British author Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743–1825) was one of just a handful of women writers of her era. Referred to as Mrs. Barbauld in the literature of the time, the largely home-schooled daughter of a schoolmaster came from a prominent liberal family and moved in distinguished circles throughout her life.
Barbauld penned several lengthy poems as well as literary criticism and political commentary, but may be best remembered for the early childhood teaching materials she wrote at a time when she and her husband ran their own school in Suffolk. Her 1778 title, Lessons for Children , and the subsequent Hymns in Prose for Children which appeared three years later, became ubiquitous titles on the bookshelves of English schools and homes for decades to come.
Born Anna Laetitia Aikin on June 20, 1743, Barbauld spent her childhood and early teen years in Kibworth-Harcourt, a village in the county of Leicestershire in central England. Her mother was Jane Jennings Aikin, and her father, John Aikin, was trained as a Presbyterian minister. He was also an educator who became director of a school for boys in the village, and thanks to this Barbauld received a rather solid education for a young woman of her era, including instruction in Greek and Latin. She and her brother, John, four years her junior, remained close throughout their lives.
Reverend Aikin was a Dissenter, the name given to a loose-knit coalition of ministers and teachers who objected to the strict rules imposed on schools and their curricula. The laws and decrees, imposed by the British monarchy and parliament, were designed to prevent a recurrence of the religious strife that had torn England apart a century earlier during its Restoration and civil war periods. In short, Dissenters, who formed their own schools and even communities in some cases, opposed the king's influence over the Church of England and its requisite religious education course of the era. Several prominent schools came out of this movement, and one of the best known among them was the Warrington Academy in the Cheshire town of the same name.
Barbauld and her family moved to Warrington in 1758 when her father was hired as a teacher at the Academy. She was 15 years old at the time, and would not marry until she was nearly 30. The intervening years were spent immersed in educational pursuits, which were largely self-directed because women were barred from most institutions of higher education such as Oxford and Cambridge universities, and would be until well into the nineteenth century. As a young woman Barbauld also formed close ties with several important Dissenting figures of the era, including Joseph Priestley (1733–1804), a close family friend and chemist known as the co-discoverer of oxygen.
Barbauld's family background led her into political movements of the era. She and others of her generation were particularly enthused by events on the Mediterranean isle of Corsica, considered the first democratic republic of the Enlightenment Age; Corsica's brief period of sovereignty pre-dated the sweeping reforms of the French Revolution but was quashed by invading French forces in 1768. One of her first poems, "Corsica: An Ode," was written a year later in homage to the failed struggle. It appeared in her first volume of poetry, simply titled Poems , which was published in 1773. The work was well-received—though published woman poets were still a relative rarity at the time—and helped establish Barbauld's literary reputation in London. She was reportedly encouraged to write by her brother, who had enjoyed some success with his own work; they collaborated on a joint effort, Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose , that appeared in August of 1773.
On May 26, 1774, Barbauld wed Rochemont Barbauld, a former Warrington Academy student who was by then a Dissenting minister. He was six years her junior, and friends and family were uneasy about the match, because the Barbauld family had a history of mental illness. The union produced no children—they were childless by choice, fearing that the mental illness might pass on to a new generation—but they did adopt one of her brother's sons, Charles, and raised the boy as their own. In the first few years of their marriage, Rochemont found a post as a minister for a parish in Suffolk, while Barbauld continued her literary career. In 1775 Devotional Pieces, Compiled from the Psalms and the Book of Job appeared in print.
Barbauld and her husband soon founded their own academy in Suffolk, called the Palgrave School. It proved so successful that she was invited to serve as director of a new women's college planned by noted social reformer Elizabeth Montagu (1718–1800), but Barbauld did not believe that most women were suited for a rigorous education, despite her own talents and abilities, and declined the offer. The Palgrave School thrived until 1785, and it was during this period that Barbauld produced her most important educational materials for the very young. The first was a reading primer, Lessons for Children , which appeared in 1778. Its author "urges children to explore the animal, vegetable, and mineral worlds around them," noted Mary Beth Wolicky in an essay for the Dictionary of Literary Biography . "As Barbauld was already a respected author and poet when she wrote these pedagogical tracts, her new approach helped to change the direction of children's literature. The Lessons were read and alluded to by people of all religious affiliations throughout the nineteenth century."
Barbauld also wrote Hymns in Prose for Children , a 1781 title that would likewise endure for several generations to come. It was widely published in North America, too, and even in other languages, and remained in print for more than a hundred years. Her professional life shifted considerably, however, in the mid-1780s. When her husband began to display symptoms of the dreaded mental illness, they sold the Palgrave School, spent a year in France, and settled in London in June of 1786. A year later, Rochemont took a position as pastor of the Rosslyn Hill parish church in north London.
The focus of Barbauld's writings now shifted to political reform. In 1790 she penned An Address to the Opposers of the Repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts . Both of these laws had been in place for more than a century and were a form of discrimination against the Dissenters, as well as Roman Catholics in England. According to the Test Act of 1673, for example, public servants were required to be professed members of the Church of England. The Corporation Act, which dated back to 1661, required all elected officials or members of corporations to utter the Oath of Supremacy to the Church of England within one year of taking office. Like many Dissenters and Enlightenment-educated liberals, Barbauld perceived both laws as impositions on civil liberties and a threat to a free society. "Your church is in no danger because we are of a different church," she wrote in her Address about the Church of England's control, "but it will be in great danger whenever it has within itself many who have thrown aside its doctrines, or even, who do not embrace them in the simple and obvious sense. All the power and policy of man cannot continue a system long after its truth has ceased to be acknowledged, or an establishment long after its has ceased to contribute to utility."
Barbauld's inflammatory words were published anonymously, but most of her compatriots as well as her foes recognized the tract as her work. In 1791 she issued The Epistle to William Wilberforce , a poem paying homage to Britain's leading abolitionist. Like many of Wilberforce's supporters, she and her family boycotted sugar for many years, because it was a product that was imported from British colonies in the Caribbean where slave labor was used to harvest it. She also spoke out against England's renewal of hostilities with France in 1793, writing in Sins of Government, Sins of the Nation that "freedom is a good thing, but if a nation is not disposed to accept of it, it is not to be presented to them on the point of a bayonet."
Barbauld continued to work with her brother on various projects. He edited a periodical called Monthly Magazine for a number of years, and she was a regular contributor. They also collaborated on Evenings at Home; or, The Juvenile Budget Opened: Consisting of a Variety of Miscellaneous Pieces for the Instruction and Amusement of Young Persons , which was published between 1792 and 1795 and sold extremely well at the time; again, it remained a staple in most middle-class English households for several generations. She also edited or wrote introductions and critical essays for several other titles, including a volume of correspondence from the British author Samuel Richardson (1689–1761), one of the first important novelists in the English language.
When John Aikin moved to Stoke Newington, a village outside of London at the time but later incorporated into the borough of Hackney, she and her husband followed him there in 1802. But Rochemont's condition deteriorated, and he grew abusive towards his wife. In January of 1808, he came after her with a knife in hand, and she fled through a window of their house; they separated two months later. "Placed in care in London, he appeared to be improving, but he bribed his attendant for permission to walk alone outside and was discovered dead on November 11, 1808, in the New River," according to Wolicky, who added, "Barbauld was deeply affected by his death and ceased writing for several years."
Barbauld had already agreed, however, to a major project by then, and completed it by the 1810 deadline: she had been invited to choose the novels and write the prefaces for a 50-volume set called British Novelists from the publisher Rivington. In January of 1812, one of her most notable poems appeared in print. Titled Eighteen Hundred and Eleven , it imagined what a visitor to London might come upon at a future date should England fail to address its abundance of social ills. Her narrator saw the city's most cherished landmark, St. Paul's Cathedral, in ruins, and lamented, "England, the seat of arts, be only known/By the gray ruin and the mouldering stone;/That Time may tear the garland from her brow,/And Europe sit in dust, as Asia now."
The poem was condemned by many for its pessimistic view of England's future, and was attacked in the press. Even a longtime friend of her family, Robert Southey, was revealed to be the author of the most scathing review, and Barbauld published no other works after it. She died on March 9, 1825, in Stoke Newington. Her niece, Lucy Aikin (1781–1864), wrote a memoir of her aunt, but interest in Barbauld and her literary achievements faded considerably after her death. Feminist literary historians in the latter half of the twentieth century rediscovered her poetry and prose, and a long overdue scholarly analysis of her significance to women's literary history began in the last decades of the twentieth century.
Dictionary of Literary Biography , Volume 158: British Reform Writers, 1789–1832 , edited by Gary Kelly and Edd Applegate, Gale, 1996.
Nation , March 26, 1874.
Review of English Studies , May 1996.
Anna Lætitia Aikin Barbauld (1743–1825), Celebrating Women Writers, http://www.digital.library.upenn.edu/women/barbauld/biography.html (November 20, 2006).
Anna Laetitia Barbauld Website, http://www.usask.ca/english/barbauld/ (November 20, 2006).