Anna Letitia Barbauld (1743–1825)

Educationist, poet, and writer for children. With her brother, the physician and writer, John Aikin (1747–1822), Barbauld was a member of an intellectual Dissenter circle including the Edgeworths, Erasmus Darwin, and others, whose influence as educationists remained widespread during Ruskinʼs youth, and whose poems, stories, and lessons in dialogue form are reflected in his early reading and writing. In a recommendation of Barbauld by Maria Edgeworth that Ruskin is sure to have seen, Barbauldʼs Evenings at Home is summed up as “admirable morality, in most elegant and classical language” (Harry and Lucy Concluded, 4:212).
These influences were admissible to the Ruskin household despite the politics of this circle. During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods, Barbauld espoused progressive causes that would have alarmed the Ruskins. However, in the memoir and selection of works by Barbauld published in 1825 by her niece, Lucy Aikin, a Victorian sanitizing was begun that distanced Barbauldʼs feminism from Wollstonecraft radicalism and associated her writing most strongly with her works for children—a process of reception that, in the view of William McCarthy, gradually hollowed out her significance over the course of the nineteenth century, diminishing the reception of her poetry and prose writing for adults (McCarthy, “‘A High‐Minded Christian Lady’”, 175–77; Aikin, Works of Anna Laetitia Barbauld). In particular, Aikin and Barbauldʼs work for children, Evenings at Home (1792–96), initially was well received mainly by liberal Dissenter families, while being treated as suspect by Anglican Evangelical readers for linking scientific topics only minimally with religious commentary. By the 1820s, however, when Ruskin encountered the work, it had gained broader approval and the status of a classic, reprinted in thousands of copies (Fyfe, “Tracts, Classics and Brands”, 220–21).
At the same time, if over the course of the nineteenth century Barbauldʼs reputation as a childrenʼs author may have displaced a just recognition of her writing for adults, in the twenty‐first century a reassessment has come due for the significance of her writing for children—a significance never underestimated by Ruskin. At the urging of Mitzi Myers and others, a revaluation is underway of the late eighteenth‐century tradition of pragmatic female pedagogy that Barbauld helped inaugurate, which was aimed at cultivating “relational selves in learning community” using “domestic verse and vernacular prose”—a tradition that developed alongside of (and was denigrated by) the Romantic male pedagogy aimed at forming subjectivities with a vatic poetry (Myers, “Of Mice and Mothers”, 258, 271).
Of Aikin and Barbauldʼs writing for children, Barbauldʼs Hymns in Prose (1781) is documented as having been present in the Ruskin family library, as was Evenings at Home. F. J. Sharp (1880–1957) acquired from Brantwood what he believed to be Ruskinʼs boyhood copy (22nd ed., 1821) of Barbauldʼs Hymns in Prose (1781), as well as one volume of his Evenings at Home (Viljoen, Sharp Collection, 8; and see Books Used by Ruskin in His Youth: Physical Descriptions; and Dearden, The Library of John Ruskin, 23 [no. 151]; and for an examination of these volumes, now held by the Beinecke Library, Lightman, “John Ruskinʼs Debt to Anna Barbauldʼs Books for Children”, 260–61, 264).
Direct influence of Evenings at Home can be traced in some of Ruskinʼs earliest extant poems, including “The Needless Alarm” and “The Defiance of War”, as well as in his first dialogue, “Harry and Lucy Concluded, Being the Last Part of Early Lessons, in Four Volumes, Vol 1”, especially chapter 1. See also “The Adventures of an Ant”.
According to Lucy Aikin, the selections in Evenings at Home attributable to Barbauld are “The Young Mouse”, “The Wasp and the Bee”, “Alfred: A Drama”, “Animals and Countries”, “Canuteʼs Reproof”, “The Masque of Nature”, “Things by Their Right Names”, “The Goose and the Horse”, “On Manufacture”, “The Flying‐fish”, “A Lesson in the Art of Distinguishing”, “The Phoenix and the Dove”, “The Manufacture of Paper”, “The Four Sisters”, and “Live Dolls”. All other pieces were composed by John Aikin or possibly collaboratively (Barbauld, Works, ed. Aikin, 1:xxxvi–xxxvii).
Of Barbauldʼs poems, “A Summer Eveningʼs Meditation” can possibly be detected structuring the conclusion of Ruskinʼs draft version of “Saltzburg”. During Ruskinʼs youth, the poem was available in Aikinʼs 1825 Works of Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1:122–28), and McCarthy has found Barbauldʼs poems in anthologies from 1827 onward (McCarthy, “‘A High‐Minded Christian Lady’”, 190 n. 37).
For the presence of Barbauld and Aikinʼs ideas in Ruskinʼs home education, as well as their continuing contribution to Ruskinʼs mature pedagogical emphasis on attentive vision, unaided by modern lenses, see Naomi Lightmanʼs discussion of the significance of the dialogue, “Eyes, and No Eyes; or, the Art of Seeing”, from Evenings at Home (“John Ruskinʼs Debt to Anna Barbauldʼs Books for Children”).
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