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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Joanna Baillie (1762–1851)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
JOANNA BAILLIE’S early childhood was passed at Bothwell, Scotland, where she was born in 1762. Of this time she drew a picture in her well-known birthday lines to her sister:—
  “Dear Agnes, gleamed with joy, and dashed with tears,
O’er us have glided almost sixty years
Since we on Bothwell’s bonny braes were seen,
By those whose eyes long closed in death have been:
Two tiny imps, who scarcely stooped to gather
The slender harebell, or the purple heather;
No taller than the foxglove’s spiky stem,
That dew of morning studs with silvery gem.
Then every butterfly that crossed our view
With joyful shout was greeted as it flew,
And moth and lady-bird and beetle bright
In sheeny gold were each a wondrous sight.
Then as we paddled barefoot, side by side,
Among the sunny shallows of the Clyde,
Minnows or spotted par with twinkling fin,
Swimming in mazy rings the pool within,
A thrill of gladness through our bosoms sent
Seen in the power of early wonderment.”
  1
  When Joanna was six her father was appointed to the charge of the kirk at Hamilton. Her early growth went on, not in books, but in the fearlessness with which she ran upon the top of walls and parapets of bridges and in all daring. “Look at Miss Jack,” said a farmer, as she dashed by: “she sits her horse as if it were a bit of herself.” At eleven she could not read well. “’Twas thou,” she said in lines to her sister—
  “’Twas thou who woo’dst me first to look
Upon the page of printed book,
That thing by me abhorred, and with address
Didst win me from my thoughtless idleness,
When all too old become with bootless haste
In fitful sports the precious time to waste.
Thy love of tale and story was the stroke
At which my dormant fancy first awoke,
And ghosts and witches in my busy brain
Arose in sombre show, a motley train.”
  2
  In 1776 Dr. James Baillie was made Professor of Divinity at Glasgow University. During the two years the family lived in the college atmosphere, Joanna first read ‘Comus,’ and, led by the delight it awakened, the great epic of Milton. It was here that her vigor and disputatious turn of mind “cast an awe” over her companions. After her father’s death she settled, in 1784, with her mother and brother and sister in London.  3
  She had made herself familiar with English literature, and above all she had studied Shakespeare with enthusiasm. Circumscribed now by the brick and mortar of London streets, in exchange for the fair views and liberties of her native fruitlands, Joanna found her first expression in a volume of ‘Fugitive Verses,’ published in 1790. The book caused so little comment that the words of but one friendly hand are preserved: that the poems were “truly unsophisticated representations of nature.”  4
  Joanna’s walk was along calm and unhurried ways. She could have had a considerable place in society and the world of “lions” if she had cared. The wife of her uncle and name-father, the anatomist Dr. John Hunter, was no other than the famous Mrs. Anne Hunter, a songwright of genius; her poem ‘The Son of Alknomook Shall Never Complain’ is one of the classics of English song, and the best rendering of the Indian spirit ever condensed into so small a space. She was also a woman of grace and dignity, a power in London drawing-rooms, and Haydn set songs of hers to music. But the reserved Joanna was tempted to no light triumphs. Eight years later was published her first volume of ‘Plays on the Passions.’ It contained ‘Basil,’ a tragedy on love; ‘The Trial,’ a comedy on the same subject; and ‘De Montfort,’ a tragedy on hatred.  5
  The thought of essaying dramatic composition had burst upon the author one summer afternoon as she sat sewing with her mother. She had a high moral purpose in her plan of composition, she said in her preface,—that purpose being the ultimate utterance of the drama. Plot and incident she set little value upon, and she rejected the presentation of the most splendid event if it did not appertain to the development of the passion. In other words, what is and was commonly of secondary consideration in the swift passage of dramatic action became in her hands the stated and paramount object. Feeling and passion are not precipitated by incident in her drama as in real life. The play ‘De Montfort’ was presented at Drury Lane Theatre in 1800; but in spite of every effort and the acting of John Kemble and Mrs. Siddons, it had a run of but eleven nights.  6
  In 1802 Miss Baillie published her second volume of ‘Plays on the Passions.’ It contained a comedy on hatred; ‘Ethwald,’ a tragedy on ambition; and a comedy on ambition. Her adherence to her old plan brought upon her an attack from Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review. He claimed that the complexity of the moral nature of man made Joanna’s theory false and absurd, that a play was too narrow to show the complete growth of a passion, and that the end of the drama is the entertainment of the audience. He asserted that she imitated and plagiarized Shakespeare; while he admitted her insight into human nature, her grasp of character, and her devotion to her work.  7
  About the time of the appearance of this volume, Joanna fixed her residence with her mother and sister, among the lanes and fields of Hampstead, where they continued throughout their lives. The first volume of ‘Miscellaneous Plays’ came out in 1804. In the preface she stated that her opinions set forth in her first preface were unchanged. But the plays had a freer construction. “Miss Baillie,” wrote Jeffrey in his review, “cannot possibly write a tragedy, or an act of a tragedy, without showing genius and exemplifying a more dramatic conception and expression than any of her modern competitors.” ‘Constantine Palæologus,’ which the volume contained, had the liveliest commendation and popularity, and was several times put upon the stage with spectacular effect.  8
  In the year of the publication of Joanna’s ‘Miscellaneous Plays,’ Sir Walter Scott came to London, and seeking an introduction through a common friend, made the way for a lifelong friendship between the two. He had just brought out ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel.’ Miss Baillie was already a famous writer, with fast friends in Lucy Aikin, Mary Berry, Mrs. Siddons, and other workers in art and literature; but the hearty commendation of her countryman, which she is said to have come upon unexpectedly when reading ‘Marmion’ to a group of friends, she valued beyond other praise. The legend is that she read through the passage firmly to the close, and only lost self-control in her sympathy with the emotion of a friend:—
        “—The wild harp that silent hung
By silver Avon’s holy shore
Till twice one hundred years rolled o’er,
  When she the bold enchantress came,
From the pale willow snatched the treasure,
  With fearless hand and heart in flame,
And swept it with a kindred measure;
Till Avon’s swans, while rung the grove
With Montfort’s hate and Basil’s love,
Awakening at the inspirèd strain,
Deemed their own Shakespeare lived again.”
  9
  The year 1810 saw ‘The Family Legend,’ a play founded on a tragic history of the Campbell clan. Scott wrote a prologue and brought out the play in the Edinburgh Theatre. “You have only to imagine,” he told the author, “all that you could wish to give success to a play, and your conceptions will still fall short of the complete and decided triumph of ‘The Family Legend.’”  10
  The attacks which Jeffrey had made upon her verse were continued when she published, in 1812, her third volume of ‘Plays on the Passions.’ His voice, however, did not diminish the admiration for the character-drawing with which the book was greeted, or for the lyric outbursts occurring now and then in the dramas.  11
  Joanna’s quiet Hampstead life was broken in 1813 by a genial meeting in London with the ambitious Madame de Staël, and again with the vivacious little Irishwoman, Maria Edgeworth. She was keeping her promise of not writing more; but during a visit to Sir Walter in 1820 her imagination was touched by Scotch tales, and she published ‘Metrical Legends’ the following year. In this vast Abbotsford she finally consented to meet Jeffrey. The plucky little writer and the unshrinking critic at once became friends, and thenceforward Jeffrey never went to London without visiting her in Hampstead.  12
  Her moral courage throughout life recalls the physical courage which characterized her youth. She never concealed her religious convictions, and in 1831 she published her ideas in ‘A View of the General Tenor of the New Testament Regarding the Nature and Dignity of Jesus Christ.’ In 1836, having finally given up the long hope of seeing her plays become popular upon the stage, she prepared a complete edition of her dramas with the addition of three plays never before made public,—‘Romiero,’ a tragedy, ‘The Alienated Manor,’ a comedy on jealousy, and ‘Henriquez,’ a tragedy on remorse. The Edinburgh Review immediately put forth a eulogistic notice of the collected edition, and at last admitted that the reviewer had changed his judgment, and esteemed the author as a dramatist above Byron and Scott.  13
  “May God support both you and me, and give us comfort and consolation when it is most wanted,” wrote Miss Baillie to Mary Berry in 1837. “As for myself, I do not wish to be one year younger than I am; and have no desire, were it possible, to begin life again, even under the most honorable circumstances. I have great cause for humble thankfulness, and I am thankful.”  14
  In 1840 Jeffrey wrote:—“I have been twice out to Hampstead, and found Joanna Baillie as fresh, natural, and amiable as ever, and as little like a tragic muse.” And again in 1842:—“She is marvelous in health and spirit; not a bit deaf, blind, or torpid.” About this time she published her last book, a volume of ‘Fugitive Verses.’  15
  “A sweeter picture of old age was never seen,” wrote Harriet Martineau. “Her figure was small, light, and active; her countenance, in its expression of serenity, harmonized wonderfully with her gay conversation and her cheerful voice. Her eyes were beautiful, dark, bright, and penetrating, with the full innocent gaze of childhood. Her face was altogether comely, and her dress did justice to it. She wore her own silvery hair and a mob cap, with its delicate lace border fitting close around her face. She was well dressed, in handsome dark silks, and her lace caps and collars looked always new. No Quaker was ever neater, while she kept up with the times in her dress as in her habit of mind, as far as became her years. In her whole appearance there was always something for even the passing stranger to admire, and never anything for the most familiar friend to wish otherwise.” She died, “without suffering, in the full possession of her faculties,” in her ninetieth year, 1851.  16
  Her dramatic and poetical works are collected in one volume (1843). Her Life, with selections from her songs, may be found in ‘The Songstress of Scotland,’ by Sarah Tytler and J. L. Watson (1871).  17
 
 
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