If Anna Letitia Barbauld’s was a voice of the Enlightenment, it hasn’t, until now, carried very far. Known in her own time as a poet and controversial essayist, her fame in the fifty years after her death rested almost entirely on fond memories of her reading schemes for very small children. She struggled through to the twenty-first century with a handful of anthology pieces (‘The Mouse’s Petition’, ‘Washing-Day’, Eighteen Hundred and Eleven) and a reputation for worthiness: not the stuff to attract a wide readership. William McCarthy’s twenty years of work on this author, which includes co-editorship of a fine Poems and Selected Poems and Prose, has now borne fruit in this monumental, quietly magnificent biography, which will surely do as much to promote Barbauld’s reputation as anyone could dream. McCarthy has no extravagant hypotheses or revisionist agenda, just a thoroughness about his subject that does Barbauld the best service, putting her back into context and showing her importance there. The eldest child of a relentlessly high-minded, low-Church family, Anna Letitia Aikin was a seriously intellectual child, shaped by her ‘infallible’ father, a Dissenting minister and teacher. She learned Greek and Latin and studied the Stoics, was the star of the Warrington intellectual scene (where one of the family’s closest friends was Joseph Priestley), and by her twenties was writing elegant, intelligent occasional verse that drew rave reviews in the London periodicals and overtures from ‘The Queen of the Blues’, Elizabeth Montagu.
more from Claire Harman at Literary Review here.