|Born||11 September 1762 |
|Died||23 February 1851 (aged 88)|
Joanna Baillie (11 September 1762 – 23 February 1851) was a Scottish poet and dramatist, known for works that include Plays on the Passions (three volumes, 1798–1812) and Fugitive Verses (1840). Her writing exhibits an interest in moral philosophy and the Gothic. She was critically acclaimed in her lifetime, and while living in Hampstead, associated with literary contemporaries such as Anna Barbauld, Lucy Aikin, and Walter Scott. She died at the age of 88.
Baillie was born on 11 September 1762. Her mother, Dorothea Hunter (c. 1721–1806) was a sister of the great physicians and anatomists William and John Hunter. Her father, Rev. James Baillie (c. 1722–1778), was a Presbyterian minister, and in his last two years Professor of Divinity at the University of Glasgow. Her aunt, Anne Home Hunter, was a poet.
Joanna Baillie was the youngest of three children; her twin sister died unnamed as a baby. Her one surviving sister was Agnes (1760–1861), and an elder brother Matthew Baillie, who became a London physician. Baillie was no dedicated scholar and her early passions were for the Scottish countryside. She had her own pony and her interest in stories was demonstrated by plays she created and stories she told. At home she was dealt with strictly and displays of anger or glee were discouraged. She was not taken to the theatre. The only drama she saw was a puppet show.
In 1769 the family moved to Hamilton, where her father was appointed to the collegiate church. Baillie did not learn to read until the age of ten, when she attended a Glasgow boarding school known for "transforming healthy little hoydens into perfect little ladies" (Carswell 266). There she wrote plays and demonstrated abilities in maths, music and art.
Baillie's father died in 1778 and their financial position was reduced, although Matthew Baillie went on to study medicine at Balliol College in Oxford. The rest of the family retreated to Long Calderwood near East Kilbride. They returned in 1784, as her uncle Dr William Hunter had died the year before and her brother had been left a London house and his collection, which is now the University of Glasgow's Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery).</ref> Her aunt, Anne Hunter, was a society hostess and a poet, and through her Baillie was introduced to the bluestockings Fanny Burney, Elizabeth Carter, and Elizabeth Montagu. She studied Corneille, Racine, Molière, Voltaire and Shakespeare, and began to write plays and poetry while running their brother's household until he married in 1791.
Joanna and her sister and mother moved houses several times, before settling in Colchester, where she began her Plays on the Passions. In 1802 they moved to Hampstead. In 1806 Mrs Baillie died. Anna Laetitia Barbauld and her niece Lucy Aikin were neighbours and close friends. She wrote letters to Sir Walter Scott and they would stay with each other.
When she reached her seventies, Baillie experienced a year of ill health, but recovered and returned to writing and correspondence.
"[Joanna Baillie] was anxious that all her works with the exception of her theological pamphlet (see Religious writing) be collected in a single volume, and had the satisfaction of seeing this 'great monster book' as she called it, which appeared in 1851, shortly before she died. Though no longer robust — 'Ladies of four score and upwards cannot expect to be robust, and need not be gay. We sit by the fireside with our books' (Carhart, 62) — she had remained in good health until the end. She died in 1851 in Hampstead, having almost reached her ninetieth year. Her sister, Agnes, lived on to be 100. Both sisters were buried alongside their mother in Hampstead parish churchyard, and in 1899 a sixteen-foot-high memorial was erected in Joanna Baillie's memory in the churchyard of her birthplace at Bothwell."
In a long introductory discourse, the author defended and explained her ambitious design to illustrate each of the deepest and strongest passions of the human mind. The plays, the author explained, were part of a still larger design and completely original concept, arising from a particular view of human nature, in which sympathetic curiosity and observation of the movement of feeling in others were paramount. Real passion, "genuine and true to nature", was to be the subject; each play was to focus on the growth of one master passion. This unusually analytical and arguably artificial approach generated much discussion and controversy, and in "a week or two Plays on the Passions was a main topic... in the best literary circles" (Carswell 273). The whole of London was excited to figure out who the author could be. Authorship was attributed to a male until someone pointed out that all of the protagonists were middle-aged women, rarely the muses of male authors (Carswell 274). Baillie finally revealed herself as the author in 1800, in the title-page of the third edition.
Baillie's reputation does not rest entirely on her dramas; she also authored poems and songs admired for their great beauty. Considered the best are the Lines to Agnes Baillie on her Birthday, The Kitten, To a Child and some of her adaptations of Scottish songs, such as Woo'd and Married an'a'. Scattered through the dramas are some lively and beautiful songs: The Chough and The Crow in Orra, and the lover's song in The Phantom.
Initially, Baillie was reluctant to publish her works. In a letter to Sir Walter Scott, she wrote, "Were it not that my Brother has expressed a strong wish that I should publish a small vol: of poetry, I should have very little pleasure in the thought.” This shyness is in keeping with her humble, content disposition. Never one to relish the spotlight, she did not seek acclaim for her poems, but simply wrote because she enjoyed language and the beautiful ways in which it can flow. Ironically, her poems are now better known than her plays.
However, in an 1804 prefatory address in Miscellaneous Plays, Baillie defended her plays as acting plays. The criticism that she had no understanding of practical stagecraft and that her plays were torpid and dull in performance rankled throughout her life, and she was always delighted to hear of a production being mounted, no matter how humble it might be. She believed that critics had unfairly labelled her work as closet drama, partly because she was a woman and partly because they had failed to read her prefaces with care. She pointed also to the conventions of the theatre in her time, when lavish spectacle on huge stages was the order of the day. Her own plays, with their attention to psychological detail, worked best, she argued, in well-lit small theatres where facial expressions could clearly be seen. She wrote, "I have wished to leave behind me in the world a few plays, some of which might have a chance of continuing to be acted even in our canvas theatres and barns." It is clear that Baillie desired her plays to be not simply read, but acted as well.
Growing up as a Presbyterian minister's daughter, religion had always been important to Baillie. In 1826 she published The Martyr, a tragedy on religion, intended for reading only. In 1831 she entered into public theological debate with a pamphlet, A view of the general tenour of the New Testament regarding the nature and dignity of Jesus Christ, where she analysed the doctrines of order in the Trinity, Arianism, and Socinianism.
Financially secure herself, Joanna Baillie customarily gave half her earnings from writing to charity, and engaged in many philanthropic activities. In the early 1820s she corresponded with a Sheffield campaigner, James Montgomery, in support of his efforts on behalf of chimney sweeps. She declined to send a poem, fearing that was "just the very way to have the whole matter considered by the sober pot-boilers over the whole kingdom as a fanciful and visionary thing," whereas "a plain statement of their miserable lot in prose, accompanied with a simple, reasonable plan for sweeping chimneys without them" was far better strategically (letter, 5 Feb 1824).
Where literary matters were concerned, Joanna Baillie had a shrewd understanding of publishing as a trade. She took seriously the influence her eminence gave her, and authors down on their luck, women writers, and working-class poets like the shoemaker poet John Struthers applied to her for assistance. She wrote letters, drew on all her contacts, and used her knowledge of the literary world to advise or to further a less well-connected writer. In 1823, she edited and published by subscription a collection of poems by many leading writers of the day, in support of a widowed old school friend with a family of daughters to support.
Wordsworth himself considered Baillie the "ideal gentlewoman", despite the fact that she was Scottish (Zell 19). Her most famous work DeMonfort helped to inspire Lord Byron's closet drama Manford (Strand 1). Byron went on to value her advice, calling her "the only dramatist since Orwan" (Zell 19). In 1806 Baillie solidified a friendship with Scott and she and her sister would often visit Scotland. (Strand 1)
Few women writers have received such praise for their personal qualities and literary powers as Joanna Baillie. She had intelligence and integrity allied to a modest demeanour that made her, for many, the epitome of a Christian gentlewoman. She was shrewd, observant of human nature, and persistent to the point of obstinacy in developing her views and opinions. Her brand of drama remained essentially unchanged throughout her life, and she took pride in having carried out her major work, the Plays on the Passions, more or less in the form she had originally conceived. Her inventive faculties were widely remarked upon by "practically everybody whose opinion on a literary matter was worth anything"., and she was on friendly terms with the leading women writers of her time.
John Stuart Mill, in his Autobiography, recalled that in childhood, Baillie's Constantine Paleologus seemed to him "one of the most glorious of human compositions" He continued to see it "one of the best dramas of the last two centuries".
Two songs from Ethwald, Hark! the cock crows and Once upon my cheek he said the roses grew, were set to music by the English composer John Wall Callcott.
One of her few detractors was Francis Jeffrey, who in 1803 published a long condemnatory review of the Plays on the Passions in the Edinburgh Review. He attacked the narrow theory, practice and purpose of the plays. Though he praised her "genius", Baillie marked Jeffrey down as a literary enemy and refused a personal introduction. Not until 1820 would she agreed to meet him; but they then became warm friends.
Maria Edgeworth, recording a visit in 1818, summed up her appeal for many: Both Joanna and her sister have most agreeable and new conversation, not old, trumpery literature over again and reviews, but new circumstances worth telling, apropos to every subject that is touched upon; frank observations on character, without either ill-nature or the fear of committing themselves; no blue-stocking tittle-tattle, or habits of worshipping or being worshipped.
Joanna Baillie offered a new way of looking at drama and poetry. Revered by poets on both sides of the Atlantic, many of her contemporaries placed her above all women poets except Sappho. According to Harriet Martineau she had "enjoyed a fame almost without parallel, and... been told every day for years, through every possible channel, that she was second only to Shakespeare." Works of hers were translated into Singhalese and German, and she was performed widely in both the United States and Britain.
Yet even when Martineau met her in the 1830s, that fame seemed to belong to a bygone era. There were no revivals of her plays in the 19th or 20th centuries, though her tragedies might seem suited to the intimacy of television or film. Not until the late 20th century did critics began to recognize how her intimate depictions of the human psyche had influenced Romantic literature. Scholars now recognize her importance as a stage innovator and dramatic theorist, and critics and literary historians of the Romantic period concerned with reassessing the place of women writers acknowledge her significance.
Joanna Baillie was great friends with Lady Byron. This friendship led her to be close friends and colleagues with Lord Byron as well. Lord Byron even attempted to get one of her plays to be performed at Drury Lane, sadly to no avail. Their friendship continued until a domestic division arose between Lord and Lady Byron, leaving Baillie to take the side of her friend. After this, she was more critical of Lord Byron and his work, calling his characters "untrue to nature and morally bankrupt"  While they were still polite to each other as literary contemporaries, their friendship did not return.
One of those Baillie corresponded with most was Sir Walter Scott. The two wrote enough letters to each other to fill a sizeable volume. Scott appreciated and supported Baillie as a literary contemporary, but their relationship did not stop there. Their letters are full of personal details and conversations about their families. While they both respected each other's work, their friendship was deeper than just professional.
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