Barbauld Anna Laetitia Aikin

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(1743-1825) As the oldest child born to an educa tor named Dr. John Aikin in Kibworth, Leicestershire, Anna Laetitia Aikin matured in academic surroundings. Supposedly a prodigy who could read by age two, Anna Laetitia learned the classics, both the French and Italian languages, and English literature. Her father managed a school for boys, an environment that she later credited for teaching her how to behave in polite society. In 1758 Dr. Aikin took a position as tutor in the new Warrington Academy for Dissenters, and Anna Laetitia spent 15 years influenced by the intellectual liberal atmosphere; Aikin taught the famous economist Thomas Malthus at the academy.

Dr. Joseph Priestly, known for his learned philosophical and scientific prose, also a tutor at Warrington, encouraged Anna Laetitia to write. Her brother John matured to become a physician and well-known writer and editor who greatly influenced his sister's publishing. He requested that she contribute poetry to his Essay on Song-Writing (1772) and urged her to publish her own volume, Poems, which was well received in 1773. It contained pieces such as "The Groans of the Tankard," in which a silver water tankard sat on the sideboard in her father's school and commented on what it observed. The tankard proudly proclaimed it had served mayors and aldermen, "the furry tribe," probably alluding to the animal hair trim on many official robes, and comparing the public servants to animals who lost control when drinking too much. Written in heroic couplets with a mock-heroic tone, it was probably modeled on Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock" (1712, 1714), to which it directly alludes, as well as on John Milton's poetry, as there are detailed geographical references in Milton's style. Anna Laetitia used the mock heroic to cloak serious concerns, indicting the establishment through a comic tone and adopting the domestic scene, woman's proper place, as setting. She would become an amazingly prolific writer over the next decades.

In 1774 the writer Elizabeth Montagu suggested that Aikin become a principal at an all-girl school, a position that would seem a perfect fit for a young woman with staunch opinions regarding liberal education. However, she declined, stating that she perceived no need for femmes savantes. In a remark supporting her lifelong attitude that women should most importantly strive to be "good wives and agreeable companions," she declared a father or brother to be the best teacher for girls, whose high passions at age 15 would prohibit learning. Later that year, Aikin married a clergyman educated at Warrington, Roche-mont Barbauld, and began years of helping him serve various congregations. After moving to Palgrave in Sussex, he took on a congregation of dissenters and opened a boy's school where Barbauld taught and acted as accountant.

The couple never had children but adopted a nephew, Charles Rochemont Aikin, who later became a physician. Barbauld found time to continue her writing of letters, essays, parodies, and poetry. She published Devotional Pieces (1775), Lessons for Children (1778), and Hymns in Prose for Children (1781) and became part of an important London literary circle. When in the city, she visited the essayists Montagu and Hannah More and later developed supportive relationships with the playwright Joanna Baillie and the novelist Maria Edgeworth. Because of her husband's mental strain, the couple sold their school in 1785. After travel abroad, they returned to England, settling in Hamp-stead, where Rochemont served a small chapel and Barbauld's writing continued. She began to publish at a rapid pace as her husband's mental health deteriorated, his condition causing some friends to fear for her safety.

Over the next several years Barbauld focused on political and social matters in her writing. She published a pamphlet supporting dissenting schools over traditional universities titled An Address to the Opposers of the Repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts (1790), a poem attacking the slave trade for women; Epistle to William Wilberforce (1791); and she expressed her support of democracy and public education in Civic Sermons to the People (1792). Her Sins of the Government, Sins of the Nation (1793) took a stance against England's support of war in France. Barbauld's strongly expressed opinions prompted Horace Walpole to write a letter to Hannah More in 1791 denouncing Barbauld's efforts, a certain measure of the effect she was perceived to have on her reading public. Barbauld issued an antiwar poem, Eighteen Hundred and Eleven (1811), and worked on editing projects with her brother, including vol umes of poetry by Mark Akenside (1794) and William Collins (1797).

The Barbaulds' 1802 move to Stoke Newington, where John Aikin lived, allowed Barbauld to be close to her brother, aiding her ability to work with him. Her husband ministered at a chapel as he grew dangerously violent. Eventually requiring physical restraint, he broke free and drowned in 1808.

Additional editing projects by Barbauld included six volumes of letters by Samuel Richardson (1804), the 50 volumes of The British Novelists (1810), and a collection of works for young women readers titled The Female Speaker (1811). A harsh 1812 review of Eighteen Hundred and Eleven by J. W. Croker in the Quarterly Review virtually ended her popular career. Barbauld remained busy writing fiction reviews for the Monthly Review until 1815. Her literary acquaintances by then included poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey and the poet and novelist Sir Walter Scott.

After Barbauld's death her niece, Lucy Aikin, released a two-volume edition of her poetry, which included the popular and later well-anthologized "The Rights of Women" and "Washing-Day." Never a feminist and one who made public through letters her lack of desire to become a "bluestocking," Barbauld yet enjoyed the company of many female intellectuals. She felt she had "stepped out of the bounds of female reserve" to write, and that act represented her only rebellion. Comprehensive collections of her poetry became available in the late 20th century with renewed interest by feminist critics in women writers. A complete collection including her prose has yet to be published.

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