A "woman of letters" who published in multiple genres, Barbauld had a successful writing career at a time when female professional writers were rare. She was a noted teacher at the celebrated Palgrave Academy and an innovative children's writer; her famous primers provided a model for pedagogy for more than a century. Her essays demonstrated that it was possible for a woman to be publicly engaged in politics, and other women authors emulated her. Even more importantly, her poetry was foundational to the development of Romanticism in England. Barbauld was also a literary critic, and her anthology of eighteenth-century British novels helped establish the canon as we know it today.
Barbauld's literary career ended abruptly in 1812 with the publication of her poem Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, which criticized Britain's participation in the Napoleonic Wars. The vicious reviews shocked Barbauld and she published nothing 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 literary criticism in the 1980s renewed interest in her works and restored her place in literary history.
Barbauld was born on 20 June 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 Kibworth afforded Barbauld the opportunity to learn Latin, Greek, French, Italian, and many other subjects deemed unsuitable for women at the time. Barbauld’s penchant for study worried her mother, who expected her to end up a spinster because of her intellectualism; the two were never as close as Barbauld and her father. Yet Barbauld's mother was proud of her accomplishments and in later years wrote of her daughter: “I once indeed knew a little girl who was as eager to learn as her instructors could be to teach her, and who at two years old could read sentences and little stories in her wise book, roundly, without spelling; and in half a year more could read as well as most women; but I never knew such another, and I believe never shall.”
In 1758, the family moved to the soon-to-be-famous Warrington Academy, in Warrington, where Barbauld’s father had been offered a teaching position. It drew many luminaries of the day, such as the natural philosopher and theologian Joseph Priestley, and came to be known as “the Athens of the North” for its stimulating intellectual atmosphere. One other 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 brought out her first book of poems, after her friends had praised them and convinced her to publish. The collection, entitled simply Poems, went through four editions in just one year and surprised Barbauld by its success. Barbauld became a respected literary figure in England on the reputation of Poems alone. The same year she and her brother, John Aikin, jointly published Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose, which was also well-received. The essays in it (most of which were by Barbauld) were favorably compared to Samuel Johnson's.
After the wedding, the couple moved to Suffolk, near where Rochemont had been offered a congregation and a school for boys. Barbauld took this time and rewrote some of the psalms, a common pastime in the eighteenth century, publishing them 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 seems 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:
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 living with them, who had been recommend by personal friends.
It was during this time, the heyday of the French Revolution, that Barbauld published 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. 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.”
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 poetry for inspiration, but in their later, conservative years dismissed her work. Once these poets had become canonized, their opinions held sway. Moreover, the intellectual ferment that Barbauld was an important part of—particularly at the Dissenting academies—had, by the end of the nineteenth century, come to be associated with the “philistine” middle class, as Matthew Arnold put it. The reformist eighteenth-century middle class was later held responsible for the excesses and 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 time, 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.
...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 the Wealth of Nations as evidence for this interpretation.
The work of Marlon Ross and Anne K. 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 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 occurrences 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 (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 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:
Barbauld’s Lessons for Children and Hymns in Prose for Children 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 concept of a mother teaching her son. 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.” 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.”
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. Children's literature scholar William 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. In fact, Michelle Levy, a scholar of the period, has argued that the series encouraged readers to "become critical observers of and, where necessary, vocal resisters to authority. This resistance is learned and practiced in the home; according to Levy, "Evenings at Home… makes the claim that social and political reform must begin in the family. It is families that are responsible for the nation's progress or regress.
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.”
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 fifty authors included in the series.
A new biography of Barbauld by William McCarthy is in preparation.