Born at the manse of Bothwell, Lanarkshire on the banks of the Clyde, on September 11, 1762, she belonged to an old Scottish family, which claimed among its ancestors Sir William Wallace.
At an early period she moved with her sister Agnes to London, where their brother, Dr Matthew Baillie, was settled. The two sisters inherited a small competence from their uncle, Dr William Hunter, and took up their residence at Hampstead, then on the outskirts of London, where they passed the remainder of their lives.
Joanna Baillie had received an excellent education, and began very early to write poetry. She published anonymously in 1790 a volume called Fugitive Verses; but it was not till 1798 that she produced the first volume of her "plays on the passions", under the title of A Series of Plays. Her design was to illustrate each of the deepest and strongest passions of the human mind, such as hate, jealousy, fear, love, by a tragedy and a comedy, in each of which should be exhibited the actions of an individual under the influence of these passions. The first volume was published anonymously, but the authorship, though at first attributed to Sir Walter Scott, was soon discovered. The book had considerable success and was followed by a second volume in 1802, a third in 1812 and three volumes of Dramas in 1836. Miscellaneous Plays appeared in 1804, and the Family Legend in 1810.
Miss Baillie herself intended her plays not for the closet but for the stage. The Family Legend, brought out in 1810 at Edinburgh, under the enthusiastic patronage of Sir Walter Scott, had a brief though brilliant success; De Monfort had a short run in London, mainly through the acting of John Kemble and Sarah Siddons; Henriquez and The Separation were coldly received.
Her writings show remarkable powers of analysis and acute observation and are written in a pure and vigorous style. Joanna Baillie's reputation does not rest entirely on her dramas; she was the author of some poems and songs of great beauty. The best of them are the Lines to Agnes Baillie on her Birthday, The Kitten, To a Child and some of her adaptations of Scottish songs, such as Woo'd and Married an'a. Scattered throughout the dramas are also some lively and beautiful songs, The Chough and the Crow in Orra, and the lover's song in the Phantom.
Miss Baillie died on February 23, 1851 at the advanced age of 89, her faculties remaining unimpaired to the last. Her gentleness and sweetness of disposition made her a universal favourite, and her little cottage at Hampstead was the centre of a brilliant literary society.