“We have calmly voted slaughter and merchandized destruction . . . things should be called by their proper names . . . : When we pay our army and our navy estimates, let us set down — so much for killing, so much for maiming, so much for making widows and orphans, so much for bringing famine upon a district, so much for corrupting citizens and subjects into spies and traitors, so much for ruining industrious tradesmen and making bankrupts (of that species of distress at least, we can form some idea) . . .” — Anna Barbauld (see her Evenings at Home)
Rosalba Carriera (Venetian painter), a young girl (mid-18th century)
Yesterday I finished the eighth revision of my review of William McCarthy’s splendid — moving and original — biography of Anna Letitia Barbauld (1743-1825), subtitled “voice of the Enlightenment.” I sent it off to the editor of the Intelligencer who hopes to get it into the coming issue. When it is published, I’ll put it online in my Reviewer’s Corner.
(Update: it is now published! See a review of William McCarthy’s Anna Barbauld: Voice of the Enlightenment).
I had originally also intended just to put my summaries of the chapters as I went along into a coherent blog, but now as I look at them, they seem inadequate to express the power (and a couple of flaws) in this book, to say nothing of not getting across the depth and generosity of this woman’s character, her strong intelligence and enormous learning, and the courage and compassion with which she lived her life. Even in the inadequate drawing from the side, you can see the sensitivity of her face, the anxious sweetness and calm of her eyes.
As she was not an “in” person and had little money for portraits, like Austen’s, her portrait leaves something to be desired
So instead I rewrote some of what I had wrote about McCarthy’s book as a short life. I preface it with two poems and put two commentaries on her literary criticism and biographies into two comments on the blog.
Of this first (late) poem by Barbauld, my friend, Nick, wrote:
I really like this poem. I think a lot of its strength comes from the contrast provided by the final stanza with the prisoner and the poverty-stricken inhabitant of the ‘dreary fen’ (which made me think of Crabbe yet again – I’m becoming obsessive! – although they are not always dreary in his verse).
But the opening celebratory stanzas are a joy too. A real fire is lovely – we don’t have one and there is no question that radiators in no way provide any substitute – except for heat I suppose – and what’s more the boiler is always breaking down and in need of repair which one can’t carry out oneself. The poem made me wish we did have a fire – even though it doesn’t deal with the business of getting hold of the coal/wood, clearing it out very day etc..:)!
The First Fire, October 1st, 1815
Ha, old acquaintance! many a month has past
Since last I viewed thy ruddy face; and I,
Shame on me! had mean time well nigh forgot
That such a friend existed. Welcome now!
When summer suns ride high, and tepid airs
Dissolve in pleasing languor; then indeed
We think thee needless, and in wanton pride
Mock at thy grim attire and sooty jaws,
And breath sulphureous, generating spleen,
As Frenchmen say; Frenchmen, who never knew
The sober comforts of a good coal fire.
– Let me imbibe thy warmth, and spread myself
Before thy shrine adoring: — magnet thou
Of strong attraction, daily gathering in
Friends, brethren, kinsmen, variously dispersed,
All the dear charities of social life,
To thy close circle. Here a man might stand,
And say, This is my world! Who would not bleed
Rather than see thy violated hearth
Prest by a hostile foot? The winds sing shrill;
Heap on the fuel! Not the costly board,
Nor sparkling glass, nor wit, nor music, cheer
Without thy aid. If thrifty thou dispense
Thy gladdening influence, in the chill saloon
The silent shrug declares the’ unpleased guest.
–How grateful to belated traveller
Homeward returning, to behold the blaze
From cottage window, rendering visible
The cheerful scene within! There sits the sire,
Whose wicker chair, in sunniest nook enshrined,
His age’s privilege, — a privilege for which
Age gladly yields up all precedence else
In gay and bustling scenes, — supports his limbs.
Cherished by thee, he feels the grateful warmth
Creep through his feeble frame and thaw the ice
Of fourscore years, and thoughts of youth arise.
–Nor less the young ones press within, to see
Thy face delighted, and with husk of nuts,
Or crackling holly, or the gummy pine,
Feed thy immortal hunger: cheaply pleased
They gaze delighted, while the leaping flames
Dart like an adder’s tongue upon their prey;
Or touch with lighted reed thy wreaths of smoke;
Or listen, while the matron sage remarks
Thy bright blue scorching flame and aspect clear,
Denoting frosty skies. Thus pass the hours,
While Winter spends without his idle rage.
– Companion of the solitary man,
From gayer scenes withheld! With thee he sits,
Converses, moralizes; musing asks
How many eras of uncounted time
Have rolled away since thy black unctuous food
Was green with vegetative life, and what
This planet then: or marks, in sprightlier mood,
Thy flickering smiles play round the’ illumined room,
And fancies gay discourse, life, motion, mirth,
And half forgets he is a lonely creature.
– Nor less the bashful poet loves to sit
Snug, at the midnight hour, with only thee
Of his lone musings conscious. Oft he writes,
And blots, and writes again; and oft, by fits,
Gazes intent with eyes of vacancy
On thy bright face; and still at intervals,
Dreading the critic’s scorn, to thee commits,
Sole confidant and safe, his fancies crude.
– 0 wretched he, with bolts and massy bars
In narrow cell immured, whose green damp walls,
That weep unwholesome dews, have never felt
Thy purifying influence! Sad he sits
Day after day, till in his yourhful limbs
Life stagnates, and the hue of hope is fled
From his wan cheek. –And scarce less wretched he
When wintry winds blow loud and frosts bite keen,
The dweller of the clay-built tenement,
Poverty-struck, who, heartless, strives to raise
From sullen turf, or stick plucked from the hedge,
The short-lived blaze; while chill around him spreads
The dreary fen, and Ague, sallow-faced,
Stares through the broken pane; –Assist him, ye
On whose warm roofs the sun of plenty shines,
And feel a glow beyond material fire!
By this year Barbauld was a widow living alone on a small income; her husband had been a manic depressive, and killed himself in 1808; she had been much attacked in 1811 for her radical pro-French revolution (she remained true to its principles) and anti-war stances and didn’t publish after that; the mainstay of her existence was her beloved brother, John Aiken (whose business as a surgeon had gone to pot because of his liberal opinions and writing) who lived close by.
The second is Robert Burns-like. She feels for a tiny insect, because (like Alice from Wonderland and her dinner) she has really entered into its life and physical presence, identified, and now cannot bear to kill it though if left there to multiply it would ruin her garden.
No, helpless thing, I cannot harm thee now;
Depart in peace, thy little life is safe,
For I have scanned thy form with curious eye,
Noted the silver line that streaks thy back,
The azure and the orange that divide
Thy velvet sides; thee, houseless wanderer,
My garment has enfolded, and my arm
Felt the light pressure of thy hairy feet;
Thou hast curled round my finger; from its tip,
Precipitous descent! with stretched out neck,
Bending thy head in airy vacancy,
This way and that, inquiring, thou hast seemed
To ask protection; now, I cannot kill thee.
Yet I have sworn perdition to thy race,
And recent from the slaughter am I come
Of tribes and embryo nations: I have sought
With sharpened eye and persecuting zeal,
Where, folded in their silken webs they lay
Thriving and happy; swept them from the tree
And crushed whole families beneath my foot;
Or, sudden, poured on their devoted heads
The vials of destruction. – This I’ve done,
Nor felt the touch of pity: but when thou,
A single wretch, escaped the general doom,
Making me feel and clearly recognise
Thine individual existence, life,
And fellowship of sense with all that breathes,
Present’st thyself before me, I relent,
And cannot hurt thy weakness.– So the storm
Of horrid war, o’erwhelming cities, fields,
And peaceful villages, rolls dreadful on:
The victor shouts triumphant; he enjoys
The roar of cannon and the clang of arms,
And urges, by no soft relentings stopped,
The work of death and carnage. Yet should one,
A single sufferer from the field escaped,
Panting and pale, and bleeding at his feet,
Lift his imploring eyes,-the hero weeps;
He is grown human, and capricious Pity,
Which would not stir for thousands, melts for one
With sympathy spontaneous:-Tis not Virtue,
Yet ’tis the weakness of a virtuous mind.
To begin her life as told by McCarthy : Those interested in Austen could learn a lot from reading the opening section about her girlhood and reading because although Barbauld is from a dissenting background, she is otherwise close to Austen: her father originally a clergyman (not establishment and gave it up) became someone who ran a school out of his large house. The children were given the run of his library. Barbauld’s reading and tastes sound just like Austen’s, especially some of the adverse comments she makes on the earlier literature of the century.
Austen’s music books
I was also delighted to discover that the longer comments on books MacCarthy quotes includes comments on Burney and especially Richardson’s Clarissa — which meant a lot to her. About Burney’s books and Cecilia Barbauld thought that many gentlewomen growing up in England at the time would not be able to learn about society or its inner workings anywhere so well as by reading Burney’s Cecilia. I think she would have said that one-hundred fold could she have read Burney’s journals. She died before they were published.
Clarissa for her embodied a woman’s “heroism” and shows a struggle for real authentic integrity. Barbauld quoted Clarissa’s great lines after she has been raped and refuses to yield to Lovelace again or the women in any way as she did at Harlowe place before her family and says “Compulsion shall do nothing wit me. though a slave, a prisoner in circumstance, I am no slave in my will! — Nothing wil I promise thee.” I’ve always loved that passage particularly; it makes me think of Malcolm X who refused a slave morality. “The real moral of the story,” says Barbauld, is that Clarissa holds out against all wrong, “in circumstances the most painful and degrading, in a prison, in a brothel, in grief, in distraction, in despair . . .”
When she was 15 she went with her parents to live in Lancashire as her father had gotten a job as a schoolmaster at a fine dissenting academy, Warrington. There she became close with Joseph Priestley’s wife, Mary. Mary was a highly intelligent, well-read, educated woman. When Priestley changed jobs, and Mary moved away, the loss of this woman’s company to Anna was even more than the loss of say the older Mrs Lefroy to Jane Austen (when Mrs Lefroy died suddenly from a fall from a horse), and perhaps Burney to Thrale or vice versa, as the young girl (like Anna Seward) lived in the provinces, and (unlike Austen) had no bad feelings about the older woman to cope with (Mrs Lefroy separated Jane from Tom). I’ve come across these sorts of women’s friendships in the 18th century repeatedly: they cross age cohorts because stranded people can’t be chosers. No trains, no phone, no internet, no going to public schools or jobs which are desirable, and for this genteel milieu where money is somewhat scarce, the family kept the girl away from outsiders lest she fall in love with the “wrong” sort or lose her reputation for chastity. Mary Priestley helped Anna pick books, went with her to the circulating library and encouraged her.
Here is the opening of her poem to Mary when Mary moved away:
On Mrs Priestley’s Leaving Warrington
How oft the well-worn path to her abode
At early dawn with eager steps I’ve trod,
And with unwilling feet retired at eve,
Loath its approach unheeded to believe.
Oft have I there the social circle joined
Whose brightening influence raised my pensive mind,
For none within that circle’s magic bound,
But sprightly spirits moved their chearful round;
No cold reserve, suspicion, sullen care,
Or dark unfriendly passions enter there,
But pleasing fires of lively fancy play . . .
Like so many women in the era even though she was 31 by the time she married, Barbauld leaves little record of herself. She had no public role or function. She didn’t transgress, she was not impoverished or beaten (though her later life with her husband was hard as he was a manic depressive), so it’s a kind of filling in, blowing up small details since he has so little to go on. He goes on about her reading and it’s like reading a Prose Prelude, but she herself would not write down her troubles sexually as a girl growing up, why she retreated to the marriage, why for example she was actually terrified and made anxious when it was said she should start a female academy, and also how she backed off from having to (what she thought the aim of such education) control a pubescent girls’ sexuality, direct and shape it. Abrasive women (young and old) were what she had learned to avoid.
By the ninth chapter of the book, a sensitive, intelligent, hard-working woman emerges. She is another teacher. She is making her living teaching. She married Rochemont Barbauld, a man who was not capable of making his way in the world socially and so through connections she with him beside her opened a school and ran it. Palgrave Academy was a big success and became a respected place. She ran it according to different ideas than say Eton. No cruelty as the basis of relationship; no fagging, no whipping. Her curriculum stressed modern languages and subjects like geography as well as history. She had the boys put on a play at the end of the year and recite poetry. She also really was a mother to them. She kept the accounts, ran the school. Mr Barbauld did teach there too and worked with her, but she was clearly the center of the place and made its policy, its life.
Part of her legacy was decent books for young children for the first time. McCarthy prints these dreadful primers to read, made up of the stupidest kinds of brief precepts. Instead she’ll have a story of a cat which is realistic (I’ve cats on my brain and am noticing them everywhere).
Chapter 9 from her time as the headmistress of a school is called “Mother Tongue” and it’s a long analysis of a book by Barbauld which became a wide seller, stayed in print for over a century, and influenced countless children: her Lessons for Children, volumes for years 2-3, 3-4, 5-6. It’s the first volume ever to situate what is to be learned in little dramatic scenes understandable to a child, to write sentences with thoughts the child can understand out of his or her own life (she understands words function as speech acts and how utterances are nested in social situations), and beyond that its style is deeply appealing, sort of pastoral, with remarkably humane but not pointed lessons and realism about childhood along the way. One can find echoes of it in the poetry of T.S.Eliot, Blake and others. Deeper associations of its tone and mood and ambience connect it to Virginia Woolf.
She did use Genlis’s methods in inventing small plays. She probably read Locke, Rousseau, and so on, but for practical suggestions, one finds her turning to other women’s publications where the women were governesses.
Chapter 10 gets her to London with her husband in the summers of these ten years, “How they lived.” She socializes with bluestockings. She was welcomed by Elizabeth Montagu and her circle (Elizabeth Carter, Sarah Fielding), Hannah More, Hester Chapone.
Elizabeth Montagu by Allan Ramsay
But she was not one of them, a dissenter, a working woman (more than full time job running a school, teaching, mothering), shy of other women particularly, and in company could be rigid or backward. Unkind comments about her may be found in Burney’s diary. She did get on well with Hannah More who visited her. We don’t know much about her relationships with these women it must be admitted for 19th century relatives regularly destroyed their dead female relatives’ correspondence (kill them after they are dead if you couldn’t repress them when alive), and Barbauld’s papers not having gotten into the British museum were a huge portion of them destroyed in a building set on fire during the Blitz.
To understand her here and what she and Rochemont did next (gave up their school), we should remember her essay under the influence of Elizabeth Carter’s translation of Epictetus. She writes about hope and ambition in the Johnsonian strain — Johnson writes we should not desire what is out of our power to have because it endangers our virtue, tranquillity, and sanity. (He doesn’t use the word sanity but another that means that.) One of her most famous essays is about how we must only hope for what we can have. Hope aroused and then frustrated or thwarted is a painful thing. Her emphasis not quite Johnson’s; instead she is telling the reader accept yourself. If you’ve spent your life studying, you are not going to have a big position or lots of money. She inveighs against the self-berating people indulge in and envy of others too. It is a different emphasis, more pragmatic.
Lots of people survive by lying to themselves: they hope on for impossible things and whenever something in their life changes, you hear them produce another rationale telling you how good this is, a rationale entirely different from another they had been saying for years. Or they delude themselves they have a higher position than they do, are more respected, loved &c Maybe I tend to err in the other direction. She is a bit too simplistic. She writes as if we had the choice to be this or that freely, when our natures are inherited and our circumstances and people keep up fronts.
Chapter 11 is called “The Pursuit of Happiness.” Anna and Rochemont give up giving over their lives to a boys’ school, and take what they’ve got and go travelling around Europe. They have some 500 pounds and spend a year travelling about France and into the edges of Italy and Germany. He has connections with powerful wealthy Catholic establishment types in the provinces, she with Protestant Huguenots, and they bring introductory letters which let them into better and interesting society. Among those visited is Thomas Jefferson.
The startling matter is that she seems nearly to have had an affair with Alexandre-Cesar-Annibal Fremin, baron de Stonne (to give him all his names). One would not expect this from the way she’s usually (completely inadequately I see) discussed. He flirted with her to the point that it’s evident if she had consented they would have had a liaison. She destroyed all his letters, but he saved his own and some of hers and that’s why we know about this. We see in Stonne the culture of the ancien regime where affairs were tolerated as long as everyone was discreet. Barbauld comes from a more puritanical environment: what happened was she in effect used her husband as a barrier by having him around a lot. Stonne acceded to this and became friends with both. What’s left are these exquisitely courteous and friendly letters and poems which show the three enjoyed one another’s company while they went to high culture things (visit Versailles, go to plays, see pictures in museums, go to dinner party and so on)
Her marriage was a strained one we can see from all sorts of angles: Rochemont’s depressions, inadequacy in comparison with her in dealing with social life and the need to make a living; her not having children and then growing old and tired and (as she records in Love and Time) perhaps not attractive any more to him. There is evidence of close sympathy and understanding between them and at the same time much strain and McCarthy presents this with subtlety and compassion.
Just as moving if less unexpected is that after she closed the school, she and Rochemont had a hard time making ends meet. It seems they did have a very small annuity or income (inherited and it’s not explained as probably McCarthy might not know), but not enough to live on. Her deep and loving relationship with her brother, John Aiken carries on. He had moved near to her school, Palgrave, in Norfolk to be close to her and to try to start a practice as a doctor. It seems the idea was he would provide for all, his wife and children and help his sister. It didn’t happen. Medical practices are hard to start and make work (see Middlemarch, Deerbrook, Wives and Daughters for some fictional versions) and Aiken apparently expected some position to be given him also and it wasn’t. The brother and sister correspond and it’s clear this is the real love relationship that sustained Anna’s life. Their letters and poems to one another are very moving.
Chapter 12 is titled “Revolutions.” Rochemont and Anna come back to London and attempt to build a freer life where she can write and both have friends.
Duncan Grant, an early 20th century depiction of a coffee pot
She was at this time driven to begin to take individual pupils quietly — all young women it seems and it was done by mail too as some letters are extant. After some fumblings, and failures (he tried to become a librarian!), he gets a pulpit in a congregation in Hampstead. McCarthy follows them by researching where they lived and it’s apparent they are not doing well. They go from a much more expensive house to a small cheaper one where they live for 15 years. The house is still standing.
At this time too she begins to involve herself in politics. We are in the 1790s a time of great ferment: represssion and riots and rebellion and radical thought in England, the revolution and then counterrevolution and terror in France. Barbauld was deeply engaged by political events and began to write about them. She was very much an anti-establishment voice, a radical one and (alas) her letters for the most important years of this time 1790-93 are gone, probably destroyed by the niece who wrote the memoir.
I kept noticing parallels between Barbauld’s and Austen’s thought: for example, Barbauld is much touched by a poem by a woman which “imagines the effects on a young woman of feeling her first emotions of love, then of having to conceal her love, and then of finding her love betrayed” (McCarthy, p 265) This is exactly the pattern I find repeated in Austen’s novels.
Chapters 12, 13, and into 14 (“Revolutions, Sins of the Nation,” and “Political Duties”), establish Barbauld as a radical voice. We don’t know that much about this as 1) just about all her prose pieces were published anonymously, at first because she was a woman, and then later on because it was dangerous to publish such things; 2) all her verse is couched in an idiom no longer popular or easily readable; and 3) she answers what happens in a more narrow sense most of the time, making her argument apply to some specific instance of injustice, reactionary tyranny, often involving it with her allegiance as a dissenter, and not putting it into popular rhetoric in the way of Paine or Wollstonecraft. Burke’s book became so well known because he was Burke, it was well circulated and distributed (Wm St Clair shows this) and told melodramatic stories. Hers are arguments and meditations in Johnson’s way. Nonetheless, in her day they were read, among those in the know known to be by her, and they made her enemies who took their revenge and berated and derided her in later years (e.g. Coleridge, an arch conservative, as much for being a woman as anything else).
Her first important pamphlet was written out of when the repeal of the test and corporation acts was defeated. McCarthy makes a case for seeing it as a work similar in reach to Woolf’s Three Guineas. Here it seemed to me curious that he didn’t emphasize what at least seemed to me it’s most radical idea: that the dissenters are being kept out of institutions, offices, and all sorts of jobs because of systems of property and privilege which always exclude groups to some extent must ever favors the others. She sees the utter amorality and ruthlessness of the exclusion and puts her finger on it. He likes how she demands equal rights as a right. I also liked how she showed what victimization does to someone’s self-esteem. As McCarthy says anyone who has suffered this way can be moved by Barbauld. As an adjunct I read it with bitter memories assenting to much of what she wrote.
An essay with a long cumbrous title (“Address to the Opposers … “) which came to be called “Does France Exist” was her answer to Burke. Yes, she said these new groups representing France are France too. They count, they matter. Her husband was part of the overt male groups of dissenters meeting at this time and he got to know Jacques-Pierre Brissot. McCarthy doesn’t mention this but in this way Barbauld connects to Roland who loved Brissot.
Alas, at this point the Barbaulds really ran out of money; her brother was not able to help himself much, less them (later his practice as a doctor was destroyed by his radical publications and reputation — people were unwilling to go to him) and it seems they might have been homeless for a while. I can’t think they were literally in the street, but there is no record of where they stayed.
After the failure of Wilberforce’s campaign and speech (with others) to abolish the slave trade on the high seas, Barbauld wrote a poem out of the shock she felt when she saw how shameless those voting against the bill were. They didn’t care in the least they were supporting such horrors and cruelty. Her conservative friend Hannah More wrote a poem More did not see was actually encouraging the establishment to extirpate non-establishment types and keep up violence and oppression, so Barbauld did write a biting reply. It’s not known if More saw that.
At this time the Manchester authorities apparently stirred up, partly organized and colluded in the mob destruction scene which destroyed Priestley’s house and all he owned and other liberal thinking types. The court cases afterwards which allowed all the people involved to get off basically scot free showed it was a deliberate CIA type venture. This of course worked to terrify and silent dissent of any kind. Then legislation was passed to declare “sedition” (not defined) as treasonable and prosecutable.
The value of this book is not only as a portrait of Barbauld but of the real 1790s as experienced by the average middling and lower middle class person in England: it recalls the 1950s in the US, real effective repression by all sorts of measures by the government, with lots of people suffering a little, and a few made examples of (transportation, hanging too). He recreates the atmosphere of the time.
Among all the ins and outs of controversy, one man, Gilbert Wakefield wrote in defense of secret and individual or private worship (defending himself and also attacking the sensual rituals of churches). Here she wrote a pamphlet in defense of public worship. She thought public worship’s function was to bind a community, bring people togther, a social value. Individuals in solitude are “unanchored fragments” and need fellow human beings to keep them sane.
She began a sort of series of papers to be called “civic sermons” but only wrote 2, one on behalf of secular education (its importance), and the other on behalf of seeing government as there to serve the people, and necessary for that. (Obama would like Civic Sermon 2). But her style was too erudite and learned to reach working people which was who she meant to reach.
On a couple of her essays in the Addison or Johnson vein. They are very good, caustic and sharply critical of the hypocrisy of pleasures that is so common. One called “Letters on Watering Places” could be about living in a fancy hotel for vacation today — as many people may do, going to tourist sites, and generally being far more uncomfortable than one would have been at home or in some real small place of pleasure (if you have the money for it). She is not so mild as Addison, and not so tragic as Johnson.
She worked as Johnson did in the literary world of her day. She made a 3 volume selection from the Spectator, Tatler and another periodical and introduced it and this was the book sold in the 19th century and which made its way into better schoolrooms and libraries.
And she didn’t forget her writing for children. Among her writing is 14 of out of the 99 pieces her brother, John Aiken published as Evenings at Home. This was in imitation of Genlis’s very popular Les Veilles du Chateau (read by Austen aloud with her family from her letters). These were later attacked by a repressive influential Victorian woman educator, Sarah Trimmer. They are delightful: one is on calling things by their right names (anti-war); several are printed in the Broadview collection. I liked best the young mouse who almost gets into a trap mistaking it for a house the kind family has provided him; just in time an older mouse stops him from losing his life. We get a little sermon to the effect: “Though man has not so fierce a look as a cat, he is as much our enemy and has still more cunning.” These went into 14 editions.
There were bright spots. We all know what such moments can mean. She travelled to Scotland as a governess with girls (like men did as tutors with boys on the continent). She declaimed some of Goethe’s poetry in translation aloud. This was a rare bright spot in her life at this time. She visited Buchan probably around 22 September, the date of an annual festival honoring the birthday of James Thomson that Buchan led at his estate at Dryburgh Abbey, a Gothic ruin on a bend of the river Tweed. Buchan promoted nationalism, and Scots poetry and was “an ardent advocate of women’s education and a passionate believer in progress and reform; he deplored British “political insanity” and credited the new United States with every imaginable virtue.
Early Wm Turner, Tintern Abbey done in Gilpin’s style (Fanny Price has a transparency of such a picture on her wall)
This whole scene of this Scottish ramble is cheering. As Buchan ushered her and her companions, Miss and Mr. Wynch, along a scenic path he had laid beside the riverbank, a gust of wind blew her hat into the Tweed. Buchan waded in, retrieved the hat, and presented it to her.
She is an example of a woman actually spitefully attacked — so unjust it’s startling and I think in her case it’s not just she was a woman, identified as a bluestocking (wrongly as she was not of their class), and her class (middling, dissenter — once she and her husband ended up homeless), but that she was presented as so unsexy, as boring to men. Then her relatives or well-meaning niece didn’t help: Lucy destroyed what she could of her aunt’s political reputation and ignored it. She is turned into a conservative pious type or apolitical and her life with her husband kept from view too. Everything human and appealing is erased.
In her sixties (“Middle age”) Barbauld became involved in publishing essays for periodicals, one of which was started by her brother. For the booksellers Cadell and Davies she wrote introductory essays on poets, much in the manner of Samuel Johnson. No where near as many, but a few, and these respond to Johnson. She placed Mark Akenside historically, and defended his doctrine of liberty; she also used Akenside’s traumas to delve her own. She is one of those who wrote blank verse, Milton variants and mandarin kinds of stanzas for meditation — and wrote some herself, with Akenside as well as Collins in mind (“Summer Evening’s Meditation,” and “Odes” to spring, content, wisdom). But late in life she turns from these kinds to prefer rhyme as a way of controlling and shaping poetry in a more disciplined way.
What I was really impressed by were her essays on Education and Prejudice. These were written for the Monthly. For the essay on Education she is responding to Rousseau’s Emile and Genlis’s Theodore and Adele: her idea is the notion that education can be controlled by a teacher and successful if the child is removed from society and then manipulated (for that’s what it is) is absurd: you cannot remove the child from society; what you can offer in a classroom is instructive; the education of a child is a holistic experience that is going on since his or her birth, and central to what the child becomes is his or her social and economic circumstances, what the parent do and how they behave. It’s an existentialist approach which shows the messy ambiguous particular worlds the child lives in (including with peers) makes him or her into the person he or she becomes, as much as innate nature. She is calling into question the Enlightenment notion you can change a person through reform movements in school or particular methods. I do love how she disapproves of teaching children falsehoods to get them to believe and do what you want, and saying to oneself that later they’ll be glad you did so. Later they’ll have imbibed inculcated hypocrisies and acceptance of cruelties this way and do likewise to their children themselves.
Of “prejudice,” she shows we cannot live without it, that knowledge is grounded in someone’s direct conscious experience and there must be faith in authorities as the child grows up, for he or she builds on what he or she is given instructionally and reacts to experience. All learning is situated (once again). You can try to teach principles of ethics, but they will only “take” if they direct your actual behavior. When the child grows older, he or she will insensibly begin to think or react or feel on his or her own.
My feeling or problem with the latter is only that she is too general or avoids the hard realities as she did in her “Against Inconsistency in Expectations.” It’s fine to say accept what you are and your choices, but it’s not easy to do, and choices have been limited from the start. To me she avoids the pain of educating a child for I have seen how a child’s nature can be cruel, dense, difficult, a bully, and determined to imitate the generality of what she (or he) saw around him, using lies when I didn’t try to elicit information, just because, more than defensively, and I made every attempt in Barbauld’s way to at least counter these impulses somehow and failed utterly. Why? Because this was part of the child’s nature and encouraged by the society I find myself in. I guess I’m saying Barbauld isn’t pessmistic enough and prefer Austen’s brief succinct words given Elizabeth that that which counts most can’t be taught. And what bothers me about say Rousseau’s and Genlis’s methods is they enact deceit themselves, manipulation.
So much of enlightenment literature is about education, from Austen’s novels to Mary Wollstonecraft’s Rights of Women.
Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie
In one talk I heard at the ASECS, I was reminded of what seemed to me a paradox at the time: Paine’s Rights of Man are directed to the common man and he outlines rights based on humanity; Wollstonecraft’s essay is for more than one-half an analysis of educational treatises to show how women are miseducated; she is appealing to those who get to set the terms and understanding underlining women’s existence; you cannot present to them their rights for they are not in a position to want these even having been so miseducated, so misshapen by their general culture. Wollstonecraft sees what Barbauld sees here too.
McCarthy’s depth is gained through his paying attention to and finding out of course little particulars. For example, ferreting out where she writes from opens up a vista that she was homeless for a while with her husband (probably living in lodgings or with friends) and that she would go apart from him for rest and to write. He notes that Cadell and Davies collects her work from an address in Bloomsbury not Hampstead where she is living with the husband (p. 366). She did have trouble fulfilling her contracts and there are apologies for not having done this or that essay: she was prevented from doing these by home circumstances for it’s clear in nature she was a hard worker, a lover of reading and study. And because of her not turning in smaller copy she would not be given the bigger assignments.
McCarthy gets us to this level of her life.
As I came to the end of this beautiful moving book, I felt sad. I wished it would go on but then her life came to an end. In the penultimate chapter of the book he goes over a book she and her beloved niece, Lucy Aikin put together for Barbauld called Legacy to Ladies. It consists of letters she wrote to young women who were seeking to make her their tutor, some of which Aikin has changed to appear as general statements. She was what is today called a proto-feminist, and her attitudes remind me of Austen’s insofar as we can discern them from her novels; a strong desire to see decent education for all (regardless of class), which is not tightly tied to a coming job, a genuine openness to sexual experience within the constraints of the idea of chastity (the attitude is seen in Richardson’s Grandison and the grandmother’s speeches to Harriet Byron), seeing wifedom (?), motherhood as the footholds in society through which people give women importance and power (ironic that since Barbauld never was a biological mother), these are some of the attitudes towards women’s education found in these materials. She is playful and enjoys her young friends’ company so poignantly — when they are congenial and mostly she took only congenial young women on. She discovered she could make more money as a tutor (net) than running a school. Her proto-feminism is seen through Lucy Aikin’s which I’d define as defensive. Aikin seeks to defend women and particularly their right to possess and develop their minds. She too never had any children; she never married.
One of the reading groups to which Anna belonged; artist, Joanna Maria Smith, year 1817, place Parndon Library
They also ran a book club just for women — like Azar Nafisi, they chose the girls they were most congenial with.
Late in life, like many women left alone, Barbauld read a lot. She liked Crabbe (how often her tastes are like Austen’s). Of Crabbe she wrote: “For strength & truth & variety of character no one exceeds him …” but she felt his depictions of distress so harrowing and criticized him for presenting them without “relief.” Lord Byron “charms & offends, revolts & delights, & def[ies] the critics gain[ing] the applause of all.” She lived long enough to discern that Scott was writing his novels out of a driving need for money: he “certainly writes hmself out, but if you were to ask him — Pray, Sir, how long do you mean to write? he would say, Pray, Madam, how long do you mean to pay?” She loved women’s memoirs and letters too: of Elizabeth Montagu’s she said: “With all her advantages she seems not to have been happy.”
I do think this one on how a tree means to us extraordinary. She understood Cowper’s Yardley Oak the way I do, and what one feels watching a tree (or kitten into cat) grow up:
And we stopped to look at Fairlop oak, one of the largest in England; a complete ruin, but a noble ruin, which it is impossible to see without thinking of Cowper’s beautiful lines, “Who lived when thou wast such.” The immoveable rocks and mountains present us rather with an idea of eternity than of long life. There they are, and there they have been before the birth of nations …. But a tree, that has life and growth like ourselves, that, like ourselves, was once small and feeble, that certainly some time began to be, — to see it attain a size so enormous, and in its bulk and its slow decay bear record of the generations it has outlived, — this brings our comparative feebleness strongly in view. “Man passeth away, and where is he?” while “the oak of our fathers” will be the oak of their children, and their children.
And so I’ll end where I began: her poetry. She wrote “Dirge” after the death of her husband: Rochemont suffered from depression, and the hardships of their lives drove him into violence at times, and in 1808 she had to put him in a kind of asylum for a time, and he escaped from it and drowned himself (committed suicide). She had when young written lines about growing older, losing her beauty, with the implication that he no longer was attracted to her; here she grieves deeply:
Pure spirit! 0 where art thou now!
o whisper to my soul!
o let some soothing thought of thee,
This bitter grief controul!
‘Tis not for thee the tears I shed,
Thy sufferings now are o’er . . .
No more the storms that wrecked thy peace
Shall tear that gentle breast;
Nor Summer’s rage, nor Winter’s cold,
Thy poor, poor frame molest.
Thy peace is sealed, thy rest is sure,
My sorrows are to come …
0, in some dream of visioned bliss,
Some trance of rapture, show
Where, on the bosom of thy God,
Thou rest’st from human woe . . .
Let these my lonely path illume,
And teach my weakened mind
To welcome all that’s left of good,
To all that’s lost resigned.
But it was not an unmitigated season of final unhappiness (as may be seen above); she often works herself into stoic comforting cheer too:
Lines placed over a Chimney-Piece
Surly Winter, come not here;
Bluster in thy proper sphere:
Howl along the naked plain,
There exert thy joyless reign;
Triumph o’er the withered flower,
The leafless shrub, the ruined bower;
But our cottage come not near;
Other springs inhabit here,
Other sunshine decks our board,
Than the niggard skies afford.
Gloomy Winter, hence! away!
Love and Fancy scorn thy sway;
Love and Joy, and friendly Mirth,
Shall bless this roof, these walls, this hearth;
The rigour of the year controul,
And thaw the winter in the soul . . .
A great 20th century woman writer: Elsa Morante, probably 1930s
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