On a Lady's Writing
Another matter concerns what the lady was writing using those "correct" strokes. The commonplace book or miscellany which might be shared with others is one venue through which a lady might display her hand. Or she might write a journal. But above all, lady's writing likely means letter writing. Letter writing was a means to engage with the world without violating propriety, and consequently contained potential for women's indirect power. As Ruth Perry points out, "Letters were the perfect vehicle for women's highly developed art of pleasing, for in writing letters it is possible to tailor a self on paper to suit the expectations and desires of the audience" (69). Barbauld challenges the deployment of this art, which like a lady's hand is a lesser version of how society makes use of letter writing.
Hugh Blair suggests in his 1784 observations on Epistolary Writing in his Lectures on Rhetoric that "The first requisite, both in conversation and correspondence, is to attend to all the proper decorums which our own character, and that of others, demand" (3.69). But Barbauld's vagueness about what the lady is writing seems deliberate--it is entirely up to the reader to imagine what is being written. The language she uses seems willfully pointed--"Strong as her judgment" implies not only the power of the familiar letter as a private way in which woman might have influence, as she again raises the possibility of unrealized potential.
The power of the private letter suggests both how women might use writing and how it uses them. Barbauld herself not only practised the familiar letter but, like Mary Wollstonecraft, advocated use of the open letter as political polemic, as seen in her pamphlets on the Test Acts. But if the familiar letter is the more prevalent cultural product of the age, its close alliance to the conduct book (see Gregory's 1774 A Father's Legacy to His Daughters), which more often than not takes the form of the letter, needs to be considered, especially given the signals the poem sends through its very pointed language. In her 1773 Letters on the Improvement of the Mind addressed to her niece, Hester Chapone writes in her Dedication to Elizabeth Montagu that she acknowledges how "some strokes of your elegant pen have corrected these Letters" and she numbers an ability to "write a free and legible hand" among the "indispensable requisites" a lady might obtain (137). Barbauld's poem utilizes a vocabulary of conduct to problematise expectations about a lady's writing. And her background as a Dissenter influences how in spite of what seems a conservative perspective for women, she cannot separate women from a more general pursuit of individual rights. Concepts like judgment, freedom, and how one comports oneself within the social sphere have to do with issues of rights and responsibilities that extend beyond the superficial forms of conduct or even Bluestocking culture to embrace a politics against exclusion. William Keach suggests of Barbauld, "Dissent has taught her to claim a critical freedom for herself that has to coexist both with intellectual and political solidarity and with the continuing relegation of women to the realm of nuturing domesticity" (50). In the final line Barbauld makes most clear the relation between writing and conduct and the fact that if manners are formed and footsteps guided, they depend on social expectations. The poem displays a sort of irony in that Barbauld reminds the reader of the discrepancy between what women are capable of and what society expects women to do with their writing.