“If we could travel back to the year 1800 and ask who were the leading British writers of the day, the answer would not be William Wordsworth or Samuel Taylor Coleridge or William Blake. The answer instead would include, on anybody’s short list, Anna Letitia Barbauld”. – William McCarthy & Elizabeth Kraft
“In the last quarter of the eighteenth century, a shy, intellectual young woman from rural England became a famous British writer. The works she did during a forty-year career changed English-speaking culture on both shores of the Atlantic” – William McCarthy
Anna Letitia Barbauld (nee Aikin) was born June 20, 1743 to reverend and schoolmaster John Aikin and his wife Jane Jennings. The family of four, including Anna’s younger brother John Jr., lived in rural England where Barbauld’s father taught at an all boys’ school. Her father’s position as a teacher resulted in Barbauld receiving a more than substantial education in all of the classic subjects. She was a brilliant young girl whose notable academic achievements at such an early age put her “in the same company as the infant prodigies” (McCarthy 22). However, this also put her in, what her mother referred to as, a position of impropriety. Barbauld was constantly surrounded by boys: “she was born into a boys school; boys held the infant girl in their arms; her only sibling was a boy” (McCarthy 23). Because Barbauld socialized little in her formative years with children of her own sex, her mother worried that she would not learn the very distinct and particular values of being a lady. Barbauld “chafed under the restraints imposed by her gender” and she rebelled against her mother’s strict notions of female propriety (McCarthy & Kraft 25). Barbauld’s dichotomous gender identity followed her into her later years as she yearned for “an identity which would be socially allowed to a woman and there realizable in action, but which would also make the most of what was socially allowed to woman; an identity which could not merely be realized, but made a stage from which to intervene in her culture” (McCarthy & Kraft 19).
Not only was Barbauld considered an outsider because of her unique educational upbringing, but her family also belonged to a politically and religiously segregated group known as the Dissenters. Dissenters were defined by their religious beliefs in a benevolent God and in innate human goodness, which ran contrary to the supported doctrine of the day that emphasized “human worthlessness” (McCarthy & Kraft 14 ce). Being a Presbyterian in rural England had severe implications for Anna’s family. Dissenters were regarded as second-class citizens because of their denouncement of the Church of England. Economically, Dissenters were able to make a decent living working in commerce but socially, they were condemned to the outskirts: casting Barbauld again as a misfit.
Barbauld’s first publication, Poems, was released in 1773 at the age of 30. The book was a great success and launched the next 40 years of Barbauld’s career as an author.
Shortly after the publication of Poems, Barbauld married Rochemont Barbauld and the two opened assumed co-management of the Palgrave boys’ school. Their marriage was a difficult road as Rochemont struggled with bipolar personality disorder. Rochemont’s “manic phases led to violent outbreaks” and depressive slumps that eventually resulted in his death in 1808 (McCarthy xiii).
During these tumultuous times, Barbauld found solace in the school and in her blossoming literary career. Despite her extreme popularity, Barbauld remained somewhat disconnected from the growing London literary circles and she worked outside of the city centre. This presents an interesting reflection of her childhood: maybe Barbauld felt most comfortable as a misfit or and outsider. Her literary anonymity and shyness from the writing circles seem to suggest that Barbauld much preferred looking in and observing others than being the ogled literary muse.
Regardless of her separation, Barbauld’s work had immense impact on her contemporaries; especially, and notably, with male authors like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Barbauld’s career more closely resembled that of a male author as opposed to a female one because of her breath of literary subjects and genres. Barbauld composed poetry, children’s literature, essays, and literary criticism. Barbauld’s contemporaries praised her ability to compose “masculine” works with “feminine” heart. The literary sphere was impressed by Barbauld’s ability to transcend gender boundaries and they admired her for being able to produce exceptional work despite her gender. Barbauld was truly “one of the first women writers in Britain whose influence on the culture met with no resistance” (McCarthy x). She was adored and this gave her the ability to exert a powerful opinion and influence.
Barbauld’s respect position in the literary world paved the way for her career as a political author. As no stranger to dissenting, Barbauld confidently entered the male political domain advocating slave abolition and separation of the church and state. While she may have been “disfranchised and rendered legally invisible by reason of her sex” in the larger political sphere, she set a guiding example for the young Mary Wollstonecraft (McCarthy x). Barbauld’s relationship to Wollstonecraft and her work is a debated issue in contemporary scholarship. Barbauld grew up reading the conduct literature pieces that Wollstonecraft scathingly rebuttals in her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; however, the main argument Wollstonecraft advances was one that Barbauld supported. Both women made a plea for more practical education of women to support their roles as a suitable wife, mother, and companion.
In the final decade of Barbauld’s life her formal writing career slowed as she brought fewer works into the public sphere through traditional publication. Publishing her last poem “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” in 1811, Barbauld spent her final days in Stoke Newington where she died in 1825. Barbauld’s works disappeared from the literary canon until more recent decades when female authors began to be reintroduced and recognized. Today, Anna Letitia Barbauld’s literary career stands as one of the most important examples of the Romantic era of literature.