Anna Laetitia Barbauld in Stoke Newington
Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825) is remembered chiefly as a ‘poet and writer’. Her output covered a wide range of literary forms: she wrote essays, poems, edited works of fiction, produced literary criticism and wrote poems for children. (1) Some of her best know works were inspired by progressive causes, such as her “Epistle to William Wilberforce, esq. … on the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade.” In which she castigated the Westminster Parliament for refusing to abolish the slave trade.
Aside from her copious writings, Ms Barbauld was also an educationalist who expanded the school curriculum in the academy at which she and her husband taught in Hampstead beyond the traditional classical studies, to embrace science and modern languages. (2) As a writer, her inclusion of modern languages should come as no surprise.
By the late 18th century, her reputation as a writer and poet was well established. She was “acclaimed by fellow writers Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth and favourably compared to renowned essayists Joseph Addison and Samuel Johnson” (3). The painter Richard Samuel depicted her as one of the “Nine Living Muses” in his painting of 1779. (refer to Exhibit Two) This allegorical depiction represented contemporary women writers and painters as ‘creative women’, dressed in Classical costume and gathered before the temple of Apollo, the Greek god of the Arts: Ms Barbauld was considered to be one of the “female pantheon of arts and letters” (4)
She and her husband, Rochford Barbauld came to live in Stoke Newington in 1802. A plaque is now displayed on the wall of the house in which she lived, at 113 Church Street. (Refer to Exhibit One) Rochford ‘took over pastoral duties’ (5) at the Unitarian Chapel in Newington Green, but he suffered from bouts of mental illness and committed suicide by drowning himself in the New River just six years after they had moved into the area. The Dictionary of National Biography article attributes his condition to manic-depressive psychosis. Her husband’s death left Laetitia bereft.
“subsided into melancholy” (6)
Possibly a way of dealing with her grief, Laetitia began editing an ambitious 50 volume set of ‘The British novelists’ (1810), to which she added a critical essay and a biography to each volume. These essays are now considered “an important body of criticism of the novel and individual novelists” (ODNB) that helped to establish the canon as it is known today (Wikipedia). In the same year, she wrote the more general ‘An Essay on the Origin and Progress of Novel-Writing’ to supplement her critical essays on individual authors. Her reputation rests as much upon her literary scholarship as on her essays and poems. Her output was prodigious; whilst in Stoke Newington, she contributed some 340 reviews to the ‘Monthly Review’ between 1809 and 1815 (7) as well as editing an anthology of writing suitable for young women, entitled The Female Speaker (1811).
In 1812, she published her most ambitious work: ‘Eighteen Hundred and Eleven ‘(1812) an epic poem in which she attacked the seemingly endless war between England and Napoleonic France. It received hostile reviews that affected her deeply and she never wrote another poem. In her final years, Ms Barbauld suffered from asthma. Her reputation also suffered when the Romantic writers she had known in their youths, turned against her in maturity. Her brother, John Aikin, died in 1822 and her death followed, on the 9th March 1825. (8) She is buried in a family tomb in St Mary’s Churchyard, which can be seen to the left of the path leading to the church
Her influence on Newington Green is still very visible in the local area. A street in Stoke Newington that runs parallel to Church street bears her name; Barbauld Road. Also, a plaque commemorating her life is situated in the Newington Green Meeting House. It carries a generous tribute to her many talents;
In Memory of
ANNA LETITIA BARBAULD,
Daughter of John Aikin, D.D.
And Wife of
The Rev. Rochemont Barbauld,
Formerly the Respected Minister of this Congregation.
She was born at Kibworth in Leicestershire, 20 June 1743,
and died at Stoke Newington, 9 March 1825.
Endowed by the Giver of all Good
With Wit, Genius, Poetic Talent, and a Vigorous Understanding
She Employed these High Gifts
in Promoting the Cause of Humanity, Peace, and Justice,
of Civil and Religious Liberty,
of Pure, Ardent, and Affectionate Devotion.
Let the Young, Nurtured by her Writings in the Pure Spirit
of Christian Morality;
Let those of Maturer Years, Capable of Appreciating
the Acuteness, the Brilliant Fancy, and Sound Reasoning
of her Literary Compositions;
Let the Surviving few who shared her Delightful
and Instructive Conversation,
That this Monument Records
No Exaggerated Praise (9)
Four: National Portrait Gallery. Celebrating Modern Muses. Brilliant Women. 18th-Century Blue stockings https://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/exhibitions/2008/brilliant-women/celebrating-modern-muses
Six: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. (2016)