Joanna Baillie Baillie, Joanna (Vol. 71) - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Joanna Baillie 1762–1851

Scottish poet, dramatist, and drama critic.

For additional information on Baillie's life and works, see NCLC, Volume 2.

Although Baillie was well recognized and respected among the literati during her lifetime, her works fell into neglect soon after her death and have only re-surfaced in literary scholarship within the last several decades. She is now recognized for her significant influence on such contemporary 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. Long overlooked, 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.

Biographical Information

Baillie was born in 1762 in Bothwell, Lanarkshire, Scotland to James Baillie, a clergyman, 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 (her sister Agnes recalled Baillie learning to read at age eleven). 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 published, anonymously, 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 Matthew'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. 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.

Major Works

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 A Series of Plays, 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 pre-requisite for the publication of a drama, but Baillie had combined an assortment of plays that had never been performed, and the daringness of such a presentation 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." Critics enjoyed speculating about the identity of the author, which nearly everyone assumed was a man. But, once it was pointed out that there were heroines in the dramas more often than heroes, 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, suspected by some as being the author, became friends with Baillie and encouraged her to write more dramas. The second volume of A Series of Plays, published in 1802, was well received by the public. Another collection entitled Miscellaneous Plays (1804) contains Rayner and Constantine Paleologus (two tragedies that were less radical than her previous plays) as well as the comedy Country Inn. Baillie produced her play The Family Legend in 1810, and it became an unqualified success that was performed again in 1815 and in 1821. In 1812, Baillie's last volume of A Series of Plays was published, and it seemed to represent a departure from her earlier theories. Baillie noted that the second and last volume of the series had not received as much praise as the first had, and she retired from active publishing for a number of years. Travels in Scotland were the inspiration for Metrical Legends of Exalted Characters (1821). Then Baillie served as editor for Scott and other poets for A Collection of Poems, Chiefly Manuscript, and from Living Authors (1823). In Lines to Agnes Baillie on Her Birthday (1849), one of Baillie's final works, she wrote about the childhood years of the two Baillie sisters.

Critical Reception

Baillie was extraordinarily respected in her lifetime. Sir Walter Scott frequently mentioned her in the same breath as Shakespeare. He claimed: "If you want to speak of a real poet, Joanna Baillie is now the highest genius in the country." Lord Byron said, "Women, except Joanna Baillie, cannot write tragedy." Nevertheless, many critics of her time found serious problems with her plays. What seemed commendable in print was quickly determined to be totally impractical for the stage. The chief complaints were that the plays contained too much dialogue and not enough action, and that they were too intellectual, too long, and essentially not performable as proper theater. The case of the play De Monfort illustrates the degree of the problem. Although De Monfort had been selected as one of Baillie's easier works to produce and is often considered one of her finest dramas, it closed after only several performances. Baillie admitted to some of the problems, defended others, and agreed to cuts and revisions, but ultimately to little avail. After Baillie's death, her works were gradually forgotten, and it was not until recently that Baillie's writings have gathered new interest, particularly by drama historians and women readers who realize the historical importance of Baillie's search for answers to problems involving relationships between the sexes. Scholar Catherine B. Burroughs (1994) finds that the study of Baillie and other women writers of her era "will reveal that traditional conceptions of theatre theory must undergo reevaluation if one is to appreciate the wealth of theoretical discourse that survives from this period."

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

*Poems; Wherein It Is Attempted to Describe Certain Views of Nature and of Rustic Manners (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. (drama) 1798, 1802, and 1812

Miscellaneous Plays (drama) 1804

The Family Legend (drama) 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 Tenor 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 (poetry) 1831

Dramas. 3 vols. (drama) 1836

Fugitive Verses (poetry) 1840

Ahalya Baee (poetry) 1849

Lines to Agnes Baillie on Her Birthday (poetry) 1849

*Much of this work is reprinted in Fugitive Verses.

**This series is often referred to as Plays on the Passions.

Margaret S. Carhart (essay date 1923)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Joanna Baillie's Place in Literature," in The Life and Work of Joanna Baillie (Yale Studies in English LXIV), Yale University Press, 1923, pp. 190–206.

[Below, Carhart contends that Baillie's insistence that her plays present moral instruction and that individuals represent particular emotions was at the expense of believable characters. Carhart also traces the development of Baillie's works as they moved from emphasizing the intellectual to emphasizing the emotional.]

James, who is the best female poet on the age?
Female what?

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Joseph W. Donohue, Jr. (essay date 1970)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Romantic Heroism and Its Milieu," in Dramatic Character in the English Romantic Age, Princeton University Press, 1970, pp. 70–94.

[In the following excerpt, Donohue contends that the public failure of De Montfort was due largely to Baillie's unpopular but important innovation of internalizing conflict within the play's characters.]

A decade and a half after The Carmelite, there appeared on the enlarged stage of the Drury Lane (rebuilt in 1794) a play that fully synthesizes Cumberland's exploitation of mental distress with the pictorial atmospherics evident since Douglas. But the synthetic qualities of Joanna Baillie's De Monfort,...

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Om Prakash Mathur (essay date 1978)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Joanna Baillie," in The Closet Drama of the Romantic Revival (Poetic Drama and Poetic Theory 35), edited by James Hogg, Universität Salzburg, 1978, pp. 308–19.

[Below, Mathur argues that Baillie's plays are, for the most part, dramatically unsound but acknowledges Baillie's strength as a poet.]

The dramatic works of the major poets of the Romantic Revival show the varied manifestations of the phenomenon of the closet drama and its distinguishing characteristics. But there were quite a few other writers also who, by choice or necessity, pursued the same path and made their own contribution to the form. It will be interesting to see what this contribution was...

(The entire section is 3551 words.)

P. M. Zall (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Cool World of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Question of Joanna Baillie," in The Wordsworth Circle, Vol. XIII, No. 1, Winter, 1982, pp. 17–20.

[In the following essay, Zall provides an overview of Baillie's literary career and explores the drawbacks of Baillie's high reputation.]

Wordsworth pictured Joanna Baillie as the very model of "an English gentlewoman,"1 but she was in fact Scots born and bred, descended from Wallace himself on her father's side. Born in 1762, she spent her first twenty-one years in Scotland developing an accent that remained a part of her charm until her death in 1851. In her English years, devoted to writing plays aimed...

(The entire section is 2730 words.)

Daniel P. Watkins (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Class, Gender, and Social Motion in Joanna Baillie's DeMonfort," in The Wordsworth Circle, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 109–17.

[In the following essay, Watkins stresses the historical value of De Monfort's depictions of social conditions and class conflicts.]

Recent scholarly work on Romanticism and feminism has begun to bring Joanna Baillie back from the dead in literary history. For instance, as Stuart Curran states, "two years before Wordsworth's celebrated preface, [Joanna Baillie] had published her own seventy-two-page argument for naturalness of language and situation across all the literary genres," and, in her capacity as...

(The entire section is 7613 words.)

Anne K. Mellor (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Joanna Baillie and the Counter-Public Sphere," in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 33, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 559–67.

[In the essay below, Mellor argues that Baillie's works offered alternative, feminist views to contemporary readers in place of the commonly extolled views of white middle-class males.]

Joanna Baillie was the leading playwright of the romantic era; she was hailed by her peers as the most original and successful of all contemporary dramatists. Sir Walter Scott claimed that Baillie was "certainly the best dramatic writer whom Britain has produced since the days of Shakespeare and Massinger."1 Her competitor, Byron, commented crudely...

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Marjean D. Purinton (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Joanna Baillie's Count Basil and De Monfort: The Unveiling of Gender Issues," in Romantic Ideology Unmasked: The Mentally Constructed Tyrannies in Dramas of William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Joanna Baillie, University of Delaware Press and Associated University Presses, 1994, pp. 125–62.

[In the following essay, Purinton places Baillie within the context of other women writers of her time and examines the overlap of political and gender issues in Count Basil and De Monfort.]

Many of the feminist polemics in the 1790s expose a desire to unveil the fictions that have held women in bondage. "Custom," "habit," and...

(The entire section is 16265 words.)

Jonathan Wordsworth (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Introduction to Revolution and Romanticism, 1789-1834, Woodstock Books, 1994, np.

[Below, Wordsworth praises Baillie 's poetry and explores its strong influence on William Wordsworth's lyrical ballads.]

Among the many volumes of the period amiably titled Poems on various subjects, Poems on several occasions, Joanna Baillie's 1790 collection has a curmudgeonly air: POEMS; wherein it is attempted to describe CERTAIN VIEWS OF NATURE and of RUSTIC MANNERS; also, to point out, in some instances, the different influence which the same circumstances produce on different characters. All these instructions on one octavo titlepage. We...

(The entire section is 3221 words.)

Catherine B. Burroughs (essay date 1997)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Private Theatricals and Baillie's The Tryal," in Closet Stages: Joanna Baillie and the Theater Theory of British Romantic Women Writers, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997, pp. 143-68.

[In the following essay, Burroughs explores "closet plays "performed for private audiences—and their usefulness to women authors in advancing feminist perspectives. Burroughs also discusses domestic relations in The Tryal, as well as Baillie's theory of comedy, which emphasized the importance of presenting realistic, everyday situations.]

No pay, we play, so gay, all day—
Curse the expense, chase care away!

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Carswell, Donald. "Joanna Baillie." In his Sir Walter: A Four-Part Study in Biography, pp. 262-86. London: John Murray, 1930.

Biography of Baillie emphasizing the high regard Sir Walter Scott held for her personally and professionally.


Brewer, William D. "Joanna Baillie and Lord Byron." Keats-Shelley Journal. Keats, Shelley, Byron, Hunt, and Their Circle 44 (1995): 165-81.

Examines Baillie and Lord Byron's literary relationship, including their influences on each other's works.


(The entire section is 431 words.)