Women's Writing Before Woolf: A Social Reference/Anne Barbauld (1743–1825)

Anna Barbauld (1743-1825)Edit

BiographyEdit

Born in England, in 1743, Anne Barbauld (née Aikin) was a prolific female writer whose many publications spanned poetry, essays, literary criticism, and children’s literature. Though for many years unacknowledged, her significance in the literary canon cannot be overstated. From her early years as an outsider, her sudden literary fame, her loyalty in love and education, and her radical political publications, the life of Anne Barbauld is as rich and varied as any of her male author counterparts – and she deserves to be remembered as such.

Early LifeEdit

Anne was surrounded by intellectual life from an early age. Her father was a scholar and theologian, through whom she learnt classical subjects like Latin, Greek, French, and Italian (McCarthy, 32).[1]

Anne's precocious desire to learn was often perceived as unfeminine, resulting in a sense of detachment from the ideal image of femininity (McCarthy, 28-29).[1] However, her education also exposed her to central Enlightenment principles such as liberalism and tolerance (Bradshaw, 353).[2]

Literature and LoveEdit

Anne published her first poetry collection, Poems, at the age of 30, and soon after Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose, a joint collection with her brother John. Both were greatly successful, and Anne quickly gained a reputation as a respected literary figure (Rodgers, 57).[3] We glean inclinations to her complicated relationship to femininity in this poetry early works. For example, the carefully considerate presentation of appropriate femininity in “On a Lady’s Writing,”

“Her even lines her steady temper show,

Neat as her dress, and polished as her brow; (Barbauld, 1825).”[4]

In 1774, she married Rochemont Barbauld, and soon after published Devotional Pieces Compiled from the Psalms and the Book of Job, a collection of psalms which included an introductory essay on religion titled "Thoughts on the Devotional Taste, on Sects and on Establishments.”

Mother of EducationEdit

Prompted by the adoption of her first child, Anne wrote two texts for children which were highly successful and cemented Anne as a respected children’s writer: Lessons for Children (1778–79) and Hymns in Prose for Children (1781) (McCarthy, 197).[1]

Lessons for Children has been identified as integral to the early development of the ‘conversational primer’ genre, through its utilisation of the parent-author narrator and domestic conversational style (Wen Hui Lim, 101).[5] The poem’s reference to the child on his mother’s lap: “Come hither, Charles. Come to mamma’s lap” (Lessons I, p.1) can be seen as an early example of the transformation of an iconic romantic image into a marketable literary trope (105).[5]

Political IreEdit

Amidst the turmoil of the French Revolution, Anne embarked on her most radical political writings, (Guest, 235).[6]


One of her most significant political publications, Epistle to William Wilberforce Esq. On the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade (1791), was prompted by failed attempts to abolish the slave trade, and expresses Anne’s fury at Parliament:

“Cease, Wilberforce, to urge thy generous aim!

Thy Country knows the sin, and stands the shame!”[7]

The Later YearsEdit

After a series of violet frenzies towards Anne, Rochemont took his own life in a nearby river (Rogers, 128-129).

Her final publication, Eighteen Hundred and Eleven (1812), was not well-received, eliciting condemnation from both the writing community and wider public (Clery, 155).[8] She continued to write up until her death in 1825. She died a celebrated writer with an immense body of work spanning literary, political, and religious discourse.

Contemporary ScholarshipEdit

Feminism: A Complicated RelationshipEdit

Despite Anne’s position as a committed political dissent and progressive thinker, her position on feminism has been the subject of ongoing scholarly debate. Some see her as “antifeminist,” noting that she “disliked being lumped with Catharine Macaulay, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays, and the other “viragos” of her age (Taylor, 184 in Chernock, 197),”[9] and was opposed a universal femininity: “There is no bond of union among literary women, any more than among literary men… (Barbauld qtd. in Le Breton 86-88 qtd. in Bordo 186[10]).” However, this perception has been challenged by William McCarthy’s biography of Barbauld, who highlights the biographical bias of Barbauld’s daughter who wished to align Anne’s story with her conservative Victorian tastes (McCarthy 142, in Chernock 197).[11]

Recent rereadings of Barbould’s confirms this complex relationship to feminism. Penny Bradshaw’s rereading of Barbauld’s “The Rights of Woman,” examines the homogeneity of interpretations perceiving Barbauld as adverse to a “Wollstonecraftian feminism,” and conversely argues for Barbauld’s perceptive analysis of the “ideological and legal impediments to that cause (Bradshaw, 23).[12]  

Natural RightsEdit

Alongside Barbauld’s passion for political, religious, and human rights, scholars have also noted a consistent awareness for the rights of animals and the natural world. In her essay “Anna Barbauld and Natural Rights,” Lisa Vargo notes the extension of her progressive liberalism onto the non-human world, such as in the poem “Inscription for an Ice-House,”[13] in which the fallibility of man is juxtaposed with the relentless and ever-present strength of the natural world (Vargo, 335).[14]

Literary CriticismEdit

Barbauld has been recognised for her contributions to the development of the novel as a form: her collection The British Novelists (1810) was foundational in the construction of the novelistic canon, and the collection’s critical essay, “On the Origin and Progress of Novel-Writing” provides an early example of assessing prose through narration (Toner, 171).[15]

RomanticismEdit

Since her reestablishment in the literary canon, Barbauld has been recognised for her early contributions to the romantic movement. Katherine Ready asserts her as a key transitional figure between neo-classicism and romanticism. Barbauld’s ‘To Mr. Barbauld, with a Map of the Land of Matrimony’ (1825), a poem written in 1775 and presented with a companion map and illustration, reflects Barbauld’s complex relationship to the social mores of Enlightenment femininity through its simultaneously progressive and romantic expressions of love and sexuality (353).[16] Furthermore, its utilisation of interdisciplinary elements signifies her contribution to Romantic debates over the visual and verbal arts (351),[16] a notion supported by other scholars (Wharton, 103).[17]

Further ReadingEdit

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopedia, 2021, Anna Laetita Barbauld, viewed 27 April 2021.

McCarthy, W., 2008. Anna Letitia Barbauld. JHU Press.

ReferencesEdit

  1. a b c McCarthy, William. Anna Letitia Barbauld: Voice of the Enlightenment. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008, Google Books, https://books.google.com.au/books?id=kTZL66z4CF0C&printsec=frontcover&hl=en&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
  2. Bradshaw, Penny. “Gendering the enlightenment: conflicting images of progress in the poetry of Anna Lætitia Barbauld,” Women's Writing, 5:3, 1993, 353-371, DOI: 10.1080/09699089800200051
  3. Rodgers, Betsy. Georgian Chronicle: Mrs. Barbauld and Her Family. London: Methuen, 1958
  4. Barbauld, Anna L. On A Lady's Writing. London, 1825. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.newcastle.edu.au/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/books/on-ladys-writing/docview/2147512996/se-2
  5. a b Wen Hui Lim, Jessica. “Barbauld’s Lessons: The Conversational Primer in Late Eighteenth Century British Children’s Literature,” Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 43:1, 2020, doi: 10.1111/1754-0208.12648
  6. Guest, Harriet. "Anna Laetitia Barbauld and the Mighty Mothers of Immortal Rome." Small Change: Women, Learning, Patriotism, 1750–1810. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000
  7. Barbauld, Anna L. Epistle to William Wilberforce Esq. On the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade. London, 1791. Digital Library, University of Pennsylvania. https://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/barbauld/wilberforce/wilberforce.html
  8. Clery, E. J. “Stoic Patriotism in Barbauld’s Political Poems,” Anna Letitia Barbauld: New Perspectives, ed. by Professor William McCarthy, and Olivia Murphy, Bucknell University Press, 2013, 155-171. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.newcastle.edu.au/lib/newcastle/detail.action?docID=1584907.
  9. Chernock, Arianne. “William McCarthy. Anna Letitia Barbauld: Voice of the Enlightenment. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. Pp. 792. $62.00 (Cloth).” Journal of British Studies, 51:1, 2012, 197–198., doi:10.1086/662226.
  10. Bordo, Haley. “Reinvoking the “domestic muse”: Anna Laetitia Barbauld and the performance of genre,” European Romantic Review, 11:2, 186-196, DOI: 10.1080/10509580008570108
  11. Chernock, Arianne. “William McCarthy. Anna Letitia Barbauld: Voice of the Enlightenment. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. Pp. 792. $62.00 (Cloth).” Journal of British Studies, 51:1, 2012, 197–198., doi:10.1086/662226.
  12. Bradshaw, Penny. The limits of Barbauld’s feminism: re‐reading “The Rights of Woman”,” European Romantic Review, 16:1, 2005, 23-37, DOI: 10.1080/1050958042000338534
  13. Barbauld, Anna L. “Inscription for an Ice-House,” The Works of Anna Letitia Barbauld, with a Memoir by Lucy Aikin. London, Longman, 1825. 188-189 https://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/barbauld/works/bal-icehouse.html
  14. Vargo, Lisa. “Anna Barbauld and Natural Rights: The Case of “Inscription for an Ice-House,” European Romantic Review, 27:3, 2016, 331–339 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10509585.2016.1163790
  15. Toner, Anne. “Anna Barbauld on Fictional Form in The British Novelists,” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 24:2, 2011–12, 171-193 DOI: 10.3138/ecf.24.2.171
  16. a b Ready, Kathryn, “Anna Letitia Barbauld’s ‘To Mr. Barbauld, with a Map of the Land of Matrimony’ and the History of Sentimental Cartography,” History of European Ideas, 42:3, 2016, 350–363, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01916599.2015.1118337  
  17. Wharton, Joanna. “The Things Themselves: Sensible Images in Lessons for Children and Hymns in Prose,” Anna Letitia Barbauld: New Perspectives, ed. by Professor William McCarthy, and Olivia Murphy, Bucknell University Press, 2013, 103-118. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.newcastle.edu.au/lib/newcastle/detail.action?docID=1584907.