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Utopianism and Joanna Baillie

One from Many: A New Chronology of Joanna Baillie's Letters

Thomas McLean, University of Otago, New Zealand

  1. Judith Slagle’s 1999 Collected Letters of Joanna Baillie (Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999; 2 vols.) includes more than eight hundred Joanna Baillie letters from collections in the United States and Great Britain and presents Baillie as an engaged correspondent at ease with many of the era’s venerable figures, including Walter Scott, Samuel Rogers, Lady Byron, and Sir John Herschel. Slagle’s decision to organize letters by correspondent allows readers to focus on Baillie’s interaction with important literary and cultural figures, and it helpfully focuses attention on lesser-known writers from Baillie’s circle, most notably Mary Berry and Margaret Hodson. As Slagle notes in her introduction, her “purpose is to establish a circle of Baillie’s friends, some of whom are women writers about whom we know very little” (xiii). The edition certainly succeeds in this central purpose.

  2. There are, however, some drawbacks to this approach. Grouping letters by correspondent gives value to certain relationships based only on the number of letters that an editor is able to locate. Baillie’s letters to two recipients, Scott and Hodson, take up four hundred pages, more than a third of the total two volumes. By contrast, the Collected Letters includes only four letters to Felicia Hemans and none to either Anna Barbauld or Maria Edgeworth. Baillie seems to have had long and lively relationships with these three women writers, and they do appear frequently in letters to other friends. Yet the format of Collected Letters makes it difficult to get a sense of their developing friendships. Furthermore, the Collected Letters relegates recipients who only figure in a handful of letters to a final “miscellaneous” group. This section includes Baillie’s correspondence with many major figures of the era, including William Wordsworth, Robert Southey, and Edmund Kean. Yet these letters are grouped by library rather than chronology, which makes any sort of narrative difficult. Finally, for scholars focusing on a single period in Baillie’s life, or in following the publishing history of a particular volume, the format of the Collected Letters can be challenging.

  3. To supplement the Collected Letters, I have assembled and ordered the eight hundred letters from Slagle’s two-volume edition, about forty letters that were printed previously but not included in Collected Letters, and two hundred unpublished Baillie letters that I have located in the past few years. I have listed the letters chronologically, including only the date, the watermark, the place of writing, the recipient, and the first page of the letter’s location in print.[1] Footnotes provide explanations for the two hundred cases where I have assigned new or more precise dates; letters with uncertain dates appear at the end of the chronology. I have not been able to examine the manuscripts of all of the published letters in person, but I hope to do so in order to check postmarks and watermarks, particularly for those letters where a definite date is currently impossible. Most of the letters listed here that were not included in the Collected Letters will appear in a forthcoming volume I am preparing for Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, Further Letters of Joanna Baillie.

  4. What do we gain from such a listing? The most immediate gain is the ability to read much of Baillie’s surviving correspondence in chronological order. We can focus on significant moments in her later life and career: the Edinburgh performances of The Family Legend, Baillie’s diligent gathering of contributions for the 1823 Collection of Poems, or her later efforts to promulgate Unitarian beliefs. We can follow her reactions to the Napoleonic conflict and its aftermath, the reform movement, and the reign of Queen Victoria. And we can more easily observe the rhetorical shifts in Baillie’s writing on politics, religion, or literature.

  5. But the structure of this chronology also gives a new vantage point from which to view Baillie’s life and times. What’s most interesting perhaps is what’s not here: letters from early in Baillie's career. Baillie’s circle of notable acquaintances was already impressive in the 1790s, due in part to the celebrity of her uncles, the Edinburgh medical doctors William and John Hunter, and the growing fame of her brother Dr. Matthew Baillie. During that decade, Baillie published anonymously a collection of poems (1790) and the first volume of her Series of Plays, which appeared in 1798 and reached a second edition in 1799. But Baillie was only discovered to be the author of the plays in April 1800, after the premiere of De Montfort at Drury Lane. The first letter in the chronology dates from just after this event—the first moments of Baillie’s public fame. Given Baillie’s relative obscurity before the discovery, it is perhaps understandable (though still odd) that no earlier letters have come to light. But this means that we have no epistolary evidence of Baillie before the age of 37 and very little regarding her early literary friendships, or the writing and publishing of her early poems and plays. Even the first decade of the nineteenth century seems spotty: considerable stretches in 1804, 1806, and 1808 are represented by a single recipient; and few letters survive from the months before or after the 30 September 1806 death of Baillie’s mother.

  6. Only after 1810 does the reader get a sense of Baillie’s daily life, her literary and social circles, and her professional and political interests. When the correspondence begins to fill out, the chronology suggests how her correspondents change over time. Some long-lived friends, like Hodson, George Thomson, and Lady Byron, remain present throughout; others disappear or pass away, succeeded by new, younger acquaintances like Andrews Norton or Anna Jameson. Baillie’s interest in and friendships with Americans (like Norton and George Ticknor) and religious figures are a notable addition to the later correspondence.

  7. The chronology seems to show how infrequently, over a long life, Baillie travelled beyond London or Hampstead: Hampstead, Red Lion Hill and Hollybush Hill refer to the homes of Agnes and Joanna Baillie; Grosvenor Street, Cavendish Square, and Sunning Hill refer to London and area residences of Matthew and Sophia Baillie. This is somewhat misleading, however: a look at the actual letters suggests rather that Baillie traveled frequently in the 1810s and 1820s—Scotland, Wales, and France, but most often to Devon to visit her friend Anne Elliot—but wrote few letters when away from London.

  8. Almost every year, from 1800 to 1851, is represented by at least a few letters. In general, the number of surviving letters per year increases slowly but steadily, reaching a high point in the early 1840s. But few years surpass thirty letters, a reminder (despite Slagle’s heroic efforts) of how few Baillie letters have been identified thus far. The fact that Baillie has only recently regained scholarly attention suggests to me that many more of her letters survive, both in uncatalogued library collections and in dusty attics. Unlike Byron, Keats, or Wordsworth, the name Baillie might not immediately inspire an archivist, whether professional or amateur. But much of what remains is now available to readers from two distinct but equally useful vantage points. Just as Judith Slagle’s edition made possible my own research, so I hope that this chronology will encourage scholarly work in new directions: to systematically identify letters written to Baillie; to think about Romantic-era Hampstead in new ways; or to re-examine the links between science, religion and literature in early nineteenth-century Britain and the United States.

  9. Offering this chronology on-line rather than in print has obvious benefits. It makes the chronology immediately accessible to anyone with internet access. Names and dates can be searched, errors corrected, and new information added. As new letters appear, they will be added to the chronology. I encourage readers to contact me (thomas.mclean [at] with suggestions, corrections, or additions.

    A Chronological Listing of the Letters of Joanna Baillie


1 Two letters previously identified as Baillie’s are not hers and thus do not appear in the chronology. In the Collected Letters Slagle prints “a fragment of a letter to Thomas Noon Talfourd” (CL 1100) but suspects the handwriting is Agnes Baillie’s. This is in fact a portion of a complete letter at the Huntington Library (TA 192) to Talfourd from Charles Babbage. In my article “Joanna Baillie in New Zealand: Eight New Letters” (Keats-Shelley Journal 54 [2005] 33-42), I included an unsigned 16 August 1813 letter to Mary Berry attributed to Baillie. I was wrong to do so; recent research suggests that the writer is almost certainly Berry’s and Baillie’s friend Anne Seymour Damer.

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