Barbauld's poetry, which addresses a wide range of topics, has been read primarily by feminist literary critics interested in recovering women writers who were important in their own time but who have been forgotten by literary history. Isobel Armstrong's work represents one way to do such scholarship; she argues that Barbauld, like other Romantic women poets:
|... neither consented to the idea of a special feminine discourse nor accepted an account of themselves as belonging to the realm of the nonrational. They engaged with two strategies to deal with the problem of affective discourse. First, they used the customary 'feminine' forms and languages, but they turned them to analytical account and used them to think with. Second, they challenged the male philosophical traditions that led to a demeaning discourse of feminine experience and remade those traditions.|
In her subsequent analysis of "Inscription for an Ice-House" she points to Barbauld's challenge of Edmund Burke's characterisation of the sublime and the beautiful and Adam Smith's economic theories in the Wealth of Nations as evidence for this interpretation.
The work of Marlon Ross and Anne K. Mellor represents a second way to apply the insights of feminist theory to the recovery of women writers. They argue that Barbauld and other Romantic women poets carved out a distinctive feminine voice in the literary sphere. As a woman and a Dissenter, Barbauld had a unique perspective on society, according to Ross, and it was this specific position that "obligated" her to publish social commentary. But, Ross points out, women were in a double bind: "they could choose to speak politics in nonpolitical modes, and thus risk greatly diminishing the clarity and pointedness of their political passion, or they could choose literary modes that were overtly political while trying to infuse them with a recognizable 'feminine' decorum, again risking a softening of their political agenda." Therefore Barbauld and other Romantic women poets often wrote "occasional poems". These poems had traditionally commented, often satirically, on national events, but by the end of the 18th century they were increasingly serious and personal. Women wrote sentimental poems, a style then much in vogue, on personal occasions such as the birth of a child and argued that in commenting on the small occurrences of daily life, they would establish a moral foundation for the nation. Scholars such as Ross and Mellor maintain that this adaptation of existing styles and genres is one way that female poets created a feminine Romanticism.
Political essays and poems
Barbauld's most significant political texts are: An Address to the Opposers of the Repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts (1790), Epistle to William Wilberforce on the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade (1791), Sins of Government, Sins of the Nation (1793), and Eighteen Hundred and Eleven (1812). As Harriet Guest explains, "the theme Barbauld's essays of the 1790s repeatedly return to is that of the constitution of the public as a religious, civic, and national body, and she is always concerned to emphasize the continuity between the rights of private individuals and those of the public defined in capaciously inclusive terms."
For three years, from 1787 to 1790, Dissenters had been attempting to convince Parliament to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts which limited the civil rights of Dissenters. After the repeal was voted down for the third time, Barbauld burst onto the public stage after "nine years of silence." Her highly charged pamphlet is written in a biting and sarcastic tone; it opens, "we thank you for the compliment paid the Dissenters, when you suppose that the moment they are eligible to places of power and profit, all such places will at once be filled with them." She argues that Dissenters deserve the same rights as any other men: "We claim it as men, we claim it as citizens, we claim it as good subjects." Moreover, she contends that it is precisely the isolation forced on Dissenters by others that marks them out, not anything inherent in their form of worship. Finally, appealing to British patriotism, she maintains that the French cannot be allowed to outstrip the English in liberty.
In the following year, 1791, after one of William Wilberforce's many efforts to suppress the slave trade failed to pass Parliament, Barbauld wrote her Epistle to William Wilberforce on the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade. In it, she calls Britain to account for the sin of slavery; in harsh tones, she condemns the "Avarice" of a country which is content to allow its wealth and prosperity to be supported by the labour of enslaved human beings. Moreover, she draws a picture of the plantation mistress and master that reveals all of the failings of the "colonial enterprise: [an] indolent, voluptuous, monstrous woman" and a "degenerate, enfeebled man."
In 1793, when the British government called on the nation to fast in honour of the war, anti-war Dissenters such as Barbauld were left with a moral quandary: "obey the order and violate their consciences by praying for success in a war they disapproved? observe the Fast, but preach against the war? defy the Proclamation and refuse to take any part in the Fast?" Barbauld took this opportunity to write a sermon, Sins of Government, Sins of the Nation, on the moral responsibility of the individual; for her, each individual is responsible for the actions of the nation because he or she constitutes part of the nation. The essay attempts to determine what the proper role of the individual is in the state and while she argues that "insubordination" can undermine a government, she does admit that there are lines of "conscience" that one cannot cross in obeying a government. The text is a classic consideration of the idea of an "unjust war."
In Eighteen Hundred and Eleven (1812), written after Britain had been at war with France for a decade and was on the brink of losing the Napoleonic Wars, Barbauld presented her readers with a shocking Juvenalian satire; she argued that the British empire was waning and the American empire was waxing. It is to America that Britain's wealth and fame will now go, she contended, and Britain will become nothing but an empty ruin. She tied this decline directly to Britain's participation in the Napoleonic Wars:
And think'st thou, Britain, still to sit at ease, An island Queen amidst thy subject seas, While the vext billows, in their distant roar, But soothe thy slumbers, and but kiss thy shore? To sport in wars, while danger keeps aloof, Thy grassy turf unbruised by hostile hoof? So sing thy flatterers; but, Britain, know, Thou who hast shared the guilt must share the woe. Nor distant is the hour; low murmurs spread, And whispered fears, creating what they dread; Ruin, as with an earthquake shock, is here (lines 39–49)
This pessimistic view of the future was, not surprisingly, poorly received; "reviews, whether in liberal or conservative magazines, ranged from cautious to patronizingly negative to outrageously abusive." Barbauld, stunned by the reaction, retreated from the public eye. Even when Britain was on the verge of winning the war, Barbauld could not be joyous. She wrote to a friend: "I do not know how to rejoice at this victory, splendid as it is, over Buonaparte, when I consider the horrible waste of life, the mass of misery, which such gigantic combats must occasion."
Barbauld's Lessons for Children and Hymns in Prose for Children were a revolution in children's literature. For the first time, the needs of the child reader were seriously considered. Barbauld demanded that her books be printed in large type with wide margins so that children could easily read them and, even more important, she developed a style of "informal dialogue between parent and child" that would dominate children's literature for a generation. In Lessons for Children, a four-volume, age-adapted reading primer, Barbauld employs the concept of a mother teaching her son. More than likely, many of the events in these stories were inspired by Barbauld's experience of teaching her own son, Charles. But this series is far more than a way to acquire literacy—it also introduces the reader to "elements of society's symbol-systems and conceptual structures, inculcates an ethics, and encourages him to develop a certain kind of sensibility." Moreover, it exposes the child to the principles of "botany, zoology, numbers, change of state in chemistry ... the money system, the calendar, geography, meteorology, agriculture, political economy, geology, [and] astronomy." The series was relatively popular and Maria Edgeworth commented in the educational treatise that she co-authored with her father, Practical Education (1798), that it is "one of the best books for young people from seven to ten years old, that has yet appeared."
Some at the time saw Barbauld's work as marking a shift in children's literature from fantasy to didacticism. Sarah Burney, in her popular novel Traits of Nature (1812), has the 14-year-old Christina Cleveland remark, "Well, then; you know fairy-tales are forbidden pleasures in all modern school-rooms. Mrs. Barbauld, and Mrs. Trimmer, and Miss Edgeworth, and a hundred others, have written good books for children, which have thrown poor Mother Goose, and the Arabian Nights, quite out of favour;—at least, with papas and mamas."
Lessons for Children and Hymns in Prose had, for children's books, an unprecedented impact; not only did they influence the poetry of William Blake and William Wordsworth, they were also used to teach several generations of school children. Children's literature scholar William McCarthy states, "Elizabeth Barrett Browning could still quote the opening lines of Lessons for Children at age thirty-nine." Although both Samuel Johnson and Charles James Fox ridiculed Barbauld's children's books and believed that she was wasting her talents, Barbauld herself believed that such writing was noble and she encouraged others to follow in her footsteps. As Betsy Rodgers, her biographer explains, "she gave prestige to the writing of juvenile literature, and by not lowering her standard of writing for children, she inspired others to write on a similar high standard." In fact, because of Barbauld, Sarah Trimmer and Hannah More were inspired to write for poor children as well as organise a large-scale Sunday School movement, Ellenor Fenn wrote and designed a series of readers and games for middle-class children and Richard Lovell Edgeworth began one of the first systematic studies of childhood development which would culminate in not only an educational treatise authored by Maria Edgeworth and himself but also in a large body of children's stories by Maria herself.
|Tut[or]. Solution is when a solid put into a fluid entirely disappears in it, leaving the liquor clear. Thus when I throw this lump of sugar into my tea, you see it gradually wastes away till it is all gone; and then I can taste it in every single drop of my tea; but the tea is clear as before.|
|—Anna Laetitia Barbauld, "A Tea Lecture", Evenings at Home (1793)|
Barbauld also collaborated with her brother John Aikin on the six-volume series Evenings at Home (1793). It is a miscellany of stories, fables, dramas, poems, and dialogues. In many ways this series encapsulates the ideals of an Enlightenment education: "curiosity, observation, and reasoning." For example, the stories encourage learning science through hands-on activities; in "A Tea Lecture" the child learns that tea-making is "properly an operation of chemistry" and lessons on evaporation, and condensation follow. The text also emphasises rationality; in "Things by Their Right Names," a child demands that his father tell him a story about "a bloody murder." The father does so, using some of the fictional tropes of fairy tales such as "once upon a time" but confounding his son with details such as the murderers all "had steel caps on." At the end, the child realises his father has told him the story of a battle and his father comments "I do not know of any murders half so bloody." Both the tactic of defamiliarising the world to force the reader to think about it rationally and the anti-war message of this tale are prevalent throughout Evenings at Home. In fact, Michelle Levy, a scholar of the period, has argued that the series encouraged readers to "become critical observers of and, where necessary, vocal resisters to authority." This resistance is learned and practised in the home; according to Levy, "Evenings at Home ... makes the claim that social and political reform must begin in the family." It is families that are responsible for the nation's progress or regress.
According to Lucy Aikin, Barbauld's niece, Barbauld's contributions to Evenings at Home consisted of the following pieces: "The Young Mouse," "The Wasp and Bee," "Alfred, a drama," "Animals and Countries," "Canute's Reproof," "The Masque of Nature," "Things by their right Names," "The Goose and Horse," "On Manufactures," "The Flying-fish," "A Lesson in the Art of Distinguishing," "The Phoenix and Dove," "The Manufacture of Paper," "The Four Sisters," and "Live Dolls."
Barbauld edited several major works towards the end of her life, all of which helped to shape the canon as known today. First, in 1804 she edited Samuel Richardson's correspondence and wrote an extensive biographical introduction of the man who was perhaps the most influential novelist of the 18th century. Her "212-page essay on his life and works [was] the first substantial Richardson biography." The following year she edited Selections from the Spectator, Tatler, Guardian, and Freeholder, with a Preliminary Essay, a volume of essays emphasising "wit," "manners" and "taste." In 1811, she assembled The Female Speaker, an anthology of literature chosen specifically for young girls. Because, according to Barbauld's philosophy, what one reads when one is young is formative, she carefully considered the "delicacy" of her female readers and "direct[ed] her choice to subjects more particularly appropriate to the duties, the employments, and the dispositions of the softer sex." The anthology is subdivided into sections such as "moral and didactic pieces" and "descriptive and pathetic pieces"; it includes poetry and prose by, among others, Alexander Pope, Hannah More, Maria Edgeworth, Samuel Johnson, James Thomson and Hester Chapone.
But it was Barbauld's fifty-volume series of The British Novelists published in 1810 with her large introductory essay on the history of the novel that allowed her to place her mark on literary history. It was "the first English edition to make comprehensive critical and historical claims" and was in every respect "a canon-making enterprise." In her insightful essay, Barbauld legitimises the novel, then still a controversial genre, by connecting it to ancient Persian and Greek literature. For her, a good novel is "an epic in prose, with more of character and less (indeed in modern novels nothing) of the supernatural machinery." Barbauld maintains that novel-reading has a multiplicity of benefits; not only is it a "domestic pleasure" but it is also a way to "infus[e] principles and moral feelings" into the population. Barbauld also provided introductions to each of the fifty authors included in the series.