Anna Laetitia Barbauld, born Anna Laetitia Aikin and known as Nancy, was the daughter of a Presbyterian Dissenter who had to give up his ministry for health reasons to run a Boys’ school from their home. She was an avid reader from an early age and appears to have been treated like one of the boys by her father who taught her classics, French and Italian, somewhat contrary to her mother’s wishes who felt she should be pursuing more feminine interests. In 1758 the family moved to Warrington where her father had been offered a teaching post and it was here that she came into contact with fellow Dissenter and scientist Joseph Priestley who became a close friend.
She published her first poem Corsica in 1769 and six poems in a collection of her younger brother John’s in 1771. Her own book of poems was published two years later. In 1774 she married Rochement Barbauld, a descendant of a French Huguenot refugee six years her junior. They moved to Palgrave in Suffolk where they established a successful boys’ boarding school where her husband taught and she handled the administration together with some teaching responsibilities. Unable to have children, they adopted one of her brother’s children Charles, for whom she wrote Lessons for Children and Hymns in Prose for Children.
They gave up the school in 1785 and spent two years travelling through France. On their return Rochement took up a position as minister of a chapel in Hampstead and five years later moved to Stoke Newington for a similar post. In 1808 her husband became mentally ill and violent and they separated. He was institutionalised soon afterwards but escaped and drowned himself in a river. In spite of the fact that he had at one point threatened her with a knife, she was grief-stricken and wrote the poem Dirge in his memory.
In addition to poetry, Barbauld published Samuel Richardson’s Correspondence in 1804 and wrote a 50-volume collection The British Novelists in 1810. Her output as a lyric poet was prolific and spanned a wide range of subjects in odes, songs and verse epistles. Her poetry displays a whole gamut of emotions; playfulness, piety, sadness, and anger at religious, political and social injustice, particularly evidenced in her poems Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, a criticism of the war with France; The Rights of Women; and Epistle to William Wilberforce, a tribute to his initial failed attempt to have slavery abolished. During her lifetime she was renowned as an educator, essayist, literary critic and poet, but her poetry fell out of favour until comparatively recently. After her death her niece, Lucy Aiken, published two collections of her work and a memoir, and her great-niece a memoir 50 years later.