Joanna Baillie Baillie, Joanna (1762 - 1851) - Essay


(Gothic Literature)

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.

Principal Works

(Gothic Literature)

Poems: Wherein It Is Attempted to Describe Certain Views of Nature and of Rustic Manners [anonymous] (poetry) 1790

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. 3 vols. (plays) 1798, 1802, and 1812
Miscellaneous Plays (plays) 1804
Rayner (play) 1804
The Family Legend: A Tragedy (play) 1810
Metrical Legends of Exalted Characters (poetry) 1821
A Collection of Poems. Chiefly Manuscript, and from Living Authors [editor] (poetry) 1823
A View of the General Tenour of the New Testament Regarding the Nature and Dignity of Jesus Christ: Including a Collection of the Various Passages in the Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, and the Epistles Which Relate to That Subject (essay) 1831
Dramas. 3 vols. (plays) 1836
Fugitive Verses (poetry) 1840
Ahalya Baee: A Poem (poetry) 1849
Lines to Agnes Baillie on Her Birthday (poetry) 1849

∗ The first volume was published anonymously in 1798, with the author identifying herself for the second and third volumes, in 1802 and 1812, respectively. Volume 1 includes De Monfort, Basil, and The Tryal. Volume 3 includes Orra: A Tragedy, in Five Acts.

† This collection includes the plays Witchcraft,...

(The entire section is 186 words.)

Primary Sources

(Gothic Literature)

SOURCE: Baillie, Joanna. "Introductory Discourse." In 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. Vol. 1, 1798. Second edition, pp. 1-11. London, 1799.

In the following excerpt from her "Introductory Discourse" to Volume 1 of her Plays on the Passions, first published in 1798, Baillie comments upon the universal human preoccupation with emotion, the spiritual, and the unknown.

It is natural for a writer, who is about to submit his works to the Publick, to feel a strong inclination, by some Preliminary Address, to conciliate the favour of his reader, and dispose him, if possible, to peruse them with a favourable eye. I am well aware, however, that his endeavours are generally fruitless: in his situation our hearts revolt from all appearance of confidence, and we consider his diffidence as hypocrisy. Our own word is frequently taken for what we say of ourselves, but very rarely for what we say of our works. Were these three plays, which this small volume contains, detached pieces only, and unconnected with others that do not yet appear, I should have suppressed this inclination altogether; and have allowed my reader to begin what is before him, and to form what opinion of it his taste or his humour might direct, without any previous trespass upon his time or his patience. But they are part of an extensive design: of one which, as far as my information goes, has nothing exactly similar to it in any language: of one which a whole life's time will be limited enough to accomplish; and which has, therefore, a considerable chance of being cut short by that hand which nothing can resist.

Before I explain the plan of this work, I must make a demand upon the patience of my reader, whilst I endeavour to communicate to him those ideas regarding human nature, as they in some degree affect almost every species of moral writings, but particularly the Dramatic, that induced me to attempt it; and, as far as my judgment enabled me to apply them, has directed me in the execution of it.

From that strong sympathy which most creatures, but the human above all, feel for others of their kind, nothing has become so much an object of man's curiosity as man himself. We are all conscious of this within ourselves, and so constantly do we meet with it in others, that like every circumstance of continually repeated occurrence, it thereby escapes observation. Every person who is not deficient in intellect, is more or less occupied in tracing amongst the individuals he converses with, the varieties of understanding and temper which constitute the characters of men; and receives great pleasure from every stroke of nature that points out to him those varieties. This is, much more than we are aware of, the occupation of children, and of grown people also, whose penetration is but lightly esteemed; and that conversation which degenerates with them into trivial and mischievous tattling, takes its rise not unfrequently from the same source that supplies the rich vein of the satirist and the wit. That eagerness so universally shewn for the conversation of the latter, plainly enough indicates how many people have been occupied in the same way with themselves. Let any one, in a large company, do or say what is strongly expressive of his peculiar character, or of some passion or humour of the moment, and it will be detected by almost every person present. How often may we see a very stupid countenance animated with a smile, when the learned and the wise have betrayed some native feature of their own minds! and how often will this be the case when they have supposed it to be concealed under a very sufficient disguise! From this constant employment of their minds, most people, I believe, without being conscious of it, have stored up in idea the greater part of those strong marked varieties of human character, which may be said to divide it into classes; and in one of those classes they involuntarily place every new person they become acquainted with.

I will readily allow that the dress and the manners of men, rather than their characters and disposition are the subjects of our common conversation, and seem chiefly to occupy the multitude. But let it be remembered that it is much easier to express our observations upon these. It is easier to communicate to another how a man wears his wig and cane, what kind of house he inhabits, and what kind of table he keeps, than from what slight traits in his words and actions we have been led to conceive certain impressions of his character: traits that will often escape the memory, when the opinions that were founded upon them remain. Besides, in communicating our ideas of the characters of others, we are often called upon to support them with more expence of reasoning than we can well afford, but our observations on the dress and appearance of men, seldom involve us in such difficulties. For these, and other reasons too tedious to mention, the generality of people appear to us more trifling than they are: and I may venture to say that, but for this sympathetick curiosity towards others of our kind, which is so strongly implanted within us, the attention we pay to the dress and the manners of men would dwindle into an employment as insipid, as examining the varieties of plants and minerals, is to one who understands not natural history.

In our ordinary intercourse with society, this sympathetick propensity of our minds is exercised upon men, under the common occurrences of life, in which we have often observed them. Here vanity and weakness put themselves forward to view, more conspicuously than the virtues: here men encounter those smaller trials, from which they are not apt to come of victorious, and here, consequently, that which is marked with the whimsical and ludicrous will strike us most forcibly, and make the strongest impression on our memory. To this sympathetick propensity of our minds, so exercised, the genuine and pure comick of every composition, whether drama, fable, story, or satire is addressed.

If man is an object of so much attention to man, engaged in the ordinary occurrences of life, how much more does he excite his curiosity and interest when placed in extraordinary situations of difficulty and distress? It cannot be any pleasure we receive from the sufferings of a fellow-creature which attracts such multitudes of people to a publick execution,...

(The entire section is 2681 words.)

General Commentary

(Gothic Literature)

SOURCE: Clery, E. J. "Joanna Baillie and Charlotte Dacre." In Women's Gothic: From Clara Reeve to Mary Shelley, pp. 85-116. Devon, United Kingdom: Northcote House in Association with the British Council, 2000.

In the following excerpt, Clery surveys Baillie's Gothic dramas, particularly De Monfort and Orra.

In 1798, the year after Radcliffe bowed out of the literary scene, a volume was published anonymously with the arresting title A Series of Plays: In Which It Is Attempted to Delineate the Stronger Passions of the Mind. The contents did not disappoint. There was an 'Introductory Discourse' outlining not only a...

(The entire section is 6074 words.)

Plays on the Passions

(Gothic Literature)


SOURCE: Duthie, Peter. Introduction to Plays on the Passions, by Joanna Baillie, pp. 11-57. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, Ltd., 2001.

In the following excerpt from his introduction to Plays on the Passions, a modern edition of Volume 1 of the plays published in 1798, Duthie studies the plays’ socially progressive message and surveys critical reaction to the plays throughout history.

The 1798 edition as a text of social reform

Elizabeth Barrett Browning passionately declared Joanna Baillie to be “the first female poet in all...

(The entire section is 4809 words.)


(Gothic Literature)


SOURCE: Purinton, Marjean D. "Socialized and Medicalized Hysteria in Joanna Baillie's Witchcraft." Prism(s): Essays in Romanticism 9 (2001): 139-56.

In the following essay, Purinton analyzes Baillie's portrayal of what was often medically and scientifically sanctioned persecution of women in her drama Witchcraft.

Because many Romantic-period dramas are engaged with political frenzy following the French Revolution and are shaped by psychosocial issues associated with the Gothic, it is not unusual for us to see "madness," in various manifestations, playing a...

(The entire section is 6788 words.)

Further Reading

(Gothic Literature)


Carhart, Margaret Sprague. The Life and Work of Joanna Baillie. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1923, 215 p.

Comprehensive, authoritative biography and overview of Baillie's works.


Brigham, Linda. "Aristocratic Monstrosity and Sublime Femininity in De Monfort." SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 43, no. 3 (summer 2003): 701-18.

Examines Baillie's theories regarding the emotions, as stated in her "Introductory Discourse" to the first volume of Plays on the Passions, and compares them to the...

(The entire section is 743 words.)