Biography of Mary Charlton by Elizbeth Dowen McKie
Mary Charlton was a novelist and translator who wrote at least ten novels between 1794 and 1824 (1). These were:
She also translated from French, German and Italian (2), and is sometimes incorrectly given credit for writing the following novels which she translated (3):
Charlton mostly wrote for the Minerva Press, and in 1797 became a Minerva best-seller with Andronica (5). Her resulting popularity earned her sixth place on William Lane’s 1798 list of ‘particular and favourite authors’ (6). However, despite her popularity little is known of Charlton’s life, although some speculation can be made.
Most women writers at this time came from middle class backgrounds (7), and there is nothing to suggest that Charlton was any different. However, it seems unlikely that she came from the lower middle classes for two reasons. The first is her evidently privileged education, which can be seen through her ability to translate novels fluently from three languages. The second is that unlike many other Minerva novelists, she focuses in most of her novels on the upper classes. Her sustained description of high society and the gentry suggests at least a peripheral involvement. Similarly, in several of her novels she provides detailed descriptions of various locations in Europe, which might point to her having travelled to some of these places herself or having known people who had. Although either of these possibilities would require some association with people of considerable income, it is possible that she derived her knowledge from secondary sources.
It is difficult to define whether Charlton was married as her novels, which were initially published anonymously, are in later editions ascribed without prefix only to ‘Mary Charlton’. Contemporary reviews provide contradictory information – in reviews of The Pirate of Naples, for example, she is called both ‘Miss’ (8) and ‘Mrs’ (9) Charlton. This discrepancy seems to point to a lack of information about the writer at the beginning of the century, after which there seem to be no reviews mentioning Charlton by name (10). It is possible that the extended break in Charlton’s writing career (from 1804 until 1824 she only wrote one novel, and produced an anthology Pathetic Poetry for Youth in 1815) was due to her marrying and raising a family, although this is admittedly speculation. However, whatever the cause for this cessation (whether it was marriage, increased financial security meaning she did not need to write to support herself, as perhaps she previously did, or simply personal choice), this sudden break is particularly noteworthy after the prolific writing of her early years. It is also interesting to consider why she stopped writing again after the publication of only two more novels in 1824. That this was due to an unfavourable reception seems unlikely, as the critical praise for Past Events (11) suggests that she was recognised as a praiseworthy and ‘practised’ writer.
That Mary Charlton was a successful and reasonably well known author is supported by the publication of The Life, Adventures, and Vicissitudes of Mary Charlton, the Welch Orphan in 1817. Although it has been attributed to Charlton it is generally agreed to a fake account of her life written by someone trying to profit from her popularity (12). Although it could be suggested that there is some truth in the author’s supposition that Charlton originated from Wales, because she includes an extended tour of Wales in Rosella (1800), it is just as probable that the author of The Life simply based their assumption on this. Further than this, the real ‘life and adventures’ of Mary Charlton remain as yet unknown.
Todd, Janet (1987) A Dictionary of British and American Women Writers, Methuen.