Life and Work of Joanna Baillie
Chapter 6 - Joanna Baillie's Place in Literature
North: James, who is
the best female poet on the age?
Shepherd: Female what?
Shepherd: Mrs. John Biley. In her Plays on the Passions she has a’
the vigor o' a man, and a' the delicacy o’ a woman.
And Oh, Sire, but her lyrics are gems, and she wears them
gracefully, like diamond-drops danglin’ frae the ears o’ Melpomene.
The very worst play she ever wrote is better than the best o’ ony
ither body’s that hasna kickt the bucket.
No woman, according to Jeffrey, was capable of understanding human
passions, or of depicting the soul of a man swayed by the baser
emotions. Yet Joanna Baillie attempted this very task, and, in large
degree, succeeded. Her life was sheltered from all harsh contact
with the world; she herself was never shaken by any of the passions
that stir the soul of a man to the depths. And yet she devoted the
best years of her life to delineating these emotions which were
personally unknown to her, and produced characters whose chief fault
is that they show too plainly the power of emotion. The age was
interested in the analysis of the passions. Pope arranged the groups
in much the same order that Joanna Baillie adopted:
Love, hope, and joy, fair pleasure’s smiling train,
Hate, fear, and grief, the family of pain,
These mixed with art, and to due bounds confined,
Make and maintain the balance of the mind.
Freed from the bonds of reason, they become the masters of life. In
this latter guise, Joanna Baillie chose to show them in tragedy. The
idea did not originate with her, for in 1781 at the Haymarket
Theatre had appeared The School of Shakespeare, or Humours and
Passions. The performance consisted of five acts:
Act I. Vanity, Henry IV, 1st part.
Act II. Parental Tenderness, Henry IV, 2d part.
Act III. Cruelty, Merchant of Venice.
Act IV. Filial Piety, Closet-scene in Hamlet.
Act V. Ambition, Henry VIII.
The same title was kept in a performance at Drury Lane in 1808, but
the acts were changed:
Act I. Ambition, Macbeth.
Act II. Vanity, Henry IV.
Act III. Revenge, Merchant of Venice.
Act IV. Cowardice, Twelfth Night.
Act V. Slander, Much Ado about Nothing.
Imagination must have been the dominant characteristic of Joanna
Baillie’s mind, because she was able to follow the emotion she
depicted into the heart of the character, and to identify herself
with it. This imaginative ability led her to make her most serious
dramatic mistake. She was curious about the effect of an emotion
upon an unusual person under unusual circumstances, and she thought
that all the drama-reading and theatre-going world was equally
curious. If a drama portrayed an emotion embodied in a human being,
she was satisfied. As a result, she produced thirteen dramas, the
chief characters in which were, as a rule, personifications of
definite elements of human nature rather than genuine human beings.
In her Plays of the Passions, that is to say, Miss Baillie was
interested not in the characters, but in the emotions. She did not
try to show the emotional person under a variety of conditions which
would arouse varying feelings. She tried to represent a normal or a
superior person who was controlled by one emotion, and who became to
her, consequently, a type.
A comparison of Romiero and Othello will illustrate her use of
jealousy. Romiero has no more ground for suspicion of his wife than
has Othello; he has, moreover, less temptation to doubt. Romiero
returns from an absence, finds Zorada, his wife, out of the castle,
sees her return from the garden with Maurice, and is jealous. There
is no Iago to suggest evil, and to fan the blaze of emotion whenever
it shows signs of dying out. When Romiero is left alone, he rails
against 'the heart of woman.' After a talk with Maurice, in whom he
fails absolutely to detect signs of guilt, Romiero says:
The very eye and visage, light and thoughtless;
A woman's varying blushes with the tint
Of sun-burnt hunter mix’d; the very form,
Slight as a stripling, statured as a man,
Which has—detested spell! so oft beguiled
The female fancy, prizing worthless show.
The only evidence^ of an attempt to conquer this emotion occurs in
the lines which immediately follow:
Can it be so? O no! it cannot be;
I but distract myself. I’ll crush within me
All thoughts which this way tend, as pois nous asps
That sting the soul and turn its bliss to bane.
His determination, however, is short-lived, for in the same speech
he determines to watch his wife and Maurice closely that night.
Zorada is harboring her father, whom Romiero has sworn to deliver to
justice whenever he is caught, and her mind is confused, so that her
behavior is not natural. Everything Romiero construes as guilt:
Is virtue thus demure, restrain'd, mysterious?
She, too, who was as cheerful as the light,
Courting the notice of my looks! no, no!
Some blasting change is here.
With this conviction firmly settled in his mind, Romiero takes but a
step to belief in her impurity, and the tragedy follows. Miss
Baillie partially redeems Romiero by making the murder of Zorada an
accident, when she tries to protect her father from her husband's
dagger. In this drama is no question from first to last as to
Romiero’s motive; it is jealousy, practically unchecked by any other
passion. Othello, on the other hand, kills Desdemona as the result
of a combination of motives, among which jealousy is perhaps not the
greatest. Romiero is an example of jealousy; Othello is an example
of a human being, struggling with conflicting emotions, of which
jealousy is one. Romiero is a fiction of the imagination; Othello is
a representation of nature.
Joanna Baillie’s aim is clearly expressed in the Introductory
Discourse, when she says that the passions should be shown in drama,
not merely at a critical moment, but through their entire course.
Each tragedy was to be the biography of a passion; its birth, its
life, and its ultimate conclusion, were to be shown. So in Basil,
the tragedy on love, the hero is a victim of love at first sight; he
forgets his duty to his country as a military leader of importance,
and his obligations to his soldiers and his friend; he ultimately
takes his own life in despair over the wrong he has done. The
emotions in the comedies were more difficult to handle; as, for
example, in the case of love, the passion must be left to continue
indefinitely if the marriage was to be a happy one.
The early dramas on the Passions are built on this theory of the
importance of an individual emotion, shown in its entirety; and
hence are artificial. Real life is not so simple a matter
emotionally as these dramas suggest. Basil and De Monfort fail to
hold our deepest attention mainly because they are not genuine
representations of nature. By the time Miss Baillie reached
ambition, she realized the impossibility of the program she had laid
out for herself, and modified it. In Ethwald ambition is developed
in ten acts. This fact in itself makes the drama more vivid, as we
are freed from the restrictions of five acts, and see the dramatic
growth of ambition through years. Ethwald also strikes another new
note: the hero suffers from more than one emotion in his rise
towards absolute power. As a young man, love of a maid plays its
part; fear threatens to overcome him when he stops to consider the
crime he has committed; there is even a suggestion of remorse for
infidelity to his friend. As all these feelings are present, from
time to time a struggle occurs in his heart, in spite of the fact
that ambition always wins. Ethwald is a human being.
The high-water mark of the Plays of the Passions is reached in the
last, Henriquez. Remorse is the avowed subject of the drama, but it
is not isolated. It nms its course from the hour of the murder to
the time when the hero is led away to his death. But remorse does
not stand alone; from time to time it is associated with many other
emotions. Henriquez loves his wife devotedly; he murders his friend
because of the conquest of jealousy over the good traits of his
character; remorse comes when the cause of his jealousy is removed,
and he finds that his wife is true to him; he hopes for pardon for
his deed as the result of his reparation, and firm in that hope he
dies. Fear and hatred alone are lacking. Henriquez is a truly
dramatic character. He is individual, a man endowed with unusual
ability, fighting the varied conflicts of life, and moved by
different emotions, against which reason does not always prevail.
The only emotion which Miss Baillie found it impossible to
pigeonhole is love. That passion runs through all the dramas,
showing itself in so many different situations that it is, in fact,
the one passion fully described from first to last. Basil dies for
love of Victoria; De Monfort exhibits a selfish love for his sister;
Aurora bases her hope of happiness entirely on her love for
Ermingard; Zorada dies for love of her father; Leonora risks life
and reputation because of her love for Osterloo; Countess Valdemere
pretends to love Baron Baurchel in order to secure great gifts from
him; and so on through the long list of Joanna Baillie’s characters.
Before the tale of her plays dealing with the emotions was finished,
Miss Baillie began writing independent plays. In these, thirteen in
number, she threw aside all theory, and wrote freely. The two dramas
that have had the longest runs on the stage, The Family Legend and
Constantine Paleologus, belong to this group. It is noteworthy that
the plots of these two plays are the only ones that are not entirely
original with her; The Family Legend was based upon a Scottish
legend, and Constantine Paleologus upon history. Even in the latter
case, however, the most interesting character, Valeria, is created
entirely by her imagination in order to explain and emphasize the
bravery and patriotism of the last emperor of the Greeks in
If Joanna Baillie’s theory of drama were entirely wrong, we should
find her greatest successes among the plays of her later life, after
she had completed her difficult task. As a matter of fact, however,
most of her best work is found in the late Plays on the Passions. By
that time she had freed herself from the shackles of her early
theory, retaining only what was best. Her conception of the dramatic
world was entirely theoretical and intellectual. To those who demand
intellectual profit from the drama, her accomplishment seems
remarkable. But the public demands from a play more than mental
stimulus; in the degree in which Joanna Baillie added emotional to
intellectual appeal, she was successful.
Joanna Baillie went 'simply, naturally, strongly to the very heart
of the mystery of man’s strongest passions and most solemn
sacrifices.' In occasional passages she shows an uncanny knowledge
of the human heart, and of the ways in which intense emotion affects
character. It is hard to believe that her most successful heroes
were conceived by a woman, and an unmarried Scotch woman at that. In
Henriquez her grasp on her subject is almost masculine. Tytler and
Watson emphasize especially this combination of masculine and
feminine qualities: ‘She had a great man’s grand guilelessness
rather than a woman’s minute and subtle powers of sympathy; a man’s
shy but unstinted kindness and forbearance rather than a woman’s
eager but measured cordiality and softness; a man’s modesty in full
combination with a woman’s delicacy; and, as if to prove her sex
beyond mistake, she had, after all, more than the usual share of a
woman’s tenacity and headstrongness when the fit was upon her.’
Her greatest success, however, if we except Henriquez, is in the
women whom she has created. The early heroines are rather shadowy
and conventional. Victoria is more of a casus belli than a living
woman; and Agnes Withrington is typical of the busy comedy that Miss
Baillie criticized so sweepingly. With Jane De Monfort, a model
woman, Miss Baillie begins her pictures of noble womanhood.
Gracious, dignified, clever, and affectionate, Jane De Monfort has
enough virtues to make her an ideal, and enough faults to keep her
human. The fact that this great heroine was past her first flowery
youth helped to convince the reading world that the author was a
woman. The satire on women expressed by Countess Valdemere in The
Siege remains in the reader’s memory long after the braggart Count
is forgotten. The outspoken frankness of the Scotch woman hated the
flattery and cajolery of English society so keenly as to give an
edge to her caricature in Countess Valdemere. Orra is another
character who haunts the reader’s mind, this time arousing neither
admiration nor scorn, but pity. The lonely girl, whose instinctive
fear of the supernatural is worked upon by a group of the most
heartless villains in all drama, is indeed a coward. Her physical
fear, however, is in no way repulsive; the moral cowardice of her
only guardian, Catharine, is much more objectionable. And so we come
to Aurora, the beautiful girl, who typifies fidelity more fully than
hope, and to Helen of Argyle, the shadowy Scotch girl, who is the
centre of The Family Legend, although she seldom appears on the
Joanna Baillie’s women are, with few exceptions, virtuous. Nina and
Catharine are the victims of evil men, both of whom have deserted
women who had loved them. The chief punishment meted out to
Valdemere is that he shall marry Nina, and that punishment consists
only in the fact that she is of lower social rank than he, and
cannot furnish her lord with a convenient fortune. Catharine is the
most pitiful character in all these dramas, a woman ruled by the
fear of shame. Rudigere holds her as his slave because, in spite of
her lofty character, she left the path of virtue for him. Fear of
exposure is stronger in her than honor, and through it she is made a
party in the torture of Orra. Rudigere’s death satisfies our sense
of justice, more because of the freedom it brings to her than as a
punishment for his ill-treatment of Orra. In Rayner occurs the one
truly evil character, a courtesan who deserts her lover, when he is
sick and in danger, for a man with more money. Mira has no redeeming
quality, an estimate we should expect from the author's narrow
experience of life.
Granted that an unusual theory limited the dramatic freedom of
Joanna Baillie, and that she broke away from strict adherence to it
in order to represent life as she saw it, in what form did she
express her ideas? Again she establishes a high ideal for herself in
the Introductory Discourse. If one emotion is to be shown
completely, its contours must not be blurred by the passions of
minor characters. This demand for clearness of impression
necessitated a simplicity of plot-construction seldom found in
drama, and led her to abandon all sub-plots. The result is
interesting to the student of the dramas: upon a reader the effect
is, in most cases, pleasing; upon the spectator it proved to be less
A plot which develops one emotion in one set of characters, without
any interruption from minor threads of narrative, makes a strong
impression upon the reader. Such simplicity of outline in drama, as
in other forms of art, is restful and satisfying. We read within a
comparatively brief time the story of the downfall of Henriquez, and
of his final attainment of real sublimity of character through
suffering. The catharsis is actual, even with our modem light
opinion of the sanctity of life; pity and fear are unadulterated by
any less noble feelings. Henriquez on the stage, however, would be
overpowering. The cumulative effect of the hero's remorse, as
portrayed by a great actor, would be too heavy a burden for any
In Orra the same consistent effect is produced. With Aurora in The
Beacon, we watch the fire in constant expectation. The minor
characters who enter and depart serve the purpose of the brave
Aurora; none is intent upon his own affairs. Expectation is the
keynote, more definitely than hope. When Ermingard arrives, we feel
a temporary satisfaction of our emotional demand, but the feeling is
short-lived. Hope is still necessary, hope for the reunion of two
noble lovers, unjustly separated. With some justification of the
hope of a happy outcome, the story closes. Such simplicity is noble
in every respect; it is an ideal towards which serious dramatists
strive. It is, however, not the characteristic which secures a
favorable report from the box-office.
This simplification of plot is intentional. In De Monfort, Miss
Baillie included originally the rudiments of a second thread of
action. Before the opening of the present third act, occurred a
brief conversation in which Countess Freberg betrayed active
jealousy of Jane De Monfort. In the fourth edition, and in the
collected works, this scene is entirely omitted. As a result, the
emotion that Countess Freberg shows in talking with her husband is
not effective, as it leads to nothing. If this motive had been
developed, the tension of the audience would have been relieved, and
the events leading to the final catastrophe could have been more
fully motivated. Another example of this repression occurs in The
Trial. We are told at the very beginning that Mariane has become
engaged to Withrington's favorite nephew without the uncle's
consent. A partial reconciliation between Mariane and Withrington
occurs in Act 1; no further attention is paid to this plot until the
very end of Act V, when Withrington pompously announces that Mariane
is ‘engaged to a very worthy young man, who will receive with her a
fortune by no means contemptible.' Such an opportunity for
complication Shakespeare would never have neglected. It would be
possible to pile up similar instances, where dramatic effectiveness
has been allowed to suffer for the sake of one definite emotional
In the Miscellaneous Plays there are several examples of a sub-plot
used to good effect. In The Match, the love-affair of the nephew and
niece of the protagonists furnishes an invaluable foil to the
indecision and complication of Latitia's mental processes. Without
the sub-plot, the play would be uninteresting and monotonous.
Life is mercifully lightened by patches of supshine when everything
seems dark. Work, or friendship, or providence, provides an outlet
for pent-up emotion. Should not the same relief be provided for a
long-continued strain of powerful dramatic representation? The
failure of Joanna Baillie to break the tension in the plots is
serious. Again we may attribute the weakness to her theory, rather
than to ignorance of life. The single emotion controlled her—the
type, and not the living being. Her eyes were fixed on the lesson to
be derived from the portrayal of the loss of reason and of the rule
by passion; they were not fixed on life.
None of the dramas which have been professionally produced has any
complication of plot, or dramatic relief. Each moves steadily and
evenly toward a goal that is evident from the first, unrelieved by
any decided change of feeling. The audiences of Joanna Baillie's day
were accustomed to startling sensations, and rapid change of
emotion. As a result, they yawned over the growing hatred of De
Monfort, and applauded The Family Legend only when they themselves
were complimented by a patriotic note.
She realized fully the danger she ran of losing the attention of her
audience, and tried to compensate for this lack of plot-intricacy by
pomp and display. She believed that a splendid procession, a
ceremonial banquet, or a battle, 'would afford to a person of the
best understanding a pleasure in kind, though not in degree, with
that which a child would receive from it; but when it is past he
thinks no more of it.’ The first act of Basil furnishes an example
of this use of military parade. As soon as the procession passes,
the emotional note of the tragedy is struck. In Ethwald a battle is
used in the same way; a comic battle figures in The Siege. A similar
effect is produced by the introduction of a banquet or masquerade.
De Monfort affords the best opportunity for brilliant display, but
in this case the action of the drama is advanced during the
masquerade. In production, this scene was intensified so as to
increase the relief from the tragic tone. Basil, The Siege,
Henriquez, Rayner, The Family Legend, The Phantom, Enthusiasm, and
The Bride, all contain group-celebrations of some sort, that serve
this definite purpose.
The ignorance of psychology that caused this entire absence of
emotional relief accounts for many other technical weaknesses. Her
stage was too often left vacant, scenes changed with puzzling and
unnecessary frequency, interest was often lost by a too early
certainty as to the outcome, and scenes and acts were often allowed
to close with an anticlimax. All these defects were due to her
failure to appreciate the importance of technique, and not to lack
of ability. An example of skilful use of suspense occurs in Act II
of De Monfort. Jane has finally broken down her brother’s reserve,
and succeeded in rousing him to a desire for manhood.
What a most noble creature wouldst thou be! she exclaims; he
Ay, if I could: Alas! Alas! I cannot.
Jane's answer is so genuine that it arouses hope in the spectator:
Thou canst, thou mayst, thou wilt.
We shall not part till I have turn’d thy soul.
They go to her closet with his final promise,
Do as thou wilt,, I will not grieve thee more.
The fact that the following act ends with much the same hopeful tone
may account in part for the degree of stage-success which was
accorded this drama.
The Stripling is the most successful of all the dramas in the use of
suspense. When Young Arden declares that he has thought of a plan to
save his father's life, we have no clue to his purpose. His
excitement over the sudden idea suggests a trick upon Robinair, by
means of which he will save his mother's honor. The discovery that
he plans to murder the man who holds the only evidence against his
father, comes as almost too great a surprise, and his apprehension
and death are not anticipated.
One of the best examples of action which ends with a complication of
emotion, so that we are eager for the next scene, is Act IV of De
Monfort. Rezenvelt crosses the stage; an owl hoots in evil omen; he
hears the convent bell,
That, to a fearful superstitious mind,
In such a scene, would like a death-knell come.
He passes into the forest, where we know De Monfort and death are
waiting for him, and the curtain falls. One powerful ending, such as
this, proves the ability that Joanna Baillie possessed.
Suggestion has been made in several places that Joanna Baillie
emphasized the passions even at the sacrifice of effectiveness, for
the sake of a moral purpose. She firmly believed that ancient drama
had been made to serve evil ends, and criticized the most popular
modern comedy on the same ground. A drama was to her an opportunity
to teach a strong moral lesson to a mass of middle-class people. Her
aim amounted to a Greek catharsis, for she hoped, by representing
the tempest that is aroused by unbridled emotion, to show the ‘
rising signs 'of its coming, and the ‘situations that will most
expose us to its rage.’ As a result of this sincere purpose, she has
shown us a great variety of middle-class people who are threatened
by the predominance of an evil passion, or who are ennobled by their
fidelity to one that is good. She was wise enough not to preach
outright, with the exception of a few soliloquies that express
genuine emotion. Instead of antagonizing in that way those whom she
hoped to reach, she gave to all her characters reward for nobility,
or punishment for vice. To secure such wholesale justice was
difficult in the case of so evil a group of men as the conspirators
in Orra, but she made their own evil-doing recoil upon themselves.
Her ignorance of life is more apparent here than anywhere else. Her
idea of crime seems to be confined to the sixth commandment. Murder
runs through the dramas like a crimson thread. It seems to be her
sole means of producing plot-complication: of punishing a criminal,
freeing from punishment one who is innocent in spirit, but guilty in
action, of securing revenge.
None of her heroes is sacrilegious or profane; adultery is almost
unknown; dishonor of parents is rare; and one's neighbor’s goods are
secure. Most of the characters speak as Joanna Baillie herself would
speak in their situations; in this respect also they are projections
of her imagination.
Middle-class people speaking middle-class language in unusual
circumstances require expert treatment if they are to be
interesting. Her characters think and talk too much, and act too
little, to interest the ordinary people of her day—or, we may say,
of any day. True to Greek ideals, she omitted the act, and presented
the meditation before and after it. This may be illustrated by De
Monfort’s murder of Rezenvelt. He went to the forest determined to
do the deed, but the murder occurred after the curtain falls on Act
IV. All of Act V is spent in comments on the murder, and in the
emotional reaction in De Monfort that results—again off the scene—
in his death.
The moral purpose of these dramas by Joanna Baillie was a sufficient
warrant for her attempts at depicting the more terrible emotions.
The criticism we must make is directed not towards the purpose, but
towards the means by which she tried to secure it. Here, again, is
not the explanation to be found in her ignorance of the character of
the mass of people? She judged people by those whom she knew, and
the fact that her own world approved so enthusiastically both her
aim and her accomplishment shows that she read it aright. What she
did not understand was the mind of the man of lower intellectual
level than her own, who formed the mass of the English people, and
who judged a man according to his actions, not his contemplations.
The importance of dialogue was much magnified in Miss Baillie’s
eyes. However much we may miss the clever business of Shakespeare,
or even the devices of the circumstantial comedy that she so deeply
scorns, we are seldom disappointed in her dialogue. There are in her
tragedies speeches of as great beauty as those of any dramatist
since Shakespeare. If all Joanna Baillie's poetry were on the level
of her highest verse, she would rank with our great poets. The
dialogue of the tragedies is as superior to that of the comedies as
are the tragic to the comic heroes. In them the emotion shakes the
hero to the depths of his nature, and when his reserve is gone, he
utters his emotion freely, too often in long monologues and
soliloquies. These speeches, again, beautiful as they are in
themselves, help to destroy the reality of the scene. The reader
inevitably feels that Miss Baillie is here trying to follow closely
in the footsteps of Shakespeare, and failing because her dramatic
instinct is less fine than his.
But Joanna Baillie is more than a dramatic moralist, she is an
ambitious poet as well. In the Introductory Discourse of 1798 she
enunciated clearly a theory of poetry definitely agreeing with the
aims of the Lake poets. It is no wonder that Wordsworth admired her.
She strove in her Plays on the Passions for that genuine
representation of nature which was the basis of all his poetry.
Wordsworth and Coleridge received greater ridicule from the
reviewers than did Joanna Baillie; yet they persevered. Joanna
Baillie failed on the stage, but succeeeded in the closet. In her
dramas she used the language of the middle-class Englishmen about
middle-class characters, but did not produce even a middle-class
result on the stage. Her many dramas, however, long continued
popular with the reading public, as a glance at the list of editions
of her dramas will show. Young and old were influenced by the
simplicity and the ‘Unsophisticated expression’ of truthful thought
and feeling in her stories. The very simplicity of the plots helped,
as she intended, to call attention to the natural language which she
used. As a result, many Englishmen who never troubled to read the
preface to the Lyrical Ballads, and who scorned Wordsworth’s poems
as lacking elevation of tone, were won over unconsciously to the new
Joanna Baillie wrote at a time when the poetic literature of England
was breaking away from the formal manner of the preceding
generation. Life was throbbing in the new poetry, in essay, and in
novel. The drama alone seemed to lack the new stimulus; there were
no English or Scotch dramatic writers of note. Into this dead calm
came suddenly the Plays on the Passions, with a theory of truth to
life as it really is in language, and to emotion as it appeared to
the author. Their effect upon dramatic production was decided. The
consistent simplicity of plot, the unfaltering determination to
raise the moral tone of theatrical representations, and the
insistence that the 'wages of sin is death' all forced themselves
into the literary consciousness of the English people.
With a theory of so high an aesthetic value, a purpose of so noble a
moral tone, and an imagination of so vivid a character, is it any
wonder that Joanna Baillie’s contemporaries placed her above all
women poets, except Sappho? Since the middle of the nineteenth
century several English women have surpassed her in accomplishment;
none has surpassed her in tenacity to a noble purpose or in literary
influence. In spite of Home's success with his one popular drama,
Douglas, Joanna Baillie stands to-day as the greatest Scotch
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