Joanna Baillie

Portrait of Joanna Baillie

Joanna Baillie was a Scottish poet and verse dramatist. She was born on 11th September 1762 in Bothwell, Scotland and died on 23rd February 1851 in Hampstead, London aged 88.

Major Works

“De Monfort” (1798)
The Second Marriage” (1802)
“The Family Legend” (1810)
“Fugitive Verses” (1840)

Biography Timeline

Joanna Baillie was born on 11th September 1762 in Bothwell, Scotland. Her father was James Baillie a Presbyterian minister and later Professor of Divinity at the Glasgow University. Her mother was Dorothea Hunter, who was a sister of the Scottish physicians William and John Hunter. She was the youngest of three children and her twin died in infancy.

1769: The family move to Hamilton where her father is appointed to the collegiate church. 

1772: She enters Miss McDonald’s boarding school in Glasgow and learns to read and write. A visit to the theatre is a revelation to her and from then on she begins to write her own works.

1778: Her father dies leaving them short of money and the family move to Long Calderwood near East Kilbride. Her brother Matthew studies medicine at Balliol College, Oxford.

1783: Her Uncle, Dr William Hunter, dies leaving her brother a house in London and the collection which forms the basis of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery in Glasgow.

1784: The family return home and her aunt, a society hostess introduces her to several prominent bluestockings of the day including Fanny Burney, Elizabeth Carter and Elizabeth Montagu.

1790: Her first publication is “Poems: Wherein it is Attempted to Describe Certain Views of Nature and of Rustic Manners”. “Winter Day” describes the area around Long Calderwood. She begins a tragedy, “Arnold” but it is never published. She runs her brother’s house and studies Moliere, Voltaire and Shakespeare amongst other.

1791: Her brother marries and she and her sister move to Colchester where she begins “Plays on the Passions”.

1798: The first volume of “Plays on the Passions” is published anonymously as “A Series of Plays”. Volume One contains “Count Basil”, a tragedy about love, “The Tryal”, a comedy about love, and “De Monfort” a tragedy about hatred.

1800: “De Monfort” is produced at Drury Lane with Sarah Siddons in a leading role. although it runs for eight nights it is not deemed a success. Lord Byron, however is impressed and it inspires his drama “Manford”. He and William Wordsworth become part of her circle of friends.

1802: She and her Agnes sister move to Hampstead after her brother comes into a fortune. They both live there for fifty years and neither marries. The second volume of “Plays on the Passions” is published this time under her own name. This volume contains “The Second Marriage” a comedy about ambition and “Ethwald” a tragedy which she sees as some of her best writing.

1804: She publishes “Miscellaneous Plays” which includes tragedies “Rayner” and “Constantine Paleologus” and a comedy, “The Country Inn”. In her preface she counters claims that her plays are dull and that she has no idea of stagecraft, a criticism which had deeply upset her.

1806: Her mother dies. Joanna and Agnes become close to Walter Scott and visit him in Scotland many times.

1810: Her Scottish-themed play “The Family Legend” is first produced in Edinburgh funded largely by Walter Scott and he writes a prologue to the production. It is a success and she is asked to revive “De Monfort”.

1812: The final volume of “Plays on the Passions” is published which contains “Orra”, “The Dream”, “The Siege” and the musical “The Beacon”.

1815: “The Family Legend” is produced at Drury Lane Theatre in London. Ludwig van Beethoven sets her poem “O Swiftly Glides the Bonny Boat” to music.

1821: She writes “Metrical Legends of Exalted Characters” which includes descriptions of Christopher Columbus and William Wallace. “De Monfort” is performed at Drury Lane with Edmund Kean in the title role. Her next work “Constantine Paleologus” is declined by Drury Lane but is produced at the Surrey Theatre (as “Constantine and Valeria”) and also in Liverpool, Dublin and Edinburgh.

1823: She edits and publishes a collection of poems by many leading writers of the day to help a recently widowed old school friend.

1824: Now well off herself she gives half her earnings to charity. She also supports the campaigner James Montgomery’s bid to help impoverished Sheffield chimney sweeps.

1826: She publishes the tragedy “The Martyr” for reading only.

1831: She publishes the pamphlet “A View of the General Tenour of the New Testament Regarding the Nature and Dignity of Jesus Christ” where she discusses the holy trinity amongst other religious doctrines.

1836: She publishes three volumes of “Dramatic Poetry” and “Miscellaneous Plays” containing nine new works. The critical reviews are all enthusiastic.

1840: After a bout of ill health she recovers and produces “Fugitive Verses” which includes Scottish folk songs. 

Joanna Baillie died on 23rd February 1851 in Hampstead, London. She was buried in Hampstead Parish Churchyard next to her mother and Agnes would join her later aged 100.