William McCarthy. Anna Letitia Barbauld: Voice of the Enlightenment

"Barbauld House," Palgrave, ca. 1850s.

This review appeared in The Eighteenth-Century Intelligencer, N.S. 23:3 (September 2009): 54-60.

William McCarthy. Anna Letitia Barbauld: Voice of the Enlightenment. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. Pp. Xxiv + 725; appendices (pp. 539-50); notes (pp. 551-663); sources and bibliography (pp. 675-98); index (pp. 699-725). ISBN 978-0-8018-9016-1. Hardcover. $60.00

This long, comprehensive, and temperately-written literary biography has had a paradoxical effect on its reviewers and commentators (Claire Harman, Norma Clarke, Kathryn Hughes, Isobel Grundy): they too fall in love with McCarthy's beloved heroine. They long to reread it (!), and to see published a standard edition of all Barbauld's works, including her radical political tracts, innovative and original literary criticism and biographies, her light but intellectually suggestive ironic journalism (in something of the Rambler vein), and her lively personal letters. McCarthy places before us the moving story of important presence whose later reputation has been a tragic travesty of what she was as a woman and poet. He builds a new and “original” (Grundy's word) perceptive portrait of Anna Barbauld as complex as any novel, believable because it escapes stereotypes, one which compels respect, admiration, compassion, and affection. The full-meaning and exact meaning of her difficult tracts is rendered by judicious close reading and painstaking contexualization. When we finish the book, we have come into contact with the numerous English and French milieus Barbauld experienced as well as her intimate life with a depressive and sensitive husband whom she loved, but who was not able to cope with living by the side of strong loving woman capable of, and respected for, social, economic, and literary successes completely out of his reach.

McCarthy persuades us that Barbauld was a recognized major figure of her era by presenting of the phases of Barbauld's life against a context of seriously-considered doctrines, issues, events and publications. He compensates for the lack of documentation for her personally as a girl and as a respectable young, socially awkward and single woman in the dissenting community by making his first five chapters a prose prelude on the growth and development of her intellectual mind. He explicates the doctrines that influenced and describes the individuals who made up the learned dissenting community she grew up in, including (importantly) her depressive sympathetic schoolmaster father and sternly controlling mother, with whom she had a “troubled” relationship (7, 22). When she was 15 and her father went to teach at Warrington, a fine dissenting academy in Lancashire, she found herself companioned with extraordinary minds (at the time Mary Priestley meant more to her than Joseph), and began to write passionate intelligent poetry. McCarthy recreates from her later writing her earliest memories, her profound reactions to reading from the time she was an adolescent girl, and which books she read (particularly Richardson's Clarissa), and her congenial relationship with John Aiken, her loving brother who was responsible for the publication and astute marketing of her Poems (1786); this supportive relationship lasted all their lives. McCarthy explains the genesis and circumstances of, and interprets masterpieces of meditative, friendship, elegiac, and political poetry written by Barbauld when she was in her 20s.

The book's one flaw emerges at the time of Barbauld's marriage. McCarthy cannot resist treating Barbauld at age 31 retrospectively from a modern point of view as someone centrally concerned with building a career the way men did then and and men and women do today. Her decision to marry a shy and unknown, and in England unconnected man is presented as as an almost inexplicable act since it makes no sense if her goal were to achieve a distinguished place for herself in an imaginary republic of letters; McCarthy sees the marriage as a disaster for her (Chapters Six and Seven). This view of her life's first crucial choice comes partly out of his continual special pleading against much evidence that she was not a feminist in either the sense of most feminist women today or a later eighteenth-century sense (as seen in not just Wollstonecraft, but also Mary Hays, Helena Maria Williams, the bluestocking circle around Elizabeth Montague and French feminism, e.g., Marie Jeanne Riccoboni, Germaine de Stael).

The issue first comes up and in the book continues to turn on on McCarthy's analysis of Barbauld's refusal to consider opening a secondary school or college for young women after she married. The young couple needed a source of income and respectable occupation and Rochemont Barbauld came up with the reasonable idea that a woman like his wife would be an effective teacher and headmistress for a young woman's secondary school or college; he had possibly secured the patronage of Margaret Georgiana, Countess Spencer (1737-1814). McCarthy suggests the letter which Lucy Aiken, Barbauld's niece and first biographer, thought was addressed to Elizabeth Montagu was probably addressed to Barbauld's husband. It was then (perhaps) given by him to the Countess (among whose papers it was found) to explain why the project would not go forward. But who her letter was directed to does not change the core of what she says in it. After declaring that “young Ladies” should only be given “a general tincture of knowledge as to make them agreeable companions to a Man of Sense . . . subject to a regulation, like that of the Ancient Spartans,” and that the kind of knowledge she means here is “best” gotten from “a father, brother, or a Neighbouring Minister,” she explains: in girls from the age of 13 to 14 “the empire of passions is coming on [thus] the care of a Mother and that alone can give suitable attention to this important period [because] their behaviour to the other half of the Species [should be] a happy mixture of easy politeness and graceful reserve,” one which should “wear off by degrees something of the girlish bashfulness without injuring virgin delicacy.” This can only be achieved “at home” by someone who has “the most intimate knowledge of a young Lady's temper.” She could not more clearly state that the central aim of education of young woman resides in placing strong continual controls on her sexual behavior and thoughts by a vigilant watchful woman (her “mother” Barbauld suggests) who (presumably) will repress them so that they fit the norms of middle class men seeking a chaste wife who will in turn devote much of her energies to turning out children who will also live according to these norms. That she spent her own life reading, studying and (when she could get herself to or had the time) writing (sometimes for publication at moments of public crisis) is explained only by the sentence “My situation has been peculiar and wou'd be no rule for others” (see William McCarthy, “Why Anna Barbauld Refused to Head a Woman's College: New Facts, New Story,” Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 23 [2001]:351, 375-77) .

McCarthy argues that Barbauld didn't want to run a secondary school for wealthier girls because she herself was from a dissenting background, was awkward in social situations with such people, and didn't want to give up the time it would take to educate them from her own studies. All true. But this does not alter her conception of a girl's education one iota. His argument only helps explain why she shied away from such a function: inordinate amounts of time, high status in front of the girl (and knowledge of the finer points of social manipulations), and aggressive one-on-one pressure would be necessary. Young boys would individually take up much less time and the effort be much less stressful and vexing. That she remained true to this norm even in her poetry has been noticed by males and angered some of her women readers from her own era to today: at the time male reviewers complained about (were made uncomfortable by) the masculine nature of Barbauld's poetic style: this derives from her keeping specifically or recognizably sexualized feminine eroticism out of her poetry. Wollstonecraft was accurate when she inveighed against the sexual character Barbauld was determined to enact in her published poetry: Barbauld was aggressively complicit in presenting women's public sexuality as coy; the phrases Barbauld uses for sensual love are equally appropriate for male enacting chaste courtship. Barbauld criticized Madame de Genlis's hypocritical methods and determination to keep her female charges away from general society; but she concurs with the norm of that self-inscribed veil embedded in the deep recesses of women's minds Woolf argued prevents women from real self-knowledge and effective action in public and George Eliot before Woolf suggested kept them from from original forcible thought (Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own [London: Hogarth, 1929] e.g., 88, George Eliot, "Woman in France: Madame de Sablé,” Selected Critical Writings, ed. Rosemary Ashton [London: Oxford, 1992],42-55).

Late in life in her letters she wrote that the “one” connection and usefulness “all” women can have to society is to be “a wife, mother, and mistress of a family” (Anna Letitia Barbauld: Selected Poetry and Prose, edd. William McCarthy [Ontario: Broadview, 2002]:476). She married herself, persisted in pressuring her brother to allow her to adopt one of his sons (187-88), published the political prose that would attract attention to herself and her journalism anonymously. Her original decision to marry Rochemont Barbauld came out of her perceived need to become a wife and mother; in this way she would have a respected useful connection to her society. Her choices were limited: she was a young woman whose nature and upbringing kept her from having any recorded erotic relationship with any man until she was 31, and the daughter of parents whose income was dependent on earned pay as well as interdependent niches in the dissenting community, and whose oldest son was apprenticed out as a surgeon. Rochemont Barbauld was (as she experienced from the outset) not an abrasive aggressive man, he was younger, someone whose tenderness would not threaten her and whose non-English and non-dissenting background would not be so controlling as what she had experienced. He represented an escape, a barrier against others, and a raison d'etre all at once. There is nothing anomalous, no puzzling mystery here.

Throughout the rest of the book, McCarthy does full justice to Barbauld's apparent deep love and need for this man as witnessed by her poetry and behavior. Chapters Eight, Nine and Ten present her decade as teacher and (in effect) headmistress of Palgrave, an enlightened young boys' school as something of a deviation and retreat, one however fully compensated for by her influential, brilliantly innovative, and humane educational writing and publications. The primers and hymns which continued to circulate in England throughout the nineteenth-century are analyzed as successful educational primers informed by a revolutionary Enlightenment outlook: like social learning, academic and linguistic learning occurs in and through situations; these texts are also informed by a poet's sensibility and include delightful pictures of a child's everyday life. Summers she and Rochemont socialized with their peers, and McCarthy depicts her time in the public salons of London sympathetically. She was one of those who has to make a face to meet the faces that she meets, and we see the genuinely progressive nature of her class politics put her at odds with powerful women (Hannah More); at the same time she formed sustaining friendships with women that became important later on in her life. Her friendship with the Martineau family is noteworthy; one of her Palgrave boys may have been Harriet Martineau's father (230-31): Harriet Martineau was one of the rare bold voices in the nineteenth century to rank Barbauld as “one of the great minds which belong to all time” and Martineau shows Barbauld's lasting influence in her own eloquent progressive writing (ix).

In just about all other areas beyond women's sexuality that Barbauld's life shows her taking risks. After ten successful but exhausting years she and Rochemont closed Palgrave, and traveled in France for a year (Chapter Eleven). There she came close to having a love affair with a French aristocrat, Alexandre-Cesar-Annibal Fremin, baron de Stone (251-59). They returned home and attempted to build a new and freer modus vivendi based on their unearned or inherited income, clerical appointments for Rochemont, and tutoring for Anna of young gentlewomen secured by word-of-mouth, with whom or whose mothers she then corresponded and/or met regularly. The pattern of setting up house near her brother, John, and his wife and children began. The couple again travelled (to Scotland), but they moved from smaller to smaller house as their income diminished, and may have been homeless at one point (290).

These years (1786-1809, Chapters Twelve through Eighteen) included her publishing anonymously eloquent radical essays and poetry openly questioning powerful authorities on fundamental bases in the areas of slavery, political rights, religious communities, “patriotic” war, prayer itself. She was hired to write fascinating literary criticism, biographies and editions where she attempted to provide, and argue on behalf of innovative sources of pleasure and self-fulfillment. Her history of the novel anticipates and combines the approaches of Margaret Anne Doody (The True History of the Novel) and Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg (The Nature of Narrative). Her choice of novelists includes eight women to fourteen men and a number of heterodox novels; she sees the later part of the eighteenth century as important as the first half; her individual essays on women novelists forgotten until recently are as valuable (if shorter) as her criticism of Richardson and Fielding. Two hundred years ahead of time she recognizes the masculinist bias of Fielding's texts; the fundamentals of her portrait of Richardson are those his biographers, T. C. Duncan Eaves and Ben Kimpel, kept to. She seems to be the first critic to be alive to the peculiar powerful art of the novel (like the uses of point of view), and shows how novels can be positive moral influences: “It is by reading . . . that we imbibe those sentiments and gain that knowledge which by degrees is wrought into the very texture of our minds . . . ”

During this time of achievement as a writer and editor for adult causes, she, her brother and their friends were in continual danger from government-enforced and locally-sponsored suppression of any progressives thought or writing; some were persecuted and their lives ruined. Priestley's house and belongings were burnt, other associates were transported or imprisoned; her brother's career as a surgeon failed because of his political activities and writing, and her husband's mental health deteriorated to the point he became abusive. They separated, and to her intense grief, in 1808, perhaps guilt-ridden over matters we cannot know of, he killed himself. Understandably emotionally depressed, but philosophically undefeated, she brought her lifelong polemics against war as mass cruel murdering into a final magnificent anti-imperialist poem, Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, for which she was castigated; people she considered friends distanced themselves from her (e.g, Maria Edgeworth). There followed the well-known cruel and spiteful, jealous and resentful, wholly unjust sexist attacks by the new male Romantic poets and critics (Chapters Nineteen through Twenty).

But, as told by McCarthy and evidenced by letters, this was not a unmitigated final season of unhappiness. Her tutoring and friendships with young women continued; she and Lucy founded a women's book club (reminding me of Azar Nafisi's reading group); her adopted son, Charles, and his family were loyal and visited, and there were leading men who admired her (William Ellery Channing, the abolitionist). Alas, her brother predeceased her by three years. Still, she wrote great poetry once again (not all of which even now is published), moving informal great Romantic lyrics in which she coped calmly with life in the hear and now (“The First Fire”), more Burns-like philosophic poems centered on small animals (“The Caterpillar”) and she contemplated death stoically.

The weaknesses of William McCarthy's text are too evident an anxiety to persuade the reader of Barbauld's greatness, occasionally overdone solemnity, and special pleading. He seems to want us really to believe that Walter Scott's improbable flattery that hearing Barbauld recite poetry inspired Scott to write his poems (365). Biographies are texts wherein we see the interaction of two minds, and I suggest McCarthy's blind spots come from his loving Barbauld as a man. He does not see that her retreat from abrasive women and the way sexuality was experienced by women then (and often still is) derives from psychological maiming, and is a developmental issue which puts her in a continuum dealt with in masterpieces of educational literature about girls today (e.g., Mary Piper's Reviving Ophelia [NY: Random House, 1995]). Although Piper's records of conversations about sexual relationships between young men and women were not possible in Barbauld's era, she would have understood the conclusion of Piper's group of coed girls that “Anything's better than dating” (203-5). Barbauld's understanding of Richardson's Clarissa and its importance to her do not derive from universal ethical insight (as McCarthy thinks, 59), but her recognition of the astonishing courage it takes for Richardson's heroine to see that sexual violation need not enslave her nor its concomitant social abuse define her identity, and that such behavior can model for other women how to cope with violence and subjugation in crippling male and capitalist hegemonies.

The strengths of the book are those of powerful literary biographies. In the light of Barbauld's controlled social tone, McCarthy's tone is most often one of kind generosity; the deep kindness of Barbauld's nature, and the decency of her candid understanding of human flaws and traits led to the insights her unwavering genius was capable of when she writes in private. McCarthy shows how her insights shed light on the calamities of our own era. He has given us a writer whose words if we will only hear them could teach us to recognize and deal more effectively with abuses of power and ignorance today.

The interested reader will find a detailed summary of McCarthy's book on my blog, "Ellen and Jim have a blog, two:" Anna Barbauld: the gallant life of a great poet, critic, and essayist

I've also provided a summary of one of McCarthy's papers on Barbauld delivered at a British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies meeting in Oxford, in 1999.

Thought to be Anna Barbauld (1743-1825), attributed to Richard Cosway

Contact Ellen Moody.
Pagemaster: Jim Moody.
Page Last Updated 15 October 2009