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Conference Report: Placing Charlotte Smith, Chawton House Library, 14th-16th October 2016

‘Tell my name to distant ages’: Placing Charlotte Smith: Canon, Genre, History, Nation, Globe, held at Chawton House Library, Chawton, UK, 14th-16th October 2016

Val Derbyshire, School of English, University of Sheffield

 

chawton1

The conference took place within the beautiful setting of Chawton House Library, Hampshire

 

Twenty-three innovative research papers, two recitals of original pieces of music, two long-lost ancestors, one new edition of Smith’s Ethelinde, one potential new literary society and one beautiful setting were just some of the elements which comprised the Placing Charlotte Smith conference which took place this weekend (14th to 16th October 2016). From this list alone, one can see the ground-breaking research into the work of this once-lost author which took place at Chawton House Library over this past weekend, and which was generously part-funded by BARS.

Just a peep at the delegate list alone was enough to get Smith scholars everywhere into a state of excitement. Present at Chawton House Library were Professor Stuart Curran from the University of Pennsylvania (and editor of the 1993 edition of The Poems of Charlotte Smith [1]), Professor Loraine Fletcher of the University of Reading (and author of Smith’s most acclaimed biography Charlotte Smith: A Critical Biography [2], not to mention the editor of the Broadview Literary Text editions of Emmeline [3] and Celestina [4]), co-organisers Professor Jacqueline M Labbe (author of numerous works upon Smith, including Writing Romanticism: Charlotte Smith and William Wordsworth, 1784-1807 [5],) Professor Beth Dolan, and a whole host of other senior and emerging scholars with an interest in the works of Charlotte Smith.

Professor Labbe opened the conference by providing a glimpse of a programme from a Charlotte Smith conference in 2006. Since that time, she informed us, more scholars than ever before were studying, writing and publishing papers upon this author. Smith scholarship is demonstrably a burgeoning area of research, and one which now has a global reach, as the international nature of the delegates attending this conference substantiated.

The conference then proceeded with the first panel which considered what must be many students’ first introduction to Smith’s works, the Elegiac Sonnets. Within this panel, Rick Ness from the University of Wisconsin-Madison discussed ‘Apostrophes and Opiates’ in the sonnets. Samuel Rowe from the University of Chicago discussed the dissociative form of the poetic ‘I’, and Mary Ann Myers from Bard Microcollege Holyoke gave an innovative and informative reading of Smith’s sonnets in conjunction with the sonnets of John Thelwall. Notions of patriotism were highlighted in this insightful paper which gave a long overdue consideration of these two Romantic-era authors who speak to each other so well.[6]

The next offering on the conference agenda was Ned Bigham (Viscount Mersey and current owner of Bignor Park, Sussex, Smith’s childhood home). This session comprised the first original piece of music from this conference: Elegiac Sonnets Recital. The music had been performed beautifully by students of the Department of Music from the University of Sheffield and was accompanied by a stunning video of some of the many beautiful locations in the South Downs which inspired both Charlotte Smith and Ned Bigham as artists. Ned also gave some commentary on the raison d’être behind his composition. It was a simply wonderful interlude within the conference and provided a fascinating new interpretive light to the sonnets we know so well.  Ned also introduced a video featuring one of Smith’s ancestors in Australia, who gave a moving account of how her own interest in Charlotte Smith’s life and work had inspired her to take many journeys to the UK to visit Smith’s places.

 

Bignor Park, Sussex. Once Smith’s childhood home, now home to Ned Bigham, Viscount Mersey and musician.

Bignor Park, Sussex. Once Smith’s childhood home, now home to Ned Bigham, Viscount Mersey and musician.

 

After lunch, Professor Labbe chaired the session entitled ‘Market and Canon’. First within this session, the delegates heard from Professor Michael Gamer of the University of Pennsylvania, who offered a detailed and revelatory reading of the early editions of the Elegiac Sonnets and how Smith cannily worked the market via the means of subscription publishing. Bethan Roberts from the University of Lancaster gave a fantastically meticulous consideration of Smith’s famous sonnet XLIV ‘Written in the church-yard at Middleton in Sussex’, chronicling later responses to this poem and offering the delegates an enticing view of how artists responded to this most-anthologised of sonnets via a variety of paintings. Finally, Professor Matthew Grenby (Newcastle University) gave a lively elucidation of Smith’s place in the market, looking at just how profitable her books proved to be for her: ‘she was the J. K. Rowling of her day’.

Next, ‘Nature and Art’ were considered in Smith’s works through eco-critical readings of Rural Walks (1795) by Professor Lisa Vargo (University of Saskatchewen), discussions of the issue of museum collections in Conversations Introducing Poetry (1804) by Richard De Ritter (University of Leeds) and a consideration of the picturesque in Smith’s first novel, Emmeline (1788), by myself, Val Derbyshire of the University of Sheffield. My own paper traced the childhood relationship between Charlotte Smith and landscape artist George Smith of Chichester (c. 1714-1776) and how his particular vision of the picturesque seems to inform the backdrops to her first novel.

 

 

William Pether, Portrait of George Smith of Chichester (c. 1714-1776), c. 1811. This landscape artist provided drawing lessons to Charlotte Smith whilst she was a child.

William Pether, Portrait of George Smith of Chichester (c. 1714-1776), c. 1811. This landscape artist provided drawing lessons to Charlotte Smith whilst she was a child.

 

The first day’s action concluded with papers from Emilee Morrall of Liverpool Hope University and Leanne Cane from Northumbria University, with Emilee discussing transitional spaces and Leanne discussing Charlotte Smith’s novels and the eighteenth-century education debate. Both papers were bright and engaging and ensured that the day’s scholarly discussions ended on an informative note.

Conference dinner was held at the Alton House Hotel and was a very enjoyable event. I particularly enjoyed speaking with Ellen Moody who has just completed a new edition of Ethelinde which is available now through Valancourt Books. A new edition of what Professor Labbe terms ‘Smith’s weirdest work’ is long overdue. Having seen a sneak preview of the book, it looks like a very fine tome indeed (and an awful lot of hard work on Ellen’s part – she informed me that she typed it all herself!)

 

Ellen Moody, editor of the new edition of Smith’s Ethelinde (1789), at lunch on Saturday 15th October 2016.

Ellen Moody, editor of the new edition of Smith’s Ethelinde (1789), at lunch on Saturday 15th October 2016.

 

Saturday’s panels commenced with Ellen again, providing a wonderfully innovative post-colonial reading of Smith’s works alongside Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love [7] and the poetry of Margaret Atwood. Elizabeth Edwards (University of Wales) followed this by mapping Smith and Wales in the Welsh settings in her novels and her one play, What Is She? Finally, Jane Hodson (University of Sheffield) gave a fascinating insight into a literary-linguistics project she has been involved in, mapping regional dialects in works dating from 1800 to 1836. Jane then discussed Smith’s original use of regional dialect in her Letters of a Solitary Wanderer (1799) and demonstrated how Smith was much ahead of her time in her use of this.

After coffee and home-made lavender shortbread biscuits by the incredibly talented staff of the Chawton House Library, the gothic in Smith’s work was considered, with the question being raised by Jenny McAuley of Queen Mary University of London whether Smith’s most famous novel, The Old Manor House (1793), could have been based on a real-life Hampshire ghost story?

Lunch included a visit from a second member of Charlotte Smith’s family, Sir Eldred Smith-Gordon, a descendant of her son, Lionel. It was wonderful to meet this charming gentleman and also to hear his thoughts upon Professor Dolan’s proposals for forming a new Charlotte Smith society. This idea was discussed over lunch, with insight and advice being provided by Professor Stuart Curran, Professor Emma Clery (University of Southampton) and BSECS Chairman, Professor Matthew Grenby. After this discussion, it was decided that a working group is to be formed to potentially progress the idea further.

 

Sir Eldred Smith-Gordon, a direct descendant of Lionel Smith (the son of Charlotte Smith and ‘the other chap, who we mustn’t mention’, as Sir Eldred termed it - Smith’s profligate husband, Benjamin).

Sir Eldred Smith-Gordon, a direct descendant of Lionel Smith (the son of Charlotte Smith and ‘the other chap, who we mustn’t mention’, as Sir Eldred termed it – Smith’s profligate husband, Benjamin).

 

The afternoon concluded with considerations of Desmond and Beachy Head, before the second musical interlude of the conference, ‘The Songs of Beachy Head’, which was held in the evocative setting of St. Nicholas Church, Chawton. Composer Amanda Jacobs performed the magnificent collection of songs which had emerged from a collaboration between herself and Professor Dolan. Amanda provided the music, with mezzo soprano Janet Oates singing the pieces beautifully, and Professor Dolan delivering a lecture to introduce the songs. The lecture was an integral part of this performance, as it provided the role of ‘footnotes’ to the songs (as Professor Dolan pointed out, Beachy Head is Smith’s most heavily footnoted poem). Once more, the original composition provided new insights into Smith’s final poem, which can be a difficult one for readers to get to grips with. As Professor Dolan herself advised the delegates, it was the poem she found the most problematic to interpret. Professor Dolan stated that she hoped to be able to use the songs with her students in forthcoming classes.

 

 

Mezzo-Soprano, Janet Oates, and composer and musician Amanda Jacobs, perform ‘The Songs of Beachy Head’ with Professor Beth Dolan providing the ‘footnotes’ in the form of her accompanying lecture.

Mezzo-Soprano Janet Oates and composer and musician Amanda Jacobs perform ‘The Songs of Beachy Head’, with Professor Beth Dolan providing the ‘footnotes’ in the form of her accompanying lecture.

 

Sunday was the day of the optional excursion which visited many of the places in Smith’s life. Commencing at Smith’s childhood home of Bignor Park, Sussex, the excursion progressed to the grandeur of Petworth House (where Smith enjoyed/endured a somewhat troubled relationship with the third Earl of Egremont, George Wyndham), and concluded with the end of her life, with a visit to St John’s Church, Stoke-next-Guildford, where her memorial plaque remains today.

Within just one weekend, an enormous amount of ground was covered, which will potentially provide innovations in the teaching of Smith’s poetry (with the use of music) and the formation of a new literary society dedicated to her work. In the closing lines of the final poem of Curran’s edition of The Poems of Charlotte Smith, ‘To My Lyre’ [8], Smith appeals to her readers thus:

And as the time ere long must come

When I lie silent in the tomb,

Thou wilt preserve these mournful pages;

For gentle minds will love my verse,

And Pity shall my strains rehearse,

And tell my name to distant ages. [9]

This conference achieved what was arguably Smith’s dying wish, and told her ‘name to distant ages’, in addition to discovering new ways to continue telling her name to ages to come.

Conference organisers Professors Jacqueline Labbe and Elizabeth Dolan and myself are immensely grateful to BARS for their generous support and Chawton House Library for all of their hard work in making this event possible.

 

[1] Charlotte Smith, The Poems of Charlotte Smith, ed. by Stuart Curran (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[2] Loraine Fletcher, Charlotte Smith: A Critical Biography (Houndsmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001).

[3] Charlotte Smith, Emmeline, the Orphan of the Castle, ed. by Loraine Fletcher (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Literary Texts, 2003).

[4] Charlotte Smith, Celestina, ed. by Loraine Fletcher (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Literary Texts, 2004).

[5] Jacqueline M Labbe, Writing Romanticism: Charlotte Smith and William Wordsworth, 1784-1807 (Houndsmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

[6] The Call for Papers for the Second International John Thelwall Conference is now open. The conference will be held at the University of Derby over the weekend of 21-23 July. If anyone has an interest in submitting an abstract, please contact me on email vgderbyshire1@sheffield.ac.uk and I will send you a copy of the CFP.

[7] Ahdaf Soueif, The Map of Love (London: Bloomsbury, 1999).

[8] Smith, The Poems of Charlotte Smith, ed. by Stuart Curran, pp. 310-312.

[9] Smith, The Poems of Charlotte Smith, ed. by Stuart Curran, p. 312.