The chapters in this volume describe and evaluate many of the contributions that the Aikin family made to and through religious, intellectual, literary and political practices in the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries. The report from the conference where many earlier versions of these essays were presented, ‘The Dissenting Mind: The Aikin Circle, c. 1760s to c. 1860s’, opens by remarking on how many of ‘that remarkably gifted provincial family of dissenters’, the Aikins, are given entries in the New Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Many of the New ODNB entries are by contemporary scholars, including Barbara Brandon Schnorrenberg, a distinguished women’s historian, and William McCarthy, Anna Barbauld’s biographer. Over the last twenty years researchers working on the Aikin family have produced a successful example of network study, one of the most interesting methods for looking at the cultural life of beliefs, ideas and texts that are written by and circulate among a group of people – a contemporary method that blends Namierism, women’s history and contextual study.
It is worth pointing out that these same Aikins had entries in the Old DNB as well as the New – which might be used as evidence of their importance throughout the nineteenth century. But in Leslie Stephen’s 1885 DNB, the sources for that evidence derive almost entirely from the series of memoirs of the family written by Lucy Aikin, daughter of John Aikin, ‘physician and author’, sister of Arthur Aikin, ‘chemist and scientific writer’, and Charles Rochemont Aikin, ‘doctor and chemist’, and niece of Anna Barbauld, ‘poet and miscellaneous writer’, and all the articles are signed A. A. B., Arthur Aikin Brodribb. The obituary in The Times for Brodribb, which praises his long service to that newspaper as a gallery reporter at parliament, reminds the reader that, ‘[h]is grandmother, Susan Aikin, was a granddaughter of John Aikin, M. D., a well-known writer in his day and the brother of Mrs. Barbauld’ (who, this sentence implies, remains well known). Coteries require their own historians if they are to be known coteries, and if the Arthur Aikin Brodribb articles suggest that the Aikins wrote themselves into the DNB, it has been literary critics and historians of women and literature written by women, who have created our current interest in Anna Barbauld and her family. The most recent instance is William McCarthy’s summation of twenty years of research in his authoritative biography of Anna Barbauld, a discussion that combines feminist sympathy with attention to the range and power of Anna Barbauld as an Enlightenment poet. Taken altogether the Aikin-related entries in the Old and NewDNB, along with more detailed twentieth- and twenty-first-century studies, agree that the importance of their network of family and friends lies in their rootedness in the late eighteenth-century religious culture of heterodox, Rational Dissent, and their attachment, both intellectually and as an idealized geography, to the Warrington Academy, founded in 1757. One result of network studies has been that we can make the case that the Aikins’ subsequent contributions to broader institutions of learning, literary and liberal practice reached a wider public than their marginal social and religious place (marginal even within Dissent) might have predicted.
AN AUTHORIZING FAMILY
The remarks that follow address a question that arose when I was working on a comparative study of the poetics of Anna Barbauld and Mary Robinson: I was struck by the way in which Mary Robinson's self-publicity as a woman of letters served as a form of self-protection against her notoriety as a courtesan and actress, while Anna Barbauld's eminence was shaped and burnished by a reputation machine, part of an intergenerational claim for the importance of her family within British culture as the embodiment of moral conviction from the seventeenth-century period of religious controversy to the liberal politics of the nineteenth.
Readers of Romantic poetry are now familiar with the poetry of Anna Laetitia Barbauld, whose two great poems, ‘A Summer Evening's Meditation’ and ‘Eighteen Hundred and Eleven’, bind a fifty-year life in writing that began in gladness and ended, if not in madness, in a share of despondency and sadness, as Barbauld felt herself marginalized by age and intellectual temperament in a new world of sentimental respectability. Unlike other Romantic-age poets, Barbauld is not considered to be a poet isolate; even her most startling poems belong to a fabric of assumptions and a level of confidence unimaginable for the deracinated Mary Robinson. And unlike Wordsworth and Coleridge and Southey, whose reputations were made, along with Mary Robinson's, through the contemporary periodical and newspaper press and from both collegial support and publicity (for example, the Biographia Literaria as an extended advertisement for Wordsworth's poetry), Anna Aikin's fame as a poet was part of the cultural work of a public family formation, elaborated and maintained through religious networks, periodicals, newspapers, educational institutions, and through a series of family memoirs.
This chapter makes a place for William Morris's striking verse narrative sequence, The Pilgrims of Hope, at the latter end of the nineteenth-century dialectic of romanticism. The thirteen poems which make up The Pilgrims of Hope trace out the complex emotional designs discernible within political, sexual, and comradely entanglements in the setting of the British socialist and labour movement and the Paris Commune of 1871, setting against one another the individualist claims of feeling and the collective ones of social change. By commemorating a recent historical event and invoking it as an aspiration as well as a memory, Morris's poem (serialized between 1885 and 1886 in the Socialist League journal, Commonweal), offers a ‘glimpse of the coming day’ made visible through the power of ‘hope’ – a category of practical value for Morris and one capable of redeeming the past in a revolutionary future. In this way, Morris appropriates the romance genre for contemporary use: ‘I have heard people mis-called for being a romantic’ he wrote, ‘but what romance means is the capacity for a true conception of history, a power of making the past part of the present.’
The Pilgrims of Hope interweaves a personal dialectic of identity and a public one of history. The hero and heroine, Richard and his wife, move from the agricultural plebeian culture of the countryside to an artisanal life in London, where they become socialists.
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