Session 8D: Barbauld: New Readings

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8D. Barbauld: New Readings

Karen Hadley (Kentucky): "The Wealth of Nations, or the Happiness of Nations?: Barbauld's Malthusian Critique in 'Eighteen Hundred and Eleven'"
Haley Bordo (Western Ontario): "'Crossing Lines': Anna Laetitia Barbauld's 'Washing-Day' and the Performance of Genre"
William R. Hooton III (Duquesne): "The Universal Tongue of Nature Unitarianism, Pantheism and Anna Barbauld's 'The Mouse's Petition'"

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"'Crossing Lines': Anna Laetitia Barbauld's 'Washing-Day' and the Performance of Genre"
Haley Bordo
University of Western Ontario

Oh, dame, interrupt me then. . . .I'd be
unable to argue, if no one interrupted me.
--Molière, Don Juan

We do things with language, produce effects
with language, and we do things to language,
but language is also the thing that we do.
--Judith Butler, Excitable Speech

Earth, air, and sky, and ocean, hath its bubbles,
And verse is one of them--this most of all.
--Anna Laetitia Barbauld, "Washing-Day"

In her essay "The Gush of the Feminine: How Can We Read Women's Poetry of the Romantic Period?" Isobel Armstrong argues that "effectively, [the female Romantic poets] are new poets" (16), and, accordingly, that they must be read on their own terms in this initial phase of their revival. As Armstrong estimates, "[i]t will take some time for [women's poetry] to become fully visible"; "a one-sided study of women's poetry in isolation from male poetry" is, for her, therefore justifiable (32). But how can we read the women's poetry in isolation from that of their male counterparts if they emerge out of the same literary tradition and mobilize the same existing tropology, indeed the same language--that fundamental "weapon of ideology," the "greatest weapon available" (Fay, Eminent 2, 6)? And is it productive to disengage these women from the male writers whom, arguably, they endeavour to "critique," and with whom they are perpetually in dialogue?

Putting theory to practice, Armstrong tests out her methodology on various female Romantic poets, including Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825)--the central focus of my paper. Despite her insistence upon isolating the female Romantic poets from their male counterparts, Armstrong actually demonstrates that the female poets are ineluctably linked to their male counterparts and predecessors. For example, Armstrong reveals that Barbauld's "Inscription for an Ice House" responds to the works of Edmund Burke, Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus. Armstrong's prescription for reading female Romantic poetry needs consequently to be reworked: though theoretically feasible, it is pragmatically untenable, for, as Armstrong tacitly reveals, female Romantic poetry remains, for the most part, characterized by what Elizabeth Fay has called its "critique" of "High Romantic attitudes" and "of dominant positions that ignore the vulnerability of marginalized persons in society" (Feminist Introduction 10, 4).

My paper will argue that poetry by Romantic women ought not to be isolated from that of the men; nor should it be divided from the ostensibly more "feminist" works of writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Catherine Macaulay and Mary Hays. Rather, their poetry must be treated as "performative critiques" of reigning bourgeois ideologies of the late-eighteenth, early-nineteenth centuries--ideologies that produce, and indeed are reinforced by, what William Wordsworth called "the real language of men," {fn.1} a language that inflates "the toils of men" while deflating women's "petty miseries" (84, 28) {fn.2}. By "performative critique," I mean a mode of feminism that does not, like Wollstonecraft, implore "injured Woman!" to "rise, assert thy right," as Barbauld ("performing" Wollstonecraft) puts it; rather, this mode of feminism is one that is "Felt, not defined and if debated, lost" (my emphasis; "Rights of Woman" 1, 14). In other words, the female Romantic poem is a kind of speech act: its effect is "felt"; it "does" as much as it "says."

Like Armstrong, I, too, turn to Barbauld as a test case for reading Romantic women's poetry; though Barbauld's poetry--particularly "Washing-Day" (1797)--serves not only as an ideal example of "performative critique," but also, I argue, as an instruction manual for reading women's poetry as such. My paper will focus primarily on Barbauld's performance of genre in "Washing-Day," which, by extension, amounts to a critique of the gendered expectations surrounding the cultural idea of "poetry" and the "poet" in the late-eighteenth century. Basically, "Washing-Day" performs the Miltonic epic genre: the poem brims with parodic self-reflexivity that, in a "crushing" fashion, "clap[s]" and "wring[s] / [and] fold[s]" the epic genre back upon itself (42, 75-6). By (mock-)performing such epic devices as the invocation of the ("domestic") Muse (3), and the "clear high-sounding phrase"(2) that characterizes the "real language of men," Barbauld performatively "interrupts" the hitherto "Uninterrupted" (20), male-dominated epic convention: Barbauld ruptures its self-defined borders by "crossing" them with women's voices and experience (44), and, ultimately, exposes genre as nothing more (indeed, nothing less) than sheer, artificial performance.

In effect, Barbauld's performance of the epic genre enacts an interruption of that genre--she "mar[s] [men's] musings" with her "crossing lines" (45, 44). My paper, then, will highlight the tropological maneuver, "interruption," that we discover within the very words of "Washing-Day" itself--within the iterated words of John Milton, William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope, which, when transposed onto the domestic plain, render a revolutionary resignification of the paternal symbolic at least conceivable. Finally, in the course of my analysis of "performative interruption" in "Washing-Day," I will draw on Barbauld's "The Rights of Woman" and "To a little invisible being who is expected soon to become visible," as well as the speech-act and performativity theories of Shoshana Felman and Judith Butler. NOTES: 1. See Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads. 2. Unless otherwise indicated, all parenthetical documentation refers to Barbauld's "Washing-Day."


Armstrong, Isobel. "The Gush of the Feminine: How Can We Read Women's Poetry of the Romantic Period?" Romantic Women Writers: Voices and Countervoices. Eds. Paula R. Feldman and Theresa M. Kelley. Hanover and London: UP of New England,1995.

Barbauld, Anna Laetitia. "The Rights of Woman." 1792. Eighteenth-Century Women Poets. Ed. Roger Lonsdale. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989. 305-6.

---. "Washing-Day." British Literature 1780-1830. Ed. Anne K. Mellor and Richard E. Matlak. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1996. 187-8.

Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. New York and London: Routledge, 1997.

Fay, Elizabeth A. A Feminist Introduction to Romanticism. Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1998.

---. Eminent Rhetoric: Language, Gender, and Cultural Tropes. Westport, Connecticut and London: Bergin and Garvey, 1994.

Felman, Shoshana. The Literary Speech Act: Don Juan with J. L. Austin, or Seduction in Two Languages. Trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca, New York, 1980.

Molière. Don Juan. Don Juan or the Statue at the Banquet. Trans. Wallace Fowlie. Great Neck, New York: Barron's Educational Series, 1964.

Wordsworth, William. Preface to Lyrical Ballads. 1802. Bloom and Trilling.

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Last updated July 31, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell