Joanna Baillie 1762-1851
Scottish poet, playwright, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism of Baillie from 1947 through 2003. See also Joanna Baillie Criticism (Volume 71).
Widely respected during her lifetime as a playwright, Baillie has only recently enjoyed a resurgence in readership after her poetry and dramas had been all but neglected for over a century. After moving to London from her native Scotland, Baillie became involved in the literary community that included some of the most important Romantic writers of the day, including Lord Byron and William Wordsworth. However, until the late twentieth century she was not considered part of the canon of British Romantic writers. Recent critics have sought to show how Baillie's works depict the standard subjects of Romantic literature, including tortured heroes, humble peasants, and the beauty of nature. Baillie's most ambitious and influential works are the three volumes titled A Series of Plays: In Which it is Attempted to Delineate the Stronger Passions of the Mind (1798-1812), each of which contains moral cautionary plays illustrating human passions and their consequences. Her “Introductory Discourse,” a preface to the first volume of these Series of Plays, is a detailed aesthetic treatise that criticizes tragedy's claim to represent a universal human nature and is considered a revolutionary work of critical theory, particularly since it was composed by a woman writer. A revival of interest in Baillie's plays and poems and her introduction into the canon of British Romantic authors has reestablished Baillie's reputation as a poet and dramatist of note, and she is now regarded by many as the most important female playwright of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Baillie was born on September 11, 1762 in Bothwell in South Lanarkshire, Scotland. Her father, James, was a Presbyterian minister who claimed among his ancestors the nationalist Sir William Wallace, and her mother, Dorothea Hunter, was the sister of the poet Anne Hunter. Her maternal uncles were the noted surgeons William and John Hunter. As a young child, Baillie resisted learning to read, preferring to spend her time outdoors; she was known equally for her sense of humor and her sense of mischief. When she was six, her father moved to the town of Hamilton, and in 1772, when she was ten, Baillie was sent to boarding school in Glasgow, where she excelled in music, art, mathematics, and reading and where she took to entertaining friends by telling stories and organizing amateur theatrical shows. In 1776, Baillie's father was appointed Professor of Divinity at the University of Glasgow, but he died just two years later. Baillie, her mother, and her sister Agnes then moved to a small estate in Long Calderwood, Lanarkshire, where they remained for six years while Baillie's brother Matthew studied medicine in Oxford and London. During her years at Long Calderwood, Baillie pursued her own education, reading the major British poets and studying Shakespeare.
In 1784, Baillie moved with Agnes to London to live with Matthew, now a doctor. When Matthew married in 1791, the two sisters moved to Hampstead, on the outskirts of London, and lived off an inheritance from their uncle William Hunter. It was in London that Baillie began writing with the intent to publish. Her first works were published anonymously, and, while they were not popular, received a number of favorable reviews that encouraged her to continue writing. She began to see success in 1798 with the publication of her first plays in her Series of Plays about the passions. By the early 1800s, she had established herself as a respected poet and dramatist. Her plays were not often staged, but several of them had successful runs in Edinburgh and London, and Baillie always donated a large portion of the proceeds from her theatrical productions to charity. Baillie and her sister began to receive many visitors of distinction at their Hampstead house, which soon became the center of a literary circle that included Lady Annabella, Byron, Wordsworth, Maria Edgeworth, and Sir Walter Scott. Baillie enjoyed a close friendship and correspondence with Scott, visiting him in Scotland many times; several of her works were published under his patronage. Until her death in 1851 at the age of eighty-eight, Baillie continued writing and engaging in philanthropic pursuits: she sponsored new legislation on copyright laws, mentored young writers, fought for anti-slavery legislation, and supported the publication of England's first slave narrative.
Baillie began writing poetry at an early age, and by 1790 her first collection of verse appeared in print. Poems: Wherein It Is Attempted to Describe Certain Views of Nature and of Rustic Manners; And Also, To Point Out, In Some Instances, the Different Influence Which the Same Circumstances Produce on Different Characters, published anonymously, contains poems about the Scottish peasantry and describes its subjects' rustic manners with a combination of aesthetic distance and sympathetic identification. Baillie's love of the outdoors and her native Scotland are obvious in these poems, the best-known of which include “A Winter Day,” a portrayal of a family laboring on the land providing a picture of idealized bourgeois domesticity, and “Address to the Muses,” a meditation on poetry and nature. The same year her Poems appeared, Baillie decided to take up playwriting. Her first effort was the now lost Arnold, which took Baillie three months to write. In 1798, Baillie anonymously published the first volume of A Series of Plays. Baillie's plan in writing these Plays on the Passions was to trace the structure of each human passion in one tragedy and one comedy. Each play attempted to illustrate how a hero's actions are symptoms caused by an excessive passion, or emotion, of the mind. The seventy-two-page “Introductory Discourse” to the first volume of plays, a treatise arguing for simplicity and the unhurried development of dramatic passions, was hailed as a brilliant, revolutionary piece of writing on aesthetics—and so was quickly assumed to have been written by a man. Besides the “Discourse,” the volume contains three plays treating individual passions: Basil, a tragedy on love, De Monfort, a tragedy on hate, and The Tryal, a comedy on love. De Monfort, about the hatred De Monfort feels for his childhood friend Rezenvelt, remains Baillie's best-known play. The second volume in the series was published in 1802, and the third volume appeared in 1812. Baillie also published a number of plays individually and in a collection that appeared in 1804. In 1836, she published three more volumes of plays that also treated the passions. Of Baillie's twenty-seven plays, the most important are the three in her first volume of plays and The Family Legend (1810), a Scottish Highland drama for which Walter Scott wrote a prologue. Some of the characteristics of her dramatic work include the use of idiomatic language in portraying characters who belong to the lower classes, an interest in nature, and the representation of human psychology as it pertains to motives and desires that lead to tragedy.
In addition to her volumes of drama, Baillie published several collections of her poetry, edited a volume of verse by other writers, and wrote occasional essays. Her Metrical Legends of Exalted Characters (1821), a collection of verse that blends historical fact and poetic narrative, includes poems about Scottish folk heroes such as Lady Grisell Baillie and William Wallace. A Collection of Poems, Chiefly Manuscript, and from Living Authors (1823), edited by Baillie, was produced to raise money for several of her friends. Baillie's most important book of poetry, Fugitive Verses, appeared in 1840, when she was in her seventies. The volume includes her 1790 poems as well as poems exploring her complex feelings and attitudes toward her Protestant faith, particularly after the deaths of her loved ones. Also included are “Lines Written on the Death of Sir Walter Scott,” which praises her friend's purity of language. Baillie continued writing poetry to the end of her life, and new poems were included in The Dramatic and Poetical Works of Joanna Baillie (1851), which was published several weeks before her death.
When the first volume of the three volumes of Series of Plays on the Passions appeared anonymously in 1798, it created a stir in London's literary circles. When Baillie came forward as the author of the collection, another sensation ensued, as no one had even considered she could have been its author. Afterward, Baillie quickly established herself as a writer of distinction. Her plays became popular in print in Britain and even the United States during the nineteenth century, and several of them were produced in London, Liverpool, Edinburgh, and Dublin. However, perhaps because of their psychological detail and lack of action, they were more often read than performed on stage. The most successful of her plays produced for stage was The Family Legend, which was received especially favorably in Edinburgh.
During her life, Baillie was highly respected as a poet and dramatist, counting Scott and Byron among her many admirers. Nevertheless, after her death Baillie's works fell into neglect, and by the early twentieth century she was all but unknown outside her native Scotland. It was not until the late twentieth century that critics began to look seriously again at her substantial body of writing. Many critics have conjectured that, had Baillie been a man, her works would have continued to be read and performed. Recent commentators have also found it remarkable that this unmarried, sheltered, daughter of a Presbyterian minister produced such a revolutionary theory of drama and portrayed dark, obsessive characters predating the appearance of the tortured Byronic hero. Critical commentary on Baillie has proliferated since the last decade of the twentieth century, and scholars have taken up a variety of issues in discussing her works, including her aesthetic theories; her use of Gothic conventions; her relationship with and attitude toward Byron; her views on gender, identity, and repression; her place in the tradition of private theatricals or “closet” dramas; her perspective on Scottish history; her use of Sturm and Drang techniques from German drama; her status as a Romantic writer; and her moral purpose in her plays, especially those depicting the passions. Her “Introductory Discourse” has been widely discussed and is seen as anticipating Wordsworth's landmark statement of Romantic theory in his 1800 preface to the Lyrical Ballads. Another important issue that critics have taken up is Baillie's status as a “closet playwright”—one who writes to be read rather than acted, since her letters reveal that she desired her plays to be performed on the stage. Critics generally agree that, despite the weaknesses in some of her plays, her writings show admirable powers of analysis and observation as well as a simple, energetic style. While some fault her attempt at depicting the individual passions in her plays as overly ambitious, she is admired for her bold vision and her attempt to handle works with a moral purpose using complex characterization and psychological insights.