Written near a port on a dark evening
Huge vapours vapours brood above the clifted shore,
Night on the Ocean settles, dark and mute,
Save where is heard the repercussive roar
Of drowsy billows, on the rugged foot
Or rocks remote; or still more distant tone
Of seamen in the anchor’d bark that tell
The watch reliev’d; or one deep voice alone
Singing the hour, and bidding “Strike the bell,”
All is black shadow, but the lucid line
Mark’d by the light surf on the level sand,
Or where afar the ship-lights faintly shine
Like wandering fairy fires, that oft on land
Mislead the Pilgrim—Such the dubious ray
That wavering Reason lends, in life’s long darkling way.
— Charlotte Smith, appeared in her Young Philosopher, her last novel
Friends and readers,
As I sit here reading the Collected Letters of Charlotte Smith, edited by Judith Stanton, and find myself just devastated by what the life of a woman sold off, gotten rid of to a ruthlessly abusive and extravagantly egoistic spendthrift gambling heir — not to omit terrifyingly violent and sexually promiscuous — to a great property could be, all 800+ thin pages, with annotations, biographies, notes, locations, I find myself remembering back to a time in the 1970s when the most that could be found in print by Charlotte Smith was two of her novels in staid Oxford University Press editions (Emmeline and The Old Manor House). What a difference 40 years can make.
I asked myself, how did I first meet this woman author? and in what form was my encounter with another equally important author for me from the 18th century, Ann Radcliffe. I did once before my recent moving back into memory to remember first encounters with Jane Austen, write about how I first met Fanny, now Francis Burney, Madame d’Arblay. Unlike most recent and mostly women readers, it was not in college because I was assigned Evelina (or as a graduate student, Cecilia say). No it was a single abridged volume of her journals and letters that will soon reach 24 thick fat volumes. As I said, I was led to seek out some longer version, as it happened a 3 volume one, in a bookstore on 59th Street, a stone’s throw away from Bloomingdale’s, The Argosy because (perhaps unbelievable today) at the age of 23 or so (my first year of graduate work) around on the open shelves of the Brooklyn College library I had found a 1797 3 volume edition of Ann Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest. Even then I thought it was crazy to have such volumes on the open shelves. It was an entrancing visceral experience to read in that form. No illustrations, but the original type, the yellowing pages, the delicate elegant lady-like volumes. I have since written a lot about this book and led a group on line reading and discussing it.
In contrast to Burney, Radcliffe, and a number of French epistolary and life-writing women (cited in my first encounter with Burney, and eventually Julie de Lespinasse, Madame du Deffand, the memoirists of the reign of terror), Smith was nowhere to be found in used bookstores. One just couldn’t find her by chance. I began reading her as part of my dissertation project on Richardson’s Clarissa and Grandison. There was no romance in these acqua hard-back volumes. Nonetheless, I immediately found myself gripped by the opening of Old Manor House, and found the book sustained itself until near the end. Then for all her reasonable intelligence, Ann Ehrenpreis’s introduction didn’t do it for me. Ehrenpreis didn’t discuss issues that mattered. Smith also had a simplistic character for her heroine:
Yet I was drawn in by the hero, by the radical politics of the book, by its acid corrosive anger. I fell in love when I began to go to the Library of Congress, one and two nights a week, and all day Saturday and read in a microfilm form (!) the first edition of her Elegiac Sonnets. It was in 1984, I had had a second baby and was seeking to find some place where I could commune with minds like my own in books. I was 37. Scrolling down and turning the wheel on one of those machines I read her poetry for the first time. Then I found on the shelves below the reading room (which in those day “readers” with cards could explore) equally elegant volumes of Smith’s novels.
I can no longer remember which novel I put on my very own shelf (each reader had a shelf he or she could keep books in behind the rotunda of the reading room), only that it was an uncommon one I did not have to read as a a microfiche, and in an early later 18th nearly 19th century elegant lady edition. I do remember becoming so intensely engaged. It was a heroine I could identify with, one with adult thoughts. Could it have been Marchmont? Then shockingly (to me) I came one day to find my three-volume set gone. I was desolated and worried I would be blamed. Had someone stolen “my” books? I was told by a blasé clerk, “oh no, not to worry, no blame, someone did probably take them.” He seemed confident that they would not leave the library but I was not. What was true was I had lost access to this book. I was at the time not teaching in colleges as yet, I had not gotten any shelf at the Folger, I was cut off from college libraries.
I sat in my chair and cried. This wouldn’t do, people around me were uncomfortable. So I phoned Jim and he came by car and picked me up. Rescued me as we used to put it.
That night he read aloud to me a story by Kipling, and encouraged me not to give up hope, but return — I had begun my study of Vittoria Colonna and Anne Finch, Countess of Winchelsea’s poetry. He urged it was time to brave the threshold of the Folger Library and get a pass; there I could probably be sure my shelf of books would not be tampered with. I did and my entry ticket was my George Mason employment ID. I didn’t need a letter of introduction or reference (whew!)
Enfin, songez, mon cher Porphire, qu’il n’est qu’un temps de la vie pour ecrire & pour travailler, & que ce temps s’ecoule avec une extreme rapidite [remember there is only one time in life for writing, for working within, and it flows away oh so swiftly, relentlessly], Adele et Theodore, Felicite de Genlis
I now have an extensive library of both Radcliffe (48 volumes, including xeroxes) and Smith books (36, including hand-written extensive notes), primary editions in facsimile, modern paperbacks, older hardbacks, and marvelous secondary studies for them both. I have elegant lady editions too of novels of Sophie Cottin, Madame de Genlis, and Isabelle de Montolieu (plus an array of later 19th century hard backs, facsimiles, secondary critical works and xeroxed books and essays).
I’m not going to attempt to say what The Romance of the Forest and then Old Manor House together with Elegiac Sonnets meant to me then as I was no longer at the impressionable age I “met” Jane Austen and Jane Eyre. The truth is in some moods I prefer The Mysteries of Udolpho to Austen’s Emma.
Yes. The landscapes of Radcliffe and Smith provide the occasions, the impetus for the thoughts. No matter how hard the revisionist readers of Austen argue only in Persuasion and the gothic moments (these hedged in by ironies) of Northanger Abbey does this happen and then she’s not political. I find in Smith all the radical politics that Austen is said to have and doesn’t. I can say I was in both cases led into the volumes from the melancholy of the tone, the feminine structure of the sentences, the nightmares of Adeline, and the poetry of Smith, which to this day sustain me still, and think the images found in Angelica Kauffman’s work “match” thematically and aesthetically what is found in all these women.
In the case of Radcliffe, I was at the end of graduate course work and teaching; in the case of Smith, I was post-doctorate. Since then I’ve written extensively about them both, here on the Net, in my blogs (Radcliffe, Smith), and in published and conference papers too.
Next time I shall return to my women artists. I’ve delayed too long but first up we’ll be in the eighteenth century for that feminist businesswoman par excellence, Angelica Kauffman.
And I hope not to long from now to be in a position to discuss Smith’s letters and life in a way I’ve not begun to do, not having experienced what I just have in reading her letters.
Although out of season, as this is not a well-known or familiar poem to Radcliffe’s readers or romantic scholars (let alone a wider audience), I’ll end on an unusual moment in print for her: she is cheerful (!), at home, on a winter evening, with light, music, books, with her favorite dog, Chance.
Welcome December’s cheerful night,
When the taper-lights appear;
When the piled hearth blazes bright,
And those we love are circled there
And on the soft rug basking lies,
Outstretched at ease, the spotted friend,
With glowing coat and half-shut eyes,
Where watchfulness and slumber blend.
Welcome December’s cheerful hour,
When books, with converse sweet combined,
And music’s many-gifted power
Exalt, or soothe th’ awakened mind.
Then, let the snow-wind shriek aloud,
And menace oft the guarded sash,
And all his diapason crowd.
As o’er the frame his white wings dash.
He sings of darkness and of storm,
Of icy cold and lonely ways;
But, gay the room, the hearth more warm,
And brighter is the taper’s blaze.
Then, let the merry tale go round.
And airy songs the hours deceive;
And let our heart-felt laughs resound,
In welcome to December’s Eve
— Ann Radcliffe, First found in Clara Frances McIntyre’s Ann Radcliffe in Relation to Her Time