Baillie, Joanna (1762–1851)

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Baillie, Joanna (1762–1851)

English dramatist and poet who was famous for her Plays on the Passions, which, along with several other of her plays, were produced in leading theaters in England, Scotland, Ireland, and the U.S. Born September 11, 1762, in Bothwell, Lanarkshire, Scotland; died on February 23, 1851, at Hampstead Heath; daughter of Reverend Dr. Baillie (a descendant of the Scottish patriot William Wallace) and Dorothea Hunter; received little formal education: tutored by her father, spent five or six years at Miss McDonald's boarding school in Glasgow; never married; no children.

Educated in Glasgow until her father's death (1778); lived in London, published her first book of poems, and began writing drama (1779–91); moved to Hampstead and published three volumes of Plays on the Passions, as well as several poems (1791); enjoyed close friendship with Sir Walter Scott (1808–1851); published religious pamphlet defending the human nature of Christ (1831); published complete works in London (1851). Honors: honorary member of the Historical Society of Michigan (1840); honorary member of the Whittington Club (1846).

Selected publications:

Fugitive Verses (1790); Plays on the Passions, vol. I (1798); Plays on the Passions, vol. II (1802); Miscellaneous Plays (1802); The Family Legend (1810); Plays on the Passions, vol. III (1812); A Collection of Poems, chiefly Manuscript and From Living Authors, Edited for the Benefit of a Friend by Joanna Baillie (1823); A View of the General Tenor of the New Testament regarding the Nature and Dignity of Jesus Christ (1831); Miscellaneous Plays (1836).

Joanna Baillie was a well-known poet and dramatist of the early 19th century, who published 28 plays, seven of which were professionally produced. She also published two volumes of poetry, entitled Fugitive Verses and Metrical Legends, which were highly praised by her contemporaries. Her works, many of which dealt with human emotions or "passions," were extremely appealing to the early 19th-century literary world. These plays were considered both aesthetically appealing and comfortingly moral during the opening years of the English Romantic movement.

Joanna was born September 11, 1762, at the manse in Bothwell, Lanarkshire, Scotland, to a minister, Dr. Baillie, and Dorothea Hunter Baillie . Two of her siblings survived infancy: Agnes , born 1760, and Matthew, born 1761. Joanna's family was supportive but not openly affectionate. Her parents discouraged open emotion or affection, and Joanna grew up to be a quiet woman, more inclined to listen than to talk. She was later described as a small woman, "with a mean, shuffling gait," but with impeccably well-bred manners.

Baillie's relatively carefree childhood was spent engaged in more play than work. In later life, she recalled being fond of riding and other outdoor sports. Her early education came from her father, who tutored her in ethics but little else. According to her memories as well as those of Agnes, Joanna was not able to read well until she was 11 years old.

At that age, Joanna was sent to boarding school in Glasgow, where she quickly remedied her deficiencies in education. She proved to be especially gifted in the areas of mathematics, drawing, and music. She enjoyed telling stories of her own design and making up little dramas for the other students to act out. When, in 1776, Baillie's father was appointed professor of Divinity at the University of Glasgow, the whole family moved into a home provided by the university.

William Wordsworth">

If I had to present any one to a foreigner as a model of an English Gentlewoman, it would be Joanna Baillie.

William Wordsworth

This period of togetherness was short-lived. In 1778, Baillie's father suddenly died, leaving her mother with few resources to provide for her three children. Dorothea Baillie turned to her family for help, and her brother, William Hunter, a physician, invited Dorothea, Agnes, and Joanna to live with him. Hunter also helped send Joanna's brother Matthew to medical school. When Dr. Hunter died in 1783, he willed his house in London and his family estate in Scotland to Matthew. Matthew accepted the house but later conveyed the estate in Scotland to his uncle, John Hunter, William's younger brother.

Joanna, Agnes, and Dorothea moved to London in 1783 to keep house for Matthew. It was in London that Joanna made her first forays into serious writing. The result was a collection of poems, later titled Fugitive Verses, which she published anonymously in 1790. The book was not a commercial success, and Baillie turned to drama, writing her first tragedy, Arnold, which was later lost.

In 1791, Matthew married Sophia Denman , and his mother and sisters moved from London to Hampstead, where they lived for the remainder of their lives. The three women were greeted warmly in Hampstead and were immediately received into the town's literary circle. Joanna's enthusiasm for writing was rekindled by her new circle of acquaintances, and she soon devised a plan for producing a complete set of dramas on the human passions. She originally envisioned producing both a tragedy and a comedy which focused on each of the preeminent passions, highlighting each particular desire as the primary motivation for action of the main character. Although she never completed her plan, she would eventually produce three volumes of Plays on the Passions, which included both comedies and tragedies. She treated the passions of jealousy, love, hate, remorse, ambition, and fear, and avoided emotions which she considered unfit for public performance, or emotions, like revenge, which she believed had been treated fully by previous authors.

In 1798, Baillie anonymously published the first volume of her Plays on the Passions, which included three dramas: Basil, a tragedy on Love; The Tryal, a comedy on Love; and De Montfort, a tragedy on Hatred. This created an immediate stir in the literary community. Critics received them favorably, and many assumed that they had been written by a man. They sold readily; five editions of the three plays were published by 1806.

The literary success of the Plays on the Passions, however, was not matched by success on stage. De Montfort was performed at Drury Lane Theater in London with John Kemble and Sarah Kemble Siddons , two of the most famous actors of the day, but the play was universally considered a failure on stage. Critics considered the plays too intellectual and philosophical to work on stage. Baillie insisted upon using the dramas as a warning to the audience to avoid excessive passions, but she also expected her heroes to appeal to their sympathies. The overwhelming force of the passion, by which her heroes were driven against their will, gave a mixed message which tended to confuse. Audiences were unsure whether to sympathize with the hero or to condemn him. In her introduction to the first volume of plays, Baillie acknowledged "man's" inability, "amidst [passion's] wild uproar, [to] listen to the voice of reason, and save ourselves from destruction," but was quick to note that "we can foresee its coming, we can … shelter our heads from the coming blast." She cautioned her audiences to avoid rising passion, before it grew to the extent that it could overcome one's self-control, as in the case of her protagonists. Although the rest of Joanna's plays were not produced at Drury Lane, at least five were produced by other theaters in Liverpool, Dublin, and Edinburgh, where they were more favorably received.

Despite their initial lack of success on the London stage, her plays remained popular items in their written form. In 1802, Baillie followed up on her initial literary forays with a flurry of publication. She was paid £300 by her publisher for the second volume of Plays on the Passions, which included a comedy on Hatred entitled The Election, and two dramas dealing with Ambition: The Ethwald and The Second Marriage. She also published in 1802 a collection of Miscellaneous Plays, which included, among others, the dramas Constantine Paleologue, The Country Inn, and Rayner. Both of these new volumes were very popular, and Joanna was praised for the philosophical and moral nature of her plays, which depicted human nature through the lens of the early 19th-century audience's fascination with psychology and behavioral expectation.

During this period, she also spent a great deal of time caring for her mother, who had become sick and blind. Dorothea died in 1808. Joanna became known as a great philanthropist, donating one-half of her slender annuity, and much of the profit from her writing, to those who had fallen upon misfortune or were in need of funds for education or business ventures.

In 1808, Baillie met Sir Walter Scott, who had been impressed by her plays. She and Agnes were invited to visit at his house in Edinburgh, and the sisters, recently freed from the need for caring for their mother, were able to accept the invitation. Baillie and Scott became lifelong friends. During this first visit, she was flattered that Scott asked for her honest opinion of his newest work, House of Aspen. At his request, Joanna wrote out a careful, but insightful, critique of the book.

When Baillie returned to Hampstead, she continued her dramatic writing, producing in 1810 The Family Legend, followed in 1812 by the third volume of Plays on the Passions, which included three dramas on Fear: Orra, The Dream, and The Siege, plus a musical drama, The Beacon. During this period, she also continued writing short poems, a few of which were published in the Edinburgh Annual Register and the British Critic. In 1817, she began a new project, Metrical Legends of Exalted Characters, a collection of poems and dramatic ballads in the ancient style on famous personages in Scottish history.

Baillie continued to make contacts with the leading lights of the British literary community, and she persuaded her friends to assist her philanthropic efforts. In 1823, she published A Collection of Poems, chiefly Manuscript and From Living Authors, Edited for the Benefit of a Friend by Joanna Baillie. The book included contributions by Sir Walter Scott, Robert Southey, and William Wordsworth, and many other of Joanna's contemporaries, including five women, among them Susan Edmonstone Ferrier . In addition to her literary work, Joanna remained on close and affectionate terms with her brother and sister-in-law, whom she and Agnes visited frequently. When, in 1823, Matthew became seriously ill, Joanna traveled to London to help care for him and was devastated when he died on September 23.

Throughout her writing career, Baillie never lost hope that her plays would one day be a success on stage, and she was overjoyed by the occasional news that one of her dramas had been produced on some obscure English or Scottish stage. During the 1830s, she wrote a series of 12 plays, which she intended to have released posthumously to small London theaters for production but, by 1836, convinced that they would probably not succeed on any London stage, she agreed to allow them to be published. This latest collection included two dramas on Jealousy: Romiero and The Alienated Manor; a play on Remorse, Henriquez, and a tragedy on Religion, The Martyr. The collection was well-received by critics, who marvelled at the continued output of a literary figure nearing 80.

During her later years, Joanna also turned her attention and her pen to religion. Throughout her life, she had been deeply religious. Her belief in the power of prayer and personal immortality are evident in her dramas. She became increasingly interested in the issue of the human nature of Christ, which she treated in a pamphlet entitled "A View of the General Tenor of the New Testament regarding the Nature and Dignity of Jesus Christ." She released her religious treatise privately, and it received mixed reviews, even from her close friends. Scott cautioned Baillie against miring herself in a debate she was ill-equipped to argue. She did succeed, however, in starting up a lively correspondence with the bishop of Salisbury, who disagreed with her views but admired her intellect.

Baillie remained remarkably active in the literary community well into her 80s. Although in 1832 she had been stricken with what she described as "a very heavy disease" which curtailed her physical activity, she and Agnes continued to host social engagements in their home. Baillie remarked in a letter to a friend, "Ladies of four score and upwards cannot expect to be robust, and need not be gay. We sit by the fireside with our books, … and receive the visits of our friendly neighbors very contentedly, and I trust I may say, very thankfully."

During the last decade of her life, Baillie still received visitors from Britain, America, and Europe, and was considered a leading light of the British literary community. She was recognized for her contributions by two learned societies. In 1840, she was made an honorary member of the Historical Society of Michigan, and in 1846 she was made an honorary member of the Whittington Club, a newly established lodge with a library and reading room, designed to provide meals and lectures on literature, science, art, music, and mathematics. An even greater honor to Baillie was the printing of a volume of her complete works shortly before her death in 1851 by Longman, Browne, Green, and Longman in London, which Joanna happily referred to as "my great monster book." Her dramas and poems continued to be popular reading material throughout the 19th century.

The last years of Baillie's life were plagued by physical infirmity, and by 1844 she was complaining of memory loss. She and Agnes continued to receive visitors even when she was no longer able to leave her house. After retiring to bed on February 22, 1851, she slipped into a coma and died early on the morning of February 23, at 88 years of age. Her sister Agnes survived her by a decade, dying in 1861 at the age of 100.

During her lifetime and afterwards, Joanna Baillie has been praised for her firm morality and her literary achievements, and she has been compared favorably with William Shakespeare (although even her admirers admitted that she never succeeded in throwing herself fully into the emotions of her characters) and with Sir Walter Scott, her lifelong friend. Throughout the 19th century, her tragedies, despite their lack of success on the stage, were considered the best ever written by a woman. Baillie was praised by contemporaries for her "clear, masculine and unaffected eloquence." Her ability to maintain cordial relationships with her peers and avoid "literary feuds" was ascribed soon after her death to the fact that she "never bated a jot of the dignity of the lady, that she might gain the laurels of a poet." Modern literary scholars have marvelled at how a woman so lacking in education and worldly experience could ever produce such convincing portrayals of some of humanity's basest passions, and she is considered a pioneer in the development of a new style of drama which examined "motives and personality … what makes some people self-defeating and destructive while others are benevolent and virtuous," and thus laid the foundation for a secular morality that defined psychological imbalance as a person's separation from self, rather than a person's separation from God. Baillie's virtuous personal life helped to give her plays tremendous moral force, and her life was considered to exemplify both great literary talent and the best of virtuous 19th-century womanhood.


Baillie, Joanna. The Dramatic and Poetical Works of Joanna Baillie. London: Longman, Brown, Green, & Longman, 1851.

Carhart, Margaret S. The Life and Work of Joanna Baillie. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1923.

Gaull, Marilyn. English Romanticism: The Human Context. NY: Norton, 1988.

Gilfillan, George. Galleries of Literary Portraits, Vol. 1. Edinburgh: James Hogg, 1856.

Hughes, Laurie B. "Joanna Baillie: Drama, Morality and Passion," Master's Thesis, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, 1990.

Kimberly Estep Spangler , Assistant Professor of History and Chair of the Division of Religion and Humanities at Friends University, Wichita, Kansas