Joanna Baillie was born to Dorothea Hunter Baillie and the Reverend James Baillie on September 11, 1762, in Bothwell, Lanarkshire, Scotland. Her twin sister died a few hours later. Joanna had an older sister, Agnes, and an older brother, Matthew. In 1772, Joanna and Agnes were sent to boarding school in Glasgow. Three years later, their father became professor of divinity at Glasgow University. After his brother-in-law’s death in 1778, Dorothea’s brother provided a home for the family at Long Calderwood, Scotland, and took Matthew into his medical school in London. After his uncle’s death, having inherited both the school and his home, Matthew brought his mother and his sisters to London. After Dorothea died in 1806, the two sisters made their permanent home in Hampstead. Neither of them married.
Joanna Baillie had enjoyed reading plays and going to the theater in Glasgow. However, in London, her interest became a passion. Nine months after her arrival, Baillie began to write her first dramatic work. However, it was almost a decade and a half before her first volume of plays was published anonymously, arousing wild speculation as to its authorship. Not until 1800, when a third edition of that volume came out, did the public learn that the author was not an established man of letters or even a well-known woman writer but a modest Scottish spinster. Baillie was now famous.
After her third and final volume of Plays on the Passions appeared in 1812, Baillie turned increasingly to poetry as her primary creative outlet. In 1836, however, she did produce a three-volume set of books containing ten new plays, two of which were eventually staged, though each of them was withdrawn after opening night. This publication marked the end of Baillie’s dramatic career.
In her final years, Baillie worried that her plays would be forgotten. Therefore she was delighted when a London bookseller asked her to oversee a complete edition of her works. The project was completed during the final year of her life. On February 22, 1851, she lapsed into a coma. She died the following day and was buried in the parish churchyard at Hampstead, where she lies next to her sister.