Collage illustration of Charlotte Smith's life map

Elizabeth Dolan Maps the Life and Legacy of Charlotte Smith

Dolan celebrates English Romantic writer Charlotte Smith by tracing and telling her story.

Story by

Kelly Hochbein

Charlotte Smith was an English Romantic poet, novelist and writer of children’s literature. She was also, says Elizabeth Dolan, an independent, resilient innovator who produced beautiful written works through a lifetime marked by both emotional and physical pain.

Dolan, an associate professor of English, has spent quite a bit of time tracking Smith’s work, her life and the lives of her children, tracing a legacy that has taken her around the world. 

Feather

Dolan and her students created a detailed and interactive story map of Charlotte Smith's life. 

Smith’s story piqued Dolan’s interest while Dolan was writing her doctoral dissertation, which was about melancholia and therapies for melancholia.

“Smith is a super melancholy poet in her Elegiac Sonnets,” she explains. “But she’s also really innovative—she experiments with form a lot. I’m interested in how writers use form to express experiences and emotions that are otherwise hard to express.”

Dolan went on to write three chapters about Smith in her book, Seeing Suffering in Women’s Literature of the Romantic Era, drawn to Smith’s ability to help the reader see things in a different way.

“In her children’s books, she offers readers example after example after example of poverty, so that they see that it’s structurally based [and] not an individual’s fault, at a time period when poverty was blamed on the poor,” says Dolan. “So she turns individual stories into a social picture, which is kind of amazing. She does stuff like that all the time. It’s just really fun to track.”

Dolan, along with English graduate student Gillian Andrews and undergraduate English majors Nicole Reisert and Sofia Gracias, and with the assistance of Scott Rutzmoser, senior geospatial specialist on Lehigh’s Digital Scholarship Team, has tracked Smith’s life through a public-facing, interactive story map that tells Smith’s story in vivid detail.

Because she was a woman, the team asserts on the website, Smith has no memorial house like those that exist for William Wordsworth or Sir Walter Scott. This absence in and of itself, they write, tells “an important historical tale of gender-based residential insecurity.” The team presents the story map “as a kind of virtual author house, a memorial that tells Smith’s life story not through one place, but through her many moves.” 

The map illustrates the many personal challenges the gifted writer faced as she produced works admired by some of the great writers of her time. “The story map demonstrates that where she lived and what her life was like, including what she ended up writing, et cetera, was affected by economic circumstances, which in turn were dependent upon her relationships with men,” says Dolan.

Art & Adversity

Born into a gentry-class family in London in 1749, Charlotte Turner lived a comfortable life as the eldest of three children until her mother died. Charlotte’s father left to travel Europe as he grieved, and a maternal aunt took over, raising Charlotte and her siblings. When their father returned, having spent all the family’s money, he married a wealthy woman. Charlotte and her new stepmother did not have a good relationship, and so within a year of her father’s remarriage, the 15-year-old girl was married off to Benjamin Smith, an affluent and irresponsible member of the merchant class. 

The two had 12 children but a terrible marriage, says Dolan.

“Everything that scholars have found suggests that it was abusive, and possibly that he was somehow not trustworthy around his daughters,” she explains. “So when the oldest daughter reached maturity, Charlotte Smith left. And there’s no divorce at this time period, so they lived in separate homes.”

The digital story map demonstrates that financial struggles forced Smith and the children to move homes every eight months or so. When she could no longer pay the rent, she would go elsewhere. All the while, Smith was writing poems and books to support her family. She didn’t, however, have the right to keep her income. Smith found a way around it.

Faces of children illustration

Dolan traces the lives and accomplishments of Smith’s children, whose paths reveal much about their mother. 

“Her husband, for example, would show up when they were separated,” explains Dolan. “He would see she had a book coming out, he would show up at the publisher, and say, ‘Okay, pay up.’ And it was his legal right. So she solved that problem by sending the publisher her butcher bills, her coal bill, et cetera, so she was always in debt with the publisher. When Benjamin turned up, there was no money. She always owed the publisher. It was genius.”

Smith’s strength and resolve caught Dolan’s attention. For example, she says, letters Smith wrote indicate that when Smith was writing Beachy Head, her complex 731-line blank-verse poem, she was dying of uterine cancer, her hands gnarled from rheumatoid arthritis.

“She could barely write or walk, but she wrote this beautiful, life-affirming poem,” says Dolan. “It’s incredible.”

Uncovering Life Stories

In her current project, funded by a Faculty Innovation Grant, Dolan follows the breadcrumbs of Smith’s children’s lives, whose paths reveal much about their mother as well. Dolan finds their life choices interesting, particularly in terms of race and class. For example, one son, Nicholas, moved to Persia and married a Persian woman. The pair sent their mixed-race children to England to be educated by Smith—a move some at the time might have considered unusual, Dolan says. 

Although Smith was unable to provide her children with the gentry-class education she wanted for them, several found success. Two sons joined the East India Company and three joined the British Army. One son, Sir Lionel Smith, became governor of Barbados and the Windward Islands, and later of Jamaica after the passing of the Abolition Act, where he was tasked with bringing about an end to slavery in the region. 

Dolan visited the National Archives in London, where she read all of Lionel Smith’s letters. 

“Their lives unfold in the early British empire, and it’s interesting to me how Charlotte Smith’s financial struggles as a woman and a mom pushed her sons into the empire. They became empire makers because that was their best option. That’s just an interesting dynamic by itself,” Dolan says. 

Not as much is documented about Smith’s daughters. One went to India in search of a husband, but contracted malaria and returned to lead a difficult life. The courage it took for her to make that trip in the first place, says Dolan, indicates that Smith’s daughter likely shared her moxie. 

“To take that 16-week boat ride to India—that takes guts,” says Dolan. 

Dolan has followed where letters and historical documents have taken her, and, as a result, the stories of peripheral characters have surfaced. Dolan has written articles about each.  

“Along the way, reading Lionel Smith’s letters in Belfast, Ireland, I found this amazing document written in Arabic and addressed to Lionel Smith,” says Dolan, who worked with a scholar at Purdue University to translate it. “It turns out that it’s an address to Lionel Smith by an emancipated Muslim slave, thanking Smith for his role in emancipation. The letter writer, Mohammad Kaba Saghanughu, used the occasion of emancipation to tell his own life story and enter it into the imperial record. That’s really, really neat.” 

Another, a slave owned by the Smith family in Barbados, appeared repeatedly in documents in the Barbados National Archives. 

“The way the deeds and letters mentioned Fibbah was different than references to other enslaved people, and so I traced her through the record as far as I could get,” Dolan explains. “This woman’s name just kept coming up. … She was protected from a sale, and then she was willed to one of the sons. It was strange. And so I think … her children might have been Benjamin Smith’s father’s children. … I don’t know. But she had some kind of special status. … She was mixed race, as were her children. I just got curious about her.” 

In a way, Dolan says, she sees her work as allowing people who might be left silent by history to be heard. From Charlotte Smith to her children to those whose lives were touched indirectly by Smith’s legacy, Dolan is unearthing stories that might otherwise go untold. 

“To be able to follow that curiosity, it is the biggest privilege. I love that part of this work.”

Beachy Head performance at Carnegie Hall

“The Song Cycles of Beachy Head” had its New York City debut at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall in Nov. 2018. Pictured from left to right: Composer Amanda Jacobs, Elizabeth Dolan and mezzo soprano Shelley Waite. 

‘The Song Cycles of Beachy Head’

The soaring sounds of piano and mezzo soprano filled Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall on Nov. 4, 2018 as “The Song Cycles of Beachy Head” had its New York City debut. The musical components of the piece, punctuated by Elizabeth Dolan’s detailed narrative, brought to life Charlotte Smith’s 731-line poem in five art song cycles presented in lecture recital format.  

 “The Song Cycles of Beachy Head” is the product of a unique partnership between Dolan and composer and playwright Amanda Jacobs. Dolan edited the poem to draft the lyrics and Jacobs composed the music. The piece, says Jacobs, is grounded in scholarship, and the collaboration between composer and scholar helped her and Dolan unravel the mysteries of the 1807 poem, as well as break new ground in the musical realm. A studio recording of the piece will be available on iTunes in April.

“This is a remarkable thing: an exchange of knowledge in a reciprocal way that allowed for greater discovery and artistic choice,” says Jacobs. 

Illustration by Matthew Richardson

This story originally appeared as "Mapping a Writer's Life & Legacy" in the 2019 Lehigh Research Review.

Story by

Kelly Hochbein

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