Christianity and Colonial Discourse in Joanna Baillie's the Bride

By Colon, Christine | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Christianity and Colonial Discourse in Joanna Baillie's the Bride


Colon, Christine, Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


IN the "Introductory Discourse" to her first volume of plays published in 1798, the British playwright Joanna Baillie carefully presents the project of reform that she was to continue for much of her career. She explains her plan to write a series of plays "in which the chief object should be to delineate the progress of the higher passions in the human breast" and deduces that "Tragedy, written upon this plan, is fitted to produce stronger moral effect than upon any other" (11). (1) Baillie's unique theatrical project has placed her in an interesting position with regard to the subsequent criticism of her works. She has never been entirely forgotten, yet she has rarely been taken seriously. In 1909, for instance, when Florence MacCunn includes Baillie in her discussion of Sir Walter Scott's friends, she is caught between admiring Baillie's project and patronizing the woman who created it. She finds that "[e]ven to have conceived such a design shows a mind at once of high flight and of pathetic simplicity" (291). Recently, scholars have begun to take Baillie's project more seriously. Baillie has benefitted from the rise of feminist criticism and the increased attention to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century woman writers; critics such as Anne Melior, Catherine Burroughs, and Ellen Donkin have begun to explore how Baillie fits into a tradition of women writers. Baillie's attempt to improve the moral lives of her audience is rarely discussed, however, and the Christian ideals behind her theories are almost never explored in depth. Most contemporary scholars have focused on the unconventional aspects of Baillie's plays, ignoring the "conservative" Christian framework. (2) Baillie's challenges to her society's conventions, however, exist not in spite of her moral purpose but rather because of it. They are integrally connected to her purportedly conservative Christian project, which stems from a personal theology that she crafted from her childhood education in the Scottish Presbyterian Church, her adult fascination with Unitarianism, and her intense study of the Bible. (3) By examining Baillie's project in perhaps her most conventional, Christian play, The Bride, which was written to convert the natives of Ceylon, we can begin to see how her "conservative" theories of moral reform are what ultimately compel her to transform an admittedly imperialist endeavor into a potentially revolutionary discourse of equality.

While most nineteenth-century British playwrights shied away from portraying Christian ideas in their plays because of harsh censorship, and some critics even argued that Christianity had no place on the stage, Baillie, in the preface to her second volume of dramas, actively refutes those who believe that "dramatic exhibition is unfriendly to the principles and spirit of Christianity" (528). (4) Baillie emphasizes the power of drama to transform lives and argues that Christian principles may be expressed effectively on the stage. She contends that "[representations on stage] teach us a lesson more powerful than many that proceed from the academical chair or the pulpit" and argues that Christians have a duty to express their ideas on the stage (529).

Despite Baillie's clear pronouncements of her Christian purpose, many critics today tend to view her project of helping her audiences learn to control their passions as a secular one in which she is simply warning them to use reason to restrain their emotions. As Thomas Dixon points out, however, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the term "passions" was often used in a specifically religious sense to describe "symptoms of man's fallenness" (301). According to Dixon, eighteenth-century Christian "psychology" also made an important distinction between the "passions" and the "affections," which was lost when both of these terms were subsumed under the secular category of "emotions" in the mid-nineteenth century. …

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