Lucy Aikin was born on 6 November 1781, at the Warring Academy for Dissenters in Cheshire, England, into a prominent Unitarian family that was also a literary family: her father, Dr. John Aikin, was an author and historian; her brother, Arthur Aikin, a scientific writer; and her aunt, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, a woman of letters who wrote poetry, children’s literature, and essays. Although Aikin’s family had literary tendencies, she initially appeared to not even have the skills to learn to read.
At least that’s what her grandmother thought when she attempted to teach her. Aikin was so unteachable her grandmother referred to her as the “little dunce.” It traumatized Aikin to the point she wrote:
“[T]he reproach sank deep, and its effect was certainly unfavourable; it did not rouse me to further exertion, for I had already done my utmost, and it filled me with a sense of incurable deficiency. How soon may the tender spirit of a child be broken, and its faculties permanently dulled by such treatment!”
Whatever Aikin’s grandmother may have thought of her reading skills, Aikin did learn to read. In fact, she learned to read not only English but also French, Latin, and Italian, and she grew into a well-rounded woman who became well-known for her conversational abilities and whose voice, one female visitor said, “was always heard.”
At the tender age of seventeen, Aikin embarked on a literary career. She began writing for magazines and, by age twenty, served as an editor. Early in her career, she wrote Poetry for Children (1801), a book for young readers, and she translated Louis Francois Jauffret’s The Travels of Rolando, around 1804. But what Aikin became best known for was her three, two-volume history books — Memoirs of the Court of Queen Elizabeth, Memoirs of the Court of James the First, and Memoirs of the Court of Charles the First.
The Memoirs were published by Longman in 1818, 1822, and 1833, respectively and accomplished after Lucy Aikin gathered a large amount of material — both printed documents and private manuscripts. From these she pulled together an objective and entertaining look at history that began with Elizabeth I’s birth and ended with Charles I’s death. In the Memoirs she also questioned the moral aspects of politics, while at the same time barely mentioned the two major conflicts that occurred during this period, namely, the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the English Civil War.
An advertisement in the Globe in 1818 of the Memoirs of the Court of Queen Elizabeth stated:
“The present Work is composed upon the plan of uniting with the personal History of a celebrated Female Sovereign, and a connected narration of the Domestic Events of her Reign, a large portion of Biographical Anecdote, private Memoir, and Traits illustrative of the Manners, Modes of Thinking, and Literature of an interesting period of English History. Original Letters, Speeches, and occasional Poems are largely interspersed.”
Despite hardly mentioning the Spanish Armada or the English Civil War, the popularity of Aikin’s Memoirs reached far and wide. Americans loved them. In fact, the Memoirs of both James and Charles were popular enough to be reprinted in America during their first year of publication. Aikin’s Memoirs also became as popular on the European Continent as they were in America, which is demonstrated by the fact that Elizabeth I’s Memoirs were translated into German in 1819, printed in America in 1821, and, by 1870, the book was in its fourth edition.
Despite being a writing success, Lucy Aikin lived most of her early life (until her father died in 1822) with her parents at Stoke Newington. While living there, she wrote about a typical day:
“Whoever is down first in the morning, turns into the garden and rambles about till summon[ed] to breakfast. As soon as that is over, my father sits down to biography in his study; my mother … [goes to the] garden, where she often stays, gathering fruit and vegetables, cutting off dead flowers, &c., … I step to the butcher’s to order dinner, after which I shut myself up in my little closet, where I stay till dinner time; after dinner my father and mother play backgammon … [and] after supper we play whist for some time, I read Virgil to my father, and at eleven we march off to bed.”
As Aikin’s father aged, she and her mother took care of him, and, shortly, after his death, Aikin and her mother moved to Hampstead. She then lived at 8 Church-row until 1835 and then moved to No. 18 where she remained until 1844. It was while living in Hampstead that she began corresponding with a fiery Boston Unitarian preacher known for giving eloquent and passionate sermons named William Ellery Channing. She had met Channing, who was a year older than her, earlier at her aunt’s house while he was making a short visit to Stoke Newington. Their correspondence began in 1826 and it lasted until he died in 1842.
Correspondence between the two covered a wide range of topics. They discussed Napoleon Bonaparte, slavery, the Reformation, the moral and political state of England, Horace Walpole, cholera, and metaphysics. Discussions also centered on the condition and rights of women. In relation to women Aikin wrote one letter to Channing from Hampstead dated 18 April 1838 that stated:
“The life of a woman is esteemed of less value than that of a man. Juries of men are very reluctant to punish the slayer of his wife as murderer. Her testimony is undervalued; men-juries often discredit her evidence against a worse than a murderer. She is wounded by the privileged insolence of masculine discourse. ‘Woman and fool,’ says spiteful Pope, and dunces echo him. Any feeble-minded man is an ‘old woman;’ fathers cry out to their boys in petticoats to not care what their elder sisters say to them. These and the like insults, when my blood was hotter than now it is, have cost me many a bitten lip.”
Another letter where Lucy Aikin spoke about was dated 23 October 1833.
“An intelligent friend of mine, lately from Paris, said to me of the Parisians, ‘They are the most irreligious people of the world, but yet they have five or six new religions which they have invented.’ She also said, ‘Morals are so very bad there, that they are beginning to grow no worse, or rather, that they are beginning to mend.’ She mentioned as a particular source of corruption the manner in which young girls of the higher class are married. A father says to his daughter, ‘You are to be married to-morrow.’ He names the gentleman, and it is one whom she has never seen. Yet she always submits without resistance or repugnance, regarding matrimony, like presentation at court, simply as the customary and indispensable preliminary to coming out in the world and being somebody. Young girls are never seen in company except at balls. The conversation in mixed society is unfit for them to listen to. Single women have there no existence. A great proportion of the marriage are brought about by paid brokers. Can you picture to yourself any state of things so utterly degrading to woman?”
The last letter written to Channing by Aikin begins:
“It grieves me to learn that illness has been the cause of your long silence; but it is past, I hope, and if your summer be bright and balmy like ours, it will give you strength to support the rigours of the coming winter. … We should then soon exorcise that strange phantom of a petticoated man which your imagination has conjured up during your illness, and some demon has whispered you to call an Englishwoman.”
In 1830, Aikin’s mother died. After her death, Aikin wrote four books under her own name and then seven books under the pseudonym of Mary Godolphin. The works were translations of literary works into one-syllable words and targeted to young readers. These publications occurred between 1867 and 1870 and included the following:
- Robinson Crusoe: In Words of One Syllable, 1867
- Sandford and Merton: In Words of One Syllable, 1868
- An Evening at Home: In Words of One Syllable, 1868
- Aesop’s Fables: In Words of One Syllable, 1869
- The Pilgrim’s Progress: In Words of One Syllable, 1869
- The Swiss Family Robinson: In Words of One Syllable, 1869
- The One Syllable Sunday Book, 1870
Lucy Aikin enjoyed a long, full life. She “retained her memory and her faculties [until the end.]” She suffered an influenza attack and died three days later on 29 January 1864, the same year that Nellie Bly* was born. Aikin was eighty-three when she died in the home of Mr. Philip Hemery Le Breton, her niece’s husband. She was buried in the old churchyard of Hampstead next to a dear friend, the Scottish dramatist and poet, Joanna Baillie, whom Aikin knew for fifty years and claimed was the “only person I have ever known towards whom fifty years of close acquaintance … wore away nothing of my reverence.” An upright granite slab marks the spot where Aikin is buried and a newspaper summed up her death by stating:
“For solid acquirements, sound judgment, and high and noble principles, it will be difficult to find one more worthy to be held in remembrance [than Lucy Aikin].”
*Nellie Bly would become famous for being an investigative journalist and for her around-the-world trip in eighty days.
-  Le Breton, Philip Hemery, ed., Memoirs, Miscellanies and Letters of the Late, 1864, p. x.
-  -, Globe, 5 May 1818, p. 1.
-  Le Breton, Philip Hemery, ed., Memoirs, Miscellanies and Letters of the Late, 1864, p. xxiv.
-  Le Breton, Anna Letitia (ed.), Correspondence of William Ellery Channing and Lucy Aikin: From 1826-1842, 1874, p. 307.
-  Ibid., p. 188-189.
-  Le Breton, Philip Hemery, 1864, p. 434.
-  Ibid., p, xxvii.
-  Ibid., p. 10.
-  “Death of Miss Lucy Aikin,” in Dublin Evening Mail, 22 February 1864, p. 1.