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On a Lady's Writing

"On a Lady's Writing" might help us consider the vexed question of Barbauld's politics. It is worth revisiting Mary Wollstonecraft's inclusion of the poem in The Female Reader (1789), a cultural project intended "to imprint some useful lessons on the mind, and cultivate the taste at the same time." In spite of their antagonism elsewhere, Wollstonecraft demonstrates her understanding of the poem's challenge to taste. At the same time we need to remember another past cultural practice that reclaims the printed page to writing. It is significant that a copy of the poem appears in an early nineteeth-century miscellany produced in manuscript by a lady, where it is titled "On Miss C-'s Writing," which is now held in the U. of Chicago library. Barbauld's modern editors, William McCarthy and Elizabeth Kraft, suggest they have no knowledge of the provenance of the manuscript or of the identity of Miss C. But the copy represents Barbauld's point. The poem's renaming and appearance in an example of a lady's handwriting embody the very negotiation between public and private with which Barbauld is concerned. Presumably the creator of the miscellany copied the poem because it reminded her of her friend Miss C. In so doing the lady had the opportunity to consider what the poem signifies about the power of writing by applying it to a particular personal context. If such cues were available to women in the late eighteenth century, modern readers might need to ask what sorts of cultural practices are captured in Barbauld's description of writing that is "Correct though free, and regular though fair."

We may not place a value on handwriting in the respect that Barbauld's age did, but the poem reminds us of the link between writing and literacy. From her perspective as a Dissenting thinker Barbauld asks ladies to use their literacy to change society's inscription of middle-class women. In that respect the poem may be applied to remind us of how we too might question our own use of literacy to explore how as inheritors of the Enlightenment our own culture, depending upon how we use it, has potential to contain or to free us.

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