Image of Ann Taylor is not available
star nullstar nullstar nullstar nullstar null

Born in January 30, 1782 / Died in December 20, 1886 / United Kingdom / English


Other info : Furtherreading | Bibliography

The following essay examines the literary collaboration of Ann and Jane Taylor.

Goodness, humor, and a knowledge of children's foibles (and children's pleasure in reading about appropriate punishments) characterize the writing of Ann and Jane Taylor, the first well-known and widely read children's poets. In addition to their poetry, they published essays, short stories, reviews, an autobiography, and a "novel," but best remembered of all their works are Jane's classic poem "The Star" (1804) and Ann's affecting poetic tribute, "My Mother" (1806).

Ann was born in Islington on 30 January 1782 and Jane, in Holborn on 23 September 1783 to Ann Martin Taylor and Isaac Taylor, an engraver, painter, and minister; his 1791 portrait of his daughters hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Edith Sitwell wrote that they appear in the portrait as "very serious-minded, good little girls."

Although Isaac and Ann Taylor disapproved of their daughters' desire to become authors, they were allowed to write as long as the demands of housework, religion, family activities, schooling, and the practice of engraving (which their father thought would be an appropriate profession for them) had been satisfied. The girls would literally squeeze their writing into the margins of their schoolwork, and Ann noted, "I must confess to having had a pencil and paper generally so near at hand that a flying thought could be caught by a feather." In fact, not long after Ann and Jane's first writing success, the entire family—six children and both parents—found themselves successfully "squeezing in" writing.

Ann and Jane's siblings were their oldest brother, Isaac, who became a prolific writer and was author of the popular Natural History of Enthusiasm (1829); their younger brother, Martin; the youngest brother, Jefferys, who also wrote children's books, the best known of which is Aesop in Rhyme (1820); and the youngest child, Jemima. The family lived in various towns and regions of England, including London, the village of Lavenham in Suffolk, Colchester and Ongar in Essex, and Ilfracome in Devon. They were all avid readers and writers; their mother instituted the practice of reading aloud at the table. The Taylors were also committed to education, and their father not only educated his own children but he also eventually gave home lectures to twenty or thirty children at a time on such topics as history, geometry, astronomy, and fortifications. Ann and Jane both wrote as children for their own pleasure and for family members and special occasions. The two girls helped form a literary group, the Umbelliferous Society (an umbellifer is a member of the carrot family) in 1798. Monthly meetings were held by the Taylor children and friends during which they read and discussed literature, including their own writings.

In 1799 one of Ann Taylor's poems was published in the Minor's Pocket Book, an annual publication for young people, as a solution to a riddle that had appeared in the 1798 edition. Ann had other material published there, and her brother Isaac, although he considered the Minor's Pocket Book a "humble" part of literature, also sent in a poem that appeared in 1803 and was much praised. Finally Jane submitted "The Beggar Boy" in response to the poetry contest in the 1803 edition. It won second prize, her sister Ann winning first place with "The Cripple Child's Complaint"; both poems were published in the 1804 edition.

In 1804 the publisher of the Minor's Pocket Book, William Darton, wrote to Isaac Taylor and invited the children to submit enough poems for a book. The result was Original Poems for Infant Minds (1804), with a second volume the following year. The book was enormously successful, going rapidly through multiple printings and editions. Most of the poems were by Ann and Jane, but unbeknownst to the Taylors, Darton added a few poems by Adelaide O'Keeffe, daughter of John O'Keeffe, an Irish dramatist, and by Bernard Barton, a Quaker poet. Evidence is ample that Original Poems for Infant Minds was widely read in circles that mattered. Sara Coleridge, daughter of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, wrote that she was "fond of reading the Original Poems of the Miss Taylors" and that she memorized and recited them for her mother's friends. The volumes sustained their success throughout the century and into the next, with a centenary issue of Original Poems for Infant Minds, including an introduction by the essayist and literary critic Edward Verrall Lucas, published in 1904.

A long-term relationship was established between the firm of Darton and Harvey and the Taylor family. Several Taylors were commissioned to do engravings for the publishers, and they contributed to the Minor's Pocket Book, for which Ann served as editor for several years before her marriage. Darton and Harvey published Ann and Jane's first five jointly written books, including Original Poems for Infant Minds, Rural Scenes; or, A Peep Into the Country (1805), Rhymes for the Nursery (1806), Limed Twigs to Catch Young Birds (1808), and City Scenes; or, A Peep Into London (1809), as well as Ann's independently written book Wedding Among the Flowers (1808).

The poetry and prose of Rural Scenes convey realistic descriptions of the inhabitants and the daily activities of a typical rural community, such as "The Butcher," "The Barber," "The Cows," "Churning," and "Thrashing." In City Scenes visitors from the countryside are regaled with the big city sights (as in "Westminster Abbey" and "St. Paul's Cathedral" ), shops ("The Book-Stall"), and trades ("The Coach-Maker"), but they are also warned about urban dangers, such as pickpockets. Both of these works convey a palpable sense of time and place, as well as of an individual's place in the community; they were illustrated by Ann, Jane, and their brother Isaac.

Rhymes for the Nursery seems at first entirely a volume of cautionary verse; the poems have such titles as "Sulking," "The Undutiful Boy," "Playing With Fire," and "To a Little Girl That Liked to Look in the Glass." However, it also contains many charming, cheerful poems, such as Jane's "The Star." Limed Twigs, another of Ann and Jane's volumes for very young children, is written in simple three- and four-letter words as dialogues between parents and children on topics such as "The Careful Ant," "Old Dobbin," and "Learning to Read." Wedding Among the Flowers was written by Ann in response to, according to her, a wave of mediocre imitations of the Butterfly's Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast (1807), a popular imaginative book by William Roscoe.

It was during this period of their lives that the young poets were allowed to spend more time writing and to have their own quiet areas for working. When Jane fitted out her writing space in an unoccupied attic, she wrote that she placed "one chair for myself, and another for my muse." Ann continued a dual interest in art and literature, but in 1807 she visited London and was introduced to several authors, after which she wrote, "I was wedded to literature, so far as literature would condescend to the alliance."

The first poem in the sisters' next joint work, Hymns for Infant Minds (1810), is Ann's "A Child's Hymn of Praise," the first verse of which reads: "I thank the goodness and the grace, / Which on my birth have smiled, / And made me, in these Christian days, / A happy English child." It is followed by seventy "hymns" on the subjects of sickness, temptation, sorrow for a fault, selfishness, anger, and impatience, including the maudlin "A Child's Lamentation for the Death of a Dear Mother" and that popular poem of dire consequence, Ann's "Meddlesome Matty." This book, too, was immediately successful and went through many editions, including republication in 1925 with an introduction by Edith Sitwell.

Other publications on which Ann and Jane worked include the book The Associate Minstrals (1810), to which they contributed nineteen of the fifty-two poems. This volume was a joint effort with their friend Josiah Conder and several other friends in their literary and social circle. The book was highly praised, and Sir Walter Scott and Robert Southey both wrote to Conder with praise for the poems. Ann and Jane were commissioned to revise an eighteenth-century book of verse, and the result was Signor Topsy Turvy's Wonderful Magic Lantern (1810), a book of entertaining poetry. They added amusing poems of their own, as well as revising the existing material so thoroughly that it became their own, and bibliographers now assign the work to them.

Their volume Original Hymns for Sunday Schools (1812) was written in simplified language to reach younger children. The poems include such typical Taylor subjects as "Thanks to Teachers" and "God Punishes Liars." Jane wrote that her method of writing was to shut her eyes and imagine a child and its words. She reports that sometimes it worked, but when it failed, she would give up and say, "Now you may go, my dear, I shall finish the hymn myself!"

On 24 December 1813 Ann Taylor married the Reverend Joseph Gilbert, a Congregational minister, and the sisters' writing habits changed substantially. That winter Jane accompanied her brother Isaac to Ilfracombe, in Devon, where the weather was gentler for his ill health. While there Jane spent several hours a day writing Display: A Tale For Young People (1815), her first independently written volume. The novel--called a tale since novels were not then approved of--tells how Elizabeth, a vain, self-centered young girl, learns important lessons about life. Display was enormously popular and well received critically. In 1982 Walford wrote, "the writing is exceptionally piquant, terse, and vigorous and the studies of character inimitable."

Essays in Rhyme, on Morals and Manners (1816) was Jane Taylor's next undertaking. Her brother Isaac recounts that "Jane never wrote anything with so much zest and excitement as these pieces. While employed on them she was almost lost to other interests." Jane's verse essays cover egotism, experience, accomplishment, and prejudice. In the latter poem Jane's recurring advocacy of education and reading led her to assert that one's prejudice "depends on what we read," and that "If people would but read" prejudice would be less of a problem. The volume was as well received as her other writings. The year after its publication John Keats wrote to ask his sister "How do you like Miss Taylor's 'Essays in Rhyme?' I just looked into the book and it appeared to me most suitable to you-especially since I remembered your liking for those pleasant little things, the 'Original Poems.' The essays are the more mature productions of the same hand."

Jane's brother Isaac wrote that after Jane and her style had matured, "She continued to address herself to childhood and youth ... within this humbler sphere, she thought herself safe." Jane began writing "improving essays" for the Youth's Magazine in 1816. They were so successful that she was invited to become a regular contributor; her brother Isaac reports that "She dreaded the bondage" and was afraid of the effect on her writing of the loss of spontaneity. Nevertheless, she accepted the invitation and regularly contributed essays until 1822. Her topics are varied; a few of the essays are on specific Bible verses, but most have titles such as "Government of the Thoughts" or "Pleasure and Happiness." In Jane's essay "Letter Addressed to a Young Lady, Who Had Requested Advice on the Choice of Her Pursuits," reading is once again advocated--"judicious reading." She cautions her young readers against reading novels. She recognizes that one's reading is "regulated by the libraries to which they happen to have access," and in the essays "A Letter to a Friend" and "Conversation in a Library," she comments on the importance of being within easy reach of a good library: "This is an advantage which I have never fully possessed; but I have availed myself of what came in my way."

These essays, like Taylor's other writings, were widely read and proved influential. Robert Browning said his poem "Rephan" was "suggested by very early recollection of a prose story (How It Strikes a Stranger) by the noble woman and imaginative writer Jane Taylor." Browning also said her poems were "the most perfect things of their kind in the English language." Modern literary critic Stuart Curran writes that Jane "Taylor's capacity to reveal the inner life as a thing is, it could be asserted, unrivaled in English literature before Dickens."

Ann Taylor Gilbert published no poetry for some time after her marriage, but she was invited to write an article for the Eclectic Review, and she contributed several reviews. Thus, Ann wrote literary criticism until her first child was born in October 1814, when she gave up all writing for a time, commenting, "Never mind, the dear little child is worth volumes of fame." Gilbert kept busy with family, religion, and civic works, the latter including the establishment of the Free Library in Nottingham. She was cognizant of artistic, literary, religious, and political movements of the period, and her position on the issues is often evident in her personal and public writings. She was, for instance, a supporter of the Corn Laws; she was not a supporter of women's right to vote. As a supporter of animal welfare, she had often used her wicked sense of humor to good effect in poems such as "The Last Dying Speech and Confession of Poor Puss" (1805). In this poem, a cat swears, with his paw over his heart, that he had been unaware of the enormity of his crime, having thought all along that "birds and mice were on purpose for eating." In "The Mare Turned Farrier" (1810), the horse avenges her discomfort during shoeing by sitting on the farrier and shoeing him. Revenge takes a more ominous turn in "The Cook Cooked" (1810), a poem in which a hare leads a turkey, some oysters and eels, and a turtle in revolt; they dredge and brown the cook.

Eventually Gilbert was able to return to writing; she produced poems, essays, and reviews and in 1827 published two volumes of poetry, Hymns for Infant Schools and Original Anniversary Hymns. In 1839 she wrote The Convalescent; Twelve Letters on Recovery from Sickness, which contains reflections based on her personal experience with illness and death. Her brother Isaac wrote to her of his pleasure that "you have returned to your vocation and left (as I heartily hope for ever) the mending of stockings to hands that cannot so well handle the pen."

Ann Taylor Gilbert's and Jane Taylor's books were reviewed in a variety of journals, including the Literary Panorama, the Christian Observer, the Critical Review, the British Critic, the Monthly Mirror, the Augustan Review, and the Eclectic Review. Several of their books were translated into Dutch, Russian, French, and German, and a few were republished until well into the twentieth century. Although their complete works are not currently in print, individual poems, most frequently "The Star," still appear in collections.
— Judith A. Overmier, University of Oklahoma