Charlotte Smith: Political Novelist

Stroud, Brenda Diane (2012). Charlotte Smith: Political Novelist. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000f1ad

Abstract

This thesis is a comprehensive, chronological and synoptic study of political thought in the eleven novels of Charlotte Smith (1749-1806), published between 1788 and 1802. It traces the ways in which Smith incorporates topics which were the subject of political debate in the period immediately following the outbreak of the French Revolution into the framework of the courtship novel, and demonstrates her engagement with what was being said and written by polemicists in response to events in both France and England. By examining each of Smith’s novels in relation to a wide range of contemporary political writing, I show that she participated more continuously and closely in the political discourse of the 1790s than has been realised or documented. I also argue that her involvement with political discourse was an important factor in her development as an innovative and experimental novelist. As she questioned and challenged accepted political certainties, and was influenced by politically radical ideas, so her novels became increasingly experimental in form. Even in her pre-Revolutionary novels, Smith expressed dissatisfaction with the socio-political values endorsed by the conventions of courtship novels which commonly resolved with the heroine placed within a patriarchal family, married to a man of rank and living in an inherited landed property. The political battles of the 1790s were fought using topoi of patriarchal authority and patrilineal inheritance, which were seen by conservatives as vital to the preservation of the security and prosperity of the country. At a symbolic level these topoi mirrored the relationship between monarch and subject and the longevity and stability of constitution and state. Smith’s political alignment with radical reformers meant that the safe resolutions of her earlier novels were modified or jettisoned as her courtship narratives were inflected by this discourse and became the forums for political debate.

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