‘A serjeant of militia!’ Martin Smart, a Correspondent of William Godwin

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is working with The Letters of William Godwin, edited by Pamela Clemit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011-), to bring new information about Godwin and his correspondence networks to a wider readership. To read more about the project, click here.

The second ODNB entry arising from this collaboration has now been published. The ODNB April 2018 update includes the biography of Martin Smart (b. c.1776, d. 1812), militia officer, philologist, and translator, co-authored by Pamela Clemit and Jenny McAuley.

Royal W Middlesex militia button2
Royal West Middlesex Militia silver plated open-back coatee button, c.1804

Martin Smart, the son of a tradesman, was born in Camberwell, Surrey. He attended an academy at Highgate run by the philologist Alexander Crombie, and then an academy at Newington Green, where he was taught by the biblical scholar John Hewlett and became acquainted with other members of Mary Wollstonecraft’s circle.

When he left school, he enlisted with the West Middlesex Militia, rising through the ranks to serjeant. From the late 1790s onwards, he was an enthusiastic reader of Godwin’s works. His later career encompassed different aspects of early nineteenth-century print culture.

Martin Smart stumbled across Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) by chance. In his first letter to the author, dated 20 November 1800, he wrote:

I saw the two volumes in the house of a person into whose possession they had come through the hands of a gentleman’s servant. On the first perusal I was astonished at the principles inculcated by them. (Bod. MS Abinger c. 6, fo. 76r)

Smart was referring to the second, octavo edition (1796). His admiration was tinctured by regret at Godwin’s grammatical errors, which he listed in exhaustive detail. Nonetheless, Godwin encouraged him to write again: ‘A serjeant of militia! Good God, sir, who & what are you? Where were you born, & how were you educated?’ (Letters of William Godwin, ii. 203).

Smart in turn asked Godwin for some account of his background. He replied:

I have not yet completed the forty-fifth year of my age, therefore am not precisely the old man you seem to take me for. The Enquiry concerning Political Justice was written in the years 1791 & 1792, & revised for the second edition in 1795…. In 1796 I formed a matrimonial engagement with a woman of admirable accomplishments, whose name may may possibly have reached your ears, Mary Wollstonecraft, Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, & other works…. I was bred to the clerical profession among the dissenters & actually engaged in the exercise of it to the twenty-sixth year of my age. (Letters, ii. 211)

Smart bounced back:

I have read your Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman…. I was acquainted with some of the characters mentioned in it. It was at Newington Green, as I have told you, that I received the latter part of my education … at a school very near to that of Miss Wollstonecraft, which I find by the dates, was kept by her for the first three years of that time. (Bod. MS Abinger c. 7, fo. 52v)

Following the Peace of Amiens (1802), Smart’s militia was disbanded, and he moved to London to join Godwin’s literary circle. He found employment as a translator, compiler, index-maker, and proof-reader, often working for the publisher Richard Phillips, for whom he corrected proofs of Godwin’s Life of Geoffrey Chaucer (1803). Other projects included a concordance to Political Justice (unpublished), assisting with John Hewlett’s edition of The Holy Bible with Apocrypha and Notes (1809-10), and collating texts for Hewlett’s Commentaries and Annotations on the Holy Scriptures, 5 vols. (1816).

Martin Smart died aged 36 years in Surrey on 25 May 1812, following a period of declining health. His obituarist described him as ‘perhaps the acutest grammarian of the present age’ (Monthly Magazine, 33 (July 1812), 589).

His anthology of mainly female-authored texts for use in girls’ schools, The Female Class-Book, which included classical and biblical subjects, was published posthumously in 1813.

To read more about Martin Smart and Godwin, see The Letters of William Godwin, Volume II: 1798-1805 (2014), now available in print, and, to subscribers, on Oxford Scholarly Editions Online.

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