Until 15 or 20 years ago most students of English literature would have known one thing about Anna Letitia Barbauld, which was her appearance in a droll anecdote told by Samuel Taylor Coleridge towards the end of his life and recorded in the posthumous volume of his Table Talk. ‘Mrs Barbauld told me that the only faults she found with the Ancient Mariner were – that it was improbable, and had no moral,’ Coleridge is reported as saying: ‘As for the probability – to be sure that might admit some question – but I told her that in my judgment the chief fault of the poem was that it had too much moral, and that too openly obtruded upon the reader.’ The poem should have been, he went on, as free of any moral coherence as an episode in The Arabian Nights: ‘the story of the merchant sitting down to eat dates by the side of a well and throwing the shells aside, and the Genii starting up and saying he must kill the merchant, because a date shell had put out the eye of the Genii’s son’.
It’s a good story but you couldn’t say it was a very gracious one, since it turns so unkindly on the joke of Mrs Barbauld’s befuddlement before ‘a work of such pure imagination’ (in Coleridge’s own phrase). Barbauld comes across as flat-footed and fussily moralistic and mumsy, as she often did in the defensive joshing of the Coleridge circle, the butt of repeated gags about the shortcomings of the non-cognoscenti: ‘that Mistress Bare and Bald’, Coleridge enjoyed calling her in private, with more antipathy than inspiration. William McCarthy quotes the Table Talk anecdote early on in his compendious and admiring new biography of Barbauld, as though obliged to get it over with, and makes the suggestion that Barbauld had unwittingly revived Coleridge’s severe hang-ups about his mother. Well, maybe: it is certainly true that the attractive poem Barbauld had addressed to the young Coleridge, years before, offered quasi-parental advice about avoiding ‘the maze of metaphysic lore’ and gathering himself to ‘noble aims’, and the tone might still have rankled. But I suspect the real point behind the famous story – and what makes it so telling, about Barbauld as much as Coleridge – is something else, something wrapped up in a private argument that the ageing Coleridge was pursuing with himself.
That argument was about Unitarianism, the Christian heresy within which Coleridge had come of age but which he spent much of his adult life repudiating. Barbauld represented Unitarian culture at its most public and accomplished. Born in 1743, Anna Letitia Aikin was the product of a distinguished Unitarian background, the daughter of John Aikin, a revered teacher at the Warrington Academy. The academy was effectively the leading university for those dissenters who had enough money to get an education but who were forbidden by law to take degrees at Oxford or Cambridge. Although, like all such academies, it led an occasionally precarious existence and had its full share of institutional problems, Warrington seems to have been a stimulating place, both bookish and politically attuned to the excitements of progress; and young, brilliant Miss Aikin was clearly its darling. Chief among the stars on the faculty was Joseph Priestley, who was already beginning to experiment with electricity and gases and later became a prominent natural philosopher and radical. Anna Aikin regarded the Priestleys as her second parents, and addressed them affectionately in several poems; but Priestley was as much a cosmic hero of enlightened advancement as he was a friend, ‘eccentric, piercing, bold,/ Like his own lightnings, which no chains can hold/Neglecting caution and disdaining art.’
His piercing boldness was at least as much religious as scientific: he was, as Coleridge put it, ‘the author of the modern Unitarianism’, expounding in numerous engaging and blithely rationalist histories its full heterodoxy, which included denying the divinity of Christ as well as the doctrines of original sin, the virgin birth, the atonement, the resurrection of the body, and other normal requirements of the faith. In place of such imponderable mysteries Priestley sought to offer a demystified religion appropriate for a scientific age, in which the principal doctrinal points were the absolute ubiquity of God and (a consequence of that) the intrinsic goodness of the universe which he endlessly animated. You can imagine how attractive Priestley was: his writings are reckless and breezy and theologically scurrilous, ruining the ancient truths as he briskly clears up metaphysical problems. The puzzle of free will? No puzzle there: it is God’s vitality that drives everything, including human action, so there can be no individual free will if you stop to think about it. The problem of evil? What problem? God determines everything, and so everything must be for the best, whatever it looks like: ‘The idea of real absolute evil wholly disappears,’ as Priestley wrote in The Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity Illustrated (1777). Optimism does not come in a more striking form; but nor, it might be said, are the limitations of optimism more strikingly exemplified: ‘I do not like to think or speak of any thing unpleasant,’ Priestley once said, ‘I confide in a good Providence, and generally look on the bright side of every thing.’
That doesn’t sound much like the 39 Articles; but Priestley saw himself most emphatically as a Christian, restoring to its original form a religion that had been occluded by centuries of ideological corruption. McCarthy follows a habit normal among literary historians in placing Unitarianism within a wider tradition of dissenting Christianity; but in truth, as Donald Davie robustly maintained in A Gathered Church (1978), it hardly does justice to the enormous heterodoxy of Unitarianism to think of it as a form of Christianity at all. Certainly Coleridge came to think in that way. According to a story recorded by his first biographer, and probably originating from Coleridge himself, Barbauld once challenged him at a party: ‘So, Mr Coleridge, I understand you do not consider Unitarians Christians.’ Coleridge’s reply was more or less urbane: ‘I hope, Madam, that all persons born in a Christian country are Christians, and trust they are under the condition of being saved; but I do contend that Unitarianism is not Christianity.’ Barbauld’s reported reply is unmoved by such subtleties: ‘I do not understand the distinction.’ Nor would have young Coleridge.
The old man sent up Mrs Barbauld as a way of dismissing an entire culture and disposition, not only everything she represented but everything he had once stood for himself. His admiration for Barbauld had been intense. In 1797, aged 25, on the verge of entering the Unitarian ministry, he walked 40 miles to see her: he thought of her then as ‘that great and excellent woman’, and as one of the great prose stylists in the language. If the original conversation about ‘The Ancient Mariner’ really took place it must have occurred around the turn of the century, when they became well acquainted; and her remarks, were they uttered at all, were perhaps better received at the time. Anyway, in 1800 he was still gushing: ‘The more I see of Mrs Barbauld the more I admire her – that wonderful Propriety of Mind! – She has great acuteness, very great – yet how steadily she keeps it within the bounds of practical Reason’; and she was one of the few luminaries to whom he instructed the publishers to send a copy of Lyrical Ballads.
Barbauld was admired as much for her literary eminence as for her religious affiliation. She was a famous figure and must have seemed to an ambitious young man the model for a distinguished life of letters pursued without the comforts of establishment. Her debut, Poems (1773), a volume of pieces written at Warrington, was a hit and went into a third edition within a year, quickly establishing her reputation. It remains a striking collection. The opening piece is a stirring piece of blank verse written to celebrate the continuing resistance put up by the Corsican patriots to the French: ‘a British muse,/Tho’ weak and powerless, lifts her fervent voice,/And breathes a prayer for your success.’ The Corsican heroes are cast as agents of God and children of ‘LIBERTY,/ The mountain goddess’, a part of the great optimistic universe of improvement: ‘applauding worlds/Shall bless the godlike man who sav’d his country.’ The French had other ideas, unfortunately, and the Corsicans were defeated shortly after the poem was finished, necessitating a sad and puzzled coda: ‘Forgive the zeal/That, too presumptuous, whisper’d better things/And read the book of destiny amiss.’ Anyhow, Priestley adored the poem, and read it to an admiring audience at the London Coffee House which included Boswell, on whose account of the struggle Barbauld had based her work. Priestley was no less pleased with another of the poems, ‘An Address to the Deity’, an exemplification of one of his favourite notions, that the good man lived constantly mindful of the presence of God: ‘He sees God in every thing, and he sees every thing in God.’
I read his awful name, emblazon’d high
With golden letters on th’illumined sky;
Nor less the mystic characters I see
Wrought in each flower, inscrib’d in every tree;
In every leaf that trembles to the breeze I hear the voice of GOD among the trees …
A.O. Lovejoy argued long ago in his masterly book The Great Chain of Being that there was a direct line from 18th-century optimism to the Romantic poets; and it is certainly not difficult to spot the decisive influence that Barbauld’s universe, ‘replete with wonders’, had on the rapt nature religion of, say, Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’ – where the deity makes a distinctly Priestleian appearance, ‘Himself in all, and all things in himself’. At his most exuberant, Coleridge would write in a winningly unguarded way about his fraternal feelings towards donkeys and rooks and other unpromising specimens, fellow participants all in the life of God; Barbauld anticipated this natural sympathy with animals, shown at its best in her deft little poem spoken by a mouse on which Priestley is about to experiment: ‘The well taught philosophic mind/ To all compassion gives;/Casts round the world an equal eye,/And feels for all that lives.’ The bouncy vitalism of the quatrains seems Wordsworthian before Wordsworth, who in ‘The Tables Turned’ would merrily concur that ‘We murder to dissect.’ And it is a similar sense of the sheer, all-inclusive, all-interconnected, God-authored wonderfulness of everything that inspires the brilliantly fantastical ‘A Summer Evening’s Meditation’, a sort of science-fiction poem in which Barbauld undertakes a cosmic journey ‘On Fancy’s wild and roving wing’, leaving the back garden and entering ‘the trackless deeps of space’.
If ‘A Summer Evening’s Meditation’ has some claim to be a peculiarly Unitarian sort of poem, it is nevertheless useful to be reminded by McCarthy that Barbauld drew at least as much on other religious and poetic traditions of the earlier 18th century, especially the philologist-philosopher James Harris and the poet James Thomson, author of The Seasons. Actually, it might be truer to say that Barbauld’s most remarkable achievement was to complicate the tenor of most Unitarian writing by including stuff that its prevailing rationalism found quite uncongenial – the fantastical and wild, the emotional and unruly. In an essay, ‘Thoughts on the Devotional Taste, and on Sects and Establishments’, published in Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose (1773), which she co-authored with her brother John, Barbauld maintained that there was a place for ‘the imagination and the passions’ in the religious life, and that the more cerebral virtues of ‘disputatious spirit, and fondness for controversy’ were likely ‘to call in question the most established truths’. Priestley didn’t like that sort of talk at all, as he did not hesitate to tell her: he mistrusted the mixing up of religious truths and aesthetic feelings, and he pointedly observed (which was hardly necessary) that ‘few persons now living have had more to do with religious controversy than myself.’ Bearing in mind Barbauld’s disposition to ‘enthusiasm’ and dislike of doctrinal disputes, McCarthy wonders whether, despite her reputation both then and now, she was strictly speaking a committed Unitarian at all, or whether she was not, rather, moved by some intuitive emotional response of ‘gratitude and joy’ for which a baggy sort of Unitarian feeling seemed to allow room. What she admired in the poet Mark Akenside, author of The Pleasures of Imagination, was what she called ‘the purest Theism; liberal, cheerful, and sublime’, which seems to describe her own position too: that might help explain her influence on later poets with no Unitarian dogma to propagate, such as Wordsworth, whose own great poetry of religious feeling manages to be, in William Empson’s memorable phrase, ‘uplifting yet non-denominational’. Her subsequent publications are not obviously driven by any impulse to theological self-definition, though they recurrently strike what might sound like a Unitarian note of principled brightness: McCarthy describes her as having a ‘good-humoured hopefulness’, which seems right.
In 1774, against her father’s wishes, she married Rochemont Barbauld, six years her junior, a Warrington student of Huguenot descent; and they set up a school in Palgrave in Suffolk. She was a celebrity – Wedgwood produced a cameo of her, and she appeared in Richard Samuel’s painting The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain at the Royal Academy in 1779 – but involved herself in the obscure business of schooling with characteristic energy and intelligence: she liked the boys and did not sentimentalise them, and she clearly enjoyed the challenge of devising an enlightened educational regime that would distinguish the school from its established rivals. She began to write books for children, first a series of staged reading primers, Lessons for Children (1775-79), and then Hymns in Prose for Children (1781). Dr Johnson lamented this turn to schoolteaching: ‘Miss Aikin was an instance of early cultivation, but in what did it terminate? In marrying a little Presbyterian parson, who keeps an infant boarding school, so that all her employment now is “to suckle fools, and chronicle small beer”.’ But the books were extremely successful for a long time. According to McCarthy, the patient and attentive manner of the Lessons (‘Stroke poor puss. You stroke her the wrong way. This is the right way’) created a British idea of motherliness; while the Hymns may have been even more influential. They were extraordinarily popular, repeatedly reprinted in Britain over the next 120 years. Their message is sunny and upbeat, a kind of nursery Priestleianism, resolutely looking on ‘the bright side of every thing’, and seeking to associate in the child’s mind the idea of God ‘with all that he sees, all he hears, all that affects his young mind with wonder or delight’, as Barbauld explained. ‘The birds can warble, and the young lambs can bleat; but we can open our lips in His praise, we can speak of all His goodness.’
It’s true that the result can sometimes veer towards Fotherington-Thomas – ‘he sa Hullo clouds hullo sky he is a girlie,’ as Nigel Molesworth reported in Down with Skool. But in parts they retain a curious charm (‘We cannot see God, for He is invisible; but we can see His works, and worship His footsteps in the green sod’) and their impact was certainly great: De Quincey was not alone in remembering their ‘deep impression of solemn beauty and simplicity’, and they are an important if unconsidered tributary to 19th-century nature writing. At the same time, the burdensome moralism of Barbauld’s scenes of instruction in the Lessons came to sum up for many Romantic writers everything that was wrong with 18th-century pedagogy: ‘Knowledge insignificant & vapid as Mrs B’s books convey, it seems, must come to a child in the shape of knowledge, & his empty noddle must be turned with conceit of his own powers, when he has learnt, that a Horse is an Animal, & Billy is better than a Horse, & such like,’ Charles Lamb complained, preferring instead ‘that beautiful Interest in wild tales, which made the child a man, while all the time he suspected himself to be no bigger than a child’.
Barbauld taught for 11 years, and went on to a long and diverse career in letters. She wrote some striking and humane essays on political and cultural matters, and produced a selection from the Spectator, a biography of Richardson and a lot of other accomplished journey-work, the most significant being a monumental edition of the British novelists; but without the poetry it is hard to see now how she could be much more than a figure of historical interest. She wrote poems throughout her life, though they were not collected (and many were left unpublished) until her niece Lucy Aikin assembled a posthumous edition of her Works in 1825. The late masterpiece is Eighteen Hundred and Eleven (1812), a darkly whimsical account of Britain after its final collapse, reduced to a state of ‘Gothic night’, and visited by curious tourists from North America who have the ruins pointed out by a helpful guide: ‘Here Chatham’s eloquence in thunder broke,/Here Fox persuaded, or here Garrick spoke.’ The tone of the poem is elusive, at once elegiac and grimly amused, and certainly not triumphalist; but reviewers, discerning a lack of patriotic feeling, wrote about it with outspoken savagery, and Barbauld never published another book.
The ruined British enlightenment of Eighteen Hundred and Eleven is a million miles away from the shiny optimism of the earlier poems; but, in truth, poems had always been places where Barbauld could admit, in mostly tacit or oblique ways, complications of thought and feeling that the bright lucidity of her prose did not encourage. As she put it in her essay on Akenside, ‘the Muse would make a very indifferent schoolmistress.’ McCarthy is anxious to make Barbauld feel like our contemporary, but this understandable desire leads him into some strained comparisons: you might willingly allow her proto-ecological credentials but hesitate before agreeing that she invented existentialism before Heidegger. In fact what is striking about the values of the enlightenment culture in which McCarthy situates Barbauld with such care and admiration are their marked non-modernity: the optimism, the belief in progress, the faith in the mind’s enlarging capacities, the irresistibility of truth, the overpowering sense of God’s immanence – none of these feels very close to home.
Even Barbauld’s place in the development of modern feminism is complicated. There is an obvious relevance in her career as a professional and successful writer; and McCarthy invokes Woolf’s Three Guineas several times as a parallel. But Barbauld’s relationship with the feminist thought of her day was not easy: Wollstonecraft attacked her in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman for stereotyping women in a demeaningly feminine way. Barbauld wrote (though did not publish) a spirited and sceptical rejoinder, ‘The Rights of Woman’, which appears to rubbish the whole project of such ‘rights’. Indeed her politics generally are difficult to characterise as simply ‘radical’; in a way, as McCarthy rightly says, she betrays an unexpected kinship with Burke in her mistrust of the claims made by some contemporaries for the sovereignty of rationalism in human affairs.
If there is a claim to be made for Barbauld’s modernity, it lies rather in the ways in which her poems, emerging from a background of optimism and enlightened hope, find the amplitude to imagine quite other kinds of experience. There was a good deal both to her and to her poems besides gratitude and joy. She may have believed, with Priestley, that every moment of one’s experience was a testament to the greatness and benevolence of God, but she felt too, as she once told her niece Lucy Aikin, that she ‘had never been placed in a situation which suited her’; and there are many vivid glimpses in her writings of discontent and unease. She could be disagreeably argumentative, apparently for the hell of it: ‘Mrs B … often contradicted for the sake of argument,’ Amelia Opie reported; and Fanny Burney would have agreed, finding her ‘argumentative, precieuse … affected’. Even Anna Letitia le Breton, her fond great niece, remembered her as ‘rather stern’, and that seems to have been her habit, a social gruffness or belligerence being one way of keeping things locked up: she was always very good on the awfulness of exposure. Her niece discerned in her an innate and powerful ‘bashfulness’. ‘She never speaks as if she attempted to command admiration,’ one male observer wrote, obtusely casting as a feminine virtue what was in fact a more fraught desire for seclusion. ‘There is an extreme delicacy in all the finer affections,’ she remarked herself, ‘which makes them shy of observation, and easily checked.’ She wrote powerfully of Akenside’s capacity to describe ‘the effects of that kind of terror, which makes a man shrink into himself, and feel afraid, as it were, to draw a full inspiration’, as though feeling deeply afraid were a state she knew well; and in her essay ‘What Is Education?’ she portrayed a general case with a sudden suggestive eloquence: ‘Faded beauty, humbled self-consequence, disappointed ambition, loss of fortune, this is the rough physic provided by Providence.’
‘The limits of Barbauld’s feminism are also the limits of her poetics,’ Marlon Ross argues in his weighty study of women writers in the Romantic period, The Contours of Masculine Desire (1989) – as though a fuller feminist commitment would have translated into a more complete achievement in her art. I disagree. A part of her sense of disappointment could be ascribed, it cannot be doubted, to the realities of gender politics; but the obstacles faced by women, and especially by intellectual women, seem increasingly in Barbauld’s world to be not a different category of trouble but rather one more example of the universal tendency of things to let you down. If you are looking for them, the biographical explanations are not in short supply. Her marriage turned out a disaster. Her husband suffered from some sort of mania involving a compulsion to wash; his mental instability culminated in attacks on her, until finally he flew at her with a carving knife; the marriage ended, much to her unhappiness, in separation. Rochemont drowned shortly afterwards, possibly a suicide. There was a less sensational misery in the marriage too: according to Lucy Aikin, ‘this pair seemed immediately to have despaired’ of having children, a double affliction if, as McCarthy suggests, Barbauld was to become a national idea of the mother. The couple adopted one of her nephews, and Barbauld’s letter to her brother making the request has survived; McCarthy calls it ‘an earnest and reasoned petition’ but it seems stranger than that:
I am sensible it is not a small thing we ask; nor can it be easy for a parent to part with a child. This I would say, from a number, one may more easily be separated. Though it makes a very material difference in happiness whether a person has children or no children, it makes, I apprehend, little or none whether he has three, or four … We should gain, but you would not lose.
It reads like a parody of rationalist discourse, the sort of thing that Swift might enjoy; and it isn’t hard to detect beneath the brittle equanimity of the manner something more needy and painful.
The philosophical optimism that shaped Barbauld’s mind from Warrington days also prepared the ground for a quite antithetical interest in the contingent and the capricious and the unforeseeable: the way that, as a prominent moralist of our own day has said, ‘stuff happens.’ Coleridge’s funny story, in this respect, was a profound piece of criticism in that the narrative of sheer misadventure he imagines, based on events in the irrational and godless world of The Arabian Nights, was just the spectre that haunted the ordered fantasy of Priestley’s universe, the place where Barbauld thought she should be living. It was one of the great pleasures of novels, she said, that you momentarily inhabited such a tidy universe: ‘Every incident in a well written composition is introduced for a certain purpose, and made to forward a certain plan. A sagacious reader is never disappointed in his forebodings.’ How different from ‘real life’, which is ‘a kind of chance-medley, consisting of many unconnected scenes’, in which ‘our reasonable expectations are often disappointed; many incidents occur which are like “passages that lead to nothing”, and characters occasionally turn out quite different from what our fond expectations have led us to expect.’ It was with fellow feeling that she said of Charlotte Smith, whose marriage was in its way no less catastrophic, ‘the life of this lady was a very chequered one.’
In retrospect, the odd defeat of God’s purpose in the early poem about Corsica can be seen to inaugurate a protracted interest in things just not working out as planned or as you might have otherwise expected. ‘Miss Joy, wretched maid, when she chose Mr Love/Found nothing but sorrow await her.’ Many of Barbauld’s best poems turn on not knowing what will await you. The helpless creature addressed in ‘The Caterpillar’ escapes destruction only because the speaker encounters him on his own: his peers in the garden have been destroyed in a normal horticultural massacre. Barbauld ends the poem with a superb extended simile in which a conquering military hero, having sacked a city, comes across an injured survivor and decides to spare him: ‘the hero weeps;/ He is grown human, and capricious Pity,/ Which would not stir for thousands, melts for one/With sympathy spontaneous.’ The capriciousness of events haunts her poetic imagination. One of her loveliest verses, ‘To a little invisible Being who is expected soon to become visible’, which is addressed to an unborn child, plays beautifully with the fact of the child’s utter unknowability to the poet and to the mother alike – ‘Part of herself, yet to herself unknown’: the light pathos of her ignorance is darkened by our awareness that to Barbauld the expectant mother’s experience is no less inscrutable.
Sometimes, to great effect, it is the poems themselves that don’t seem to work out as planned. The joky poem ‘The Groans of the Tankard’, about the miserable lot of a beer glass fallen among Puritans, ends with an unexpected emotive swerve into repressed silence when the housekeeper comes to close its lid – ‘Chill’d at her touch its mouth it slowly clos’d,/And in long silence all its griefs repos’d.’ ‘Washing-Day’, a fine piece of warm mock heroic social comedy, ends with a sudden leap into undreamed-of space: she remembers blowing bubbles with the soap, ‘little dreaming then/To see, Montgolfier, thy silken ball/Ride buoyant thro’ the clouds’. And unexpectedness can assume a more mythological form. Modern criticism often reads Eighteen Hundred and Eleven as a piece of political protest, and of course Barbauld did disapprove of government policy in many respects; but the most striking thing about the poem is that the passing of power and affluence westward from Britain to America is attributed not to any political agency or historical trend, but to the unpredictable movements of mysterious spirit, a parody of the God-authored orderliness of Unitarian nature:
The Genius now forsakes the favoured shore,
And hates, capricious, what he loved before;
Then empires fall to dust; then arts decay,
And wasted realms enfeebled despots sway;
Even Nature’s changed …
These lines describe something that is beyond philosophy or political policy to address: as Barbauld said, discussing the recalcitrant uneducatability of wealthy people, ‘You cannot help these things.’
As titles such as ‘The Caterpillar’ and ‘The Groans of the Tankard’ might imply, the idiom of most of Barbauld’s poems is purposefully bright and cheerful and social: they repeatedly commend the virtues of ‘social ease’, ‘social Mirth’ and ‘all the dear charities of social life’; but there is frequently something pressing in on them that is private and reserved. As Maria Edgeworth shrewdly noted, Barbauld ‘always does more than she says’. Edgeworth admired her but grew fed up, despite the continuing chattiness of her letters, privately referring with vivid irritation to Barbauld’s ‘odious way of softening the voice below natural and contradicting in the mildest of all possible slow obstinate ways when she is vexed in argument’. Such sweet-tempered belligerence – the way she ‘mimps with her mouth’, her ‘set smile’ – was no doubt most provoking; and even admirers noticed a curious fixedness about her expression: the young Jane Porter, much impressed, reported that ‘she wears a constant smile’. Burney saw ‘an almost set smile, which had an air of determined complacence, & prepared acquiescence’. You can’t move in the poems for smiles, as McCarthy notes – ‘smiles unforc’d’, ‘sweet reviving smiles’, ‘gay unstudied smiles’, ‘sudden smiles’ and so on; all typically produced in the face of some adversity, as with the sons of liberty in ‘Corsica’ who, bruised graduates of the university of life, ‘in that rough school have learn’d/To smile at danger’; or the devoted mother who gazes at her child, ‘in weakness pleas’d, and smiling thro’ decays’; or the acquaintance of whom Barbauld wrote that she ‘smil’d superiour to a weight of woes’. One of Barbauld’s favourite books as a young woman, McCarthy tells us, was Elizabeth Carter’s translation of the slave-philosopher Epictetus, from which one lesson to be drawn was that superiority could come from smiling your way through bad trouble. When his cruel master tortured him, as Carter told the story in her introduction, Epictetus ‘with great Composure, and even smiling, observed to him, “You will certainly break my Leg,” which accordingly happened; and he continued, in the same Tone of Voice – “Did not I tell you, that you would break it?”’
Smiling in Barbauld’s writings doesn’t ever reach quite such loopy fortitude, but it still remains a matter of putting on a brave face in response to dreadful vicissitude. Stevie Smith, who was something of an expert on such matters, would have grasped the point without difficulty: ‘Smile, smile, and get some work to do,’ she counsels herself in ‘Thoughts about the Person from Porlock’, ‘then you will be practically unconscious without positively having to go.’ William McCarthy is a noble champion and he gallantly insists that Barbauld, under attack from Coleridge and the other young Turks, ‘must have felt secure in her authority’; but it seems to me that her best writing tells a rather different story, one that doesn’t involve much security or authority at all. Or at least, if there is authority of a kind here, it is like that strange variety which Larkin admired in Stevie Smith: ‘the authority of sadness’.
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