In the Groves of the Academy: The Aikin Family, Sociability, and the Liberal Dissenting Academy[Notice]

  • Kathryn Ready

…plus d’informations

  • Kathryn Ready
    The University of Winnipeg

The Aikin family, including Anna Letitia Barbauld (née Aikin; 1743–1825) and her brother John (1747–1822), were closely connected with two famous liberal Dissenting academies: the Warrington Academy (1757–83) and the New College, Hackney (1786–96). The Warrington and Hackney academies belonged to two different identified phases in Dissenting sociability, the first characterized as “amiable,” provincial, and politically non-interventionist and the second as “passionate,” metropolitan, and politically radical. Yet close consideration of Barbauld’s and her brother’s respective poetic tributes to the Warrington and Hackney academies suggests significant continuities. In her 1773 poem “The Invitation: To Miss B *****,” republished as “The Warrington Academy” in 1774, Barbauld imagines the Warrington students learning to become critically engaged citizens through their encouraged commitment to the liberal Dissenting principle of “free inquiry,” and Aikin’s 1791 poem “An Epistle to Mr. Aikin, Student in New College, Hackney” essentially reformulates the same argument. While Aikin invites co-religionists to become more politically outspoken than before, both he and his sister encourage a form of critically engaged patriotism fundamentally inspired by both the principle of “free inquiry” and a tradition of republicanism that was not that of Thomas Paine but rooted in ancient political thought. From a variety of contemporary sources it appears that the individual who did the most to shape the character of Warrington sociability was John and Anna’s father, the elder John Aikin (1713–80), Warrington tutor of belles-lettres from 1758 to 1761 and principal and tutor of theology, with continuing responsibility for teaching the classics, from 1761 until shortly before his death. According to Warrington alumnus William Turner, the elder John Aikin developed a “happy extemporaneous manner in which he . . . excelled all other lecturers,” encouraging students “to free familiar conversation, and even debate.” At the heart of his pedagogy was the liberal Dissenting commitment to “free inquiry,” as he wished every student “to . . . exercise . . . that liberty of declaring his own sentiments on any side of a question . . . necessary to its fair investigation.” As Turner further underscores, “the advantages . . . derived . . . were not confined to the lecture-room . . . [as the elder John Aikin] had frequent small parties . . . when he was accustomed quite to unbend, and enter with . . . [students] into the most free familiar conversation,” not only discussing course materials but also giving “his opinion of books, or of courses of reading on particular subjects” and recounting “anecdotes of his own youthful years.” Anne Janowitz has already sought to situate this model of “free familiar conversation” within the culture and politics of the period, citing it as representative of a particular phase in Dissenting sociability. While acknowledging “that current political issues were part and parcel of everyday enthusiasms” at Warrington, she characterizes its sociability “as informal, familiar and amiable,” promoting “the virtues of ‘candid manners’ and an ‘active mind’” but as not politically activist. Indeed, she considers Warrington sociability as predicated upon a deliberate dissociation of sociability from politics. Yet such a characterization of Warrington sociability arguably overlooks the relationship that the Aikin family, and Barbauld, in particular, saw between “amiable” sociability and politics during the decades prior to the French Revolution. In her 1775 “Thoughts on the Devotional Taste, on Sects, and on Establishments,” Barbauld recognizes the Dissenting commitment to “free inquiry” as enabling contemporary Dissenters to influence politics by facilitating “[c]onnections . . . of intimacy, business,” and “relationship” with the Establishment, in contrast to the generation before, when sectarians remained persecuted and isolated. Through cultivating connections with the Establishment while …

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