John Brett. Portrait of Christina Rossetti. 1857.
Maria Jane Jewsbury
The Nature and Dignity of Christ.1

Joanna Baillie holds that rank amongst our elder modern authors, and her poetry is so connected with that re-awakening of our literature which took place about the commencement of the present century, that whatever she writes, however slight, or however unequal to the works which made her fame, has a peculiar claim to respectful attention. Of Joanna Baillie's intellectual strength, of her profound knowledge of the workings of passion, rendered more extraordinary by the placidity with which she herself delineates them—of Joanna Baillie's genius and language, which are both so essentially old-English, deep, sound, vigorous, unfeigned, and unadulterate—we are proud to express our admiration. It would afford a subject for a long and not uninteresting article to point out the striking difference in the mind and writings of the literary women of thirty and forty years ago, and the literary women of the present time: those who have not perused their writings in connexion, will hardly believe how great is the difference;—what a commentary the perusal affords on the entire change that has obtained in habits, manners, feelings, education, tastes, and life! Amongst the elders—with Joanna Baillie at their head, as regards mind—the distinguishing features are nerve, simplicity, vigour, continuity, unambitious earnestness, and good English. We find also elaborate and skilfully-developed plots. Amongst our distinguished women of later date, we find accomplishment, grace, brilliancy, sentiment, scenery poetically sketched, and character acutely handled; talent in all shapes and ways, but not so much that can claim the name of genius. There is nothing of what we have called continuity. Writing little but detached tales or novels, which, however clever are only volumes of episodes, separate scenes, and striking characters, most of them unconnected with the main business of the book—it is as sketchers, whether for vivacity or pathos, nature or art; as sketchers, whether of the country, the town, or the heart, of life or of manners, that our gifted women are now chiefly distinguished. In the female poetry too of the present day, fascinating tenderness, brilliancy of fancy, and beauty of feeling, stand in the place of sustained loftiness of imagination, and compact artist-like diction. Our elder literary women were, in the spirit of their intellect, more essentially masculine; our younger ones are integrally feminine—women of fashionable as well as studious life, women generally, who not only write books but abound in elegant accomplishments.

We have not, and are not likely to have at present, another Mary Wolstencroft (we merely speak of her as having exhibited grasp of mind), another Mrs. Inchbald, another Mrs. RadcliffeJoanna Baillie is their only representative; adding, to the power of mind which they possessed, that dignified play of fancy, that amplitude of calm, bold thought, and that "accomplishment of verse"2 which they possessed not. Modern imaginative literature in England owes much to her 'Plays on the Passions;'3 perhaps more than to any other publication except 'Percy's Reliques;' at all events, our greatest poets, who were young when her plays appeared, have nearly all borne testimony to the advantage and delight with which they perused them. With all this, the name of Joanna Baillie is not buzzed and blazoned about as very inferior names are; her works do not attain the honour of calf and gold in libraries where inferior works shine; poetical readers of strong sensibility and uncultivated taste do not dote upon 'Basil,' or quote from 'Ethwald;' and we never, by any chance, saw a line of hers transcribed in an album! One or two of her Shakespearian snatches of song have been set to music; but, (to quote the words of an able critic,) "The celebrity of Joanna Baillie has been of a most peculiar nature; her fame has had about it a peculiar purity. It has been the unparticipated treasure of the world of taste and intellect."4 We know that with this illustrious authoress there is a noble carelessness of praise, partly consequent on her years, her standing in society, and her having simply written at the instigation of her own genius; obeying the voice from the shrine, and not the command of the outer-court worshippers; but still, we feel vexed to see women of later date, and, however gifted, every way inferior to Joanna Baillie, written about, and likenessed, and lithographed, before her—the senior and superior of all.

These casual remarks will prove that we appreciate Joanna Baillie; we can, therefore, with better grace express our regret that she has just published the little work, the name of which heads this notice. It is controversial, and controversy is best left to learned divines—certainly better left alone by ladies.

Notes

1Review of The Nature and Dignity of Christ. By Joanna Baillie. London, 1831. Longman & Co., The Athenæum no. 187 (Saturday, 28 May 1831): 337. The article held the lead position for that weekly number. Back

2William Wordsworth, The Excursion, Book First, The Wanderer 77-80. Back

3Baillie's Plays on the Passions was published in three volumes as A Series of Plays in which it is Attempted to Delineate the Stronger passions of the Mind (1798-1812). Ethewald and Count Basil (see below) are two of her plays. Back

4William Harness, "Celebrated Female Writers: Joanna Baillie," Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 16 (August 1824): 165. Back