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date: 07 July 2022

Baillie, Joannafree


Baillie, Joannafree

  • Norma Clarke

Joanna Baillie (1762–1851)

by Sir William John Newton

© Copyright The British Museum

Baillie, Joanna (1762–1851), playwright and poet, was born in the manse of Bothwell, Lanarkshire, on 11 September 1762, the daughter of the Revd James Baillie (c.1722–1778), who had recently been appointed minister at Bothwell, and his wife, Dorothea Hunter (c.1721–1806). The Baillies traced their lineage back to the Scottish patriot William Wallace, and Joanna's mother was a sister of the physician William Hunter and the surgeon John Hunter. Joanna was the youngest of three children; she had had a twin sister, but this child had died unnamed a few hours after her birth.

Childhood and education

Joanna Baillie grew up in close companionship with her sister, Agnes (1760–1861), and brother, Matthew Baillie (1761–1823). Her early years, which she recalled in an unpublished memoir written for her nephew, were marked by a passion for the outdoors: running in the garden, splashing in the River Clyde. Uninterested in books or in learning to read, she preferred staging impromptu amateur dramatics on a wagon in the schoolyard. She and her sister adored listening to ghost stories, sitting by the fire of a winter's evening enthralled by the sexton's supernatural tales and too frightened to go upstairs afterwards. Her own gift for narrative invention revealed itself early in stories told to her companions or acted out for her own pleasure. She was 'addicted to clambering on the roof of the house, to act over her scenes alone and in secret' (Le Breton, 9). In 1769 the Baillies moved from Bothwell to Hamilton, where Dr Baillie had been appointed to the collegiate church, and a few years later, at the age of ten, Joanna Baillie was sent to Miss McDonald's boarding-school in Glasgow. Her intellectual and artistic faculties were here stimulated, and the strength of her powers of reasoning and argument recognized. She had a talent for drawing, considerable musical ability, and a love of mathematics. Above all, however, was her facility in the writing and acting of plays. She visited the theatre for the first time:

I had seen nothing of the kind before but a puppet show in a poor little outhouse when I was a mere child. But now I beheld a lighted up theatre with fine painted scenes and gay dressed Gentlemen and Ladies acting a story on the stage, like busy agitated people in their own dwellings, and my attention was rivetted with delight.

Baillie, Memoirs

Her passion for theatre continued throughout her life.

In 1776 Joanna's father took up a post as professor of divinity at Glasgow University. In 1778 he died. Matthew Baillie went to Balliol College, Oxford, planning to follow in his uncles' footsteps and study medicine. With little inheritance, Mrs Baillie and her daughters retired to Long Calderwood, her family home, and lived the lives of quiet country gentlewomen. In 1783 Dr William Hunter died, leaving Matthew Baillie his house and museum collection in Windmill Street, London. The following year Joanna, Agnes, and their mother moved to Windmill Street to keep house for Matthew. In London, Joanna Baillie had access to literary society through her aunt Anne Hunter, the wife of John Hunter, who was a poet of some renown and hosted a regular salon. Frances Burney, Elizabeth Carter, and Elizabeth Montagu were among those whom Agnes Baillie recalled meeting. Anne Hunter's example encouraged Joanna to write poetry. Her first poem, 'Winter Day', was evocative of the winter sights and sounds in the neighbourhood of Long Calderwood. Like her later tragedies it was written in blank verse:

Thomson had written in blank verse, but I must confess I would much rather have written in rhime; only rhimes with me in those days were not easily found and I had not industry enough to toil for them. Ballads in rhime followed afterwards, and when I found I could write them with some degree of ease, I began to be proud of myself and to believe that I possessed some genius.

Baillie, Memoirs

While at Windmill Street she also began seriously writing drama, 'following simply my own notions of real nature' and discovering that it was 'an occupation that suited me'. She had a ready supply of books and studied the French authors Corneille, Racine, Molière, and Voltaire, as well as Shakespeare and the older English dramatists. She completed a tragedy, 'Arnold', which was never published, and 'a serious comedy' which was later burnt. Rayner was also written at this time, though it was heavily revised before it was published in Miscellaneous Plays (1804). Her first publication, Poems: Wherein it is Attempted to Describe Certain Views of Nature and of Rustic Manners, appeared in 1790. Baillie later revised a selection of these early poems which were reprinted in her Fugitive Verses (1840); a facsimile of the 1790 volume, thought lost until the 1980s, was published in 1994.

Plays on the Passions

In 1791 Matthew Baillie married Sophia Denman, and moved to Grosvenor Street. Mrs Baillie and her daughters settled, after two or three moves, in Colchester. There, Joanna Baillie conceived the idea of her Plays on the Passions and began by writing Basil, a tragedy on love, The Tryal, a comedy on love, and De Monfort, a tragedy on hatred. The scheme of the Plays on the Passions, as announced in volume 1, published anonymously in 1798, was ambitious: there were to be further volumes, a whole 'series of Plays; in which it is attempted to delineate the stronger passions of the mind, each passion being the subject of a tragedy and a comedy'. A long introductory discourse defended and explained this novel approach to the drama. The plays, the author explained, were part of an 'extensive design' and were a completely original concept. They arose from a particular view of human nature in which sympathetic curiosity and observation of the movement of feeling in others were paramount. Real passion, 'genuine and true to nature', was to be the subject; each play was to focus on the growth of one master passion; while what was dramatized were the often hidden psychological processes giving rise to passionate action. This unusually analytic approach generated much discussion and controversy. The author's identity remained secret. In 1800 De Monfort was produced at Drury Lane with John Philip Kemble and Sarah Siddons in the leading parts. Splendidly staged, the play ran for eleven nights but was not a theatrical success. In 1802, a second volume of Plays on the Passions was published under Joanna Baillie's name, with a preface which acknowledged the reception given to volume one: 'praise mixed with a considerable portion of censure'. Volume 2 consisted of The Election, a comedy on hatred, Ethwald, a tragedy in two parts on ambition, and The Second Marriage, a comedy on ambition. Joanna Baillie considered that these plays, especially Ethwald, were written when she was at the height of her powers. Soon afterwards, in 1803, Francis Jeffrey published a long condemnatory review of the Plays on the Passions as a leading article in the Edinburgh Review. He attacked the theory, practice, and purpose of the plays; and though he also praised her 'pleasing and powerful genius' Joanna Baillie marked him down as her literary enemy and refused a personal introduction. It was not until 1820 that she agreed to meet him; characteristically, they then became warm friends.

By 1802 Joanna Baillie had moved from Colchester to Hampstead, where she was to live with her sister for the next half-century. In 1806 Mrs Baillie died. Neither sister married. They were sociable, hospitable, and much admired and visited, being on intimate terms of friendship with many eminent figures in the arts and sciences. Anna Barbauld and Lucy Aikin were neighbours and close friends, and Walter Scott was a regular correspondent with whom Joanna Baillie stayed in Scotland and who visited her whenever he was in London. In 1804 she published a volume entitled Miscellaneous Plays: the tragedies Rayner and Constantine Paleologus, and a comedy, The Country Inn. In a prefatory address to the reader she defended her plays as acting plays. Her ambition, she insisted, was to write plays that could be acted, 'to add a few pieces to the stock of what may be called our national or permanently acting plays'. The criticism that she had no understanding of practical stagecraft and that her plays were torpid and dull in performance rankled throughout her life, and she was always delighted to hear of a production being mounted, no matter how humble it might be. She believed that critics had unfairly labelled her a closet dramatist, partly because she was a woman and partly because they had failed to read her prefaces with care. She pointed also to the conventions of the theatre in her time, when lavish spectacle on huge stages was the order of the day. Her own plays, with their attention to psychological detail, worked best, she argued, in well-lit small theatres where facial expressions could clearly be seen. Constantine Paleologus, though written with John Kemble and Mrs Siddons in mind, was declined by Drury Lane. It was produced at the Surrey Theatre as a melodrama, Constantine and Valeria, and, in its original form, at Liverpool, Dublin, and Edinburgh. In 1810 Joanna Baillie took a Scottish theme for a new play, The Family Legend, which was performed at Edinburgh with a prologue by Walter Scott and an epilogue by Henry Mackenzie. This was a success and encouraged the managers of the Edinburgh theatre to revive De Monfort, which was also well received. The Family Legend was produced at Drury Lane in 1815 and De Monfort in 1821 with Edmund Kean in the title role.

In 1812 the third and final volume of Joanna Baillie's Plays on the Passions appeared. It consisted of two tragedies, Orra and The Siege, a comedy, The Alienated Manor, and a serious musical drama, The Beacon. One passion only was represented in the tragedies and comedy: Fear; and in the musical drama, Hope. Introducing what she described as 'probably the last volume of plays I shall ever publish' she went on to explain that it was her intention to complete her project by writing further dramas on the passions of Remorse, Jealousy, and Revenge, but she did not intend to publish them since publication had discouraged stage production. Her next published work did not appear until 1821, Metrical Legends of Exalted Characters, which told in verse the heroic stories of such historical figures as William Wallace, Christopher Columbus, and Lady Grisell Baillie. These were inspired in part by the huge popularity of Walter Scott's heroic ballads, her own enthusiasm for which had, she admitted, 'made the drama less interesting for a time' (Baillie, Memoirs). In 1823 she edited and published by subscription a collection of poems by many of the leading writers of the day, in support of a widowed old school friend with a family of daughters to support. Financially secure herself, Joanna Baillie customarily gave half her earnings from her writings to charity, and engaged in many philanthropic activities. In the early 1820s she corresponded with the Sheffield campaigner James Montgomery in support of his efforts on behalf of chimney sweeps. She declined to send a poem, fearing that was 'just the very way to have the whole matter considered by the sober pot-boilers over the whole kingdom as a fanciful and visionary thing' whereas 'a plain statement of their miserable lot in prose, accompanied with a simple, reasonable plan for sweeping chimneys without them' was far better strategically. Better still was to win over the master bricklayers and get them to stop building crooked chimneys (letter, 5 Feb 1824, Wellcome L.).

Such pragmatism was regularly in evidence where literary matters were concerned. Joanna Baillie had a shrewd understanding of publishing as a trade marked by gender and class distinctions and driven by the profit motive. Authors down on their luck, women writers, and working-class poets like the shoemaker poet, John Struthers, applied to her for assistance. She took seriously the power her eminence gave her. She wrote letters, drew on all her contacts, and used her knowledge of the literary world either to advise or to further a less well-connected writer. She advised one aspiring author not to publish at his own expense because then publishers would not take the trouble to promote his book as they would if they were publishing at their own risk.

Later plays and reputation

In 1823, Joanna Baillie's much-loved brother Matthew died. His children and grandchildren continued to display the affectionate closeness and pride in their aunt's achievements which had always marked the family. Religion had always been important to her. In 1826 she published The Martyr, a tragedy on religion, intended for reading only; and in 1831 she entered publicly into theological debate with a pamphlet, A view of the general tenour of the New Testament regarding the nature and dignity of Jesus Christ, in which she analysed the doctrines of the Trinitarians, the Arians, and the Socinians. In the years 1831–2 she experienced a period of unusual ill health which left her too weak to keep up her correspondence. However, she recovered and set about preparing three volumes of Miscellaneous Plays for the press. These included, along with nine other new plays, the continuation of Plays on the Passions promised earlier: a tragedy and comedy on jealousy and a tragedy on remorse. Their publication in 1836 created a furore. Critics were almost universally enthusiastic and welcoming. Fraser's Magazine declared: 'Had we heard that a MS play of Shakespeare's, or an early, but missing, novel of Scott's, had been discovered, and was already in the press, the information could not have been more welcome.' (Fraser's Magazine, 236) In 1840, urged on by her old friend the banker poet Samuel Rogers, she issued a new collection, Fugitive Verses, some of which were recently written. It was generally agreed that her popular songs, especially those in Scots dialect, would live on. In 1849 she published for private circulation the poem Ahalya Baee. She was anxious that all her works (with the exception of the theological pamphlet) be collected in a single volume, and had the satisfaction of seeing this 'great monster book' as she called it, which appeared in 1851, shortly before she died. Though no longer robust—'Ladies of four score and upwards cannot expect to be robust, and need not be gay. We sit by the fireside with our books' (Carhart, 62)—she had remained in good health until the end. She died on 23 February 1851 in Hampstead, having almost reached her ninetieth year. Her sister, Agnes, lived on to be 100. Both sisters were buried alongside their mother in Hampstead parish churchyard, and in 1899 a 16 foot high memorial was erected in Joanna Baillie's memory in the churchyard of her birthplace at Bothwell.

Few women writers have received such universal commendation for their personal qualities and literary powers as Joanna Baillie. Her intelligence and integrity were allied to a modest demeanour which made her, for many, the epitome of a Christian gentlewoman. She was also shrewd, observant of human nature, and persistent to the point of obstinacy in developing her own views and opinions. What Francis Jeffrey called her 'narrow and peculiar views of dramatic excellence' (EdinR, 261) remained essentially unchanged throughout her life, and she took pride in having carried out her major work, the Plays on the Passions, more or less in the form she had originally conceived. Her inventive faculties were widely remarked upon. She was on friendly terms with all the leading women writers of her time. Maria Edgeworth, recording a visit in 1818, summed up her appeal for many:

Both Joanna and her sister have most agreeable and new conversation, not old, trumpery literature over again and reviews, but new circumstances worth telling, apropos to every subject that is touched upon; frank observations on character, without either ill-nature or the fear of committing themselves; no blue-stocking tittle-tattle, or habits of worshipping or being worshipped.

Hare, 268

Joanna Baillie's contemporaries placed her above all women poets except Sappho. According to Harriet Martineau she had 'enjoyed a fame almost without parallel, and … been told every day for years, through every possible channel, that she was second only to Shakespeare' (H. Martineau, Autobiography, 1, 1983, 358). But even when Martineau met her, in the 1830s, that fame seemed to belong to a bygone era. There were no revivals of her plays in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries; and yet, as psychological studies, her tragedies would seem very suited to the intimacy of television or film. Twentieth-century scholars have recognized her importance as an innovator on the stage and as a dramatic theorist, and revisionary critics and literary historians of the Romantic period concerned to reassess the place of women writers are acknowledging her significance.


  • M. Carhart, The life and work of Joanna Baillie (1923)
  • J. Baillie, ‘Memoirs written to please my nephew’
  • J. Baillie, ‘Memoir composed for Miss Berry’, Royal College of Surgeons, Hunter-Baillie Collection
  • Dramatic and poetical works of Joanna Baillie (1851)
  • C. B. Burroughs, Closet stages: Joanna Baillie and the theater theory of British Romantic women writers (1997)
  • P. H. Le Breton, Memoirs, miscellanies, and letters of the late Lucy Aikin (1864)
  • Fraser's Magazine, 13 (1836), 236
  • EdinR, 19 (1812), 261
  • A. Hare, ed., Life and letters of Maria Edgeworth, 2 vols. (1894), vol. 1, pp. 253–4; vol. 2, pp. 49–54, 87–8
  • letter, 5 Feb 1824, Wellcome L.
  • R. Lonsdale, ed., Eighteenth-century women poets (1990)


  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp.
  • Holborn Library, Camden, London, Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre, letters
  • Hunt. L., letters and literary MSS
  • NL Scot., letters
  • RCS Eng., corresp. and papers
  • Swiss Cottage Library, London, memoir and corresp.
  • U. Glas. L., corresp.
  • BL, letters to G. Thomson, Add. MSS 35263–35265
  • DWL, letters to H. C. Robinson
  • Harvard U., Houghton L., letters to Andrews Norton
  • Holborn Library, Camden, London, Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre, letters to William Beattie
  • Mitchell L., Glas., letters to Lady Davy and MS Song
  • NL Scot., letters to Anne Elliott
  • NL Scot., corresp. with J. G. Lockhart
  • NL Scot., corresp. with Anne Millar
  • NL Scot., corresp. with Sir Walter Scott
  • RA, corresp. with Sir Thomas Lawrence
  • RCS Eng., corresp. with Sir Walter Scott
  • RS, letters to Sir John Herschel
  • U. Nott. L., letters to countess of Charleville
  • UCL, letters to Samuel Rogers
  • Wellcome L., corresp. with Mary Berry


  • J. C. D. Engleheart, miniature (after W. J. Newton), RCP Lond.
  • M. A. Knight, pencil drawing, watercolour, Scot. NPG
  • W. J. Newton, drawing, watercolour, BM [see illus.]
  • W. J. Newton, oils, BM
  • H. Robinson, engraving (after W. J. Newton), repro. in J. Baillie, Dramatic and poetical works of Joanna Baillie
  • H. Robinson, stipple, line engraving (after W. J. Newton), BM, NPG
  • H. R. Robinson, stipple (after J. J. Masquerier), NPG
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