‘With Mrs Barbauld it is different’: Dissenting Heritage and the Devotional Taste

  • Daniel E. White


In a letter of August 1804, Anna Barbauld responded to Maria Edgeworth’s announcement that her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, had proposed a plan for a ‘periodical paper, to be written entirely by ladies’.1 In her response, Barbauld foresaw the problem of division between different groups of women writers: ‘There is no bond of union among literary women, any more than among literary men; different sentiments and different connections separate them much more than the joint interest of their sex would unite them. Mrs. Hannah More would not write along with you or me, and we should probably hesitate at joining Miss Hays, or if she were living, Mrs. Godwin.’2 The current reevaluation of Barbauld’s career has led critics to place her among the foremost poets of a revised late-eighteenth-century canon, but Barbauld’s refusal to see gender as the primary determinant of literary or political affinity, as well as her rejection in 1774 of a proposal that she become principal of a Ladies’ College, has confirmed her in the eyes of some as an anti-feminist.3 William McCarthy, on the other hand, has analyzed the ways in which feminist ‘desire takes the form of compensatory fantasy’ in her poetry, thus helpfully critiquing the ‘cardboard antifeminist image of Barbauld’.4 By the same token, we need to be careful not to go to the opposite extreme and create a cardboard feminist image of Barbauld. Enlightenment feminism, in fact, in the sense of an active and conscious effort to theorize and realize educational, social, economic, and (to a lesser extent) political equality for women in the modes of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays, and later Harriet Martineau, was not a central element of Barbauld’s literary work. As an agile thinker and a consistently commanding prose stylist, Barbauld did produce in her religious writings a noteworthy analysis and manipulation of eighteenth-century devotional theory and denominational cultures, elements of which at times involved deep-seated gendered associations.5 In this essay, then, I will bracket the question of her feminism and address instead the relations between Barbauld’s devotional thought and her Dissenting heritage, attending, when possible, to the gendered terms of Enlightenment religious history.


Eighteenth Century Religious Experience Religious Writing Late Eighteenth Century Woman Writer 
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  1. 1.
    Anna Letitia Le Breton, Memoir of Mrs. Barbauld, Including Letters and Notices of Her Family and Friends (London: George Bell and Sons, 1874), p. 84.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Work on Barbauld has been impelled by her recent anthologization and by the appearance of the following editions: William McCarthy and Elizabeth Kraft, eds, The Poems of Anna Letitia Barbauld (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994); McCarthy and Kraft, eds, Anna Letitia Barbauld: Selected Poetry and Prose (Peterborough: Broadview, 2002). On her rejection of the offer, see McCarthy, ‘Why Anna Letitia Barbauld Refused to Head a Women’s College: New Facts, New Story’, Nineteenth-Century Contexts 23.3 (2001): ([0-9]+)–([0-9]+). Discussions of this incident usually rely on Lucy Aikin’s selective reprinting of the letter in which Barbauld rejects the proposal. The Works of Anna Laetitia Barbauld. With a Memoir by Lucy Aikin, 2 vols (London, 1825), I, pp. xvi-xxiv. McCarthy reprints and discusses in its extant entirety Barbauld’s letter to Rochemont Barbauld in which she justifies her refusal, and McCarthy’s analysis of her motives — ‘her case against schools for girls is more rhetorical than theoretical: she is throwing cold water on a scheme she wants to evade, not on the principle that women should be educated’ (p. 357) — leads him to conclude, justly, that ‘it should no longer be permissible to cite this letter as adequate evidence of Barbauld’s supposed antifeminism’ (p. 363).Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    William McCarthy, ‘“We Hoped the Woman Was Going to Appear”: Repression, Desire, and Gender in Anna Letitia Barbauld’s Early Poems’, in Romantic Women Writers: Voices and Countervoices, eds Paula R. Feldman and Theresa M. Kelley (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1995), pp. 125–30. Barbara Taylor has recently discussed Barbauld’s anti-feminism in relation to female jacobinism, in Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination (Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. ([0-9]+)–([0-9]+).Google Scholar
  4. 16.
    See Michael R. Watts, The Dissenters: From the Reformation to the French Revolution (Oxford: Clarendon, 1978), especially on the evolution of ‘rational Dissent’, pp. ([0-9]+)–([0-9]+).Google Scholar
  5. 19.
    Russell E. Richey, ‘Did the English Presbyterians Become Unitarian?’, Church History 42 (1973): 58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 26.
    Barbara Taylor, ‘For the Love of God: Religion and the Erotic Imagination in Wollstonecraft’s Feminism’, in Mary Wollstonecraft and 200 Years of Feminisms, ed. Eileen Janes Yeo (London: Rivers Oram Press, 1997), p. 18.Google Scholar
  7. 28.
    Jean Jacques Rousseau, Julie ou La Nouvelle Héloise, ed. Michel Launay (Paris: GF-Flammarion, 1967), p. 575. ‘As the enthusiasm of devotion borrows the language of love, the enthusiasm of love also borrows the language of devotion.’Google Scholar
  8. 63.
    William Godwin, ‘Of History and Romance’, in Political and Philosophical Writings of William Godwin, gen. ed. Mark Philp, 7 vols (London: William Pickering, 1993), V, pp. 290–301.Google Scholar

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© Daniel E. White 2005

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  • Daniel E. White

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