Essay by Meredith MacLennan
25 May 2018
18th Century British Women’s Literature
Recovery Essay- Anna Barbauld
Anna Letitia Barbauld was a well-known woman in her day. She was a prominent writer, teacher, and poet during the 18th century in Britain. Like all other female authors from this time, her writing alone was unusual, much less the fact that she was published, significant, and well known. Ms. Barbauld was highly respected as an educator of generations. Her essays engaged in political discussion and her poetry was well known amongst students and the populace. Because of all her hard work and dedication to her craft, she was a familiar name within her community and outreach area.
“Although until recently Barbauld (1743-1825) has been an all-but forgotten figure, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries she was a prominent presence as a poet, essayist, hymnist, children’s author, campaigner for the repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts and for the abolition of the slave trade, and editor of The British Novelists (1810)” (White 512).
Despite her clear success during her lifetime, Ms. Barbauld was forgotten. She has since been resurrected, and is a well-known woman in our time as well, however today it is generally only those who have studied 18th century writings who know of her, and often only those who chose to focus on female authors. She has been revived by feminist literary theory and has a large amount of material available about her, including a book titled Anne Letitia Barbauld: Voice of the Enlightenment by William McCarthy. Why is it that her teachings were relatively forgotten for a century after her death? Was Ms. Barbauld’s writing insignificant compared to other writers of her time period, or was she pushed to the side because she was a woman? How has she been rediscovered and what has this done to reveal information about how children, girls in particular, were educated in the 18th century?
Through the works of Anna Letitia Barbauld’s fables as well as a comparison of conduct books and research about the education of young women in the 18th century, two culturally significant teachings emerge: that women are morally superior to men yet still should be subservient and that modesty is valued above all other traits and intimately associated with the feminine. In order to emphasize Barbauld’s teaching mechanisms as well as her writings, it is beneficial to focus on a kind of writing which always has a known lesson- fables. While she was alive Anna Barbauld published many essays and poems, even books, for her students and otherwise. In death, Ms. Barbauld’s family decided that her writings could continue to inform students and educate generations. They elected to publish everything that they could find of hers which was as yet unpublished or unfinished. This was in an effort to create a legacy that would last forever. The book, which contained all of Anna Barbauld’s unpublished writings, is called A Legacy for Young Ladies, published in London in 1826. These writings can be found in a larger volume called Epistles on Women. However, not all of the writings in A Legacy for Young Ladies are letters. Many are, in fact, Ms. Barbauld’s correspondences with favorite students of hers, but still others are poems, letters she received, and finally, fables. There are four fables within the book, three of which I will be analyzing and discussing here as they relate to writing, teaching, and Ms. Barbauld’s legacy. These fables are titled “The Pine and the Olive,” “The River and the Brook,” and “Confidence and Modesty.” All three create a picture of cultural learning for young girls which, when analyzed, teaches us much about the time period.
During the 18th century there was a phenomena of books, some by female writers, called conduct books. A conduct book is very similar to A Legacy for Young Ladies; many would call Barbauld’s work conduct-oriented, however these books were more specific. They were meant to teach generations of kids, mostly women, how to behave in polite English society. As it turned out, “Conduct books for women were published in record numbers after 1740, outstripping in quantity and aim similar books for men” (Darby 335). It seemed that in that time most people thought that women needed more education about where exactly they fit into society. Therein lies a discrepancy which hints at some form of societal oppression. These conduct books are easily comparable to Barbauld’s fables and can lead to conclusions about the education of young ladies during this 18th century.
I will provide a short synopsis and analysis, beginning with “The Pine and the Olive.” This fable begins with a stoic who is taking a solitary walk. He sits between a Pine tree and an Olive tree, and they begin a discussion about which has it best. The Pine pities the Olive, saying “I pity thee; thou now spreadest thy green leaves and exultest in all the pride of youth and spring; but how soon will thy beauty be tarnished!” (Barbauld). The Olive tree then replies to this snarky comment, saying “I rejoice when nature rejoices; and when I am desolate, nature mourns with me. I fully enjoy pleasure in its season, and I am contented to be subject to the influences of those seasons and that economy of nature by which I flourish” (Barbauld). The Pine had no comeback to this, and the stoic went away, humbled. The moral of this story is to rejoice in the changeable nature of human beings. Beauty is inconsistent, unstable, and never guaranteed. Ms. Barbauld wanted to be sure that the young ladies in her care never resented their aging, for it was natural and beautiful as the cycle of seasons on this earth. Her respect for human life is evident through the character of the Olive tree. In this story we can see the value placed not on outward appearance, but on the inside and, further, the cycle of life, good, evil, and beauty.
Even deeper meaning is revealed when analyzing what is meant by Barbauld’s plant choices. During this time it was crucial for educated people to have knowledge of ancient Greek texts and philosophies; this was seen as cultured and high-brow, just as it is today. It is unlikely that Barbauld, being and educator, had no knowledge of the historical significance of her choices. The Pine represents a traditionally masculine, phallic image. It was customarily sacred to and associated with Poseidon, the hyper masculine God of the Sea. As many know, the Olive is associated with Pallas Athene, Goddess of Strategy and Battle. The story goes that Athene and Poseidon were engaged in a battle for dominion of the city of Athens. Zeus, king of the Gods, decided to make a competition out of it. Whichever god provided the city with the best gift could claim it. Poseidon created the horse, a very masculine animal for the time. Horses were used for travel and for war and not traditionally seen as feminine. Athene created the olive tree, which was used at that time for cooking and house products (such as lotion, oil, or perfume). When the citizens saw the gifts, they recognized hers as the best and she won the city. This story is a prime example of the feminine dominating the masculine in ancient antiquity, and Barbauld certainly used the symbolism well in her fable (Plants and Flowers…).
When comparing this fable to conduct books of the time there are several similarities which can be drawn. First, it is important to clarify that the purpose of a conduct book was not to minimize the importance of women. In fact, many conduct books portrayed their instruction in a very favorable light, saying that the duties of womanhood were sacred. Rather, these works
“constructed a Proper Lady who oversaw the activities of the house, but did not work herself, transformed her husband’s earnings into a tangible quality of life, ensured that her husband had a retreat from his work, and reared children who would contribute usefully to economic and imperial expansion” (Darby 336).
While the books were generated to put women within a certain niche of society, they appeared to truly appreciate the women who conformed. Apparently, “The compensation for this domestic, passive, asexual existence was a view of women’s moral superiority and their importance as mothers, charity workers, and guardians of domestic happiness” (Darby 336). The moral superiority piece is what is key in reference to “The Pine and the Olive.” In the story, the Olive is seen as the wisest. The feminine character is superior even to the male philosopher. Clearly Barbauld wanted her students to be aware of their own power in terms of morality.
“The River and the Brook” has differing themes entirely, although connects to “The Pine and the Olive” through a theme of inevitability. It goes like this: a River was very large and important, running through a countryside. It despised all the little brooks and streams, saying “Ye petty and inconsiderable streams, that hasten to lose your names and your being in my flood, how little does your feeble tribute increase my greatness” (Barbauld). One little Brook becomes fed up and tells the River “dost thou not know that all thy greatness is owing to us whom thou despisest?” (Barbauld). The next summer the Brooks all dried up, and the River becomes no more, drying up in the wind and lost in the sands. The moral of this fable is to avoid pride. Ms. Barbauld wants her students to recognize that we all came from somewhere, and everyone has supports and “Brooks” (if you will) which enrich and empower them. To internalize success and ignore all those who have helped you get where you are today is prideful, and will lead to your eventual destruction. This was probably significant for Ms. Barbauld as a teacher; perhaps she had some students who failed to acknowledge her, or maybe she even was “The River” once she achieved her success. Regardless, her message is clear and comes across in a succinct manner.
This is also a not so subtle reference to the patriarchy; the River represents a male centered culture and world, which fails to appreciate the female Brooks that are contributing the entirety of the River water. Women are enablers in society; they provide children and stabilize populations. Without women, where would men be? Just as without the Brooks the River dried up, humanity and culture likewise would not survive without the feminine population. Barbauld provides her students with very feminist undertones and themes through this comparison of the masculine dependent on the feminine.
The third fable from Barbauld which relates to these themes is called “Confidence and Modesty.” This one begins with the gods deciding that few should lead amongst mortals and many should follow; they then created Ignorance and Wisdom as well as guides for each of them. Wisdom got Confidence as a guide and Ignorance gained Modesty. The parties travelled around the world for many years before events on a journey led to the switching of partners. The story ends saying “And ever since that time Ignorance has been led by Confidence, and Modesty has been found in the society of Wisdom” (Barbauld). One thing in particular to note about this fable is that the personified characters all have feminine pronouns associated with them. They are seen as female, whether good or bad, and supposedly given by the gods. This is significant from a feminist interpretation. The lesson here is clearly about character. According to Barbauld, those who are Wise are also Modest, and those who are Ignorant are Confident. Barbauld probably wanted her students to beware of confidence and recognize that modesty leads to a deeper knowledge and understanding. This is perhaps because her students were mostly young women, who were meant to be seen and not heard. Or, this ideal could have just been a society-wide product of that age. It is difficult to say with any certainty which might be true.
It has been said that “The primary strategy of eighteenth century conduct books… was to encourage women to be self-regulating by recognizing their natural predispositions for both good and evil” (Darby 336). As was stated above, conduct books were written in order to focus on highlighting the type of woman that a young girl should become and “vilified those representatives of alternative femininities” (Darby 336). A further moral and philosophical meaning of women and womanhood was also presented. The goal of the books was to get women, at a young age, to realize what traits they had that were good (societally) and evil (inherently). The books highlighted the differences in these respects between the two sexes. They concluded that, for the most part, there was a “natural, God given system of gender difference [where] men think and act while women feel and react. Men rule and women nurture the rulers” (Darby 339). This compares similarly to “The River and the Brook” discussion of patriarchy, and it also fits with the emotional and personality traits in this fable. Women were meant to master their reactions and contain their feelings. “Above all, modesty that was asexual, restrained in conversation or in company” (Darby 337) was valued in this 18th century society.
This is highly significant, of course, for a fable entitled “Confidence and Modesty.” The final sentence is the most telling in this fable. Barbauld concludes with the idea that Modesty is in direct correlation with Wisdom, while Confidence goes hand in hand with Ignorance. These ideals directly correspond with the ideals of many conduct books at the time. Girls were meant to be modest, especially about knowledge. In John Gregory’s conduct book entitled A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters he writes of a kind of modesty which “naturally disposes [women] to be rather silent in company… if you happen to have any learning, keep it a profound secret, especially from the men, who generally look with a jealous and maligned eye on a woman of great parts, and a cultivated understanding” (Gregory 40-44). Unlike the other two fables which follow conduct book teaching but have interpretations which support and uplift the female community, “Confidence and Modesty” seems to support Gregory’s view of how a woman should behave. This is no surprise, as Barbauld was a famous teacher and may not have been so if she did not conform to the ideals of the time. Even today, this view can still be seen. Growing up I remember hearing the phrase “Modest is hottest” in grade school; it seems that the idea of modesty and femininity being intertwined is one which will not leave us.
The 18th century is clearly not as far away as society might think. Some still believe that women are morally superior to men and have more use for modesty; in work environments today, men are far more confident overall. This can be shown through the wage gap and the amount of men versus women in certain occupations (such as the stock market or CEOs of companies). In conclusion, Anne Barbauld’s teachings are still significant. An analysis of her fables reveals that she wrote with a “feminine over masculine” mindset and yet still complied with the general ideas of conduct books from the 18th century. Barbauld impressed on her students through these fables the idea that women are morally superior to men (“The Pine and the Olive”), that women are strong and important contributors to society (“The River and the Brook”) and that modesty is the best policy in pursuit of true wisdom (“Confidence and Modesty”). The conduct books generally seem to support Barbauld’s teachings, however they emphasize the modesty more so than the moral superiority. The books also do not take the feminist perspective quite so seriously as Barbauld does. It is clear that she is a true teacher of women from the time, rather than Gregory who approached femininity from the male perspective. Barbauld was a famous and significant women in her day because of her approaches to teaching women, and she should be no less recognized today.
Barbauld, Anna, and Lucy Aikin. “A Legacy for Young Women.” Epistles on Women, London, second ed. 1826.
Darby, Barbara. “The More Things Change… The Rules and Late Eighteenth Century Conduct Books for Women.” Women’s Studies, vol. 29, 2000, pp. 333–355.
Gregory, John. A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters. Edinburgh, 1774.
“Plants and Flowers of Greek Myths 2.” Irene (Eirene) – Greek Goddess Hora of Peace (Roman Pax), www.theoi.com/Flora2.html.
White, Daniel E. “The ‘Joinerina’: Anne Barbauld, the Aikin Family Circle, and the Dissenting Public Sphere.” Eighteenth Century Studies, vol. 32, no. 4, 1999, pp. 511–533., www.jstor.org/stable/30053931.
From Lucy Aikin’s Epistles on Women
in Prose and Verse,
By the Late
Mrs. Anna Barbauld.
Printed for Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green,
The late Mrs. Barbauld was one of the best friends of youth. In her Early Lessons, and Prose Hymns, she has condescended to apply her admirable genius to the instruction even of infant minds. Several excellent pieces, adapted to children of different ages, she contributed to Dr. Aikin’s Evenings at Home. That elegant volume of verse and prose The Female Speaker, was compiled by her for the use of young ladies, for whom she also made a selection from the Tatlers, Spectators, and Guardians, prefixing to it an instructive and beautiful Essay. In other of her productions she has given valuable advice to parents on the subject of instruction; and her Poems contain many pieces worthy to be early reposited among the choicest stores of an elegant and ingenuous mind.
Many young persons of both sexes partook, during the course of her long life, of the benefit of her personal instructions; and in the present volume she may be regarded as continuing even from the grave to delight and improve the rising generation.
These pieces were found among her papers by the members of her own family. Some of them enforce moral truths; others contain instruction in history and other branches of the graver studies of youth; but the greater number are of a light and elegant cast, adapted to exercise the ingenuity and amuse the fancy while they refine the taste. Those in the form of letters were all addressed to different ladies whom she favoured with her friendship.
Had she herself presented these pieces to the public, it is probable that she would in some instances have extended them by additions which, from her own pen, would have enhanced their value, but which it would have been presumption in any other to attempt. None of them, however, can properly be called fragments: and it was so natural to her to express herself with the highest beauty and perfection of style, that in this respect little difference would be found either in verse or prose, between the slightest sketch she ever traced and the most finished of her admired productions.
Hampstead, December 1825.
The Pine and the Olive: A Fable.
A Stoic, swelling with the proud consciousness of his own worth, took a solitary walk; and straying amongst the groves of Academus, he sat down between an Olive and a Pine tree. His attention was soon excited by a murmur which he heard among the leaves. The whispers increased; and listening attentively, he plainly heard the Pine say to the Olive as follows: Poor tree! I pity thee; thou now spreadest thy green leaves and exultest in all the pride of youth and spring; but how soon will thy beauty be tarnished! The fruit which thou exhaustest thyself to bear, shall hardly be shaken from thy boughs before thou shalt grow dry and withered; thy green veins, now so full of juice, shall be frozen; naked and bare thou wilt stand exposed to all the storms of winter, whilst my firmer leaf shall resist the change of the seasons. Unchangeable is my motto, and through the various vicissitudes of the year I shall continue equally green and vigorous as I am at present.
The olive, with a graceful wave of her boughs, replied: It is true thou wilt always continue as thou art at present. Thy leaves will keep that sullen and gloomy green in which they are now arrayed, and the stiff regularity of thy branches will not yield to those storms which will bow down many of the feebler tenants of the grove. Yet I wish not to be like thee. I rejoice when nature rejoices; and when I am desolate, nature mourns with me. I fully enjoy pleasure in its season, and I am contented to be subject to the influences of those seasons and that economy of nature by which I flourish. When the spring approaches, I feel the kindly warmth; my branches swell with young buds, and my leaves unfold; crowds of singing birds which never visit thy noxious shade, sport on my boughs, my fruit is offered to the Gods and rejoices men; and when the decay of nature approaches, I shed my leaves over the funeral of the falling year, and am well contented not to stand a single exemption to the mournful desolation I see everywhere around me.
The Pine was unable to frame a reply; and the philosopher turned away his steps rebuked and humbled.
The River and the Brook: A Fable.
There was once a River which was very large, and flowed through a great extent of country which it rendered fruitful and pleasant. It was some miles broad at its mouth; it was navigable for a long way up the stream, and ships of large burthen floated on its bosom. The River, elated with its own consequence, despised all the little brooks and streams which fell into it; and swelling above its banks with pride, said to them—Ye petty and inconsiderable streams, that hasten to lose your names and your being in my flood, how little does your feeble tribute increase my greatness! whether you withhold or bring it I feel no increase and shall perceive no diminution.
Proud stream! replied a little Brook which lifted up its head and murmured these words,—dost thou not know that all thy greatness is owing to us whom thou despisest?
The River, mindless of this reproof, in wanton pride overflowed its banks. But the next summer proving a very hot one, all the little streams were dried up, and the River was so far dried that men and cattle could wade over it; and a strong wind bringing a heap of dust across its stream, it was lost in the sands and never heard of afterwards.
Confidence and Modesty. A Fable.
When the Gods, knowing it to be for the benefit of mortals that the few should lead and that the many should follow, sent down into this lower world Ignorance and Wisdom, they decreed to each of them an attendant and guide, to conduct their steps and facilitate their introduction. To Wisdom they gave Confidence, and Ignorance they placed under the guidance of Modesty. Thus paired, the parties travelled about the world for some time with mutual satisfaction.
Wisdom, whose eye was clear and piercing, and commanded a long reach of country, followed her conductor with pleasure and alacrity. She saw the windings of the road at a great distance; her foot was firm, her ardour was unbroken, and she ascended the hill or traversed the plain with speed and safety.
Ignorance, on the other hand, was shortsighted and timid. When she came to a spot where the road branched out in different directions, or was obliged to pick her way through the obscurity of the tangled thicket, she was frequently at a loss, and was accustomed to stop till some one appeared, to give her the necessary information, which the interesting countenance of her companion seldom failed to procure her.
Wisdom in the mean time, led by a natural instinct, advanced towards the temple of Science and Eternal Truth. For some time the way lay plain before her, and she followed her guide with unhesitating steps: but she had not proceeded far before the paths grew intricate and entangled; the meeting branches of the trees spread darkness over her head, and steep mountains barred her way, whose summits, lost in clouds, ascended beyond the reach of mortal vision. At every new turn of the road her guide urged her to proceed; but after advancing a little way, she was often obliged to measure back her steps, and often found herself involved in the mazes of a labyrinth which after exercising her patience and her strength, ended but where it began.
In the mean time Ignorance, who was naturally impatient, could but ill bear the continual doubts and hesitation of her companion. She hated deliberation, and could not submit to delay. At length it so happened that she found herself on a spot where three ways met, and no indication was to be found which might direct her to the right road. Modesty advised her to wait; and she had waited till her patience was exhausted.—At that moment Confidence, who was in disgrace with Wisdom for some false steps he had led her into, and who had just been discarded from her presence, came up, and offered himself to be her guide. He was accepted. Under his auspices Ignorance, naturally swift of foot, and who could at any time have outrun Wisdom, boldly pressed forward, pleased and satisfied with her new companion. He knocked at every door, visited castle and convent, and introduced his charge to many a society whence Wisdom found herself excluded.
Modesty, in the mean time, finding she could be of no further use to her charge, offered her services to Wisdom. They were mutually pleased with each other, and soon agreed never to separate. And ever since that time Ignorance has been led by Confidence, and Modesty has been found in the society of Wisdom.