Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Baillie, Joanna

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

BAILLIE, JOANNA (1762–1851), dramatist and poet, was descended from an ancient Scotch family. She was born at the manse of Bothwell, Lanarkshire, 11 Sept. 1762. Although her birth was premature, and in infancy she was very delicate, she lived to the great age of 88 years. Her sister, to whom Joanna addressed a memorable birthday ode, was still more remarkable for her longevity, dying in 1861 at the age of 100 years. The Baillie family claimed amongst their progenitors on the male side the great patriot, Sir William Wallace. The mother of Joanna Baillie was the sister of William and John Hunter. The youth of Joanna was spent at Bothwell amidst scenes which deeply impressed the imagination of the future dramatist. But while, as daughter of the minister of Bothwell, she had many opportunities for studying character, unfortunately, in the manse itself, `repression of all emotions seems to have been the constant lesson.' In 1769 Dr. Baillie was appointed to the collegiate church of Hamilton. Before she was ten years of age Joanna Baillie afforded striking proofs of courage; but she was somewhat backward in her studies, although her intellect was unusually keen. At the age of ten she was sent to a school in Glasgow, and here her faculties were rapidly developed. She excelled in vocal and instrumental music, and evinced a decided talent for drawing. She had also a great love for mathematics; her argumentative powers, too, were unusually strong. She was early distinguished for her skill in acting and composition, being especially facile in the improvisation of dialogue in character.

In 1776 her father was appointed professor of divinity in the university of Glasgow, and removed to the house provided for him at the university. But two years later Dr. Baillie died, and his widow and daughters retired to Long Calderwood, in Lanarkshire; Matthew Baillie, the only son, proceeded to Balliol College, Oxford. In 1783 Dr. William Hunter died in London, leaving to Matthew Baillie the use of his house and his fine museum and collections. The following year Mrs. Baillie and her daughters joined Matthew Baillie in London, remaining with him, until he married, in 1791, Miss Denman, sister of lord chief justice Denman.

It was in London that Joanna Baillie's genius first displayed itself. She published anonymously, in 1790, a small volume of miscellaneous poems, entitled `Fugitive Verses,' which received considerable encouragement. But her genius had not yet discovered its true channel. `It was whilst imprisoned by the heat of a summer afternoon, and seated by her mother's side engaged in needle-work, that the thought of essaying dramatic composition burst upon her.' The first play she composed, `Arnold,' does not survive; but in 1798 she issued the first volume of her 'Plays on the Passions,' entitled 'A Series of Plays; in which it is attempted to delineate the stronger passions of the mind, each passion being the subject of a tragedy and a comedy.' The volume contained `Basil,' a tragedy on love; the 'Trial,' a comedy on the same subject; and 'De Monfort,' a tragedy on hatred. The work was published anonymously, but its author was immediately sought after. Samuel Rogers reviewed it as the work of a man, and Sir Walter Scott was at first suspected of being the author. By one or two critics the volume was severely attacked; but it brought the author an acquaintance with Scott himself, which ripened into a warm friendship, lasting 'uninterruptedly for more than half a century.'

In an elaborate preface to the 'Plays on the Passions,' Miss Baillie defended herself for this somewhat novel venture in dramatic writing. Having first shown that the study of human nature and its passions has always had, and ever must have, an irresistible attraction for the individual man, the writer proceeds to maintain that the sympathetic instinct is our best and most powerful instructor. It teaches us to respect ourselves and our kind, and to dwell upon the noble, rather than the mean, view of human nature. Amidst all decoration and ornament in poetry, 'let one simple trait of the human heart, one expression of passion, genuine and true to nature, be introduced, and it will stand forth alone in the boldness of reality, whilst the false and unnatural around it fade away upon every side like the rising exhalations of the morning.' But the plays gave rise to much controversy. The tone and substance of the objections of hostile critics were thus summed up by Campbell (Life of Mrs. Siddons): 'If Joanna Baillie had known the stage practically, she would never have attached the importance she does to the development of single passions in single tragedies; and she would have invented more stirring incidents to justify the passion of her characters, and to give them that air of fatality which, though peculiarly predominant in the Greek drama, will also be found to a certain extent in all successful tragedies. Instead of this she tries to make all the passions of her main characters proceed from the wilful natures of the beings themselves. Their feelings are not precipitated by circumstances, like a stream down a declivity that leaps from rock to rock, but, for want of incident, they seem often like water on a level, without a propelling impulse.' In acting contrary to established usage the author no doubt handicapped herself from the point of view of the successful dramatist. By setting herself to delineate one master passion she deliberately put from her the means which generally insure dramatic success.

Yet the 'Plays on the Passions' attracted the notice of John Kemble, who determined to produce 'De Monfort' at Drury Lane Theatre, with himself and Mrs. Siddons in the chief characters. Every care was given to the representation of the tragedy, for which the Hon. F. North wrote a prologue, and the Duchess of Devonshire an epilogue. It was produced with much splendour in April 1800, but it failed to obtain a firm grasp upon the public. It ran, however, for eleven nights. It has been said that the passage in the play descriptive of Jane de Monfort formed the best portrait ever drawn of Mrs. Siddons herself; and 'it is probable that John Kemble and his sister had been present to the mind of Joanna when she composed the tragedy of "De Monfort."' The opinion of Mrs. Siddons upon the play may be gathered from an expression uttered by her in conversation with the author: 'Make me some more Jane de Monforts.'

Undeterred by adverse criticism, Miss Baillie, in 1802, issued a second volume of 'Plays on the Passions.' It included a comedy on 'Hatred,' a tragedy (in two parts) on 'Ambition,' and a comedy on the same passion. The comedy on 'Hatred,' with music, was produced at the English Opera House; but the tragedy on 'Hatred,' notwithstanding its admittedly fine passages, was too unwieldy for stage production.

Shortly after the appearance of this volume Mrs. Baillie and her daughters went to live at Hampstead; but in 1806 Mrs. Baillie died. The sisters then rented a new house in the neighbourhood of Hampstead heath, and this house they continued to occupy until they died. They were visited by many friends eminent in letters, in science, in art, and in society, and they were on very intimate terms with their neighbour, Mrs. Barbauld. Scott looked forward to a visit to his friends at Hampstead as one of the greatest of his pleasures, and Lord Jeffrey wrote, under date 28 April 1840: 'I forgot to tell you that we have been twice out to Hampstead, to hunt out Joanna Baillie, and found her the other day as fresh, natural, and amiable as ever, and as little like a tragic muse.' Two years later the whig editor again saw her (she being then eighty years of age), when he described her as 'marvellous in health and spirits, and youthful freshness and simplicity of feeling, and not a bit deaf, blind, or torpid.' Geniality and hospitality were the characteristics of the two sisters during their residence at Hampstead, and even when one became an octogenarian and the other a nonagenarian they could enter keenly into the various literary and scientific controversies of the day.

In 1804 Joanna published a volume of 'Miscellaneous Plays,' containing two tragedies, 'Kayner,' and 'Constantine Paleologus.' These plays were constructed more upon the usual lines, and the dramatist stated, in her apology for their appearance, that she wished to leave behind her a few plays, some of which might continue to be acted 'even in our canvas theatres and barns; 'while she also desired to keep her name in the remembrance of lovers of the drama generally. The motive of the tragedy 'Rayner' was to exhibit a young man of an amiable temper, tempted to join in the proposed commission of a detestable deed, and afterwards bearing himself with diffidence and modesty. The play had been written many years before. The scene of the tragedy was laid in Germany, and its turning-point was the crime of murder. Between the two tragedies was placed a comedy, the 'Country Inn.' The second tragedy, 'Constantine Paleologus,' was written in the hope of being produced at Drury Lane, with Kemble and Mrs. Siddons in the principal characters; but those great actors declined to produce it. The subject of the play was taken from Gibbon's account of the siege of Constantinople by the Turks. But more than five of her plays were produced on the stage. Amongst these was 'Constantine Paleologus,' which, while declined at Drury Lane, was produced at the Surrey Theatre as a melodrama under the title of 'Constantine and Valeria;' Valeria being an imaginary conception, intended for Mrs. Siddons. The play was also produced at Liverpool, Dublin, and Edinburgh, in every case to large houses and with much success. Of the production in Edinburgh, in 1820, the writer herself, then on her last visit to her native land, was a gratified spectator.

In 1810 Miss Baillie produced her play of the 'Family Legend.' It was founded upon a Highland tradition relating to the feud between the lord of Argyle and the chieftain of Maclean. The tragedy, with a prologue by Sir Walter Scott, was brought out under Scott's auspices at the Edinburgh theatre. Henry Mackenzie, author of the 'Man of Feeling,' wrote an epilogue. The play had a genuine success. 'You have only to imagine,' wrote Scott to Miss Baillie, 'all that you could wish, to give success to a play, and your conceptions will still fall short of the complete and decided triumph of the "Family Legend." Everything that pretended to distinction, whether from rank or literature, was in the boxes; and in the pit such an aggregate mass of humanity as I have seldom, if ever, witnessed in the same place.' The tragedy was played for fourteen nights on the first representation, and it was produced on several subsequent occasions. Its success induced the managers of the Edinburgh theatre to revive the author's tragedy of 'De Monfort,' and in describing the reception of this drama one who was present wrote that 'the effect produced was very great; there was a burst of applause when the curtain fell, and the play was announced for repetition amid the loudest applause.' In 1815 the 'Family Legend' was produced for the benefit of Mrs. Bartley at Drury Lane Theatre, and in 1821 Mr. Kean brought forward 'De Monfort' again on the same stage.

In 1812 appeared a third series of 'Plays on the Passions,' consisting of two tragedies and a comedy on the subject of 'Fear,' and a musical drama on 'Hope.' By the publication of this volume Miss Baillie showed that she had abandoned her old ideas. The first of these new plays had for its principal character a woman under the dominion of superstitious fear. In the second drama the fear of death was made the actuating principle of a hero of tragedy. The hero of the third play, a comedy on 'Fear,' is represented as timid, and endeavouring to conceal his fear by a boastful affectation of gallantry. 'Metrical Legends,' the next work by Joanna Baillie, appeared in 1821. The poems were suggested by her visit to Scotland in the previous year. The patriot Wallace is the principal personage in one poem, and Lady Griselda Baillie in another. There were also included some dramatic ballads cast in the ancient mould. 'Poetic Miscellanies,' published in 1823, contained poems by Sir Walter Scott, Miss Catherine Fanshawe, Mrs. Hemans, and others. This collection of poems, which was made with a charitable object, had a very satisfactory pecuniary result. A deep affliction overtook the sisters Baillie in 1823 by the death of their brother, Dr. Matthew Baillie, who was tended by Joanna during his last illness with the utmost solicitude. The drama of the 'Martyr,' by Joanna Baillie, was published in 1826, though it had been written some time before. The play relates to the martyrdom of Cordenius Maro, an officer of the imperial guard of Nero, who had been converted to the christian faith. Miss Baillie accepted the unitarian view of Christ; and in her seventieth year put forward a publication on this question, entitled 'A View of the general Tenor of the New Testament regarding the Nature and Dignity of Jesus Christ.' In this work she clearly expressed her assent to the views held by Milton and others.

In 1836 Miss Baillie published three volumes of 'Miscellaneous Plays,' which, at the time of their composition, she had intended for posthumous publication. Three of these dramas were in continuation of the 'Plays on the Passions,' and completed the series. They consisted of a tragedy and a comedy illustrating the passion of jealousy, and a tragedy on the subject of remorse. An interesting circumstance is connected with two of the dramas. It appears that Sir Alexander Johnston, chief justice of Ceylon, being desirous of raising the minds of the inhabitants of that island, and of eradicating their vices by writings directed to that end, turned to the drama as being specially adapted to the purpose. Miss Baillie's 'Martyr' he had already seen and welcomed as an auxiliary, and, in response to his desire for a second drama of the same nature, the author wrote the 'Bride.' Both dramas were translated into the Cingalese language. In the second play the writer endeavoured to set forth the christian principle of the forgiveness of injuries. Of the miscellaneous dramas, two were brought out simultaneously at Covent Garden and Drury Lane respectively; the younger Kemble appearing in the 'Separation' at the former house, and Vandenhoff in the tragedy of 'Henriquez' at the latter. They had but a partial success, and it would have been strange had the result been otherwise, considering the writer's adhesion to her former principles of construction and her lack of knowledge of stage requirements.

Miss Baillie continued to write after she had reached a very advanced age, some of the poems in her new collection of 'Fugitive Verses' having been produced when she was verging upon fourscore years. As the end of life approached she was prepared to meet it. 'On Saturday, the day preceding that of her death, which occurred 23 Feb. 1851, Joanna expressed a strong desire to be released from life. She retired to bed as usual, complained of some uneasiness, and sank till the following afternoon, when, without suffering, in the full possession of her faculties, with sorrowing relations around her, in the act of devotion, she expired' (Prefatory Memoir to Collected Works). 'Joanna Baillie was under the middle size, but not diminutive, and her form was slender. Her countenance indicated high talent, worth, and decision. Her life was characterised by the purest morality.' The prominent features of her character, which impressed all with whom she came in contact, were her consummate integrity, her moral courage, her freedom from affectation, and a never-failing charity in all things.

The faculty of invention displayed in Joanna Baillie's writings is very great. Her blank verse also possesses a notable dignity and sonorousness which rank her works among English classical dramas, although they will never be popular on the stage. Her minor works have much beauty and delicacy. Some of her songs, as, for example, 'Up, quit thy bower,' 'Woo'd, an' married, an' a',' 'It fell on a mornin' when we were thrang,' and 'Saw ye Johnnie comin'? 'will doubtless always live. It has been often remarked of the tragedies of Joanna Baillie, that 'with all their deficiencies' they are probably 'the best ever written by a woman.' Miss Mitford (Recollections) observes of Miss Baillie's tragedies that they 'have a boldness and grasp of mind, a firmness of hand, and resonance of cadence, that scarcely seem within the reach of a female writer; whilst the tenderness and sweetness of her heroines, the grace of the love-scenes, and the trembling outgushings of sensibility, as in Orra, for instance, in the fine tragedy on "Fear"—would seem exclusively feminine if we did not know that a true dramatist—as Shakspeare or Fletcher—has the wonderful power of throwing himself into the character that he portrays.' Sir Walter Scott, when questioned respecting his own dramatic efforts, replied: 'The "Plays on the Passions" have put me entirely out of conceit with my germanized brat (the "House of Aspen"); and should I ever again attempt dramatic composition, I would endeavour after the genuine old English model.' Speaking on another occasion of Miss Baillie's tragedy of 'Fear,' he said that the language was distinguished by a rich variety of fancy which he knew no instance of excepting in Shakespeare, and he paid a very high tribute to its author, 'the immortal Joanna,' in his introduction to the third canto of 'Marmion.'

The various works of Joanna Baillie have been already referred to in their order of publication, with the exception of a poem entitled 'Athalya Baee,' printed originally for private circulation and published posthumously. It deals with a legend concerning the 'wise and good' Indian sovereign who furnishes the title of the poem.

[Dramatic and Poetical Works of Joanna Baillie; Annual Register, 1851; Inchbald's British Theatre; Mitford's Recollections of a Literary Life; Chambers's Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen; Rogers's Modern Scottish Minstrel; Quarterly Review, March 1841.]

G. B. S.