Joanna Baillie

(2044 words)
  • Natasha Aleksiuk Duquette


Engraving by Henry Robinson after John James Masquerier, 1876-77, courtesy The Walter Scott Digital Archive, Edinburgh University Library.

There is a tension between Joanna Baillie’s image as a reserved, gentle and devout Scottish woman and the representation of explosive, at times violent, passions in her poetry and plays. In a letter of April 2, 1817, Byron wrote, “When Voltaire was asked why no woman has ever written even a tolerable tragedy? ‘Ah (said the Patriarch) the composition of a tragedy requires testicles’ If this be true Lord knows what Joanna Baillie does – I suppose she borrows them”. The curiosity of Baillie biographers and critics has been constantly piqued by the question of where this unmarried, seemingly sheltered, Presbyterian minister’s daughter found the material with which to depict obsessive, paranoid, and even murderous characters. In the “Introductory Discourse” (1798) to her first volume of Plays on the Passions Baillie explains that the gradual decline of her troubled characters is intended as a warning. She thus cast her tragedies as moral cautionary tales. Byron’s delight in these characters, which pre-date, and no doubt influenced, his own tortured but romanticized heroes, proves that Baillie’s narratives could be read in modes other than the didactic. Baillie did not, however, approve of the Byronic hero, as is evidenced in her pointed and witty correspondence with Sir Walter Scott. Perhaps it was the very stability of Baillie’s serene and secluded life that gave her the courage to depict the darker side of human nature with objective, unflinching honesty and to defend her ethical and artistic principles to the end.

Baillie’s early years in Scotland significantly shaped the form, language, setting and subject matter of her entire oeuvre. She was born to James and Dorothea Baillie (née Hunter) on Sept. 11, 1762, in the manse of Bothwell, Lanarkshire. Victorian biographers have posited her father’s familial connections to such Scottish notables as Covenanter Robert Baillie and nationalist William Wallace but these ancestral lines are unsure. In the preface to her Metrical Legends of Exalted Characters (1821), Baillie wishes she could claim a family tie to Lady Grisell Baillie but then admits that she does not have any proof of this lineage. We do know that Joanna Baillie’s birthplace was near Robroyston where William Wallace was captured in 1305, to be taken to London for execution, and also an area marked by Covenanter struggles, and that, as a result, she would have spent her early years amongst oral narratives of Scottish bravery. Baillie’s mother and two maternal uncles, the skilled anatomists William and John Hunter, were admired for their story-telling abilities and the young Joanna revealed a similar talent. Her ability to spontaneously compose tales and couplets was soon evident despite her initial aversion to books. While at Bothwell she resisted learning to read and spent most of her time outdoors. Her wilful engagement with the wild and rugged landscape around Bothwell is later reflected in her descriptive writing, in which nature generally appears as brooding, sublime, and potentially destructive, rather than placid or beautiful.

In her youth and teenage years, Baillie’s social world would expand significantly several times and then settle back into seclusion in the Scottish countryside upon her father’s death. First, in 1768, James Baillie was transferred to the collegiate church of Hamilton, on the banks of the Clyde, then, in 1772, Joanna was sent to boarding school in Glasgow and in 1776 her father was appointed Professor of Divinity at the University of Glasgow. Baillie remained an energetic and robust individual who delighted audiences of young friends with a “multitude of wonderful tales”(Dramatic and Poetical Works vii). The bold sense of humour, mischief and adventure that manifests itself in her poems “A November Night’s Traveller”(1823) and “Lady Griseld Baillie”(1821), as well as in her plays, both comic and tragic, was evident in Baillie’s personality early on. According to the editor of her Dramatic and Poetical Works, Baillie “was full of merriment and playful trick” as a youth. At boarding school these energies were directed into music, visual art, mathematics, and, of course, reading, which she eventually mastered at the age of ten. She was especially adept at math and visual art. In her free time Baillie organised her boarding school classmates into amateur theatricals and even dressed them up in costumes she had made herself. After the family moved to a house provided by the University of Glasgow, Baillie’s character became more sedate and she applied herself to reading Milton’s Comus and Paradise Lost. When James Baillie died, two years after his appointment at the University, his widow and daughters moved to a small estate in Long Calderwood, near Hamilton, Lanarkshire, where they remained for six years. During this period, Matthew Baillie completed a degree at Oxford and then studied medicine under his Uncle William’s supervision in London. Joanna Baillie, on the other hand, pursued a self-directed course of study while at Long Calderwood. In almost complete seclusion, she studied the major British poets and focussed most intently on Shakespeare.

It was not until Baillie had lived in London for six years that a slim volume of her verse, Poems: Wherein it is attempted to describe CERTAIN VIEWS OF NATURE and of RUSTIC MANNERS; and also, to point out, in some instances, the different influence which the same circumstances produce on different characters was offered tentatively, and anonymously, to the public. In 1783 William Hunter died and left his house, museum, and anatomical theatre to Mathew Baillie. Dorothea, Agnes and Joanna Baillie moved to this residence on Great Windmill Street in 1784. This is where Baillie first began writing with the intent to publish. Northern folklore, landscape and communities figure prominently in these early poems in which she plays with Scotch dialect and mannerisms. The Victorian biographer Eric Robertson was later to complain:

As the possessor of a most refined literary taste, her speech never brought itself within the amenities of Southern pronunciation, and she clung obstinately to every association of her Scottish home which she had brought over the Border. A writer of fine English she nevertheless scorned the attempt to become a fine English lady.

Baillie’s first volume did not attract much positive attention but the small praise it did receive in the Monthly Review was enough to encourage her continued literary endeavours.

During her lifetime, Joanna Baillie was best known for her plays, which were popular in print in the United States during the nineteenth century, produced on stages in London, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Dublin, sometimes as melodramas or operas, and even translated into Senegalese in the 1830s. The actor John Kemble and his sister Mrs. Siddons took on several of the main roles in their stage productions. Baillie first thought of writing plays while finishing a needlework pattern, at her mother’s side, on a hot summer afternoon in 1790. Her first play, Arnold, took her three months to write and is now lost. Volume One of her Plays on the Passions was published anonymously in 1798. Baillie’s “Introductory Discourse” to this volume is a substantial aesthetic treatise that argues for simplicity over ornamentation and for the patient development of dramatic passions over hurried hyperbole. It is often compared to Wordsworth’s “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads, published later that same year. After Baillie came out publicly as the author of Plays on the Passions the critics insisted that a man must have written the “Introductory Discourse”. In much the same way that some scholars have speculated, without sufficient grounds, that Branwell Brontë was the author of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, late eighteenth-century critics were quick to attribute “The Introductory Discourse” to Matthew Baillie, with no proof other than the work’s “masculine” rigor. Baillie’s plan in writing her Plays on the Passions was to trace the structure of each human passion, from its faint beginnings to its most chaotic heights, in one tragedy and one comedy. Her 1798 volume contains Basil, a tragedy on Love and DeMontfort, a tragedy on Hatred, her two most successful attempts at fulfilling this scheme. The second volume, published in 1802, a third volume, published in 1812, and three more volumes that appeared simultaneously in 1836, completed the project. The minute psychological detail and lack of incident or action in Baillie’s plays meant that they did not always draw large audiences. Constantine Paleologus, which was included in her 1804 Miscellaneous Plays, was an exception to this rule and enjoyed long runs in both Dublin and Edinburgh. Her 1810 play The Family Legend, bolstered by Walter Scott’s prologue and Henry Mackenzie’s epilogue, was also received favourably in Edinburgh. Regardless of how profitable a Baillie production was she would always donate half of the proceeds to charity.

A spirit of philanthropy, generosity and hospitality characterised the latter half of Joanna Baillie’s life during which she developed strong opinions, both ethical and aesthetic, and a love of fiery debate. After Matthew Baillie married in 1791, Dorothea, Agnes and Joanna Baillie set up residence in Hampstead, where they seldom left home but often received visitors, both British and foreign, distinguished and obscure. Baillie met the poet Anna Laetitia Barbauld at the Unitarian church in Hampstead where Barbauld’s husband served as a minister. Her other literary acquaintances included Lady Annabella and Lord Byron, Campbell, Wordsworth, Maria Edgeworth and Sir Walter Scott, with whom she enjoyed an affectionate friendship and correspondence. Baillie met Scott in 1806, shortly after her mother’s death, and in 1807 the two Baillie sisters re-visited Scotland for the first time. Before staying with Scott in Edinburgh they went on a walking tour of the Western Highlands where Baillie was transfixed the falls of Moness. When the sisters returned from this trip they moved into a rented house on Holly Bush Hill, Hampstead, right up against the Heath. In 1820 Baillie visited Scott again, this time at Abbotsford. These visits to Scotland most likely influenced her inclusion of William Wallace and Grisell Baillie in her Metrical Legends of Exalted Characters (1821), a volume whose innovative blending of historical fact and poetic narrative further displeased reviewers. Baillie’s next published poem, “A November Night’s Traveller”, appeared in an anthology that she herself edited, A Collection of Poems, Chiefly Manuscript, and from Living Authors (1823). This anthology was produced by Baillie to raise money for several of her friends. It generated greater profits than were expected and more than adequate funds were distributed to each intended recipient. 1823 also saw the death of Matthew Baillie after Joanna had nursed him day and night. Like her fellow Hampstead poet, John Keats, Joanna Baillie personally witnessed the death of a parent and sibling after spending much time caring for them in times of severe illness.

Baillie’s 1831 essay “A View of the general Tenor of the New Testament regarding the Nature and Dignity of Jesus Christ” and the number of hymns and paraphrases of scripture in her 1840 Fugitive Verses testify to her intense exploration of faith after this period of loss. The fact that the hymns eventually published in Fugitive Verses were first solicited and then rejected by the Scottish church suggests that Baillie was pushing the bounds of Protestant orthodoxy. This volume also contains “Lines Written on the Death of Sir Walter Scott”, Baillie’s poetic response to Scott’s eulogising of her in Marmion. Her favourable comparison of Scott’s rhetorical purity to Byron’s “perverse skill” needs to be seen in the context of both her Christian and proto-feminist ethics. She was a close friend of the mistreated Annabella Byron and could not bear Lord Byron’s presentation of “Wild, maniac, selfish fiends to be admired, / As heroes with sublimest ardour fired” (81-82). Baillie’s Fugitive Verses also included her 1790 poems. In her preface she claims that these earlier poems have received only grammatical corrections but, in fact, she did make substantial changes in terms of content. The removal of lines describing a volatile female body in “Thunder,” and the addition of lines describing family prayer in “A Winter’s Day”, reflect Baillie’s growing piety. Her last extant poems were included in The Dramatic and Poetical Works of Joanna Baillie. This text was published several weeks before Baillie’s peaceful death, attended by her sister Agnes, on Feb. 23, 1851.

Duquette, Natasha Aleksiuk. "Joanna Baillie". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 12 November 2001
[, accessed 27 February 2015.]

Related Groups

  1. English Romanticism