scatter’d rhymes,
Unfinish’d sentences, or half erased,
And rhapsodies like this, were sometimes found—
Let us to woodland wilds repair
While yet the glittering night-dews seem
To wait the freshly-breathing air,
Precursive of the morning beam …
I can’t speak too highly of the music of Amanda Jacobs, singing of Janet Oates, and recitation of the poem by Elizabeth Dolan at St Nicholas Church. Amanda and Beth had divided the poem into several emotional sequences conforming to the phases of the day that the poem charts. We moved from morning to afternoon to evening, giving us the lines as songs of grief and happiness. As with Ned Bingham, Viscount Mersey’s setting of Smith’s Sonnet, “Written in Bignor Park in Sussex, August 1799,” Low murmurs creep along the woody vale the day before, Jacobs’s music was atonal, dissonant, each line of music fitted to each line of verse, with an overall patterning that was melancholy yet beautiful, and in this case finally uplifting. Very 21st century music. I felt I had understand parts of the poem for the first time, had seen the logic (so to speak) of how the poem was put together. Everyone in the church seemed so moved.
It was evening and time to return to the hotel.
Sunday was our day of trips, which I mentioned in my first blog. On Sunday we set off around 9:30 am in a chartered bus. The bus-driver was a tour guide himself and told us about some of the landscapes and towns we drove through. Ned Bingham was our generous gracious host in a visit to Bignor Park where we could wander where Smith had grown up, left to marry and later visited, and wandered to write her poetry more than a century ago; a tourist’s trip to Petworth House and Park. The house is now a hollow shell for tourists to wander through with the impressive objects in the house set up somewhat indiscriminately. I could see how the original Earl was determined to set a grand aristocratic framing for each aspect of his house and park too, notwithstanding the beauty of the park and some of the pictures.
The last place felt most like a revelation to me, mostly because I had not known anything about Charlotte Smith’s actual birthplace, Stoke House where her mother grew up, the history of the local community at the time (and before and since), as well as the problem of where she’s buried (no one knows the exact spot in the church or grounds). All this and more was covered by Carole Brown, a local church activist, conservationist, and historian, who seemed delighted to be able to inform us of all this and whatever else we wanted to know with as much detail as she could get in in the half-hour walking and sitting tour. The site of the church goes back to pre-Christian times, the building itself (renovated countless times) to the pre-Reformation. She was able to inform us especially some of the other (and more) famous people who attended this church, philanthropists, a good deal about the church in World War One, and the most recent art in the church (Pre-Raphaelie glass windows) and how it is the center of a community of people of all ages doing all sorts of things in the church today.
It was a splendid conference.