She started off with A and ended up at B: born in 1743 as Miss Aikin, Anna Letitia died in 1825 as Mrs Barbauld. Poet, editor, biographer, essayist, pamphleteer and children’s writer, she was once known only for finding ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ improbable. Many of her poems were lost: one survives only in the form of its title, but even that scrap – ‘Verses on the boy who would not say A lest he should be made to say B’ – follows alphabetical order while resisting it. The boy in question was probably Barbauld’s adopted son (and biological nephew) Charles Rochemont Aikin, who bore his mother’s maiden name as his surname and took his father’s first name as his middle name. (Miss Aikin married Rochemont Barbauld, a teacher of Huguenot descent, in 1774.) Such latticework sums up the complex, loving and productive exchanges of the Aikins, a brilliantly adaptable clan of rational dissenters whose achievements in literature, education and medicine spanned two centuries. Their interconnectedness was shown by the names they carried and swapped and passed on; in 1808, Charles Rochemont Aikin’s wife gave birth to another Anna Letitia, who duly grew up to be another writer.
In ‘Surnames’ (probably written in the 1790s), an unpublished jeu d’esprit first attributed to her in the 20th century, Barbauld toyed with the relationship of names given to and taken by the characters who wear them. Long ago you could rely on men being ‘surnamed from their shape or estate’, but now names (we are told) follow ‘the rule of contraries’. Modern men and women are consistently and precisely the opposite of what their names say they are:
Mr Wise is a dunce, Mr King is a Whig,
Mr Coffin’s uncommonly sprightly,
And huge Mr Little broke down in a gig
While driving fat Mrs Golightly.
The lines come to life when they begin to see names less as clues to the characters of their owners – whether faithfully reflected, or just as reliably not – than as temporary restrictions or skins to be shed. For this is a poem about second chances and moving on, as well as about enforced conformity to type or anti-type:
Miss Joy, wretched maid, when she chose Mr Love
Found nothing but sorrow await her:
She now holds in wedlock, as true as a dove
That fondest of mates, Mr Hayter.
Barbauld’s Miss Joy (a name related to her own; ‘Letitia’ means ‘joy’ or ‘pleasure’) both is and is not what she seems. On the terms of the poem, her name is a signpost of happiness that has condemned her to the opposite condition. Mr Love, her first choice, only enforced her joylessness. But then, on finding the mirror image of Mr Love in Mr Hayter, Miss Joy casts against type, and finds happiness. Changing your name may be what restores you to yourself. Miss Joy is truly joyful in the end, by virtue of becoming Mrs Hayter.
There is a romantic novel to be glimpsed in this stanza: how, we might ask, did Miss Joy part company with Mr Love? Did she only choose him, but not marry him? Did he ditch her at the altar, or leave her a grieving widow – a lovelorn Mrs Love? The poem proceeds to wrap things up briskly. The effect of ‘Surnames’, the way it immerses in and liberates its reader from what she expects, is not far from something Coleridge observed in John Bunyan: the way the allegorical characters of Pilgrim’s Progress step out of their types and suddenly become ‘real persons, who had been nicknamed by their neighbours’. Something of this unpredictable, arresting quality informs Barbauld’s character in general as a writer. Over the course of a long life – she died at the age of 81 – she never narrowed her views or ossified in her commitments, so that even in old age she remained open to new ideas and new people, always admirably hard to pin down.
When she married Rochemont Barbauld – in a spirit, according to her niece, of ‘desperate generosity’ – she presented him with ‘a Map of the Land of Matrimony’ and a poem that concluded: ‘Too strong relentless Fate has fixed her bars,/And I my destined captive hold too fast.’ Her husband, who had already experienced at least one attack of madness, eventually suffered a complete mental breakdown. In 1808, after 34 years of marriage, he violently assaulted his wife, who had to jump out of a window to escape him. Ten months later, he drowned himself.
But this is to offer a single, extreme version of events. The ‘yoke of wedlock’, as Barbauld calls it in ‘Washing-Day’ (1797), is portrayed by turns in her poetry as a flight from misery and a confirmation of it; it seems likely that for her it was both, and she soldiered on, making the best of it as long as she could. The ‘Memoir’ she wrote of her husband describes ‘more than thirty years’ of ‘the most tender and delicate attachment’. Barbauld was both resilient and versatile, qualities that express themselves in the peculiar, jaunty, imaginative visions she has of the state of domesticity, as well as of other forms of confinement. She can sometimes sound very like Robert Burns (both of them wrote poems about mice as the victims of human beings; hers, however, is entirely in the mouse’s voice). Low-roofed cots, cells, shells and alcoves; the caterpillar’s fold of silken web; the human womb: these cramped spaces are refuges for the vulnerable, and also casings which their inhabitants may be either unable to escape or reluctant to leave. She recounts the ways in which children and other tiny creatures shore themselves up, describing a beetle’s ‘wide domain’ as extending ‘O’er many an inch’, his ‘rich treasury’ swollen ‘with hoarded grain’. She depicts an ice-house as the prison cell of a personified Winter, whose ‘treasured snows’ lie piled around him. In ‘To a little invisible Being who is expected soon to become visible’ (c.1795), the maternal womb surrounding the foetus is said to be a ‘living tomb’, and the speaker urges its ‘little captive’ to ‘burst thy prison doors!/Launch on the living world, and spring to light!’
That image might stand for an author’s entrance into the limelight, as well as for the birth of a long-awaited baby. Anna Letitia Aikin grew up in a house full of schoolboys (including her much loved younger brother and fellow writer, John). This knockabout childhood produced neither the ‘prude’ nor the ‘hoyden’ her mother feared inevitable, but instead a robust, independently minded writer who learned very early on how to play to a crowd, compose on the hoof and defend her own opinions. In the collection of Poems that launched her career in 1772, she celebrated God’s ‘sacred’ and ‘awful’ name, as well as the various monikers, that is to say guises, of friendship, liberty and love. She never lost her fierce devotion to the ‘nobler name’ of Joseph Priestley, who had taught alongside her father at the Warrington Academy. When she herself became a teacher – at the celebrated dissenting school she ran with her husband in Suffolk – she enjoyed turning pupils’ names into riddles for the weekly newsletter. Samuel Johnson said this sort of writing was a waste of her ‘early cultivation’ and precocity, but it endeared countless boys to her for the rest of their lives.
Names matter to women partly because theirs change in adulthood more often than men’s. Among Jane Austen’s earliest writings are two spoof entries in a parish marriage register, where she published fictitious banns between Jane Austen of Steventon and Henry Frederic Howard Fitzwilliam of London. A second entry announced the forthcoming nuptials of Edmund Arthur William Mortimer of Liverpool and the same plain Jane Austen of Steventon. These entries show her practising for her future profession, as well as indulging in a different sort of fantasy about who she might be when she grew up. When Coleridge turned against Barbauld, he took her marital surname as a weak point, nicknaming her ‘Mistress Bare and Bald’. Perhaps she had already made that joke herself: in lines addressed to her husband in 1778 she promises that they will ‘mock old Winter’s starving reign’ by dressing his ‘smooth bald head’ with flowers.
Changing our names is one way of signalling intent to forge a different character from the one we inherited at birth – a possibility aired and despaired of in a great deal of 18th-century writing. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67) is one long argument of this kind between nature and nurture, part of which concerns the hero being landed with the wrong name. Johnson begins an issue of the Rambler in 1750 by rehearsing the theory that we are all born ‘with the seeds of that malady, which, in time, shall bring us to the grave’. He was properly sceptical about attempts such as Alexander Pope’s to apply this argument to the mind or the feelings, arguing that inadequate proofs existed to support the idea ‘that each man is born with a mind formed peculiarly for certain purposes, and with desires unalterably determined to particular objects’. Both Barbauld and Johnson stressed throughout their lives the primacy of resolve and freedom of the will in human affairs – even if both also wavered in their confidence as to what those qualities might achieve in practice. As writers, both also managed to pluck real human beings from the allegorical or other confines of their lives. Pilgrim’s Progress was one of Johnson’s favourite books, and I don’t think anyone could be so keen on that story and not discern, as Coleridge did, flesh and blood people in it. Both Johnson and Barbauld wanted, on rational principles, to demarcate reality from fiction; both also wanted to publish fictions that plausibly embodied reality.
Barbauld is a great poet of blots and stains. What she describes in her lovely mock-Miltonic ‘Washing-Day’ as the everyday ‘sad disasters’ of ‘dirt and gravel’ becomes, in her late protest poem Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, a vision of the bloody spoils of imperial power. This poem, the subject of a fresh appraisal by E.J. Clery, strives to be at once patriotic and prophetic of national collapse. It was the second ever census year and a natural point at which to take stock. It was also a year with too much of everything and nothing good at all. Britain had two ineffectual monarchs of sorts: a mad king and (as of 5 February) a feckless regent. The country was involved in four wars: the Napoleonic (1803-15), the Anglo-Russian (1807-12), the Anglo-Swedish (1810-12) and the Peninsular (1808-14). The British population had increased by more than a million in the course of a decade, now standing at 10.1 million, provoking much talk of a nation bursting at the seams. One cheerless argument against such anxiety might have been that the rapidly expanding population was being cut down as quickly as it reached maturity, and perhaps Barbauld had the census in mind when she wrote in Eighteen Hundred and Eleven:
Fruitful in vain, the matron counts with pride
The blooming youths that grace her honoured side;
No son returns to press her widow’d hand,
Her fallen blossoms strew a foreign strand.
Barbauld repeatedly admonishes her nation’s leaders for treating the wars – and the mothers who supply its soldiers – so lightly; sometimes she admonishes them with bleak, declamatory grandeur, sometimes as if they were her naughtier pupils. Eighteen Hundred and Eleven is a blend of hopelessness and outrage, satire and celebration. If the poem can be seen as part of a long campaign of Unitarian protest against the government’s policy of economic warfare – a campaign that would contribute to parliamentary reform two decades later – it has to be acknowledged that Barbauld’s monumental defeatism is a risky way to proceed. Tonally uneven and hard to navigate, much of the work seems far from timely or dynamic; ‘glories pass away’ without hope of return, and ‘Commerce, like beauty, knows no second spring.’
Barbauld’s brother, John Aikin, was said to show a child’s ‘hatred of every thing unfair and unequitable’; indeed, this was ‘his leading principle and almost his ruling passion’. It must have been a family trait. Barbauld, like Wordsworth, was brilliant at entering into the child’s view of things, notably a sense of incomprehension at why adults do the things they do; it shapes not only her poems about domestic life and the schoolroom but also her larger-scale works. Whether the child’s view works on that larger public scale is questionable. However well-meant it may have been, Eighteen Hundred and Eleven isn’t the first poem you would give a reader who doesn’t know Barbauld’s name. Her sense of folly and injustice is far more moving, coherent and persuasive, it seems to me, in poems directed at particular people or voiced by children who were known to her. The intimate poems are, really, about the same thing as the grand ones: right and wrong, friendship and love, penitence and endurance. Barbauld isn’t committed to political causes so much as to human beings. Take her poem to her brother ‘on his Complaining that she neglected him’, in which she writes about a flaw in her own conduct that she can’t in all honesty defend but strives sincerely to repair: ‘idly busy as the moments flew/I thought, and only thought alas! of you.’ In setting aside anger and suspicion, in embracing history and sympathy and industry (her brother’s work as a doctor, bringing ‘the sick man health, the tortured ease’; her own ‘more humble works, and lower cares’), this poem enacts far more comprehensibly, and on the local level, the sort of behaviour that would cure Britannia’s failings if adopted by her subjects in Eighteen Hundred and Eleven.
Writers whose careers see in a new century are perhaps inevitably received differently from those whose lives fall within a single century’s span. The century-straddling ones often seem to be placed on one side or the other of the break, understood as either backwards or forwards-looking; it’s a bit like dividing children between the daring-naughty-radical and the boring-good-conformist. This may explain why Eighteen Hundred and Eleven was thought to have been disastrously misjudged in its own day, or rather why we have been told a story of its disastrous misjudgment. Barbauld had apparently published what sounded like an 18th-century work in the early 19th century, and its hostile reception ended her literary career: like poor Keats, the ailing poetess was crushed by a savage review. As Clery painstakingly shows, this tale of death by review is as nonsensical in Barbauld’s case as it was in Keats’s; but it testifies to several attempts to write her out of literary history. Indeed, these attempts have been so frequent and have combined with other sorts of accident and disaster in so striking a way that – as her most recent biographer, William McCarthy, has written – it is as if ‘a malign power had set out to erase her from history … the papers even of her friends and associates came to violent ends.’
The mystery remains: why did she infuriate so many readers during her own lifetime? Some are born with the gift of pleasing; some are born to put people’s backs up. In the latter group there is a subcategory: those who put people’s backs up by seeming too pleased with themselves. Perhaps Barbauld’s usual tendency to present herself as resolutely contented with her lot – something that can also be seen as a stoical endurance of suffering – contributed to her later obscurity. And yet, as one Victorian biographer wrote, ‘her works show great powers of mind, an ardent love of civil and religious liberty, and that genuine and practical piety which ever distinguished her character.’ She never turned a crisis into a drama.