West, Charlotte, fl. 1787—1821
by Benjamin Colbert
Nothing positive is known of the origins, parentage, or dates of Charlotte West, and, as Amy Cully and Jonathan Gross have pointed out, her name might be a pseudonym and her narrative a fiction, or partly fictionalized. Her Ten Years’ Residence in France (1821), therefore, is the sole and unreliable source of information about her life between the 1787 and 1797, comprising her residence in France during the turbulent early years of the French Revolution. The list of sixty-three subscribers included with the volume might well suggest a background of financial hardship. Her and her husband’s emigration, she claims, was motivated in the first place by the necessity of economising.
According to her own account, West and her husband took up residence at Châlons-sur-Marne in 1787. There she claims to have met frequently Josephine Beauharnais during the vintage of 1788, a date she is likely to have misremembered given the drought conditions that disrupted the harvest that year (Neumann and Dettwiller); even the possibility of an earlier harvest would not account for the fact that Beauharnais is known to have departed for Martinique on 2 July 1788 (Cully, ‘Women’s’ 244n223). Notwithstanding such discrepancies, West’s subsequent narrative emphasises her role as an unabashed English loyalist who witnesses Revolutionary outrages, including the treatment of the Royal family after their flight to Varennes (West claims to have visited the family as they paused for the night at Châlons-sur-Marne, and to have ridden ahead to Epernay to prepare their reception the next day). West also claims to have been present at the execution of Louis XIV on 21 January 1793, when she and her husband relocated to Paris in the vain hopes of obtaining passports for England.
Unable to secure passports farther than Amiens, they relocated there in late June 1793, but not long afterwards found themselves under proscription as British subjects, and were arrested (West confusingly relates this to the ‘expedition to Quiberon’, the failed British-supported counter-revolutionary invasion in 1795, but places her imprisonment earlier in her chronology). Separated from her husband, West describes her incarceration, her escape from the guillotine, and her eventual release on ‘28 November 1794’. During the winter of 1795 she was again in Paris unsuccessfully looking for passports. Her husband died in 1796, and it wasn’t until the following year that she finally managed to secure a passport for herself. She returned to England via Dunkirk in August 1797. This detail, like all the others in her book, remains uncorroborated.
West deems her work ‘my first, (And in all probability my last) Essay’ (iii) and there is no record of her having published further.
Cully, Amy. British Women’s Life Writing, 1760-1840: Friendship, Community, and Collaboration. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Print.
–––. ‘Women’s Life Writing 1760-1830: Spiritual Selves, Sexual Characters, and Revolutionary Subjects’. Diss. Queen Mary University of London, 2007. Print.
Gross, Jonathan David. 'West, Charlotte (fl. 1787–1821), writer'. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sept. 2004. Oxford University Press. Web. 12 Mar. 2018. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/70515
Neumann, J., and J. Dettwiller, ‘Great Historical Events that Were Significantly Affected by the Weather: Part 9, the Year Leading to the Revolution of 1789 in France (II)’. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (1990): 33-41. Web. 12 Mar. 2018.
|A Ten Years' Residence in France||1821|