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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Anna Letitia Barbauld (1743–1825)

WHEN Letitia Aikin Barbauld was about thirty years old, her friend, Mrs. Elizabeth Montague, wishing to establish a college for women, asked her to be its principal. In her letter of refusal Mrs. Barbauld said:—“A kind of Academy for ladies, where they are to be taught in a regular manner the various branches of science, appears to me better calculated to form such characters as the Précieuses or Femmes Savantes than good wives or agreeable companions. The very best way for a woman to acquire knowledge is from conversation with a father or brother…. The thefts of knowledge in our sex are only connived at while carefully concealed, and if displayed are punished with disgrace.” It is odd to find Mrs. Barbauld thus reflecting the old-fashioned view of the capacity and requirements of her own sex, for she herself belonged to that brilliant group—Hannah More, Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Jane Austen, Joanna Baillie, Mary Russell Mitford—who were the living refutation of her inherited theories. Their influence shows a pedagogic impulse to present morally helpful ideas to the public. From preceding generations whose lives had been concentrated upon household affairs, these women pioneers had acquired the strictly practical bent of mind which comes out in all their verse, as in all their prose.

The child born at Kibworth Harcourt, Leicestershire, a century and a half ago, became one of the first of these pleasant writers for young and old. She was one of the thousand refutations of the stupid popular idea that precocious children never amount to anything. When only two, she “could read roundly without spelling, and in half a year more could read as well as most women.” Her father was master of a boys’ school, where her childhood was passed under the rule of a loving but austere mother, who disliked all intercourse with the pupils for her daughter. It was not the fashion for women to be highly educated; but, stimulated perhaps by the scholastic atmosphere, Letitia implored her father for a classical training, until, against his judgment, he allowed her to study Greek and Latin as well as French and Italian. Though not fond of the housewifely accomplishments insisted upon by Mrs. Aikin, the eager student also cooked and sewed with due obedience.

Her dull childhood ended when she was fifteen, for then her father accepted a position as classical tutor in a boys’ school at Warrington, Lancashire, to which place the family moved. The new home afforded greater freedom and an interesting circle of friends, among them Currie, William Roscoe, John Taylor, and the famous Dr. Priestley. A very pretty girl, with brilliant blonde coloring and animated dark-blue eyes, she was witty and vivacious, too, under the modest diffidence to which she had been trained. Naturally she attracted much admiration from the schoolboys and even from their elders, but on the whole she seems to have found study and writing more interesting than love affairs. The first suitor, who presented himself when she was about sixteen, was a farmer from her early home at Kibworth. He stated his wishes to her father. “She is in the garden,” said Mr. Aikin. “You may ask her yourself.” Letitia was not propitious, but the young man was persistent, and the position grew irksome. So the nimble girl scrambled into a convenient tree, and escaped her rustic wooer by swinging herself down upon the other side of the garden wall.

During these years at Warrington she wrote for her own pleasure, and when her brother John returned home after several years’ absence, he helped her to arrange and publish a selection of her poems. The little book which appeared in 1773 was highly praised, and ran through four editions within a year. In spite of grace and fluency, most of these verses seem flat and antiquated to the modern reader. Of the spirited first poem ‘Corsica,’ Dr. Priestley wrote to her:—“I consider that you are as much a general as Tyrtæus was, and your poems (which I am confident are much better than his ever were) may have as great effect as his. They may be the coup de grace to the French troops in that island, and Paoli, who reads English, will cause it to be printed in every history in that renowned island.”

Miss Aikin’s next venture was a small volume in collaboration with her brother, ‘Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose by J. and A. L. Aikin.’ This too was widely read and admired. Samuel Rogers has related an amusing conversation about the book in its first vogue:—“I am greatly pleased with your ‘Miscellaneous Pieces,’” said Charles James Fox to Mrs. Barbauld’s brother. Dr. Aikin bowed. “I particularly admire,” continued Fox, “your essay ‘Against Inconsistency in our Expectations.’” “That,” replied Aikin, “is my sister’s.” “I like much,” continued Fox, “your essay on ‘Monastic Institutions.’” “That,” answered Aikin, “is also my sister’s.” Fox thought it wise to say no more about the book. The essay ‘Against Inconsistency in our Expectations’ was most highly praised by the critics, and pronounced by Mackintosh “the best short essay in the language.”

When thirty years old, Letitia Aikin married Rochemont Barbauld, and went to live at Palgrave in Suffolk, where her husband opened a boys’ school, soon made popular by her personal charm and influence. Sir William Gell, a classic topographer still remembered; William Taylor, author of a ‘Historic Survey of German Poetry’; and Lord Chief Justice Denman, were a few among the many who looked back with gratitude to a childhood under her care.

Perhaps her best-known work is the ‘Early Lessons for Children,’ which was written during this period. Coming as it did when, as Hannah More said, there was nothing for children to read between ‘Cinderella’ and the Spectator, it was largely welcomed, and has been used by generations of English children. The lessons were written for a real little Charles, her adopted son, the child of her brother, Dr. Aikin. For him, too, she wrote her ‘Hymns in Prose for Children,’ a book equally successful, which has been translated into French, German, Spanish, Italian, and even Latin.

After eleven busy years at Palgrave, during which, in spite of her cheerful energy, Mrs. Barbauld had been much harassed by the nervous irritability of her invalid husband, the Barbaulds gave up their school and treated themselves to a year of Continental travel. On their return they settled at Hampstead, where Mr. Barbauld became pastor of a small Unitarian congregation. The nearness to London was a great advantage to Mrs. Barbauld’s refreshed activity, and she soon made the new home a pleasant rendezvous for literary men and women. At one of her London dinner parties she met Sir Walter Scott, who declared that her reading of Taylor’s translation of Bürger’s ‘Lenore’ had inspired him to write poetry. She met Dr. Johnson too, who, though he railed at her after his fashion, calling her Deborah and Virago Barbauld, did sometimes betray a sincere admiration for her character and accomplishments. Miss Edgeworth and Hannah More were dear friends and regular correspondents.

From time to time she published a poem or an essay; not many, for in spite of her brother’s continual admonition to write, hers was a somewhat indolent talent. In 1790 she wrote a capable essay upon the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts; a year later, a poetical epistle to Mr. Wilberforce on the Slave Trade; in 1792, a defense of Public Worship; and in 1793, a discourse as to a Fast Day upon the Sins of Government.

In 1808 her husband’s violent death, the result of a long insanity, prostrated her for a time. Then as a diversion from morbid thought she undertook an edition of the best English novels in fifty volumes, for which she wrote an admirable introductory essay. She also made a compilation from the Spectator, Tatler, Guardian, and Free-holder, with a preliminary discourse, which she published in 1811. It was called ‘The Female Speaker,’ and intended for young women. The same year her ‘Eighteen Hundred and Eleven,’ a patriotic didactic poem, wounded national self-love and drew upon her much unfriendly criticism, which so pained her that she would publish no more. But the stirring lines were widely read, and in them Macaulay found the original of his famous traveler from New Zealand, who meditates on the ruined arches of London Bridge. Her prose style, in its light philosophy, its humorously sympathetic dealing with everyday affairs, has been often compared with Addison’s.

Her old age was serene and happy, rich in intellectual companionships and in the love and respect of many friends. Somewhere she speaks of “that state of middling life to which I have been accustomed and which I love.” She disliked extremes, in emotion as in all things, and took what came with cheerful courage. The poem ‘Life,’ which the self-satisfied Wordsworth wished that he had written, expresses her serene and philosophic spirit.