Further Letters of Joanna Baillie by Thomas McLean, ed., Reviewed by Emily Hodgson Anderson

Further Letters of Joanna Baillie
Ed. Thomas McLean
(Fairleigh Dickinson, 2010) 296 pp.
Reviewed by Emily Hodgson Anderson on 2011-10-05.

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Joanna Baillie, the Scottish playwright, poet, and drama critic, has become a major figure of interest for romanticists. Her career illuminates theatrical practices and the role of the woman writer between 1790 and 1840; her work probes both the implications of gender and the slippery distinctions between the closet and the stage. Studies such as Ellen Donkin's Getting into the Act: Women Playwrights in London, 1776-1829 (1994) and Catherine Burroughs's Closet Stages: Joanna Baillie and the Theater Theory of British Romantic Women Writers (1997) have done much to theorize, and to contextualize, these aspects of Baillie's work.

But as Judith Slagle cautions in her introduction to The Collected Letters of Joanna Baillie (1999), "it is important that...theoretical studies not dominate to the exclusion of [Baillie's] life story" (ix). For Slagle this "life story" is the best indication of Baillie's artistic choices and struggles, and thanks to her prolific letter-writing, this story is often available in her own words. Slagle's two-volume collection of her letters, published in 1999, first made available to scholars her detailed exchanges with contemporary literary figures, publishers, and friends.

Slagle's collection of Baillie's letters is fascinatingly supplemented by this new edition of "further" letters from her. Out of the two hundred seventy-four letters in MacLean's edition, two hundred thirty-seven have never before been published. (The remaining thirty-seven appear in nineteenth or twentieth-century sources, though the manuscript versions are now presumed lost.) Together with Slagle's edition, then, MacLean's gives us access to over a thousand Baillie letters, and MacLean suggests that more almost certainly exist in private collections and uncatalogued library holdings. This copious correspondence richly details her later career and social networks but also leaves a notable gap: though Baillie was professionally active at the end of the eighteenth century, neither MacLean nor Slagle has discovered any letters she wrote before 1800.

This absence is striking, because the first volume of her Plays on the Passions--for which she remains best known-- was published anonymously in London in 1798. When these plays seized the public imagination, as much for their anonymous authorship as for their content, readers speculated at length about the playwright's gender. Some thought she had to be female "because no man could or would draw such noble, such dignified representations of the female mind"; others judged them a "masculine performance" and the product of a "learned man" (Donkin 163, 164). But public reception shifted the moment Baillie's identity--and sex--became public. When both were revealed the day after her tragedy De Monfort opened at Drury Lane, box office receipts immediately sank--as did sales of print copies--and the play closed after eleven nights. Baillie's friend Hester Thrale Piozzi knew exactly why. "What a goose Joanna must have been to reveal her sex and name!" (qtd. Donkin 165).

This early reaction would haunt Baillie for the remainder of her career. The newly published letters reveal both her commitment to writing for the theater and her struggle to overcome the resistance typically provoked by the work of female playwrights. In 1819 she was still revising De Monfort, explaining to the actor George Bartley that its new ending was "not so good for the closet, but . . . better fitted for exhibition" (70). To George Bartley, too, she had already described--in 1810--the successful Edinburgh run of The Family Legend and its imminent performances in Glasgow (46-47). Yet sometimes she clearly felt underappreciated. In 1817, writing to thank her friend Sir George Beaumont for his presumably sanguine predictions "concerning the . . . Theatrical fate of her plays," she adds that while "I ought to be encouraged . . . I cannot help now & then repining a little within my own breast when I see the public so willing to be pleased with every thing, good or bad, in preferrence [sic] to these plays" (63-64).

The fickleness of theater managers as well as of the public was confirmed for Baillie by the fate of Henriquez in 1836. Though praised in The Quarterly Review and warmly received in its one performance at Drury Lane, this play promptly closed, prompting a letter from Baillie that exudes resignation and pique. To her friend and actress Sarah Bartley she writes, "as you are the particular friend & patroness of Henriquez, I would ask at you why the Manager of Drury Lane has treated it like the Story of the Cat & fiddle; but probably you cannot satisfy my curiosity" (168). Perhaps her strongest statement on playwriting and gender, however, comes in an 1823 letter to her friend Margaret Holford. Advising Holford on how to market her own tragedy, Baillie writes, "if you mean to offer it to the Stage or if you mean to publish it . . . let the Author's name be kept a profound secret. It will have a better chance of success being supposed to come from the pen of the most obscure person who has the honour to wear a pair of breeches, than a petticoated worthy of the first distinction" (90-91).

Other letters feature personal anecdotes. Writing to George Crabbe on the death of his father (the like-named poet George Crabbe), Baillie recalls how she once sent Crabbe senior "the present of a blackcock, and a message with it, that Mr. Crabbe should look at the bird before it was delivered to the cook" (147). When Crabbe could not determine if the present was meant to be displayed or eaten, and feared to eat it lest Baillie think the "proper respect had not been put upon [her] present," he had it stuffed at his own expense. He thus emerged from the exchange both out of pocket and out of a meal, which "vexed and amused [Baillie] at the time" (147). A playwright known best for her tragedies here reveals at least a sense of humor, if not a talent for it. Told undoubtedly to coax a smile from a grieving son, her story perfectly recaptures a "pleasing and peculiar trait" of her character (147).

Such anecdotes furnish what MacLean calls "the pleasures of discovery" to be found in these letters (27). Though unpunctuated by high drama, Baillie's life was rich in stories and reflection. A lengthy letter to Sir Walter Scott, written in 1813, records not only her impressions of a public reading given by the aging Sarah Siddons, but also her own gory contribution to Scott's "collection of interesting & curious things" (51). On April 1, 1813, Baillie reports, when the executed corpse of Charles I was exhumed by order of the Prince Regent, the attending physician--Sir Henry Halford--"cut off part of the [dead King's] hair" (52). Roughly three weeks later, Baillie excitedly sent Scott "a small portion" of this hair "taken from the back part of the head near the neck" of the executed King (51, 52). "How well should I be repayed," Baillie crows, "could I but be present to see your countenance when you open this little paper!" (52). Her brother, she continues, who was also a physician and a friend of Halford, helped her obtain the gift, and himself handled another of Halford's mementos, "the bone of the neck which had been divided by the axe" (52). Baillie's own neck may have shivered in response. Though she calls herself a "plain sturdy Whig," she nonetheless admits that on the night she received the king's hair, she "waked often...with a solemnity on my mind as if I taken up my dwelling with the Dead" (52).

Dead kings may also have also haunted the reading of Hamlet given at the Argyll Rooms by Mrs. Siddons, who by 1813 had retired from the public stage. Here, as in later comments on staged readings by Sarah Bartley (167) and Charles Kemble (271), Baillie's descriptions of Siddons' performance help to contextualize an increasingly popular practice, and they also provocatively reflect on what makes an event theatrical. Of Siddons' performance she states, "I have called it Acting for so it is rather than reading," for while a mere reader "might delight her friends in private," she could not do as Siddons has done, and "night after night fill a public room" (54). Siddons, of course, could do both. But friends at a private reading, Baillie suggests, are closer to the reader in both senses: more proximal, and, because more intimate, more apt to be interested for intimacy's sake. Scholars interested in expanding the definitions of nineteenth-century theater should find Baillie's reflections here very useful.

In extensive footnotes, MacLean has impeccably identified and contextualized the recipients of the letters as well as acquaintances named within them. Often his identifications rectify previous editorial (or cataloguing) uncertainties or errors. Letters that refer to other letters in this edition, or in Slagle's, are helpfully cross-referenced, and MacLean has worked tirelessly to verify dates of composition.

The latter task, one of his more challenging, is crucial to the organization of this volume. Whereas Slagle groups her edition of Baillie's letters by correspondent, MacLean presents the Further Letters chronologically. He also manages, on the online website Romantic Circles, a regularly updated Chronological Listing of the Letters of Joanna Baillie. The advantage of the chronological presentation, as he explains in an associated article, is that it lets us "focus on significant moments in [Baillie's] . . . life and career," even as it enables us to "more easily observe the rhetorical shifts in Baillie's writing on politics, religion, or literature." My own thought, after reading the Further Letters straight through, was how well this presentation also captures the poignant experience of growing old. Baillie lived to be 88, and her later letters repeatedly reflect on her health and age. But for me, the more painful moments were the references to the passing of a correspondent--such as her sister-in-law Sophia Baillie (244)--that I had come to know over many pages. And if Baillie occasionally bemoans the state of her memory, its frailty is exemplified by her circa 1841 letter to the poet John Kenyon, thanking him for a volume of poems for which--as we know from another letter in MacLean's collection--she had already thanked him three years before (213,185).

MacLean's chronological presentation, however, may not well serve readers who are dipping in and out of the collection. Understandably, he identifies Baillie's often obscure acquaintances only when they first appear in her letters. A reader looking at letters written in the 1830s, then, may well have to consult the index for the first reference to a recipient. Such readers might also check the individual introductions in Slagle's edition, where each group of letters to a particular correspondent is prefaced by Slagle's account of the recipient, or her helpful "Circle of Friends and Acquaintances," an alphabetized overview of the people mentioned in Baillie's letters (CL1: 30-54). Again, though, MacLean often cross-references letters (which makes finding his own footnotes easier), and the variety of recipients represented in his collection, as well as the letters' chronological span, more than justifies his approach.

These newly discovered letters should encourage further scholarship on Baillie, and I also hope they inspire curiosity about her missing pre-1800 correspondence. If MacLean's volume is any indication, those early letters--if they exist--should provide some fascinating insights on turn-of-the century events.

Emily Hodgson Anderson is Associate Professor of English at the University of Southern California.

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