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Joanna Baillie (11 September 1762 – 23 February 1851) was a Scottish poet and dramatist, known for works including Plays on the Passions (three volumes, 1798-1812) and Fugitive Verses (1840). Her writing exhibits an interest in moral philosophy and the Gothic.[1] She was critically acclaimed during her lifetime, and she associated with important literary contemporaries, including Anna Barbauld, Lucy Aikin, and Walter Scott, while living in Hampstead. Baillie died at the age of 88.[2]


Early lifeEdit


Baillie was born on 11 September 1762. Her mother Dorothea Hunter (c.1721–1806) was a sister of the great physicians and anatomists, William and John Hunter. Her father, Rev. James Baillie (c.1722–1778), was a Presbyterian minister and, during the last two years before his death, a Professor of Divinity at the University of Glasgow. Her aunt Anne Home Hunter was a poet.[3][4] The Baillies were an old Scottish family claiming descent from the Scottish patriot Sir William Wallace.[5][6] He is not known to have had any children however.

She was the youngest of three children; she had had a twin sister, but this baby had died unnamed. Baillie had one surviving sister, Agnes (1760–1861), and an elder brother, Matthew Baillie who became a London physician. Baillie was not a dedicated scholar and her early passions were the Scottish countryside. She had her own pony and her interest in stories was demonstrated by plays she created and stories that she told. Within the house she was dealt with strictly and displays of anger or glee were discouraged. She was not taken to the theatre and the only drama she saw was a puppet show.[2]

In 1769 the family moved to Hamilton where her father was appointed to the collegiate church. Baillie did not learn to read until she attended a Glasgow boarding-school known for "transforming healthy little hoydens into perfect little ladies" (Carswell 266) when she was ten. There she wrote plays and demonstrated abilities in maths, music and art.[2]

Her father died in 1778 and their financial position was reduced although Matthew Baillie went to study medicine at Balliol College in Oxford. The rest of the family retreated to Long Calderwood near East Kilbride. They returned in 1784 as[2] her uncle Dr William Hunter had died the year before and her brother had been left a London house and his collection.[7] Her aunt Anne Hunter was a society hostess and a poet and she was introduced to the bluestockings Fanny Burney, Elizabeth Carter, and Elizabeth Montagu. She studied Corneille, Racine, Molière, Voltaire and Shakespeare and began to write plays and poetry whilst they saw to their brother's household until he married in 1791.

Joanna and her sister and mother moved houses until they settled in Colchester where she began her Plays on the Passions. In 1802 they moved to Hampstead.[6] In 1806 Mrs Baillie died. Anna Laetitia Barbauld and her niece Lucy Aikin were neighbours and close friends. She wrote letters to Sir Walter Scott and they would stay with each other.[2]

Although when she reached her seventies, Baillie experienced a year of ill health but she recovered and returned to writing and her correspondence.

"[Joanna Baillie] was anxious that all her works with the exception of her theological pamphlet (see Religious writing) be collected in a single volume, and had the satisfaction of seeing this ‘great monster book’ as she called it, which appeared in 1851, shortly before she died. Though no longer robust — ‘Ladies of four score and upwards cannot expect to be robust, and need not be gay. We sit by the fireside with our books’ (Carhart, 62) — she had remained in good health until the end. She died in 1851 in Hampstead, having almost reached her ninetieth year. Her sister, Agnes, lived on to be 100. Both sisters were buried alongside their mother in Hampstead parish churchyard, and in 1899 a sixteen-foot-high memorial was erected in Joanna Baillie's memory in the churchyard of her birthplace at Bothwell."[2]

Title page of Joanna Baillie's Miscellaneous Plays (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1804)

Literary and dramatic worksEdit


1790 • Baillie’s first publication: Poems: Wherein it is Attempted to Describe Certain Views of Nature and of Rustic Manners. Baillie later revised a selection of these early poems which were reprinted in her Fugitive Verses (1840).

• Her first poem, ‘Winter Day,’ was evocative of the winter sights and sounds in the neighbourhood of Long Calderwood.

1821Metrical Legends of Exalted Characters, which told in verse the heroic stories of such historical figures as William Wallace, Christopher Columbus, and Lady Grizel Baillie. These were inspired in part by the huge popularity of Walter Scott's heroic ballads, her enthusiasm for which had, she admitted, made writing drama ‘less interesting for a time’ (Baillie, ‘Memoirs’).

1836 • three volumes of Dramatic Poetry.

1840 • encouraged by her old friend the banker poet Samuel Rogers, Baillie issued a new collection, Fugitive Verses, some of which were old and some recently written. It was generally agreed that her popular songs, especially those in Scots dialect, would live on.

1849 • Baillie published the poem Ahalya Baee for private circulation [subsequently published as Allahabad (1904)].


1790 • a tragedy, Arnold, which was never published. • ‘a serious comedy’ which was later burnt. • Rayner was written, though it was heavily revised before it was published in Miscellaneous Plays (1804).

1791Plays on the Passions first conceived.

1798 • the first volume of Plays on the Passions published anonymously under the title of A Series of Plays. Volume 1 consisted of Count Basil, a tragedy on love, The Tryal, a comedy on love, and De Monfort, a tragedy on hatred.

In a long introductory discourse, the author defended and explained her ambitious design to illustrate each of the deepest and strongest passions of the human mind. The plays, the author explained, were part of a larger design and were a completely original concept. They arose from a particular view of human nature in which sympathetic curiosity and observation of the movement of feeling in others were paramount. Real passion, ‘genuine and true to nature’, was to be the subject; each play was to focus on the growth of one master passion.[8] This unusually analytic and arguably artificial approach generated much discussion and controversy, and in "a week or two Plays on the Passions was the main topic of discussion in the best literary circles" (Carswell 273). The entirety of London was excitedly trying to figure out who the author could be. The authorship was attributed to a male author until someone pointed out that all of the protagonists were middle-aged women, rarely the muses of male authors (Carswell 274). Baillie finally revealed herself as the author in 1800 in the title-page of the third edition.

1800De Monfort was produced at Drury Lane with John Kemble and Sarah Siddons in the leading parts. Splendidly staged, the play ran for eight nights but was not a theatrical success. Henriquez and The Separation were coldly received.

1802 • second volume of Plays on the Passions published under Joanna Baillie's name, with a preface which acknowledged the reception given to volume one: ‘praise mixed with a considerable portion of censure’. Volume 2 consisted of The Election, a comedy on hatred, Ethwald, a tragedy in two parts on ambition, and The Second Marriage, a comedy on ambition. Baillie herself was of the opinion that these plays, especially Ethwald, exemplified her best writing.

1804 • published a volume entitled Miscellaneous Plays: the tragedies Rayner and Constantine Paleologus, and a comedy, The Country Inn.

1810 • the Scottish-themed Family Legend, produced at Edinburgh under the enthusiastic patronage of Sir Walter Scott, had a brief though brilliant success. It included a prologue by Scott and an epilogue by Henry Mackenzie. Its success encouraged the managers of the Edinburgh theatre to revive De Monfort, which was also well received.

1812 • third and final volume of Plays on the Passions published. It consisted of two gothic tragedies, Orra and The Dream, a comedy, The Siege, and a serious musical drama, The Beacon. The tragedies and comedy represented the passion of Fear, while the musical drama represented Hope. Introducing what she described as ‘probably the last volume of plays I shall ever publish’ she went on to explain that it was her intention to complete her project by writing further dramas on the passions of Remorse, Jealousy, and Revenge, but she did not intend to publish them since publication had discouraged stage production.

1815The Family Legend produced at Drury Lane, London.

1821De Monfort produced at Drury Lane, London, with Edmund Kean in the title role. • Constantine Paleologus, though written with John Kemble and Sarah Siddons in mind, was declined by Drury Lane. It was produced at the Surrey Theatre as a melodrama, Constantine and Valeria, and, in its original form, at Liverpool, Dublin, and Edinburgh.

1836 • three volumes of Miscellaneous Plays published. They included, along with nine other new plays, the continuation of Plays on the Passions promised earlier: a tragedy and comedy on jealousy and a tragedy on remorse. Their publication created a stir, and critics were almost universally enthusiastic and welcoming. Fraser's Magazine declared: ‘Had we heard that a MS play of Shakespeare's, or an early, but missing, novel of Scott's, had been discovered, and was already in the press, the information could not have been more welcome’ (Fraser's Magazine, 236).

Baillie's reputation does not rest entirely on her dramas; she also authored poems and songs admired for their great beauty. Considered the best of them are the Lines to Agnes Baillie on her Birthday, The Kitten, To a Child and some of her adaptations of Scottish songs, such as Woo'd and Married an'a'. Scattered throughout the dramas are also some lively and beautiful songs, The Chough and The Crow in Orra, and the lover's song in The Phantom.[6]

Playbill for Joanna Baillie's The Last of the Caesars; or, Constantine Palaeologus at the Theatre Royal Edinburgh, 29 May 1820

Defending her works as stage playsEdit

Initially, Baillie was reluctant to publish her works. In a letter to Sir Walter Scott, she wrote, "were it not that my Brother has expressed a strong wish that I should publish a small vol: of poetry, I should have very little pleasure in the thought”. [9]This shyness is in keeping with her humble, content disposition. Never one to relish the spotlight, she did not seek acclaim for her poems but simply wrote because she enjoyed language and the beautiful ways in which it can flow. Ironically, her poems are actually more well-known than her plays.

However, in an 1804 prefatory address in Miscellaneous Plays, Baillie defended her plays as acting plays. The criticism that she had no understanding of practical stagecraft and that her plays were torpid and dull in performance rankled throughout her life, and she was always delighted to hear of a production being mounted, no matter how humble it might be. She believed that critics had unfairly labelled her work as Closet drama, partly because she was a woman and partly because they had failed to read her prefaces with care. She pointed also to the conventions of the theatre in her time, when lavish spectacle on huge stages was the order of the day. Her own plays, with their attention to psychological detail, worked best, she argued, in well-lit small theatres where facial expressions could clearly be seen. She wrote, "I have wished to leave behind me in the world a few plays, some of which might have a chance of continuing to be acted even in our canvas theatres and barns...".[10] It is clear that Baillie desired her plays to be not simply read, but acted as well.

Religious writingEdit

Growing up as a Presbyterian minister’s daughter, religion had always been important to Baillie. In 1826 she published The Martyr, a tragedy on religion, intended for reading only; and in 1831 she entered publicly into theological debate with a pamphlet, A view of the general tenour of the New Testament regarding the nature and dignity of Jesus Christ, in which she analysed the doctrines of order in the Trinity, Arianism, and Socinianism.

Philanthropic efforts and literary adviceEdit

Financially secure herself, Joanna Baillie customarily gave half her earnings from her writings to charity, and engaged in many philanthropic activities. In the early 1820s she corresponded with the Sheffield campaigner James Montgomery in support of his efforts on behalf of chimney sweeps. She declined to send a poem, fearing that was "just the very way to have the whole matter considered by the sober pot-boilers over the whole kingdom as a fanciful and visionary thing," whereas "a plain statement of their miserable lot in prose, accompanied with a simple, reasonable plan for sweeping chimneys without them" was far better strategically (letter, 5 Feb 1824).[11]

Where literary matters were concerned, Joanna Baillie had a shrewd understanding of publishing as a trade. She took seriously the influence her eminence gave her, and authors down on their luck, women writers, and working-class poets like the shoemaker poet, John Struthers, applied to her for assistance. She wrote letters, drew on all her contacts, and used her knowledge of the literary world either to advise or to further a less well-connected writer. In 1823, she edited and published by subscription a collection of poems by many of the leading writers of the day, in support of a widowed old school friend with a family of daughters to support.[12]

Wordsworth himself considered Baillie the "ideal gentlewoman" despite the fact that she was Scottish. (Zell 19) Her most famous work DeMonfort helped inspire Lord Byron's closet drama Manford. (Strand 1) Byron went on to value her advice calling her "the only dramatist since Orwan." (Zell 19) In 1806 Baillie solidified a friendship with Scot and she and her sister would often visit Scotland. (Strand 1)

Reputation and legacyEdit

Few women writers have received such universal praise for their personal qualities and literary powers as Joanna Baillie. She had intelligence and integrity and they were allied to a modest demeanour which made her, for many, the epitome of a Christian gentlewoman. She was also shrewd, observant of human nature, and persistent to the point of obstinacy in developing her own views and opinions. Her brand of drama remained essentially unchanged throughout her life, and she took pride in having carried out her major work, the Plays on the Passions, more or less in the form she had originally conceived. Her inventive faculties were widely remarked upon by "practically everybody whose opinion on a literary matter was worth anything"[13], and she was on friendly terms with all the leading women writers of her time.

John Stuart Mill, in his Autobiography, recalled that in his childhood, Baillie's Constantine Paleologus appeared to him 'one of the most glorious of human compositions' and that he continued to think it 'one of the best dramas of the last two centuries'.

Two songs from Ethwald, Hark! the cock crows and Once upon my cheek he said the roses grew, were set to music by the English composer John Wall Callcott.

One of her few detractors was Francis Jeffrey, who in 1803 published a long condemnatory review of the Plays on the Passions in the Edinburgh Review. He attacked the narrow theory, practice, and purpose of the plays; and though he also praised her ‘genius,’ Joanna Baillie marked him down as her literary enemy and refused a personal introduction. It was not until 1820 that she agreed to meet him; characteristically, they then became warm friends.

Maria Edgeworth, recording a visit in 1818, summed up her appeal for many:

Both Joanna and her sister have most agreeable and new conversation, not old, trumpery literature over again and reviews, but new circumstances worth telling, apropos to every subject that is touched upon; frank observations on character, without either ill-nature or the fear of committing themselves; no blue-stocking tittle-tattle, or habits of worshipping or being worshipped.[14]

Joanna Baillie offered the literary world a new way of looking at drama and poetry. Revered by poets on both sides of the Atlantic, many of her contemporaries placed her above all women poets except Sappho. According to Harriet Martineau she had ‘enjoyed a fame almost without parallel, and ... been told every day for years, through every possible channel, that she was second only to Shakespeare’.[15] At one time her works were translated into Cingalese and German, and were performed widely in both the United States and Great Britain.

But even when Martineau met her, in the 1830s, that fame seemed to belong to a bygone era. There were no revivals of her plays in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries; and yet, as psychological studies, her tragedies would seem very suited to the intimacy of television or film. It was not until the late twentieth century that critics began to recognize the extent to which her intimate depictions of the human psyche influenced Romantic literature. Scholars now recognize her importance as an innovator on the stage and as a dramatic theorist, and critics and literary historians of the Romantic period concerned with reassessing the place of women writers are acknowledging her significance.

Joanna Baillie was great friends with Lady Byron. This friendship led her to be close friends and colleagues with Lord Byron as well. Lord Byron even attempted to get one of her plays to be performed at Drury Lane, sadly to no avail.[16] Their friendship continued until a domestic division arose between Lord and Lady Byron, leaving Baillie to take the side of her friend. After this, she was more critical of Lord Byron and his work, calling his characters “untrue to nature and morally bankrupt” [17] While they were still polite to each other as literary contemporaries, their friendship was never the same.

One of the people Joanna Baillie corresponded the most with was Sir Walter Scott. The two of them wrote enough letters to each other to fill a decently sized volume. Scott appreciated and supported Baillie as a literary contemporary, but their relationship did not stop there. Their letters are full of personal details and conversations about their families. While they both respected each other's work, their friendship was deeper than just professional.[18][19]

On 11 September 2018, to commemorate what would have been her 256th birthday, Google released a Google Doodle celebrating her.[5]


  1. ^ Baillie, Joanna (2007). Six Gothic Dramas. Chicago: Valancourt Books. pp. xi, xxii–xxiv. ISBN 0-9792332-0-8.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Clarke, Norma (30 May 2013). "Baillie, Joanna". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 23 February 2018.
  3. ^ Baillie, Joanna (2007). Six Gothic Dramas. Selected and introduced by Christine A. Colón. Chicago: Valancourt Books. pp. ix. ISBN 0-9792332-0-8.
  4. ^ Franklin, Caroline, ed. (2011). The Longman Anthology of Gothic Verse. Harlow: Longman. p. 82. ISBN 978-1-4058-9931-4.
  5. ^ a b "Who was the Scottish poet and playwright Joanna Baillie?". The Independent. Retrieved 2018-09-11.
  6. ^ a b c   One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Baillie, Joanna" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 219–220.
  7. ^ (which is now the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery).
  8. ^ Joanna Baillie (19 February 2001). Plays on the Passions. Broadview Press. ISBN 978-1-55111-185-8.
  9. ^ Slagle 369-70
  10. ^ Baillie, Joanna (1804). Miscellaneous Plays. London. pp. v.
  11. ^ Baillie, Joanna (2010). Thomas McLean, ed. Further Letters of Joanna Baillie. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. p. 95. ISBN 978-0-8386-4149-1.
  12. ^ McLean, Thomas (June 2016). "Donation and Collaboration: Joanna Baillie’s A Collection of Poems, Chiefly Manuscript, and From Living Authors, April 1823." BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Retrieved 10 August 2018.
  13. ^ Carswell 275
  14. ^ Hare, 268
  15. ^ Martineau 358
  16. ^ Slagle 343
  17. ^ Brewer 180
  18. ^ Slagle
  19. ^ See Joanna Baillie's Dramatic and Poetical Works (London, 1851).


  • Baillie, Joanna. Letter, 5 Feb 1824, Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, London.
  • -- Further Letters of Joanna Baillie. ed. Thomas McLean. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2010.
  • -- “Memoirs written to please my nephew, William Baillie.” The Scotswoman at Home and Abroad: Non-Fictional Writing 1700-1900, ed. Dorothy McMillan. Glasgow: The Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 1999.
  • Baillie, Joanna, and Judith Bailey. Slagle. The Collected Letters of Joanna Baillie. Vol. 1. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1999. Print.
  • Brewer, William D. “Joanna Baillie and Lord Byron.” Keats-Shelley Journal, vol. 44, 1995, pp. 165-81.
  • Carswell, Donald. Sir Walter: A Four-Part Study in Biography (Scott, Hogg, Lockhart, Joanna Baillie). John Murray: London, 1930.
  • Carhart, Margaret S. The Life and Work of Joanna Baillie. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1923.
  • Clarke, Norma. ‘Baillie, Joanna (1762–1851)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2006 accessed 5 Oct 2006
  • Fraser's Magazine, 13 (1836), 236.
  • Hare, Augustus J.C. The Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth. 2 vols. London: Edward Arnold, 1894.
  • Martineau, Harriet. Autobiography (1877), vol. 1. London: Virago, 1983.
  • Price, Fiona. ‘Baillie, Joanna, 1762–1851’, Literature Online Biography. Durham University. Cambridge: Chadwyck-Healey, 2000 accessed 5 Oct 2006
  • Strand, Ginger. "Baillie, Joanna." Continuum Encyclopedia of British Literature, edited by Steven Serafin, and Valerie Grosvenor Myer, Continuum, 2006. Credo Reference.
  • Zell, P. M. “The Cool World of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Question of Joanna Baillie.” The Wordsworth Circle, vol. 13, no. 1, 1982, pp. 17–20.

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