JOANNA BAILLIE (1762 - 1851)
Scottish poet, playwright, editor, and critic.
Although Baillie was well recognized and respected among the literati during her life-time, her works fell into neglect soon after her death and have only resurfaced in literary scholarship within the last several decades. She is now recognized for her significant influence on such writers as William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and is considered by many critics to have served as a model for later women writers. Baillie's works, which include twenty-six plays and several volumes of poetry, provide insight into the history of dramatic theory and criticism as well as into the history of women's roles in theatre.
Baillie was born in 1762 in Bothwell, Lanarkshire, Scotland to James Baillie, a pastor, and his wife, Dorothea Hunter. Baillie was born a premature twin; her unnamed sister died within hours of delivery. Her parents already had two children, Agnes and Matthew. In the late 1760s, Baillie's father was promoted to a higher position at the collegiate church at Hamilton, a country setting that allowed Baillie the opportunity to enjoy outdoor activities. Though her brother attended school, Baillie did not, relying instead on her father for her education. James Baillie, as was typical for the time, stressed to his daughter the importance of developing her moral faculties over her intellectual skills, and emphasized that one should not give into one's emotions. Baillie was not fond of her studies and did not learn to read until, as she stated, she was nine years old. In the early 1770s, both Baillie sisters were sent to a Glasgow boarding school, and it was there that Joanna first developed an interest in books, writing and adapting stories to entertain her classmates. Baillie also became interested and quite proficient in the study of mathematics, abstract theorizing, problem solving, and philosophy. In 1778, when James Baillie died, the family became dependent on Dorothea's brother, William Hunter, a well-known anatomist who provided them with financial security as well as residence at his estate in Long Calderwood. Upon Hunter's death in 1783, Matthew inherited his uncle's medical school and London home, and the Baillie family moved to London to manage the new household. In 1790, while living in this London home, Baillie anonymously published Poems: Wherein It Is Attempted to Describe Certain Views of Nature and of Rustic Manners. The small volume did not receive sufficient notice or circulation to satisfy Baillie, and she reprinted much of it, along with other poems written while she was in her seventies, in an expanded version entitled Fugitive Verses, in 1840. Upon Mat-thew's marriage, the Baillie women moved to Hampstead, where they remained for the rest of their lives. In 1798, Baillie published, again anonymously, the first of what would eventually be three volumes of plays (the second and third volumes were published in 1802 and 1812, respectively). These volumes were entitled A Series of Plays: In Which It Is Attempted to Delineate the Stronger Passions of the Mind—Each Passion Being the Subject of a Tragedy and a Comedy, but were more commonly known as Plays on the Passions. The first volume contained, among others, Basil, a tragedy on love; The Tryal, a comedy on love; and possibly Baillie's most famous play, De Monfort, a tragedy on hatred. Baillie died in 1851.
Baillie's first publication, Poems: Wherein It Is Attempted to Describe Certain Views of Nature and of Rustic Manners, received little attention until after she had established a literary career. The first volume of Plays on the Passions, however, which Baillie published anonymously, quickly became the focus for discussion in literary circles, making this her first critically acclaimed work. Previously, success on the stage had been a prerequisite for the publication of a drama, but Baillie's publication of plays that had never been performed piqued the interest of many readers. In the preface, Baillie revealed her intent to trace the passions "in their rise and progress in the heart." She stated further that "a complete exhibition of passion, with its varieties and progress in the breast of man, has, I believe, scarcely ever been attempted in Comedy." The prevailing assumption of critics was that the anonymous author of Plays on the Passions was a man, until it was pointed out that there were more heroines in the dramas than heroes, and speculation began that the writer might be a woman. Baillie's authorship of the work was not revealed until 1800, when the third edition was published with her name on the title page. Sir Walter Scott, who some critics suspected had authored Plays on the Passions, became friends with Baillie and encouraged her to write more dramas. The second volume of Plays on the Passions, published in 1802, was well received by the public. Another collection entitled Miscellaneous Plays was published in 1804. In 1812, Baillie's last volume of Plays on the Passions was published, and was assessed as representing a departure from her earlier theories. Baillie noted that the second and last volume of the series had not received as much praise as had the first, and she retired from active publishing for a number of years.
Many of Baillie's tragedies, De Monfort and Orra (1812; included in Volume 3 of Plays on the Passions) in particular, have been discussed as examples of Gothic fiction. The plays' eerie settings have been compared to those of Ann Radcliffe's novels, but Baillie's haunting plots and tortured characters are often regarded as more direct than Radcliffe's. In addition, her plays are noted for their strong female characters and social commentary. De Monfort centers on a love triangle devoid of romantic intentions, which leads to a murder, while Orra tells the tale of a young, independent heiress who refuses to wed and ultimately is driven mad by a fake haunting designed to trick her into marriage. The title character in Count Basil struggles to reconcile his desire for love and honor. The Tryal offers opposing perspectives on love, and Witchcraft (1836; included in Dramas) focuses on three women identified as witches, one of whom narrowly escapes being burned at the stake.
Critics comment on the depiction of the effects of the intense emotions expressed by many of Baillie's characters, an approach that E. J. Clery refers to as "interiorized Gothic." Clery credits Baillie's style with inspiring later Gothic writers such as Charlotte Dacre, Charles Brockden Brown, Mary Shelley, and Edgar Allan Poe. Several critics point to Baillie's use of the Gothic to critique the morals and values of her time, especially with regard to traditional views of women. Peter Duthis asserts that several of Baillie's plays, Count Basil and De Monfort in particular, portray the tension wrought by upheavals in aristocratic society and the threat such upheavals posed to traditional gender roles. After Baillie's death, her works were gradually forgotten, and it was not until the late twentieth century that Baillie's writings again garnered scholarly interest. Drama historians and feminist commentators in particular recognize the historical importance of Baillie's complex and pyschologically insightful portrayals and her commentary on gender dynamics and social mores.