Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay

BAILLIE, JOANNA (1762-1851)

BAILLIE, JOANNA (1762-1851), British poet and dramatist, was born at the manse of Bothwell, on the banks of the Clyde, on the 11th of September 1762. She belonged to an old Scottish family, which claimed among its ancestors Sir William Wallace. At an early period she moved with her sister Agnes to London, where their brother, Dr Matthew Baillie, was settled. The two sisters inherited a small competence from their uncle, Dr William Hunter, and took up their residence at Hampstead, then on the outskirts of London, where they passed the remainder of their lives. Joanna Baillie had received an excellent education, and began very early to write poetry. She published anonymously in 1790 a volume called Fugitive Verses; but it was not till 1798 that she produced the first volume of her plays on the passions under the title of A Series of Plays. Her design was to illustrate each of the deepest and strongest passions of the human mind, such as hate, jealousy, fear, love, by a tragedy and a comedy, in each of which should be exhibited the actions of an individual under the influence of these passions. The first volume was published anonymously, but the authorship, though at first attributed to Sir Walter Scott, was soon discovered. The book had considerable success and was followed by a second volume in 1802, a third in 1812 and three volumes of Dramas in 1836. Miscellaneous Plays appeared in 1804, and the Family Legend in 1810. Miss Baillie herself intended her plays not for the closet but for the stage. The Family Legend, brought out in 1810 at Edinburgh, under the enthusiastic patronage of Sir Walter Scott, had a brief though brilliant success; De Monfort had a short run in London, mainly through the acting of John Kemble and Mrs Siddons; Henriquez and The Separation were coldly received. With very few exceptions, Joanna Baillieʼs plays are unsuited for stage exhibition. Not only is there a flaw in the fundamental idea, viz. that of an individual who is the embodiment of a single passion, but the want of incident and the direction of the attention to a single point, present insuperable obstacles to their success as acting pieces. At the same time they show remarkable powers of analysis and acute observation and are written in a pure and vigorous style. Joanna Baillieʼs reputation does not rest entirely on her dramas; she was the author of some poems and songs of great beauty. The best of them are the Lines to Agnes Baillie on her Birthday, The Kitten, To a Child and some of her adaptations of Scottish songs, such as Wooʼd and Married anʼaʼ. Scattered throughout the dramas are also some lively and beautiful songs, The Chough and the Crow in Orra, and the loverʼs song in the Phantom. Miss Baillie died on the 23rd of February 1851, at the advanced age of 89, her faculties remaining unimpaired to the last. Her gentleness and sweetness of disposition made her a universal favourite, and her little cottage at Hampstead was the centre of a brilliant literary society.

See Joanna Baillieʼs Dramatic and Poetical Works (London, 1851).

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BAILLIE, Joanna (1762-1851) by Judith Bailey Slagle

The entry for Joanna Baillie in the 1910-1911 edition of Encyclopædia Britannica contains a few errors of fact (including her correct age of 88 at her death on 23 February 1851), but also excludes important new information about Baillie. The entry was written before any archival or critical research had been done on the poet, playwright, and theatre theorist; it thus addresses most of Baillie’s work but dismisses the impact of it, alluding to her plays as posing insuperable obstacles to their success as acting pieces. Instead, many of her plays have been performed in the 21st century, and their lack of success during Baillie’s lifetime might well have been because of her gender. In an 1826 letter to Sir Walter Scott, Baillie disclosed that a friend (Fanny Head) should have published her translations anonymously, and Baillie related that to her own career:

She would fain have kept her name & sex unknown, if her friends would have allowed it, and they were not very wise friends who thwarted her on this point. I speak feelingly on this subject like a burnt child. John any-body would have stood higher with the critics than Joanna Baillie. I too was unwisely thwarted on this point. (National Library of Scotland letter 3903 ff.131–33 to Scott, 13 October 1826; Collected Letters, 438–39)
Joanna Baillie
Unknown OR Newton, Sir William John. Joanna Baillie, 1762-1851. Dramatist and poet. Unknown, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh Original image

Hester Thrale Piozzi had also concluded earlier, What a goose Joanna must have been to reveal her sex and name! Spite and malice have pursued her ever since (qtd. in Ellen Donkin’s Getting Into the Act: Women Playwrights in London, 1776-1829, 165). So much of Baillie’s inability to get her plays staged was less about their obstacles in performance than about the patriarchal climate in London’s theatres in the early nineteenth century.

It also is important to note more specifically that Joanna Baillie came from a prominent Scottish family. She was a surviving twin, born in September 1762 to Dorothea Hunter Baillie and James Baillie, a Church of Scotland minister and later a professor of divinity at Glasgow University. Her mother was the sister of the famous Scottish anatomists, William and John Hunter. William left Joanna and her older sister Agnes a small inheritance on his death, but Joanna reveals in her letters that she did not know William, having moved with Agnes and their widowed mother to London around 1784 to help their brother, Dr. Matthew Baillie, in his new medical practice.

After Dr. Baillie’s marriage to Sophia Denman in 1791, the sisters and their mother moved to Colchester and, after Mrs Baillie’s death in 1806, Joanna and Agnes settled in Hampstead. Joanna Baillie did know John Hunter well; she spent a great deal of time with him and his Blue-stocking wife, the poet, Anne Hunter (née Home), at their home in Earl’s Court, a home abounding with medical students and all sorts of animals there for research. This atmosphere probably led to some of her more gothic plays.

An important fact from the Britannica entry that should be corrected is the title of Baillie’s first volume of poems. It was not entitled Fugitive Verses, which was later published in 1840, but instead Poems: Wherein It is Attempted to Describe Certain Views of Nature and of Rustic Manners, etc. (1790). While this volume garnered little attention, the poems in the collection are exactly the sort that William Wordsworth, whom she later met, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge set out to produce in Lyrical Ballads some eight years later, claiming them to be new and exciting with their focus on nature and their common language, exactly what Baillie had done in Poems. Baillieʼs early and later poetry captures a common focus of the early Romantics, while it also eulogizes her famous friends and family. She was instrumental, with music historian George Thomson, in saving and reviving the lyrics of English and Scottish ballads and folksongs.

Her 1798 first volume of A Series of Plays: in which it is attempted to delineate the stronger passions of the mind was so popular that it was brought out in multiple editions over several decades, as were volumes two (1802) and three (1812). The first volume was published anonymously and included her Introductory Discourse on theatre theory. The authorship was at first attributed to other writers, including Anne Home Hunter, Ann Radcliffe, and Sir Walter Scott, and, thanks to Lord Byron, De Monfort was performed at Drury Lane before her identity was discovered, featuring John Kemble and Sarah Siddons. Worth noting, and missing in the Britannica entry, is that Byron fully admitted he was an enthusiastic admirer of Baillie and sought introduction to her.

A Series of Plays was followed by Miscellaneous Plays in 1804, The Family Legend in 1810, and, in 1836, three volumes entitled Dramas. Baillie intended her plays for the stage, and The Family Legend was performed at the Edinburgh Theatre in 1810, under the enthusiastic patronage of Sir Walter Scott, to a full house for multiple nights; De Monfort successfully followed there.

Baillie’s poetical Metrical Legends of Exalted Characters appeared in 1821, and Fugitive Verses in 1840, including many beautiful poems and songs such as A Winter’s Day, Lines to Agnes Baillie on her Birthday, Lines on the Death of Sir Walter Scott, Lines to a Teapot, and her adaptations of Scottish songs such as Woo’d and Married and a’. Further, the most notable archival documents from Baillie are her hundreds of letters to important correspondents, including Lady Byron, Margaret Holford Hodson, William Sotheby, Sir Walter Scott, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Dr. Andrews Norton, Sir John Herschel, Anna Jameson, and many others. These letters of historical significance provide insight into how Baillie wrote and edited, and how she provided social, creative, and even religious criticism for the period.

Significant work on Baillie after 1911:

  • Carhart, Margaret S. The Life and Work of Joanna Baillie, Yale UP, 1923.
  • Slagle, Judith Bailey, ed. The Collected Letters of Joanna Baillie, 2 vols. Associated UP, 1999.
  • Slagle, Judith Bailey. Joanna Baillie: A Literary Life. Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2002.
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