Mary Fairclough

‘Anna Laetitia Barbauld and the Dissenting Art of Reading’


This paper investigates the connections between the dissenting writer Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s educational and devotional writings, and eighteenth-century practices of ‘the art of reading’, elocution, or reading aloud. There is a strong dissenting pedagogical tradition in the eighteenth century of works written to be read aloud, and Barbauld shows familiarity with dissenting elocutionary texts like Isaac Watts’s The Art of Reading and Writing English (1721), James Burgh’s The Art of Speaking (1762), and William Enfield’s The Speaker (1774). Indeed, late on in her career Barbauld produces her own anthology for reading aloud in homage to Enfield, titled The Female Speaker (1805). But this paper will focus on Barbauld’s appropriation and transformation of elocutionary practice in her educational writing for children, in particular her four-part Lessons for Children (1778-79), written for pupils between two and four, and her Hymns in Prose for Children (1781). In these texts Barbauld makes reading aloud not only an educational practice but also an act of devotion. For Barbauld, it is not enough to teach Christian doctrine; children need to be enabled to practice personal devotion, and this can be enabled through the audible voicing of their own praise to God. As Barbauld declares in Hymn VII: ‘Can we raise our voices up to the high heaven? Can we make him hear who is above the stars? We need not raise our voices to the stars, for he heareth us when we only whisper… He that filleth the heavens is here also.’


Dr Mary Fairclough is Senior Lecturer in the Department of English and Related Literature at the University of York. She is the author of two monographs: The Romantic Crowd: Sympathy, Controversy and Print Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2013), and Literature Electricity and Politics 1740-1840: Electrick Communication Every Where (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), and of several essays and articles which investigate the intersection of literature, science and politics in the eighteenth century and Romantic period. These include studies of Percy Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the work of Thomas Beddoes, Mary Wollstonecraft, Erasmus Darwin and John Thelwall. She is currently at work on a new book project which investigates elocution and reading aloud in the Romantic period, in particular, works written by Dissenting women writers for reading aloud, and the devotional practices that such reading enables. This conference paper is taken from that broader project.

The International John Bunyan Society

A society dedicated to the study of the life and times of John Bunyan (1628-1688)