Anna Laetitia Barbauld

Mary Wollstonecraft is held up by many Unitarians as 'one of ours', but it isn't quite as clear cut as it is of the other two literary women of their day, who I've chosen to write about. Mary Wollstonecraft, brought up an Anglican, attended Newington Green Chapel to hear Richard Price preach thus becoming part of the rational dissenting community, who were connected through the dissenting publisher, printer Joseph Johnson. Anna Laetitia Barbauld, was born into a rational dissenting family, her father being a minister and then one of the first tutors at Warrington Dissenting Academy. Mary Hays was brought up in a dissenting family but made the decision that she was a Unitarian for theological reasons. All three knew each other but the two Marys were good friends both being feminist writers who wrote for a living; this couldn't be said of Anna Barbauld.

The differences between women then and now can be seen all that time ago in their approaches to life and work. Anna Laetitia was fortunate in having an educated mother who taught her, and a father who gave her private tuition in the classics. Being encouraged by a Warrington tutor and friend, Joseph Priestley, to continue writing, she wrote many privately circulated poems to friends and family, who eventually persuaded Anna to offer them to printer/publisher Joseph Johnson, a friend of the Academy. In 1772, when Anna was 29, a volume of her poems were published and went into four editions in that first year alone. This was followed in 1773, by Collection of 10 Essays that included six pieces written by Anna and two by her brother.

In spite of becoming aware of both the opportunities and excitement of becoming a well read published author Anna had no wish to follow this route when in 1774 she chose to marry Rochemont Barbauld, past student at Warrington looking to take up his first post as a Rational Dissenting Minister.

But hush my heart! Nor strive to soar too high,
Not for the tree of knowledge vainly sigh;
Check the fond love of science and fame,
A bright, but ah! A too devouring flame.
Content remain within thy bounded sphere,
For fancy blooms, the virtues flourish there.

Like many ministers and their wives, they established an educational establishment at Palgrave near Norwich. Anna was crucial to this enterprise, teaching and preparing material for the younger classes as well as being the matron. Samuel Johnson felt she was wasting herself. However, not finding suitable material for young Charles, her brother's son who the Barbaulds had adopted, she proceeded to write material in clear print well spaced, with wide margins. Instead of fairy stories she wrote tales based on a moral and what children encounter every day. This went on to be copied and incorporated by other educationalists of the day. The school grew from taking eight boys to almost 40 eleven years later. In these early days she also wrote Devotional Pieces – selection from Psalms and Job with introductory essay. As the school grew Anna discovered new ways of helping pupils to learn and understand hymns and Hymns in Prose for Children published 1781 was read and recited by children right through the following century. The material had been accumulated from daily preparation for the pupils to learn, understand and recite. Religion and devotion in all areas of life made the material meaningful and memorable. She felt religious encounter was that which was everywhere around us. The Martineaus remembered them in adulthood as did other nineteenth century Unitarian ministers and many other famous nineteenth century figures.

Differences within their chapel and exhaustion saw the Barbaulds leave Palgrave in 1785 to travel in France before moving to Hampstead, London in 1787. Whilst taking in a few lodging pupils, this period saw Anna move on to a period of campaign writing. In 1790 she writes; An Address to the Opposers of the Repeal of the Corporation and Test Act signed by a Dissenter, in 1791 Joseph Johnson publishes the Epistle to William Wilberforce Esq on the Rejection of the Bill for abolishing the Slave Trade, signed in her own name. These are followed with anti-fasting/war letters and sermons published anonymously, which herald in the period of escalating writing of tracts and pamphlets. Here we have challenging, well argued writing from a woman's perspective of morality without stepping outside the accepted sphere of women.

At the beginning of the new century we find a new direction leading up to her major contribution to the world of literary criticism, editing, in 1804, Samuel Richardson's letters in six volumes including a 212 page essay on his life and works. In 1810 a 50 volume, The British Novelists, with a sixty page introductory essay, On the Progress of Novel Writing and prefatory remarks on the nineteen novelists included was commissioned and published. This was a crucial work at a time when poetry was considered the superior form of literature. That she needed to write for money following the suicide of Rochemont in 1808 is likely.

Sadly her writing came to an abrupt end following her poem Eighteen Hundred and Eleven criticising the war against France and pointing out that this was the end of Britain's dominance in the world and the beginning of America's. The critical reviews of writers she held in high regard caused her pain. The style and content of writing poetry had moved with poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge losing their radicalism of the 1790s. It hurt to have her femininity and domesticity dragged through the reviewing journals of the day and to be told she should not step into a territory understood better by her male counterparts; i.e. as a woman she should know her place.

Joan Wilkinson November 2009


1. Quoted in Anna Laetitia Barbauld by Dick Wakefield 2001 Centaur Press P31