Anna Laetitia Barbauld; or, women in politics

I’ve been reading some of the poems of Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825) and enjoying them quite a bit; she’s an interesting figure for a lot of reasons (you’ll find many of her works here). She wrote some poems like “To a Lady, with some painted Flowers” with very traditional views of women and lines such as these, comparing the lady to a flower:

Nor blush, my fair, to own you copy these ;
Your best, your sweetest empire is—to please.

Mary Wollstonecraft criticized this poem in a footnote in The Vindication of the Rights of Woman for its stereotypical view of women. But Barbauld also argued for the importance of women’s education and equality. She wrote lines like these:

Yes, injured Woman! rise, assert thy Right!
Woman! too long degraded, scorned, opprest …

She wrote on a range of subjects, including domestic themes, for example in the charming poem “Washing-Day“; the natural world, as in “A Summer Evening’s Meditation“; and pregnancy, in a poem called “To a Little Invisible Being Who is Expected Soon to Become Visible.” And she wrote poems and essays on political themes, including slavery and empire. She was known as a political radical, arguing forcibly for the abolition of the slave trade and pointing out the injustices of imperialism.

One of the most interesting things about Barbauld is the story of her poem “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven,” her most famous poem, which argues that Britain would suffer decay because of the sins of imperialism. Of Britain she writes:

But fairest flowers expand but to decay;
The worm is in thy core, thy glories pass away;
Arts, arms, and wealth destroy the fruits they bring;
Commerce, like beauty, knows no second spring.
Crime walks thy streets, Fraud earns her unblest bread,
O’er want and woe thy gorgeous robe is spread,
And angel charities in vain oppose;
With grandeur’s growth the mass of misery grows.

It’s interesting to think that while British imperialism was yet to hit its high point when she wrote this poem, eventually what Barbauld predicted did come true.

I’ve been writing a bit about how women writers were relegated to women’s subjects — love, domesticity — and when they wandered into other territory — politics, for example — they were sharply criticized. Well, Barbauld obviously stepped over a line with this poem because the reviews were vicious, and they were gendered in their viciousness. One review by John Wilson Croker has this to say about “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven”; in this passage he refers to some of Barbauld’s earlier writing for children:

But she must excuse us if we think that she has wandered from the course in which she was respectable and useful, and miserably mistaken both her powers and her duty, in exchanging the birchen for the satiric rod, and abandoning her superintendance of the ‘ovilia’ [lambs] of the nursery, to wage war on the ‘reluctantes dracones’ [struggling lawgivers], statesmen, and warriors, whose misdoings have aroused her indignant muse.

We had hoped, indeed, that the empire might have been saved without the intervention of a lady-author … Not such, however, is her opinion; an irresistible impulse of public duty — a confident sense of commanding talents — have induced her to dash down her shagreen spectacles and her knitting needles and to sally forth …

and it goes on in this vein for quite a while. In other words, the reviewer is saying, get back to the nursery where you belong and stop meddling in politics.

This, unfortunately was a common response to women who wrote about “male” subjects. It hit Barbauld particularly hard, though, and although she kept on writing, she chose never to publish anything again. I suppose one could say she should have let the controversy wash over her and kept on publishing, but with a long, long history of such misogynistic criticism, it would be extraordinarily difficult to do so.

So there’s a double bind going on here — how could women experiment and write about dangerous topics when the wrath of the publishing world could fall on them (although many did this anyway), and how could people learn how to read and understand the things women were writing when aesthetic standards are defined by men?


Filed under Books, Poetry

7 responses to “Anna Laetitia Barbauld; or, women in politics

  1. I’ve never heard of Barbauld before. Too bad she let the male critics get to her, though it is entirely understandable. One can only take so much if there is no support system behind you.


  2. Ouch. Talk about a hostile environment. It’s not surprising that she didn’t continue to try and publish–that would be crushing to anyone I suspect. It is pretty courageous that she even published what she did considering the politics of the day–were men writing against the ideas of “empire” and imperialism? And I wonder how well they were received? Of course they wouldn’t be told to return to the nursery! It’s no wonder women chose to write under a pseudonym.


  3. As Danielle mentions, the use of a pseudonym becomes apparent when a woman could receive such vicious criticism under her own name.


  4. hepzibah

    these are very thought-provoking questions that you leave us with Dorothy, and I continually revert back to ideas like you posed, in my reading, and sadly, there is no answer, I don’t know.


  5. Stefanie — I wasn’t familiar with her before I saw her in an anthology of mine and decided to check her out — we never read her in my classes, but I’m deciding she’s quite good.

    Danielle — there were men writing against slavery and empire, and they could get away with it much more easily, although they got attacked for it too. But they wouldn’t be attacked on gendered terms at least.

    Jenclair — yeah, knowing something about the critical climate certainly explains the popular of pseudonyms. Men used them a lot too, or published anonymously — including Walter Scott.

    Hepzibah — thank you; it is sad, but I take pleasure in reading books like Dale Spender’s on women and the novel — we’re starting to understand more and more about women writers at least.


  6. Lucie

    You might be interested to know that the second poem you quoted from, ‘The Rights of Women’, was actually intended as a satire, and as such taking those lines out of context is a little misleading. It was Barbauld’s response to Wollstonecraft’s criticism, and most of the quartets end on an ironic line.

    Indeed, the last two stanzas make it very clear she’s actually criticising this kind of thinking.

    ‘Then, then, abandon each ambitious thought,
    Conquest or rule thy heart shall feebly move,
    In Nature’s school, by her soft maxims taught
    That separate rights are lost in mutual love.’

    The suggestion being that once she returns to her natural position as nurse and childbearer her ‘coldness soften, and thy pride give way’.


  7. You’re right Lucie, and thanks for pointing it out. I thought about revising this post, but I prefer to leave posts as they are. Perhaps I should write a little amendment or something.


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