Anna Laetitia Barbauld (17431825)



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  • Anna Laetitia Aikin
  • Anna Laetitia Barbauld

Note: the 19th- and early 20th-century biographies below preserve a historical record. A new biography that reflects 21st-century approaches to the subjects in question is forthcoming.

Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)

BARBAULD, ANNA LETITIA (1743–1825), poet and miscellaneous writer, was the only daughter and eldest child of John Aikin, D.D., and his wife Jane Jennings, and was born in 1743 at Kibworth, Leicestershire. When she was fifteen years old, her father became one of the tutors of the newly established academy at Warrington. There she passed the next fifteen years of her life, and formed intimate and lasting friendships with several of her father's colleagues and their families, in whose cultivated society she had every encouragement to turn to account her early, not to say precocious, education. It is related of her that she could read with ease before she was three years old, and that when quite a child she had an acquaintance with many of the best English authors. When she had mastered French and Italian, her industry compelled her father, very reluctantly, to supplement these with a knowledge of Latin and Greek also, accomplishments rarely found in young women of that period. Learned as she was, even in her youth, she was so modest and unassuming, and had so little confidence in her powers, that no one but her brother was able to induce her to appear before the world as an author. It was at his instigation that she published, in 1773, her first volume of poems, including ‘Corsica,’ ‘The Invitation,’ ‘The Mouse's Petition,’ and ‘An Address to the Deity.’ The book had an immediate success, and went through four editions in the first year. The celebrated Mrs. Montagu wrote that she greatly admired the poem on Corsica, and had presented a copy to her friend Paoli. In the same year she, or rather her brother, published ‘Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose,’ by J. and A. L. Aikin. These also have been several times reprinted. The authors did not sign their respective contributions, and some of the pieces have in consequence been generally misappropriated, but in Mrs. Barbauld's share of the work we find several of her best essays, and notably those on ‘Inconsistency in our Expectations,’ and ‘On Romances.’ The former of these possesses every quality of good English prose; the latter is avowedly an imitation of Dr. Johnson's style and method of reasoning. Of this essay Johnson observes: ‘The imitators of my style have not hit it. Miss Aikin has done it the best, for she has imitated the sentiment as well as the diction.’ Croker refers this remark to the wrong essay. In the year following these literary successes, in 1774, Mrs. Barbauld married. Her husband, the Rev. Rochemont Barbauld, came of a French protestant family settled in England since the persecutions of Louis XIV. His father, a clergyman of the church of England, sent him, rather injudiciously, to the dissenting academy at Warrington, where he naturally imbibed presbyterian opinions. He was an excellent man, but had a tendency to insanity, which became more and more pronounced towards the close of his life. Soon after their marriage the Barbaulds removed to Palgrave in Suffolk, where Mr. Barbauld had charge of a dissenting congregation, and proceeded to establish a boys' school. They had no children, but adopted a nephew, Charles Rochemont Aikin [q. v.], the ‘little Charles’ of the well-known ‘Early Lessons.’ At Palgrave were written the ‘Hymns in Prose for Children,’ Mrs. Barbauld's best work, which, besides passing through many editions, has been translated into several European languages. The school, chiefly owing to Mrs. Barbauld's exertions, was extremely prosperous during the eleven years of its existence. Among the pupils were the first Lord Denman, Sir William Gell, Dr. Sayers, and William Taylor of Norwich. The holidays were mostly spent in London, where at the houses of Mrs. Montagu and Mr. Joseph Johnson, her publisher, she made the acquaintance of many of the celebrities of the day. The school-work proving somewhat excessive, the undertaking, though successful and remunerative, was given up in 1785, and after travelling on the continent for about a year the Barbaulds returned to England and settled at the then rural village of Hampstead. Mr. Barbauld officiated at a small chapel there, and took a few pupils, while his wife found herself more at leisure for society and literature. At Hampstead Joanna Baillie and her sister were among her more intimate friends. Here she wrote several essays, and contributed fifteen papers—her share of the work is generally thought to be much larger—to her brother's popular book ‘Evenings at Home.’ In 1802, at the earnest request of her brother, in whose society she hoped to end her days, she and her husband left Hampstead for Stoke Newington. For a short time Mr. Barbauld again undertook pastoral work, but his mental health utterly gave way, and he died insane in London in 1808. This, the one great sorrow of Mrs. Barbauld's life, deeply affected her, but left her free, for the first time since her marriage, for serious literary work. Shortly after her husband's death Mrs. Barbauld undertook an edition, in fifty volumes, of the best English novelists. Prefixed to the edition is an essay, written at some length, on the ‘Origin and Progress of Novel Writing,’ and the works of each author are introduced by short, but complete, biographical notices. The novels thus edited include ‘Clarissa,’ ‘Sir Charles Grandison’ ‘The Castle of Otranto,’ ‘The Romance of the Forest,’ ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho,’ ‘Zeluco,’ ‘Evelina,’ ‘Cecilia,’ ‘Tom Jones,’ ‘Joseph Andrews,’ ‘Belinda,’ ‘The Vicar of Wakefield,’ and many others. In 1811 she prepared for the use of young ladies a selection, formerly well known and popular, of the best passages from English poets and prose writers. This appeared in one volume, and was called ‘The Female Speaker.’ In the same year she wrote the most considerable of her poems, entitled ‘Eighteen Hundred and Eleven,’ a work which, at a time of the deepest national gloom, was written in eloquent but too despondent strains. Of this poem Mr. Crabb Robinson says: ‘Dear Mrs. Barbauld this year incurred great reproach by writing a poem entitled “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven.” It prophesies that on some future day a traveller from the antipodes will, from a broken arch of Blackfriars Bridge, contemplate the ruin of St. Paul's (this is the original of Macaulay's New-Zealander). This was written more in sorrow than in anger, but there was a disheartening and even gloomy tone which I, even with all my love for her, could not quite excuse. It provoked a very coarse review in the “Quarterly,” which many years after Murray told me he was more ashamed of than any other article in the review.’ Southey, the former friend of Mrs. Barbauld's brother, was the author of this article. This was the last of Mrs. Barbauld's published works, but to the day of her death, some years later, she constantly wrote letters and minor pieces which did not see the light till long afterwards, and were not, indeed, intended for publication. The remainder of her life was passed tranquilly at Stoke Newington, where she died in 1825. Her epitaph justly says of her that she was ‘endowed by the Giver of all good with wit, genius, poetic talent, and a vigorous understanding;’ and the readers of her works will readily allow the easy grace of her style and her lofty but not puritanical principles. Her letters, some few of which have been published since her death, show that though her life was habitually retired she greatly enjoyed society. They record friendships formed or casual acquaintance made with (among others) Mrs. Montagu, Hannah More, Dr. Priestley, Miss Edgeworth, Howard the philanthropist, Mrs. Chapone, Gilbert Wakefield, Dugald Stewart, Walter Scott, Joanna Baillie, H. Crabb Robinson, William Roscoe, Wordsworth, Montgomery, Dr. W. E. Channing, Samuel Rogers, and Sir James Mackintosh. Her writings in prose and poetry are both numerous and miscellaneous, and many of them were not printed in her lifetime. Her more important works include: 1. ‘Poems’ (1773). 2. ‘Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose.’ 3. ‘Hymns in Prose for Children.’ 4. ‘Early Lessons.’ 5. ‘Poetical Epistle to William Wilberforce.’ 6. ‘An Edition, with Essay and Lives, of the British Novelists.’ 7. ‘The Female Speaker.’ 8. ‘Eighteen Hundred and Eleven.’

[Works of A. L. Barbauld, with a memoir by Lucy Aikin, 1825; Le Breton's Memoir of Mrs. Barbauld, 1874; Ellis's Life and Letters of Anna Letitia Barbauld, 1874.]

A. A. B.

Encyclopædia Britannica 11th edition (1911)

BARBAULD, ANNA LETITIA (1743–1825), English poet and miscellaneous writer, was born at Kibworth-Harcourt, in Leicestershire, on the 20th of June 1743. Her father, the Rev. John Aikin, a Presbyterian minister and schoolmaster, taught his daughter Latin and Greek. In 1758 Mr Aikin removed his family to Warrington, to act as theological tutor in a dissenting academy there. In 1773 Miss Aikin published a volume of Poems, which was very successful, and co-operated with her brother, Dr John Aikin, in a volume of Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose. In 1774 she married Rochemont Barbauld, a member of a French Protestant family settled in England. He had been educated in the academy at Warrington, and was minister of a Presbyterian church at Palgrave, in Suffolk, where, with his wife’s help, he established a boarding school. Her admirable Hymns in Prose and Early Lessons were written for their pupils. In 1785 she left England for the continent with her husband, whose health was seriously impaired. On their return about two years later, Mr Barbauld was appointed to a church at Hampstead. In 1802 they removed to Stoke Newington. Mrs Barbauld became well known in London literary circles. She collaborated with Dr Aikin in his Evenings at Home; in 1795 she published an edition of Akenside’s Pleasures of Imagination, with a critical essay; two years later she edited Collins’s Odes; in 1804 she published a selection of papers from the English Essayists, and a selection from Samuel Richardson’s correspondence, with a biographical notice; in 1810 a collection of the British Novelists (50 vols.) with biographical and critical notices; and in 1811 her longest poem, Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, giving a gloomy view of the existing state and future prospects of Britain. This poem anticipated Macaulay in contemplating the prospect of a visitor from the antipodes regarding at a future day the ruins of St Paul’s from a broken arch of Blackfriars Bridge. Mrs Barbauld died on the 9th of March 1825; her husband had died in 1808. A collected edition of her works, with memoir, was published by her niece, Lucy Aikin, in 2 vols., 1825.

See A. L. le Breton, Memoir of Mrs Barbauld (1874); G. A. Ellis, Life and Letters of Mrs A. L. Barbauld (1874); Lady Thackeray Ritchie, A Book of Sibyls (1883).