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.
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.
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.
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."