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


BARBAULD, ANNA LETITIA (1743–1825), English poet and miscellaneous writer, was born at Kibworth-Harcourt, in Leicestershire, on the 20th of June 1743. Her father, the Rev. John Aikin, a Presbyterian minister and schoolmaster, taught his daughter Latin and Greek. In 1758 Mr Aikin removed his family to Warrington, to act as theological tutor in a dissenting academy there. In 1773 Miss Aikin published a volume of Poems, which was very successful, and co-operated with her brother, Dr John Aikin, in a volume of Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose. In 1774 she married Rochemont Barbauld, a member of a French Protestant family settled in England. He had been educated in the academy at Warrington, and was minister of a Presbyterian church at Palgrave, in Suffolk, where, with his wife’s help, he established a boarding school. Her admirable Hymns in Prose and Early Lessons were written for their pupils. In 1785 she left England for the continent with her husband, whose health was seriously impaired. On their return about two years later, Mr Barbauld was appointed to a church at Hampstead. In 1802 they removed to Stoke Newington. Mrs Barbauld became well known in London literary circles. She collaborated with Dr Aikin in his Evenings at Home; in 1795 she published an edition of Akenside’s Pleasures of Imagination, with a critical essay; two years later she edited Collins’s Odes; in 1804 she published a selection of papers from the English Essayists, and a selection from Samuel Richardson’s correspondence, with a biographical notice; in 1810 a collection of the British Novelists (50 vols.) with biographical and critical notices; and in 1811 her longest poem, Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, giving a gloomy view of the existing state and future prospects of Britain. This poem anticipated Macaulay in contemplating the prospect of a visitor from the antipodes regarding at a future day the ruins of St Paul’s from a broken arch of Blackfriars Bridge. Mrs Barbauld died on the 9th of March 1825; her husband had died in 1808. A collected edition of her works, with memoir, was published by her niece, Lucy Aikin, in 2 vols., 1825.

See A. L. le Breton, Memoir of Mrs Barbauld (1874); G. A. Ellis, Life and Letters of Mrs A. L. Barbauld (1874); Lady Thackeray Ritchie, A Book of Sibyls (1883).

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& Now A 21st-century viewpointScroll to original Britannica article

BARBAULD, Anna Letitia (1743-1825) by Elizabeth Kraft

The first thing to note about the short entry for Anna Letitia Barbauld in the eleventh edition of Encyclopædia Britannica is the positioning of her life and work solely in terms of the men in her life, as well as a parting gesture highlighting a male literary successor (Thomas Babington Macaulay), whom she is said to have anticipated. The facts are not wrong, but the emphasis is skewed in almost every detail, beginning with the description of Anna Aikin’s education. Her father was indeed a schoolmaster, and he did teach his daughter Latin and Greek—but only because of Anna Letitia’s own insistence, and only until her mother, concerned about her daughter’s acculturation amongst young male students, assumed control of the child’s curriculum. In other words, her education was shaped by both father and mother, but largely driven by her own thirst for learning. Further, to situate Barbauld solely in the male-dominated culture of her time is also to ignore the deep ties she established and maintained with the women writers of her time, including the bluestocking Elizabeth Montagu, playwright Joanna Baillie, writer and abolitionist Hannah More, and novelists Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth. It is also to diminish her commitment to the younger women in her life whose intellectual aspirations she nourished, including her niece, Lucy Aikin, and her great-niece, Anna Letitia Le Breton. And, finally, it is to obscure the fact that Barbauld was an important part of the wave of innovative female writing and scholarship that defined the British literary world of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Anna Letitia Barbauld
Probably Noble, George. Published by Hogg, Alexander. Anna Letitia Barbauld (née Aikin). 1786, © National Portrait Gallery, London Original image

A second thing to note about the Britannica essay is its failure to record the significance of key aspects of Barbauld’s literary career, beginning with the publication of Poems in 1773. Very successful accurately describes the reception of Poems, but the term fails to convey the deserved admiration and enthusiasm with which the volume was greeted. Nor does it provide any indication of the immediate elevation of Anna Aikin (soon to be Barbauld) to the highest literary status. The versatility, variety, and vigor of her poetry sparked comparisons to Shakespeare, and the cultural authority she acquired was immediate and long lasting.

The Britannica entry correctly emphasizes the collaborative nature of Barbauld’s relationship with her younger brother, John Aikin, who was also a writer (in addition to being a physician), yet the intensity and nature of the relationship, as well as its cultural significance, is obscured by the flatness with which it is conveyed. The intellectual and creative energy that the siblings shared was thoroughgoing, complete, and lifelong. John was the instigator of Anna Letitia’s decision to publish; he was her best reader—as she was his. Their work was always done in conversation with one another (in person or by letter). Furthermore, as Scott Krawczyk and Daniel White have discussed, they formed the nucleus of a literary circle, emerging from the culture of Dissent, and recognized for a coherent set of Enlightenment values (freedom of conscience, religious tolerance, scientific curiosity) and Romantic-era preoccupations (sensibility, love of the natural world, and advocacy of progressive social change). In other words, the siblings’ collaboration goes well beyond their joint project of Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose (1773) and Barbauld’s contribution to Evenings at Home (1796). Theirs was a partnership based on serious literary intent and revolutionary in terms of its goals: the expansion of informed readership, the development of literary standards and values for the common reader, the creation of a theory of national literature, as well as exploration of the place of that national literature in the larger world of culture and art.

A misleading conventionality is evident in Britannica’s treatment of Barbauld’s marriage (to Rochemont Barbauld, in 1774) and her role as an educator and writer for children. Education was a major theme in the life and work of both Anna Barbauld and John Aikin almost by birthright, their having grown up in the boarding school environments of Kibworth and Warrington where their father taught. Marriage might have been the occasion for Anna Letitia’s own embracing of the pedagogical life, but she had the tools at her (and her husband’s) disposal, and she was much more than a help in establishing and operating Palgrave Academy for over a decade. The writing of her primers (Lessons) was undertaken when she and Rochemont adopted Charles Rochemont Aikin, one of John’s children, to rear as their own. The books were innovative in that they were designed for infant readers, with large print and lots of white space to focus childish attention on the words. Hymns in Prose for Children was similarly thoughtful in design and concept, emerging as it did from close work with children in the classroom and beyond. Scholarship since the mid-nineties, spurred further by William McCarthy’s 2008 magisterial biography of Barbauld, has emphasized Anna Letitia’s full investment in the pedagogies practiced at Palgrave, and has attributed the high reputation the school came to have among Dissenters and Anglicans alike primarily to Anna Letitia’s literary reputation.

Another point of concern has to do with the entry’s notice of Barbauld’s publication of papers from the English Essayists. The actual publication was Selections from the Tatler, Spectator, Guardian, and Freeholder (1805) and was composed primarily of the essays of Joseph Addison, whom, Lucy Aikin felt, was most nearly allied to her aunt in terms of literary sensibility and cultural impact. Selections kept Addison’s work before the public for at least a century. Likewise important were her editions of the correspondence of Samuel Richardson (1804), for which she wrote a 212-page biographical introduction and her fifty-volume edition of the British Novelists (1810), prefaced by a long introductory essay on the On the Origin and Progress of Novel-Writing and introductions to the authors and works included. The Britannica entry notes these endeavors without remarking on the fact that in them Barbauld was performing the same cultural role entrusted to Samuel Johnson half a century earlier, in the lives he wrote for an edition of the English poets produced by the firm of Davies, Strahan, and Cadell. The shaping of the English canon begun by Johnson and the generation of booksellers he served was continued by Barbauld in the work commissioned by various booksellers of her time (Richard Phillips, Joseph Johnson, and the publishing houses of Longman and Cadell).

Finally, to dismiss Barbauld’s Eighteen Hundred and Eleven as a gloomy poem is to fail to understand it in the context of the Napoleonic Wars and within the economic (and other) hardships endured throughout Europe as a result of the long conflict, as recent criticism (work by E. J. Clery, especially) has established. The word can perhaps be forgiven since the characterization was Anna Letitia Le Breton’s word for her great aunt’s poem which, Le Breton said, even with all my love for her, [I] could not quite excuse. At least since the 1869 publication of the diaries of Henry Crabb Robinson, Thomas Babington Macaulay’s depiction of the New Zealander contemplating the ruins of St. Paul from London Bridge, an image he used in his 1840 review of Leopold von Ranke’s History of the Popes, had been linked to Barbauld’s Eighteen Hundred and Eleven; and though Macaulay himself did not acknowledge indebtedness, Le Breton devotes a long footnote to the possible borrowing, thus cementing the association. Recent criticism, by Clery, McCarthy, and Feldman among others, argues that T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), unavailable to Britannica (let alone Macaulay or Robinson or Le Breton), is the more pertinent descendant of Barbauld’s long poem by confronting a rapidly changing, often distressing, present, and by imagining the future that will ensue. Eighteen Hundred and Eleven should also be noted as an extension of various political concerns which Barbauld felt compelled to address in prophetically inflected poetry and prose throughout the course of her writing life—e.g. Corsica (1769) and An Address to the Opposers of the Repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts (1790), Epistle to William Wilberforce (1791), and Sins of the Government, Sins of the Nation (1793).

See Lucy Aikin, The Works of Anna Laetitia Barbauld with a Memoir (1825); Anna Letitia Le Breton, Memoir of Mrs. Barbauld (1864); E. J. Clery, Eighteen Hundred and Eleven: Poetry, Protest, and Economic Crisis (2017); Paula R. Feldman, British Women Poets of the Romantic Era (2001); Scott Krawczyk, Romantic Literary Families (2009); William P. McCarthy, Anna Letitia Barbauld: Voice of the Enlightenment (2008); Daniel White, The ‘Joinerina’: Anna Barbauld, the Aikin Family Circle, and the Dissenting Public Sphere (1999).

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