Anna Laetitia Barbauld
|Born:||June 20, 1743
Kibworth Harcourt, Leicestershire, England
|Died:||March 9, 1825
Stoke Newington, England
|Subject(s):||reform, education, Christianity, history|
|Influenced:||Romanticism, children's literature|
Anna Laetitia Barbauld (June 20, 1743 – March 9, 1825) was a prominent eighteenth-century British poet, essayist, and children's author.
As a "woman of letters" who published successfully in mulitple genres, Barbauld had a significant effect on many aspects of her society. As a teacher at the celebrated Palgrave Academy and a children's writer, Barbauld also had a significant effect on education. Her famous primers provided a model for "infant pedagogy" for more than a century. Her essays demonstrated that it was possible for women to be publicly engaged in politics, and she herself provided a model of the female writer for contemporary women to emulate. Even more importantly, her poetry was foundational to the development of literary Romanticism in England.  Barbauld was also a literary critic; her anthology of eighteenth-century British novels helped to establish the canon as we know it today.
Barbauld's literary career ended abruptly in 1812 with the publication of Eighteen Hundred and Eleven. This poem, which criticized Britain's participation in the Napoleonic Wars, was viciously reviewed. Shocked, Barbauld refused to publish anything else within her lifetime. Her reputation was further damaged when many of the Romantic poets she had inspired in the heyday of the French Revolution turned against her in their later, more conservative, years. Barbauld was remembered only as a pedantic children's writer during the nineteenth century, and largely forgotten during the twentieth century, but the rise of feminist scholarship in the 1980s renewed interest in her works and restored her place in literary history.
Barbauld was born on June 20, 1743 at Kibworth Harcourt in Leicestershire, England. Her father, Reverend John Aikin, was headmaster of the Dissenting Kibworth Academy and minister at a nearby Presbyterian church. Her family's residence at her father's school afforded Barbauld the opportunity to learn Latin, Greek, French, Italian, and many other subjects deemed unsuitable for women at that time. Barbauld’s penchant for study worried her mother, who expected Barbauld to end up a spinster because of her intellectualism; the two were never as close as Barbauld and her father.
In 1758, the family moved to the famous Warrington Academy, in Warrington, England, where Barbauld’s father had been offered a teaching position. It drew many luminaries of the day, such as the scientist-philosopher Joseph Priestley, and would be known as “the Athens of the North” for its rich intellectual atmosphere. One luminary may have been the French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat; school records suggest he was a “French master” there in the 1770s. He may also have been a suitor to the beautiful, accomplished Barbauld; he allegedly wrote to John Aikin declaring his intention to become an English citizen and to marry her. Archibald Hamilton Rowan also fell in love with Barbauld and described her as, "possessed of great beauty, distinct traces of which she retained to the latest of her life. Her person was slender, her complexion exquisitely fair with the bloom of perfect health; her features regular and elegant, and her dark blue eyes beamed with the light of wit and fancy.” Despite her mother's anxiety, Barbauld received many offers of marriage around this time—all of which she turned down.
In 1773, Barbauld published her first book of poems after they “had been handed round from friend to friend and had been greatly admired." In fact, it was these friends who convinced her to publish her poems. The collection, entitled simply Poems was “an immediate and astonishing success, passing through four editions in twelve months.” On the reputation of Poems alone, Barbauld became a respected literary figure in England. That same year Barbauld and her brother, John Aikin, jointly published Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose, although most essays therein were Barbauld's. This work was also well-received and favorably compared to Samuel Johnson’s essays.
In May 1774, Barbauld married Rochemont Barbauld, the grandson of a French Hugenot and a former pupil at Warrington, despite some "misgivings" before the wedding. They moved to Suffolk, near where her husband Rochemont had been offered a congregation and a school for boys. After her marriage, Barbauld adapted some of the Psalms, a common pastime in the eighteenth century, which she published as Devotional Pieces Compiled from the Psalms and the Book of Job; attached to this work is her essay “Thoughts on the Devotional Taste, on Sects and on Establishments,” which explains her theory of religious feeling and the problems inherent in the institutionalization of religion.
It seemed that Barbauld and her husband were concerned that they would never have a child of their own and in 1775, after only a year of marriage, Barbauld suggested to her brother that they adopt one of his children, Charles. In trying to convince her brother to agree to this plan, Barbauld wrote these striking sentences:
I am sensible it is not a small thing we ask; nor can it be easy for a parent to part with a child. This I would say, from a number, one may more easily be spared. Though it makes a very material difference in happiness whether a person has children or no children, it makes, I apprehend, little or none whether he has three, or four; five, or six; because four or five are enow [sic] to exercise all his whole stock of care and affection. We should gain, but you would not lose. 
Eventually her brother conceded, and for Charles, Barbauld wrote her most famous books: Lessons for Children (1778-1779) and Hymns in Prose for Children (1781).
Barbauld and her husband spent 11 years administering and teaching at Palgrave Academy in Suffolk. At the beginning, Barbauld was not only responsible for running her own household but also the school’s—she was an accountant, maid, and housekeeper. The school opened with only eight boys but when the Barbaulds left in 1785, around 40 were enrolled, a testament to the excellent reputation the school had accrued. The Barbaulds’ educational philosophy attracted Dissenters as well as Anglicans. Palgrave replaced the strict discipline of traditional schools such as Eton College, which was often enforced by corporal punishment, with a system of “fines and jobations” and even, it seems likely, “juvenile trials,” that is, trials run by and for the students themselves. Moreover, the school offered a “practical” curriculum that stressed science and the modern languages. Barbauld herself taught the foundational subjects of reading and religion to the youngest boys and geography, history, composition and rhetoric, and science to additional grade levels. She was a dedicated teacher, producing a “weekly chronicle” for the school and writing theatrical pieces for the students to perform. Barbauld had a profound effect on many of her students; one of the many who went on to great success; William Taylor, a preeminent scholar of German literature, referred to Barbauld as “the mother of his mind.”
In September 1785, the Barbaulds left Palgrave for a tour of France; Rochemont’s mental health had been deteriorating and he was no longer able to carry out his teaching duties. In 1787, they moved to Hampstead where Rochemont was asked to head a Presbyterian chapel. It was here that Barbauld became close friends with Joanna Baillie, the playwright. Although no longer in charge of a school, the Barbaulds did not abandon their commitment to education; they often had one or two pupils, who had been recommend by personal friends, living with them.
It was also during this time, the heyday of the French Revolution, that Barbauld published some of her most radical political pieces. From 1787 to 1790, Charles James Fox attempted to convince the House of Commons to pass a law granting Dissenters full citizenship rights. When this bill was defeated for the third time, Barbauld wrote one of her most passionate pamphlets, "An Address to the Opposers of the Repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts." Readers were shocked to discover that such a well-reasoned argument should come from a woman writer. In 1791, after William Wilberforce’s attempt to outlaw the slave trade failed, Barbauld published her "Epistle to William Wilberforce Esq. On the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade," which not only lamented the fate of the slaves but also warned of the cultural and social degeneration the British could expect if they did not abandon slavery. In 1792, she continued this theme of national responsibility in an anti-war sermon entitled "Sins of Government, Sins of the Nation" which argued that each individual is responsible for the actions of the nation: “We are called upon to repent of national sins, because we can help them, and because we ought to help them.”
In 1802, the Barbaulds moved to Stoke Newington where Rochemont took over the pastoral duties of the Chapel at Newington Green. Barbauld herself was happy to be nearer her brother, John, because her husband’s mind was rapidly failing. Rochemont developed a “violent antipathy to his wife and he was liable to fits of insane fury directed against her. One day at dinner he seized a knife and chased her round the table so that she only saved herself by jumping out of the window.” Such scenes repeated themselves to Barbauld’s great sadness and real danger, but she refused to leave him. Rochemont drowned himself in 1808 and Barbauld was overcome with grief. When Barbauld returned to writing, she produced the radical poem Eighteen Hundred and Eleven (1812) that depicted England as a ruin. It was reviewed so viciously that Barbauld never published another work within her lifetime, although it is now often viewed by scholars as her greatest poetic achievement. Barbauld died in 1825, a renowned writer, and was buried in the family vault in Saint Mary's, Stoke Newington.
At Barbauld’s death, she was lauded in the Newcastle Magazine as “unquestionably the first [i.e., best] of our female poets, and one of the most eloquent and powerful of our prose writers” and the Imperial Magazine even declared: “so long as letters shall be cultivated in Britain, or wherever the English language shall be known, so long will the name of this lady be respected.” She was favorably compared to both Joseph Addison and Samuel Johnson, no small feat for a woman writer in the eighteenth century. But by 1925 she was remembered only as a moralizing writer for children, if that. It was not until the advent of feminist criticism within the academy in the 1970s and 1980s that Barbauld finally began to be integrated into literary history.
Barbauld’s remarkable disappearance from the literary landscape took place for a number of reasons. One of the most important was the disdain heaped upon her by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, poets who in their youthful, radical days had looked to her for inspiration, but in their later, conservative years turned against her. Once these poets had become canonized, their opinions held sway. The intellectual ferment in which Barbauld participated—particularly the dissenting academies—had, by the end of the nineteenth century, come to be associated with the “philistine” middle class, as Matthew Arnold would so eloquently and damningly phrase it. She was not only attacked as a dissenter, but also as part of the middle-class. The emerging eighteenth-century middle class that had advocated for the reform of education in England and other causes such as the abolition of slavery had, in many ways, come to be seen as responsible for the greatest abuses of the industrial age.
As literary studies developed into a discipline at the end of the nineteenth century, the story of the origins of Romanticism in England emerged along with it; according to this version of literary history, Coleridge and Wordsworth were the dominant poets of the age. This view held sway for almost a century. Even with the advent of feminist criticism in the 1970s, Barbauld still did not receive her due. As Margaret Ezell explains, feminist critics wanted to resurrect a particular kind of woman—one who was angry, one who resisted the gender roles of her age and one who attempted to create a sisterhood with other women. Barbauld did not easily fit into these categories and it was not until Romanticism and its canon began to be reexamined through a deep reassessment of feminism itself that a picture emerged of the vibrant voice Barbauld had been at the end of the eighteenth century.
Barbauld’s poetry, which addresses a wide range of topics, has been read primarily by feminist scholars interested in recovering women writers who were important in their own time but who have been forgotten by literary history. Isobel Armstrong's work represents one way to do such scholarship; she argues that Barbauld, like other Romantic women poets:
neither consented to the idea of a special feminine discourse nor accepted an account of themselves as belonging to the realm of the nonrational. They engaged with two strategies to deal with the problem of affective discourse. First, they used the customary ‘feminine’ forms and languages, but they turned them to analytical account and used them to think with. Second, they challenged the male philosophical traditions that led to a demeaning discourse of feminine experience and remade those traditions.
In her subsequent analysis of “Inscription for an Ice-House” she points to Barbauld’s challenge of Edmund Burke’s characterization of the sublime and the beautiful and Adam Smith’s economic theories in his book Wealth of Nations as evidence for this interpretation.
The work of Marlon Ross and Anne Mellor represents a second way to apply the insights of feminist theory to the recovery of women writers. They argue that Barbauld and other Romantic women poets carved out a distinctive feminine voice in the literary sphere. As a woman and as a dissenter, Barbauld had a unique perspective on society, according to Ross, and it was this specific position that "obligated" her to publish social commentary. But, Ross points out, women were in a double bind: “they could choose to speak politics in nonpolitical modes, and thus risk greatly diminishing the clarity and pointedness of their political passion, or they could choose literary modes that were overtly political while trying to infuse them with a recognizable ‘feminine’ decorum, again risking a softening of their political agenda.” Therefore Barbauld and other Romantic women poets often wrote “occasional poems.” These poems had traditionally commented, often satirically, on national events, but by the end of the eighteenth century they were increasingly serious and personal. Women wrote sentimental poems, a style then much in vogue, on personal “occasions” such as the birth of a child and argued that in commenting on the small occurences of daily life, they would establish a moral foundation for the nation. Scholars such as Ross and Mellor maintain that this adaptation of existing styles and genres is one way that female poets created a feminine Romanticism.
Barbauld’s most significant political texts are: An Address to the Opposers of the Repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts (1790), Epistle to William Wilberforce on the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade (1791), Sins of Government, Sins of the Nation (1793), and Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, A Poem (1812). As Harriet Guest explains: “the theme Barbauld’s essays of the 1790s repeatedly return to is that of the constitution of the public as a religious, civic, and national body, and she is always concerned to emphasize the continuity between the rights of private individuals and those of the public defined in capaciously inclusive terms.”
For three years, from 1787 to 1790, Dissenters had been attempting to convince Parliament to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts which limited the civil rights of Dissenters. After the repeal was voted down for the third time, Barbauld burst onto the public stage after “nine years of silence.” Her highly-charged pamphlet is written in a biting and sarcastic tone. It opens, “we thank you for the compliment paid the Dissenters, when you suppose that the moment they are eligible to places of power and profit, all such places will at once be filled with them.” She argues that Dissenters deserve the same rights as any other men: “We claim it as men, we claim it as citizens, we claim it as good subjects.” Moreover, she contends that it is precisely the isolation forced on Dissenters by others that marks them out, not anything inherent in their form of worship. Finally, appealing to British patriotism, she maintains that the French cannot be allowed to outstrip the English in liberty.
In the following year, 1791, after one of William Wilberforce’s many efforts to suppress the slave trade failed to pass in Parliament, Barbauld wrote her Epistle to William Wilberforce on the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade. In it, she calls Britain to account for the sin of slavery; in harsh tones, she condemns the “Avarice” of a country which is content to allow its wealth and prosperity to be supported by the labor of enslaved human beings. Moreover, she draws a picture of the plantation mistress and master that reveals all of the failings of the “colonial enterprise: [an] indolent, voluptuous, monstrous woman" and a "degenerate, enfeebled man.”
In 1793, when the British government called on the nation to fast in honor of the war, anti-war Dissenters such as Barbauld were left with a moral quandary: “obey the order and violate their consciences by praying for success in a war they disapproved? observe the Fast, but preach against the war? defy the Proclamation and refuse to take any part in the Fast?” Barbauld took this opportunity to write a sermon, "Sins of Government, Sins of the Nation," on the moral responsibility of the individual; for her, each individual is responsible for the actions of the nation because he or she constitutes part of the nation. The essay attempts to determine what the proper role of the individual is in the state and while she argues that “insubordination” can undermine a government, she does admit that there are lines of “conscience” that one cannot cross in obeying a government. The text is a classic consideration of the idea of an “unjust war.”
In Eighteen Hundred and Eleven (1812), written after Britain had been at war with France for a decade and was on the brink of losing the Napoleonic Wars, Barbauld presented her readers with a shocking Juvenalian satire; she argued that the British empire was waning and the American empire was waxing. It is to America that Britain’s wealth and fame will now go, she contended, and Britain will become nothing but an empty ruin. She tied this decline directly to Britain’s participation in the Napoleonic Wars:
- And think’st thou, Britain, still to sit at ease,
- An island Queen amidst thy subject seas,
- While the vext billows, in their distant roar,
- But soothe thy slumbers, and but kiss thy shore?
- To sport in wars, while danger keeps aloof,
- Thy grassy turf unbruised by hostile hoof?
- So sing thy flatterers; but, Britain, know,
- Thou who hast shared the guilt must share the woe.
- Nor distant is the hour; low murmurs spread,
- And whispered fears, creating what they dread;
- Ruin, as with an earthquake shock, is here (lines 39-49)
This pessimistic view of the future was, not surprisingly, poorly received; “reviews, whether in liberal or conservative magazines, ranged from cautious to patronizingly negative to outrageously abusive.” Barbauld, stunned by the reaction, retreated from the public eye.
Barbauld’s Lessons for Children and Hymns in Prose were a revolution in children’s literature. For the first time, the needs of the child reader were seriously considered. Barbauld demanded that her books be printed in large type with wide margins so that children could easily read them and, even more importantly, she developed a style of “informal dialogue between parent and child” that would dominate children’s literature for a generation. In Lessons for Children, a four-volume, age-adapted reading primer, Barbauld employs the conceit of a mother teaching her son, Charles. More than likely, many of the events in these stories were inspired by Barbauld’s experience of teaching her own son, Charles. But this series is far more than a way to acquire literacy—it also introduces the reader to “elements of society’s symbol-systems and conceptual structures, inculcates an ethics, and encourages him to develop a certain kind of sensibility.”Moreover, it exposes the child to the principles of “botany, zoology, numbers, change of state in chemistry… the money system, the calendar, geography, meteorology, agriculture, political economy, geology, [and] astronomy.”
Lessons for Children and Hymns in Prose had, for children’s books, an unprecedented impact; not only did they influence the poetry of William Blake and William Wordsworth, they were also used to teach several generations of school children. McCarthy states, "Elizabeth Barrett Browning could still quote the opening lines of Lessons for Children at age thirty-nine." Although both Samuel Johnson and Charles James Fox ridiculed Barbauld’s children’s books and believed that she was wasting her talents, Barbauld herself believed that such writing was noble and she encouraged others to follow in her footsteps. As Betsy Rodgers, her biographer explains, “she gave prestige to the writing of juvenile literature, and by not lowering her standard of writing for children, she inspired others to write on a similar high standard.” In fact, because of Barbauld, Sarah Trimmer and Hannah More were inspired to write for poor children as well as organize a large-scale Sunday School movement, Ellenor Fenn wrote and designed a series of readers and games for middle-class children and Richard Lovell Edgeworth began one of the first systematic studies of childhood development which would culminate in not only an educational treatise authored by Maria Edgeworth and himself but also in a large body of children’s stories by Maria herself.
Barbauld also collaborated with her brother John on the six-volume series Evenings at Home(1793). It is a miscellany of stories, fables, dramas, poems, and dialogues. In many ways this series encapsulates the ideals of an enlightenment education: “curiosity, observation, and reasoning.” For example, the stories encourage learning science through hands-on activities; in “A Tea Lecture” the child learns that tea-making is “properly an operation of chemistry” and lessons on diffusion, evaporation, and condensation follow. The text also emphasizes rationality; in “Things by Their Right Names,” a child demands that his father tell him a story about “a bloody murder.” The father does so, using some of the fictional tropes of fairy tales such as “once upon a time” but confounding his son with details such as the murderers all “had steel caps on.” At the end, the child realizes his father has told him the story of a battle and his father comments “I do not know of any murders half so bloody.” Both the tactic of defamiliarizing the world in order to force the reader to think about it rationally and the anti-war message of this tale are prevalent throughout Evenings at Home. The series was relatively popular and Maria Edgeworth commented in the educational treatise that she co-authored with her father, Practical Education (1798), that it is “one of the best books for young people from seven to ten years old, that has yet appeared.”
According to Lucy Aikin, Barbauld's niece, Barbauld's contributions to Evenings at Home consisted of the following pieces: “The Young Mouse,” “The Wasp and Bee,” “Alfred, a drama,” “Animals and Countries,” “Canute’s Reproof,” “The Masque of Nature,” “Things by their right Names,” “The Goose and Horse,” “On Manufactures,” “The Flying-fish,” “A Lesson in the Art of Distinguishing,” “The Phoenix and Dove,” “The Manufacture of Paper,” “The Four Sisters,” and “Live Dolls.”
Barbauld edited several major works towards the end of her life, all of which helped to shape the canon as we know it today. First, in 1804 she edited Samuel Richardson’s correspondence and wrote an extensive biographical introduction of the man who was perhaps the most influential novelist of the eighteenth century. Her “212-page essay on his life and works [was] the first substantial Richardson biography.” The following year she edited Selections from the Spectator, Tatler, Guardian, and Freeholder, with a Preliminary Essay, a volume of essays emphasizing “wit,” “manners” and “taste.” In 1811, she assembled The Female Speaker, an anthology of literature chosen specifically for young girls. Because, according to Barbauld's philosophy, what one reads when one is young is formative, she carefully considered the “delicacy” of her female readers and “direct[ed] her choice to subjects more particularly appropriate to the duties, the employments, and the dispositions of the softer sex.” The anthology is subdivided into sections such as “moral and didactic pieces” and “descriptive and pathetic pieces"; it includes poetry and prose by, among others, Alexander Pope, Hannah More, Maria Edgeworth, Samuel Johnson, James Thomson and Hester Chapone.
But it was Barbauld’s fifty-volume series of The British Novelists published in 1810 with her large introductory essay on the history of the novel that allowed her to place her mark on literary history. It was “the first English edition to make comprehensive critical and historical claims” and was in every respect “a canon-making enterprise.” In her insightful essay, Barbauld legitimizes the novel, then still a controversial genre, by connecting it to ancient Persian and Greek literature. For her, a good novel is “an epic in prose, with more of character and less (indeed in modern novels nothing) of the supernatural machinery.” Barbauld maintains that novel-reading has a multiplicity of benefits; not only is it a “domestic pleasure” but it is also a way to “infus[e] principles and moral feelings” into the population. Barbauld also provided introductions to each of the 50 authors included in the series.
A new biography of Barbauld by William McCarthy is in preparation.
All links retrieved December 17, 2012.
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