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  • Religious Dissent and the Aikin-Barbauld Circle, 1740–1860 ed. by Felicity James and Ian Inkster
  • Michael Davies
Religious Dissent and the Aikin-Barbauld Circle, 1740–1860. Edited by Felicity James and Ian Inkster. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. xiv + 257. ISBN 9781107008083. £50.00.

This elegant volume of eight essays (plus a detailed and comprehensive ‘Introduction’ by Felicity James) addresses the lives and careers – both individually and collectively – of the Aikin family across three generations. The personnel under consideration include John Aikin, the schoolmaster of Kibworth and then tutor at the Warrington Dissenting Academy, his children (the poet, Anna Barbauld, and her brother, physician and man of letters, John Aikin), and the latter’s children (here represented by the chemist Arthur Aikin and the writer Lucy Aikin), all of whose work spans a period stretching from the 1740s to the 1860s. Focusing on the many achievements of this remarkable little dynasty, Religious Dissent and the Aikin-Barbauld Circle offers depth and breadth in assessing its importance in relation to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary, religious and scientific concerns: all bound by the family’s commitment to and identification with Dissent. As such, this book offers a superb introduction to the social and intellectual richness of the Aikin world, and a valuable resource for further research into the social and familial dimensions of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Dissent.

Given that the Aikin family’s interests, as Felicity James explains, reached ‘across a range of disciplines – theology, education, medicine, geography, literature and history’, the essays in this book are suitably cross-disciplinary. David Wykes’s essay, for example, puts into historical context John Aikin senior’s life and career as an educationalist. Taught by Philip Doddridge at his Dissenting Academy in Northampton, before establishing his own school in Kibworth, Leicestershire, and then becoming a tutor at the Warrington Dissenting Academy (alongside the pioneering scientist, Joseph Priestley), Wykes demonstrates how Aikin was firmly centred in the eighteenth-century Dissenting world. Wykes’s point about John Aikin senior is, however, revisionary. Aikin was, Wykes concludes, ‘an outstanding and influential teacher’ whose work at his school in Kibworth may have been, Wykes speculates, more influential than his time as a tutor at Warrington (Wykes’s helpful essay includes an appendix of Aikin’s notable pupils at Kibworth from 1742 to 1758 to illustrate his point).

Wykes avers that John Aikin senior certainly ‘deserves to come out from behind the shadow of his two brilliant children’, Anna and John. It is to these ‘brilliant children’ (and Aikin’s no less impressive grand-children, Arthur and Lucy) that the subsequent chapters turn. William McCarthy examines Anna Letitia Barbauld’s relationship to Dissent, noting her ambiguous position as a ‘liberal Dissenter’ within the social and literary milieu in which she lived, worked and wrote. Exploring her life and writings through her ‘religious sensibility’, McCarthy suggests that Barbauld gained ‘her emotional development’ from ‘Dissenting sources’: the result was ‘a complex of thought and feeling that went into the making of nineteenth-century culture on both sides of the Atlantic’. It is Anna’s brother, John, the medical practitioner and versatile man of letters, who receives attention in essays by Kathryn Ready and by Stephen Daniels and Paul Elliott. Ready addresses John’s career as a ‘literary physician’ whose writings would develop ‘a direct analogy between medicine and morality’ and would eventually prescribe a ‘cure’ for ‘an ailing contemporary British body politic’. Aikin was able to merge ‘[e]nlightenment philosophy and medicine’ with ‘the reformist politics of eighteenth-century liberal Dissent’, producing a ‘medico-moral discourse’ that stands, Ready attests, ‘as a genuinely original contribution to eighteenth-century medical moral and political thought’. By contrast, Daniels and Elliott discover Aikin’s ‘geographical imagination’ through his wide and varied body of works on [End Page 209] travel and topography, while reflecting too on ‘the significance for his writings of the places where John Aikin worked and lived’: London, Lancashire and Norfolk. Geography is shown to have been developed by Aikin ‘as a literary as well as an educational discipline’, by re-orienting it through ‘genres of landscape writing’ and by encompassing a notion of ‘Englishness’ ‘learned through...


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