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Ritchie, Anne Thackeray / A Book of Sibyls Miss Barbauld, Miss Edgeworth, Mrs Opie, Miss Austen
(This file was
produced from images generously made available by The
Internet Archive/Canadian Libraries)







[_All rights reserved_]

[_Reprinted from the Cornhill Magazine_]



_My little record would not seem to me in any way complete without your
name, dear Sibyl of our own, and as I write it here, I am grateful to
know that to mine and me it is not only the name of a Sibyl with deep
visions, but of a friend to us all._
_A. T. R._


Not long ago, a party of friends were sitting at luncheon in a suburb
of London, when one of them happened to make some reference to Maple
Grove and Selina, and to ask in what county of England Maple Grove was
situated. Everybody immediately had a theory. Only one of the company (a
French gentleman, not well acquainted with English) did not recognise
the allusion. A lady sitting by the master of the house (she will, I
hope, forgive me for quoting her words, for no one else has a better
right to speak them) said, 'What a curious sign it is of Jane Austen's
increasing popularity! Here are five out of six people sitting round a
table, nearly a hundred years after her death, who all recognise at once
a chance allusion to an obscure character in one of her books.'

It seemed impossible to leave out Jane Austen's dear household name
from a volume which concerned women writing in the early part of this
century, and although the essay which is called by her name has already
been reprinted, it is added with some alteration in its place with the

Putting together this little book has been a great pleasure and interest
to the compiler, and she wishes once more to thank those who have so
kindly sheltered her during her work, and lent her books and papers
and letters concerning the four writers whose works and manner of being
she has attempted to describe; and she wishes specially to express
her thanks to the Baron and Baroness VON H▄GEL, to the ladies of Miss
Edgeworth's family, to Mr. HARRISON, of the London Library, to the Miss
REIDS, of Hampstead, to Mrs. FIELD and her daughters, of Squire's Mount,
Hampstead, to Lady BUXTON, Mrs. BROOKFIELD, Miss ALDERSON, and Miss


MRS. BARBAULD [1743-1825] 1
MARIA EDGEWORTH [1767-1849] 51
MRS. OPIE [1769-1853] 149
JANE AUSTEN [1775-1817] 197




'I've heard of the lady, and good words went with her name.'
_Measure for Measure._


'The first poetess I can recollect is Mrs. Barbauld, with whose works I
became acquainted--before those of any other author, male or female--when
I was learning to spell words of one syllable in her story-books for
children.' So says Hazlitt in his lectures on living poets. He goes on
to call her a very pretty poetess, strewing flowers of poesy as she

The writer must needs, from the same point of view as Hazlitt, look upon
Mrs. Barbauld with a special interest, having also first learnt to read
out of her little yellow books, of which the syllables rise up one by
one again with a remembrance of the hand patiently pointing to each in
turn; all this recalled and revived after a lifetime by the sight of a
rusty iron gateway, behind which Mrs. Barbauld once lived, of some old
letters closely covered with a wavery writing, of a wide prospect that
she once delighted to look upon. Mrs. Barbauld, who loved to share her
pleasures, used to bring her friends to see the great view from the
Hampstead hill-top, and thus records their impressions:--

'I dragged Mrs. A. up as I did you, my dear, to our Prospect Walk, from
whence we have so extensive a view.

'Yes,' said she, 'it is a very fine view indeed for a flat country.'

'While, on the other hand, Mrs. B. gave us such a dismal account of the
precipices, mountains, and deserts she encountered, that you would have
thought she had been on the wildest part of the Alps.'

The old Hampstead highroad, starting from the plain, winds its way
resolutely up the steep, and brings you past red-brick houses and
walled-in gardens to this noble outlook; to the heath, with its fresh,
inspiriting breezes, its lovely distances of far-off waters and gorsy
hollows. At whatever season, at whatever hour you come, you are pretty
sure to find one or two votaries--poets like Mrs. Barbauld, or commonplace
people such as her friends--watching before this great altar of nature;
whether by early morning rays, or in the blazing sunset, or when the
evening veils and mists with stars come falling, while the lights of
London shine far away in the valley. Years after Mrs. Barbauld wrote,
one man, pre-eminent amongst poets, used to stand upon this hill-top,
and lo! as Turner gazed, a whole generation gazed with him. For him
Italy gleamed from behind the crimson stems of the fir-trees; the spirit
of loveliest mythology floated upon the clouds, upon the many changing
tints of the plains; and, as the painter watched the lights upon the
distant hills, they sank into his soul, and he painted them down for us,
and poured his dreams into our awakening hearts.

He was one of that race of giants, mighty men of humble heart, who have
looked from Hampstead and Highgate Hills. Here Wordsworth trod; here
sang Keats's nightingale; here mused Coleridge; and here came Carlyle,
only yesterday, tramping wearily, in search of some sign of his old
companions. Here, too, stood kind Walter Scott, under the elms of the
Judges' Walk, and perhaps Joanna Baillie was by his side, coming out
from her pretty old house beyond the trees. Besides all these, were a
whole company of lesser stars following and surrounding the brighter
planets--muses, memoirs, critics, poets, nymphs, authoresses--coming to
drink tea and to admire the pleasant suburban beauties of this modern
Parnassus. A record of many of their names is still to be found,
appropriately enough, in the catalogue of the little Hampstead library
which still exists, which was founded at a time when the very hands
that wrote the books may have placed the old volumes upon the shelves.
Present readers can study them at their leisure, to the clanking of the
horses' feet in the courtyard outside, and the splashing of buckets.
A few newspapers lie on the table--stray sheets of to-day that have
fluttered up the hill, bringing news of this bustling now into a past
serenity. The librarian sits stitching quietly in a window. An old lady
comes in to read the news; but she has forgotten her spectacles, and
soon goes away. Here, instead of asking for 'Vice VersÔ,' or Ouida's
last novel, you instinctively mention 'Plays of the Passions,' Miss
Burney's 'Evelina,' or some such novels; and Mrs. Barbauld's works are
also in their place. When I asked for them, two pretty old Quaker
volumes were put into my hands, with shabby grey bindings, with fine
paper and broad margins, such as Mr. Ruskin would approve. Of all
the inhabitants of this bookshelf Mrs. Barbauld is one of the most
appropriate. It is but a few minutes' walk from the library in Heath
Street to the old corner house in Church Row where she lived for a time,
near a hundred years ago, and all round about are the scenes of much of
her life, of her friendships and interests. Here lived her friends and
neighbours; here to Church Row came her pupils and admirers, and, later
still, to the pretty old house on Rosslyn Hill. As for Church Row, as
most people know, it is an avenue of Dutch red-faced houses, leading
demurely to the old church tower, that stands guarding its graves in the
flowery churchyard. As we came up the quiet place, the sweet windy drone
of the organ swelled across the blossoms of the spring, which were
lighting up every shabby corner and hillside garden. Through this
pleasant confusion of past and present, of spring-time scattering
blossoms upon the graves, of old ivy walks and iron bars imprisoning
past memories, with fragrant fumes of lilac and of elder, one could
picture to oneself, as in a waking dream, two figures advancing from the
corner house with the ivy walls--distinct, sedate--passing under the old
doorway. I could almost see the lady, carefully dressed in many fine
muslin folds and frills with hooped silk skirts, indeed, but slight
and graceful in her quick advance, with blue eyes, with delicate sharp
features, and a dazzling skin. As for the gentleman, I pictured him a
dapper figure, with dark eyes, dressed in black, as befitted a minister
even of dissenting views. The lady came forward, looking amused by my
scrutiny, somewhat shy I thought--was she going to speak? And by the
same token it seemed to me the gentleman was about to interrupt her. But
Margaret, my young companion, laughed and opened an umbrella, or a cock
crew, or some door banged, and the fleeting visions of fancy

Many well-authenticated ghost stories describe the apparition of bygone
persons, and lo! when the figure vanishes, a letter is left behind! Some
such experience seemed to be mine when, on my return, I found a packet
of letters on the hall table--letters not addressed to me, but to some
unknown Miss Belsham, and signed and sealed by Mrs. Barbauld's hand.
They had been sent for me to read by the kindness of some ladies now
living at Hampstead, who afterwards showed me the portrait of the lady,
who began the world as Miss Betsy Belsham and who ended her career as
Mrs. Kenrick. It is an oval miniature, belonging to the times of powder
and of puff, representing not a handsome, but an animated countenance,
with laughter and spirit in the expression; the mouth is large, the eyes
are dark, the nose is short. This was the _confidante_ of Mrs. Barbauld's
early days, the faithful friend of her latter sorrows. The letters, kept
by 'Betsy' with faithful conscientious care for many years, give the
story of a whole lifetime with unconscious fidelity. The gaiety of
youth, its impatience, its exuberance, and sometimes bad taste; the
wider, quieter feelings of later life; the courage of sorrowful times;
long friendship deepening the tender and faithful memories of age, when
there is so little left to say, so much to feel--all these things are


Mrs. Barbauld was a schoolmistress, and a schoolmaster's wife and
daughter. Her father was Dr. John Aikin, D.D.; her mother was Miss Jane
Jennings, of a good Northamptonshire family--scholastic also. Dr. Aikin
brought his wife home to Knibworth, in Leicestershire, where he opened a
school which became very successful in time. Mrs. Barbauld, their eldest
child, was born here in 1743, and was christened Anna LŠtitia, after
some lady of high degree belonging to her mother's family. Two or three
years later came a son. It was a quiet home, deep hidden in the secluded
rural place; and the little household lived its own tranquil life far
away from the storms and battles and great events that were stirring
the world. Dr. Aikin kept school; Mrs. Aikin ruled her household with
capacity, and not without some sternness, according to the custom of the
time. It appears that late in life the good lady was distressed by the
backwardness of her grandchildren at four or five years old. 'I once,
indeed, knew a little girl,' so wrote Mrs. Aikin of her daughter, 'who
was as eager to learn as her instructor could be to teach her, and who
at two years old could read sentences and little stories, in her _wise_
book, roundly and without spelling, and in half a year or more could
read as well as most women; but I never knew such another, and I believe
I never shall.' It was fortunate that no great harm came of this premature
forcing, although it is difficult to say what its absence might not
have done for Mrs. Barbauld. One can fancy the little assiduous girl,
industrious, impulsive, interested in everything--in all life and
all nature--drinking in, on every side, learning, eagerly wondering,
listening to all around with bright and ready wit. There is a pretty
little story told by Mrs. Ellis in her book about Mrs. Barbauld, how
one day, when Dr. Aikin and a friend 'were conversing on the passions,'
the Doctor observes that joy cannot have place in a state of perfect
felicity, since it supposes an accession of happiness.

'I think you are mistaken, papa,' says a little voice from the opposite
side of the table.

'Why so, my child?' says the Doctor.

'Because in the chapter I read to you this morning, in the Testament, it
is said that "there is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth
than over ninety and nine just persons that need no repentance."'

Besides her English Testament and her early reading, the little girl was
taught by her mother to do as little daughters did in those days, to
obey a somewhat austere rule, to drop curtsies in the right place, to
make beds, to preserve fruits. The father, after demur, but surely
not without some paternal pride in her proficiency, taught the child
Latin and French and Italian, and something of Greek, and gave her an
acquaintance with English literature. One can imagine little Nancy with
her fair head bending over her lessons, or, when playing time had come,
perhaps a little lonely and listening to the distant voices of the
schoolboys at their games. The mother, fearing she might acquire rough
and boisterous manners, strictly forbade any communication with the
schoolboys. Sometimes in after days, speaking of these early times and
of the constraint of many bygone rules and regulations, Mrs. Barbauld
used to attribute to this early formal training something of the
hesitation and shyness which troubled her and never entirely wore off.
She does not seem to have been in any great harmony with her mother. One
could imagine a fanciful and high-spirited child, timid and dutiful,
and yet strong-willed, secretly rebelling against the rigid order of her
home, and feeling lonely for want of liberty and companionship. It was
true she had birds and beasts and plants for her playfellows, but she
was of a gregarious and sociable nature, and she was unconsciously
longing for something more, and perhaps feeling a want in her early
life which no silent company can supply.

She was about fifteen when a great event took place. Her father was
appointed classical tutor to the Warrington Academy, and thither
the little family removed. We read that the Warrington Academy was a
Dissenting college started by very eminent and periwigged personages,
whose silhouettes Mrs. Barbauld herself afterwards cut out in
sticking-plaster, and whose names are to this day remembered and held in
just esteem. They were people of simple living and high thinking, they
belonged to a class holding then a higher place than now in the world's
esteem, that of Dissenting ministers. The Dissenting ministers were
fairly well paid and faithfully followed by their congregations. The
college was started under the auspices of distinguished members of the
community, Lord Willoughby of Parham, the last Presbyterian lord, being
patron. Among the masters were to be found the well-known names of Dr.
Doddridge; of Gilbert Wakefield, the reformer and uncompromising martyr;
of Dr. Taylor, of Norwich, the Hebrew scholar; of Dr. Priestley, the
chemical analyst and patriot, and enterprising theologian, who left
England and settled in America for conscience and liberty's sake.

Many other people, neither students nor professors, used to come to
Warrington, and chief among them in later years good John Howard with
MSS. for his friend Dr. Aikin to correct for the press. Now for the
first time Mrs. Barbauld (Miss Aikin she was then) saw something of real
life, of men and manners. It was not likely that she looked back with
any lingering regret to Knibworth, or would have willingly returned
thither. A story in one of her memoirs gives an amusing picture of the
manners of a young country lady of that day. Mr. Haines, a rich farmer
from Knibworth, who had been greatly struck by Miss Aikin, followed her
to Warrington, and 'obtained a private audience of her father and begged
his consent to be allowed to make her his wife.' The father answered
'that his daughter was there walking in the garden, and he might go
and ask her himself.' 'With what grace the farmer pleaded his cause I
know not,' says her biographer and niece. 'Out of all patience at his
unwelcome importunities, my aunt ran nimbly up a tree which grew by the
garden wall, and let herself down into the lane beyond.'

The next few years must have been perhaps the happiest of Mrs. Barbauld's
life. Once when it was nearly over she said to her niece, Mrs. Le
Breton, from whose interesting account I have been quoting, that she had
never been placed in a situation which really suited her. As one reads
her sketches and poems, one is struck by some sense of this detracting
influence of which she complains: there is a certain incompleteness and
slightness which speaks of intermittent work, of interrupted trains of
thought. At the same time there is a natural buoyant quality in much of
her writing which seems like a pleasant landscape view seen through the
bars of a window. There may be wider prospects, but her eyes are bright,
and this peep of nature is undoubtedly delightful.


The letters to Miss Belsham begin somewhere about 1768. The young lady
has been paying a visit to Miss Aikin at Warrington, and is interested
in everyone and everything belonging to the place. Miss Aikin is no less
eager to describe than Miss Belsham to listen, and accordingly a whole
stream of characters and details of gossip and descriptions in faded
ink come flowing across their pages, together with many expressions of
affection and interest. 'My dear Betsy, I love you for discarding the
word Miss from your vocabulary,' so the packet begins, and it continues
in the same strain of pleasant girlish chatter, alternating with the
history of many bygone festivities, and stories of friends, neighbours,
of beaux and partners; of the latter genus, and of Miss Aikin's efforts
to make herself agreeable, here is a sample:--'I talked to him, smiled
upon him, gave him my fan to play with,' says the lively young lady.
'Nothing would do; he was grave as a philosopher. I tried to raise
a conversation: "'Twas fine weather for dancing." He agreed to my
observation. "We had a tolerable set this time." Neither did he contradict
that. Then we were both silent--stupid mortal thought I! but unreasonable
as he appeared to the advances that I made him, there was one object in
the room, a sparkling object which seemed to attract all his attention,
on which he seemed to gaze with transport, and which indeed he hardly
took his eyes off the whole time.... The object that I mean was his

One could imagine Miss Elizabeth Bennett writing in some such strain to
her friend Miss Charlotte Lucas after one of the evenings at Bingley's
hospitable mansion. And yet Miss Aikin is more impulsive, more romantic
than Elizabeth. 'Wherever you are, fly letter on the wings of the wind,'
she cries, 'and tell my dear Betsy what?--only that I love her dearly.'

Miss Nancy Aikin (she seems to have been Nancy in these letters, and to
have assumed the more dignified LŠtitia upon her marriage) pours out
her lively heart, laughs, jokes, interests herself in the sentimental
affairs of the whole neighbourhood as well as in her own. Perhaps few
young ladies now-a-days would write to their _confidantes_ with the
announcement that for some time past a young sprig had been teasing them
to have him. This, however, is among Miss Nancy's confidences. She also
writes poems and _jeux d'esprit_, and receives poetry in return from
Betsy, who calls herself Camilla, and pays her friend many compliments,
for Miss Aikin in her reply quotes the well-known lines:--

Who for another's brow entwines the bays,
And where she well might rival stoops to Praise.

Miss Aikin by this time has attained to all the dignity of a full-blown
authoress, and is publishing a successful book of poems in conjunction
with her brother, which little book created much attention at the time.
One day the Muse thus apostrophises Betsy: 'Shall we ever see her
amongst us again?' says my sister (Mrs. Aikin). My brother (saucy
fellow) says, 'I want to see this girl, I think (stroking his chin as he
walks backwards and forwards in the room with great gravity). I think we
should admire one another.'

'When you come among us,' continues the warm-hearted friend, 'we shall
set the bells a-ringing, bid adieu to care and gravity, and sing "O be
joyful."' And finally, after some apologies for her remiss correspondence,
'I left my brother writing to you instead of Patty, poor soul. Well, it
is a clever thing too, to have a husband to write one's letters for one.
If I had one I would be a much better correspondent to you. I would
order him to write every week.'

And, indeed, Mrs. Barbauld was as good as her word, and did not forget
the resolutions made by Miss Aikin in 1773. In 1774 comes some eventful
news: 'I should have written to you sooner had it not been for the
uncertainty and suspense in which for a long time I have been involved;
and since my lot has been fixed for many busy engagements which have
left me few moments of leisure. They hurry me out of my life. It is
hardly a month that I have certainly known I should fix on Norfolk, and
now next Thursday they say I am to be finally, irrevocably married. Pity
me, dear Betsy; for on the day I fancy when you will read this letter,
will the event take place which is to make so great an era in my life. I
feel depressed, and my courage almost fails me. Yet upon the whole I
have the greatest reason to think I shall be happy. I shall possess the
entire affection of a worthy man, whom my father and mother now entirely
and heartily approve. The people where we are going, though strangers,
have behaved with the greatest zeal and affection; and I think we have
a fair prospect of being useful and living comfortably in that state of
middling life to which I have been accustomed, and which I love.'

And then comes a word which must interest all who have ever cared and
felt grateful admiration for the works of one devoted human being and
true Christian hero. Speaking of her father's friend, John Howard, she
says with an almost audible sigh: 'It was too late, as you say, or I
believe I should have been in love with Mr. Howard. Seriously, I looked
upon him with that sort of reverence and love which one should have for
a guardian angel. God bless him and preserve his health for the health's
sake of thousands. And now farewell,' she writes in conclusion: 'I shall
write to you no more under this name; but under any name, in every
situation, at any distance of time or place, I shall love you equally
and be always affectionately yours, tho' _not_ always, A. AIKIN.'

* * * * *

Poor lady! The future held, indeed, many a sad and unsuspected hour for
her, many a cruel pang, many a dark and heavy season, that must have
seemed intolerably weary to one of her sprightly and yet somewhat
indolent nature, more easily accepting evil than devising escape from
it. But it also held many blessings of constancy, friendship, kindly
deeds, and useful doings. She had not devotion to give such as that of
the good Howard whom she revered, but the equable help and sympathy for
others of an open-minded and kindly woman was hers. Her marriage would
seem to have been brought about by a romantic fancy rather than by a
tender affection. Mr. Barbauld's mind had been once unhinged; his
protestations were passionate and somewhat dramatic. We are told that
when she was warned by a friend, she only said, 'But surely, if I throw
him over, he will become crazy again;' and from a high-minded sense of
pity, she was faithful, and married him against the wish of her brother
and parents, and not without some misgivings herself. He was a man
perfectly sincere and honourable; but, from his nervous want of
equilibrium, subject all his life to frantic outbursts of ill-temper.
Nobody ever knew what his wife had to endure in secret; her calm and
restrained manner must have effectually hidden the constant anxiety of
her life; nor had she children to warm her heart, and brighten up her
monotonous existence. Little Charles, of the Reading-book, who is bid to
come hither, who counted so nicely, who stroked the pussy cat, and who
deserved to listen to the delightful stories he was told, was not her
own son but her brother's child. When he was born, she wrote to entreat
that he might be given over to her for her own, imploring her brother to
spare him to her, in a pretty and pathetic letter. This was a mother
yearning for a child, not a schoolmistress asking for a pupil, though
perhaps in after times the two were somewhat combined in her. There is a
pretty little description of Charles making great progress in 'climbing
trees and talking nonsense:' 'I have the honour to tell you that our
Charles is the sweetest boy in the world. He is perfectly naturalised in
his new situation; and if I should make any blunders in my letter, I
must beg you to impute it to his standing by me and chattering all the
time.' And how pleasant a record exists of Charles's chatter in that
most charming little book written for him and for the babies of babies
to come! There is a sweet instructive grace in it and appreciation of
childhood which cannot fail to strike those who have to do with children
and with Mrs. Barbauld's books for them: children themselves, those best
critics of all, delight in it.

'Where's Charles?' says a little scholar every morning to the writer of
these few notes.


Soon after the marriage, there had been some thought of a college for
young ladies, of which Mrs. Barbauld was to be the principal; but she
shrank from the idea, and in a letter to Mrs. Montagu she objects to
the scheme of higher education for women away from their natural homes.
'I should have little hope of cultivating a love of knowledge in a young
lady of fifteen who came to me ignorant and uncultivated. It is too late
then to begin to learn. The empire of the passions is coming on. Those
attachments begin to be formed which influence the happiness of future
life. The care of a mother alone can give suitable attention to this
important period.' It is true that the rigidness of her own home had not
prevented her from making a hasty and unsuitable marriage. But it is not
this which is weighing on her mind. 'Perhaps you may think,' she says,
'that having myself stepped out of the bounds of female reserve in
becoming an author, it is with an ill grace that I offer these

Her arguments seem to have been thought conclusive in those days, and
the young ladies' college was finally transmuted into a school for
little boys at Palgrave, in Norfolk, and thither the worthy couple
transported themselves.

One of the letters to Miss Belsham is thus dated:--'_The 14th of July,
in the village of Palgrave (the pleasantest village in all England), at
ten o'clock, all alone in my great parlour, Mr. Barbauld being studying
a sermon, do I begin a letter to my dear Betsy._'

When she first married, and travelled into Norfolk to keep school at
Palgrave, nothing could have seemed more tranquil, more contented, more
matter-of-fact than her life as it appears from her letters. Dreams, and
fancies, and gay illusions and excitements have made way for the
somewhat disappointing realisation of Mr. Barbauld with his neatly
turned and friendly postscripts--a husband, polite, devoted, it is
true, but somewhat disappointing all the same. The next few years
seem like years in a hive--storing honey for the future, and putting
away--industrious, punctual, monotonous. There are children's lessons to
be heard, and school-treats to be devised. She sets them to act plays
and cuts out paper collars for Henry IV.; she always takes a class of
babies entirely her own. (One of these babies, who always loved her,
became Lord Chancellor Denman; most of the others took less brilliant,
but equally respectable places, in after life.) She has also household
matters and correspondence not to be neglected. In the holidays, they
make excursions to Norwich, to London, and revisit their old haunts at
Warrington. In one of her early letters, soon after her marriage, she
describes her return to Warrington.

'Dr. Enfield's face,' she declares, 'is grown half a foot longer since I
saw him, with studying mathematics, and for want of a game of romps; for
there are positively none now at Warrington but grave matrons. I who
have but half assumed the character, was ashamed of the levity of my

It says well indeed for the natural brightness of the lady's disposition
that with sixteen boarders and a satisfactory usher to look after, she
should be prepared for a game of romps with Dr. Enfield.

On another occasion, in 1777, she takes little Charles away with her.
'He has indeed been an excellent traveller,' she says; 'and though, like
his great ancestor, some natural tears he shed, like him, too, he wiped
them soon. He had a long sound sleep last night, and has been very busy
to-day hunting the puss and the chickens. And now, my dear brother and
sister, let me again thank you for this precious gift, the value of which
we are both more and more sensible of as we become better acquainted with
his sweet disposition and winning manners.'

She winds up this letter with a postscript:--

'Everybody here asks, "Pray, is Dr. Dodd really to be executed?" as if
we knew the more for having been at Warrington.'

Dr. Aikin, Mrs. Barbauld's brother, the father of little Charles and of
Lucy Aikin, whose name is well known in literature, was himself a man of
great parts, industry, and ability, working hard to support his family.
He alternated between medicine and literature all his life. When his
health failed he gave up medicine, and settled at Stoke Newington, and
busied himself with periodic literature; meanwhile, whatever his own
pursuits may have been, he never ceased to take an interest in his
sister's work and to encourage her in every way.

It is noteworthy that few of Mrs. Barbauld's earlier productions
equalled what she wrote at the very end of her life. She seems to have
been one of those who ripen with age, growing wider in spirit with
increasing years. Perhaps, too, she may have been influenced by the
change of manners, the reaction against formalism, which was growing up
as her own days were ending. Prim she may have been in manner, but she
was not a formalist by nature; and even at eighty was ready to learn to
submit to accept the new gospel that Wordsworth and his disciples had
given to the world, and to shake off the stiffness of early training.

It is idle to speculate on what might have been if things had happened
otherwise; if the daily stress of anxiety and perplexity which haunted
her home had been removed--difficulties and anxieties which may well
have absorbed all the spare energy and interest that under happier
circumstances might have added to the treasury of English literature.
But if it were only for one ode written when the distracting cares of
over seventy years were ending, when nothing remained to her but the
essence of a long past, and the inspirations of a still glowing, still
hopeful, and most tender spirit, if it were only for the ode called
'Life,' which has brought a sense of ease and comfort to so many, Mrs.
Barbauld has indeed deserved well of her country-people and should be
held in remembrance by them.

Her literary works are, after all, not very voluminous. She is best
known by her hymns for children and her early lessons, than which
nothing more childlike has ever been devised; and we can agree with her
brother, Dr. Aikin, when he says that it requires true genius to enter
so completely into a child's mind.

After their first volume of verse, the brother and sister had published
a second in prose, called 'Miscellaneous Pieces,' about which there is
an amusing little anecdote in Rogers's 'Memoirs.' Fox met Dr. Aikin at

'"I am greatly pleased with your 'Miscellaneous Pieces,'" said Fox.
Aikin bowed. "I particularly admire," continued Fox, "your essay
'Against Inconsistency in our Expectations.'"

'"That," replied Aikin, "is my sister's."

'"I like much," returned Fox, "your essay 'On Monastic Institutions.'"

'"That," answered Aikin, "is also my sister's."

'Fox thought it best to say no more about the book.'

These essays were followed by various of the visions and Eastern pieces
then so much in vogue; also by political verses and pamphlets, which
seemed to have made a great sensation at the time. But Mrs. Barbauld's
turn was on the whole more for domestic than for literary life, although
literary people always seem to have had a great interest for her.

During one Christmas which they spent in London, the worthy couple go
to see Mrs. Siddons; and Mrs. Chapone introduces Mrs. Barbauld to Miss
Burney. 'A very unaffected, modest, sweet, and pleasing young lady,'
says Mrs. Barbauld, who is always kind in her descriptions. Mrs.
Barbauld's one complaint in London is of the fatigue from hairdressers,
and the bewildering hurry of the great city, where she had, notwithstanding
her quiet country life, many ties, and friendships, and acquaintances.
Her poem on 'Corsica' had brought her into some relations with Boswell;
she also knew Goldsmith and Dr. Johnson. Here is her description of the
'Great Bear:'--

'I do not mean that one which shines in the sky over your head; but the
Bear that shines in London--a great rough, surly animal. His Christian
name is Dr. Johnson. 'Tis a singular creature; but if you stroke him he
will not bite, and though he growls sometimes he is not ill-humoured.'

Johnson describes Mrs. Barbauld as suckling fools and chronicling small
beer. There was not much sympathy between the two. Characters such as
Johnson's harmonise best with the enthusiastic and easily influenced.
Mrs. Barbauld did not belong to this class; she trusted to her own
judgment, rarely tried to influence others, and took a matter-of-fact
rather than a passionate view of life. She is as severe to him in her
criticism as he was in his judgment of her: they neither of them did the
other justice. 'A Christian and a man-about-town, a philosopher, and a
bigot acknowledging life to be miserable, and making it more miserable
through fear of death.' So she writes of him, and all this was true; but
how much more was also true of the great and hypochondriacal old man!
Some years afterwards, when she had been reading Boswell's long-expected
'Life of Johnson,' she wrote of the book:--'It is like going to Ranelagh;
you meet all your acquaintances; but it is a base and mean thing to
bring thus every idle word into judgment.' In our own day we too have
our Boswell and our Johnson to arouse discussion and indignation.

'Have you seen Boswell's "Life of Johnson?" He calls it a Flemish
portrait, and so it is--two quartos of a man's conversation and petty
habits. Then the treachery and meanness of watching a man for years
in order to set down every unguarded and idle word he uttered, is
inconceivable. Yet with all this one cannot help reading a good deal
of it.' This is addressed to the faithful Betsy, who was also keeping
school by that time, and assuming brevet rank in consequence.

Mrs. Barbauld might well complain of the fatigue from hairdressers in
London. In one of her letters to her friend she thus describes a lady's
dress of the period:--

'Do you know how to dress yourself in Dublin? If you do not, I will tell
you. Your waist must be the circumference of two oranges, no more. You
must erect a structure on your head gradually ascending to a foot high,
exclusive of feathers, and stretching to a penthouse of most horrible
projection behind, the breadth from wing to wing considerably broader
than your shoulder, and as many different things in your cap as in
Noah's ark. Verily, I never did see such monsters as the heads now in
vogue. I am a monster, too, but a moderate one.'

She must have been glad to get back to her home, to her daily work, to
Charles, climbing his trees and talking his nonsense.

In the winter of 1784 her mother died at Palgrave. It was Christmas
week; the old lady had come travelling four days through the snow in a
postchaise with her maid and her little grandchildren, while her son
rode on horseback. But the cold and the fatigue of the journey, and the
discomfort of the inns, proved too much for Mrs. Aikin, who reached her
daughter's house only to die. Just that time three years before Mrs.
Barbauld had lost her father, whom she dearly loved. There is a striking
letter from the widowed mother to her daughter recording the event. It
is almost Spartan in its calmness, but nevertheless deeply touching. Now
she, too, was at rest, and after Mrs. Aikin's death a cloud of sadness
and depression seems to have fallen upon the household. Mr. Barbauld was
ailing; he was suffering from a nervous irritability which occasionally
quite unfitted him for his work as a schoolmaster. Already his wife must
have had many things to bear, and very much to try her courage and
cheerfulness; and now her health was also failing. It was in 1775 that
they gave up the academy, which, on the whole, had greatly flourished.
It had been established eleven years; they were both of them in need of
rest and change. Nevertheless, it was not without reluctance that they
brought themselves to leave their home at Palgrave. A successor was
found only too quickly for Mrs. Barbauld's wishes; they handed over
their pupils to his care, and went abroad for a year's sunshine and


What a contrast to prim, starched scholastic life at Palgrave must have
been the smiling world, and the land flowing with oil and wine, in which
they found themselves basking! The vintage was so abundant that year
that the country people could not find vessels to contain it. 'The roads
covered with teams of casks, empty or full according as they were going
out or returning, and drawn by oxen whose strong necks seemed to be
bowed unwillingly under the yoke. Men, women, and children were abroad;
some cutting with a short sickle the bunches of grapes, some breaking
them with a wooden instrument, some carrying them on their backs from
the gatherers to those who pressed the juice; and, as in our harvest,
the gleaners followed.'

From the vintage they travel to the Alps, 'a sight so majestic, so
totally different from anything I had seen before, that I am ready to
sing _nunc dimittis_,' she writes. They travel back by the south of
France and reach Paris in June, where the case of the Diamond Necklace
is being tried. Then they return to England, waiting a day at Boulogne
for a vessel, but crossing from thence in less than four hours. How
pretty is her description of England as it strikes them after their
absence! 'And not without pleasing emotion did we view again the green
swelling hills covered with large sheep, and the winding road bordered
with the hawthorn hedge, and the English vine twirled round the tall
poles, and the broad Medway covered with vessels, and at last the gentle
yet majestic Thames.'

There were Dissenters at Hampstead in those days, as there are still,
and it was a call from a little Unitarian congregation on the hillside
who invited Mr. Barbauld to become their minister, which decided the
worthy couple to retire to this pleasant suburb. The place seemed
promising enough; they were within reach of Mrs. Barbauld's brother, Dr.
Aikin, now settled in London, and to whom she was tenderly attached.
There were congenial people settled all about. On the high hill-top were
pleasant old houses to live in. There was occupation for him and
literary interest for her.

They are a sociable and friendly pair, hospitable, glad to welcome their
friends, and the acquaintance, and critics, and the former pupils who
come toiling up the hill to visit them.

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