On a Lady's Writing
Barbauld's short poem "On a Lady's Writing" is a reading of cultural inscriptions in the materials and processes of handwriting. At first glance, the poem seems to be of small consequence; after all, it simply describes an unnamed woman's handwriting:
The one modern critic who has commented on the poem takes the work to task because it "refuses to consider women's writing as anything but 'correct' strokes of the pen" (Sha 111). But no such refusal exists in the poem. To rediscover the complex socio-cultural contexts of the poem is to appreciate how in its six lines Barbauld's poem documents and challenges the nature of bourgeois women's position in social relations in the later eighteenth century through related practices of penmanship, writing, and the conduct book.
An obvious line of inquiry concerns the identity of "a Lady." Who is she? Many of the works Barbauld included in Poems (1773) are addressed to members of her family or to friends associated with the Warrington Academy, where Barbauld's father was an instructor; for example, two poems entitled "Characters" which precede it in Poems (1773) have been associated with her future sister-in-law and a cousin. Yet the indefinite article in "a Lady" and the focus on handwriting might suggest that Barbauld is not concerned with a particular person's identity. The translation of a poem about handwriting into a printed form takes the poem away from association with a specific individual towards more general consideration of the practice of writing as one of the many accomplishments a lady need acquire, as she suggests in the sketch likely addressed to her sister-in-law: "Her ready fingers plied with equal skill / The pencil's task, the needle, or the quill." Because Barbauld understood handwriting as a product of social construction, her poem investigates how the discipline of handwriting might empower women, rather than simply encourage them to act with complicity. In the connections that the poem makes between handwriting and character, Barbauld indicates her awareness of how penmanship serves social control, how as Jonathan Goldberg points out,"training of the hand is not to disturb social relations and hierarchies, but to maintain them" (141).