Jane Barker 1652-1732
English novelist and poet.
The following entry provides an overview of Barker's life and works. For additional information on her career, see LC, Volume 42.
Barker is an important figure in the emergence of the novel in the early decades of the eighteenth century. She is best remembered for the “Galesia Trilogy” of novels she published between 1713 and 1726, but she also composed occasional verse and constructed a devotional manual from materials she translated from the works of French cleric François Fénelon. Barker was little known during her lifetime, although her novels did enjoy a modest success upon initial publication, marking her as one of the first women to enter the expanding literary marketplace. Feminist scholars in the late twentieth century began to show interest in Barker's life and work because of the insights they provide into women's literary history and self-portrayal. Barker was an unmarried woman who dabbled in commercial medicine and was a staunch supporter of the exiled Stuart court, and her writing draws heavily on these and other autobiographical elements of her life.
The particulars of Barker's life are the subject of some controversy. Because her fictional works have elements of autobiography, earlier scholars reconstructed her biography based on events described in her novels and verse. Later critics have contended that the earlier reconstructions were inaccurate and have sketched a new biography based on historical records; but the details of her life remain murky. Barker was born in May, 1652 in Northamptonshire, England, the only daughter of Thomas and Anne Barker. Barker's parents, while not landed gentry or aristocracy, enjoyed modest prosperity, and were staunch supporters of the royal House of Stuart. Barker received almost all of her education from her elder brother, Edward, who attended Oxford and Leyden Universities. He taught her Latin, philosophy, and medicine. When her brother died around 1675, it came to a blow as Barker, and she continued to mourn his early death in her prose and verse as late as 1723. In 1681 Barker's father died, and shortly thereafter she and her mother moved to London. In 1685 her mother died, and Barker continued to live on the inheritance she had received from her father. Sometime during the reign of the Roman Catholic monarch James II (1685-1688), Barker converted to Catholicism. In 1688 her collection of poems, Poetical Recreations, appeared. She likely fled to France early the next year, following James's flight at the time of the Glorious Revolution. Although she was not in the upper ranks of exile society, she moved in distinguished circles, and her verse probably circulated among James's followers. While in France, Barker developed cataracts, and although she had an operation to help the problem, she became functionally blind.
Barker returned to England around 1704 (some accounts say as late as 1713), where she took up the management of her family farm in Wilsthorpe. It is likely that she had financial difficulties during this time. In 1713 the novels she worked on in the 1680s and in France began to be published. Little more is known of her life. She apparently suffered a serious illness in 1726, and may have gone back to France in 1727. After this nothing is recorded about her. She died either in France or in England in 1732.
Barker's first published work was Poetical Recreations, a collection of about 55 pieces of occasional verse written by Barker in the 1670s and 1680s, along with a number of works by others. Many of Barker's poems are familiar epistles to friends and acquaintances, including a number of learned men at Cambridge, and there are others on medical themes. What emerges from these poems is a portrait of a woman concerned with her self-image as a person of education and intellectual attainment. Barker's later verse, written during her exile in France, was circulated in manuscript but not published. The poems, written to support the Jacobite cause, are preserved in the first two parts of a manuscript in the library of Magdalen College, Oxford (a third part consists of “corrected” versions of her earlier poems).
Love Intrigues, the first novel in Barker's so-called Galesia Trilogy was published in 1713. It is a romance in which a mature Galesia looks back on her days as a young lady, when she was pursued by her cousin, Bosvil. The work departs from the conventional romantic fiction of its day, as it offers a cynical view of love and considers the difficulties of choosing to be an unmarried, educated woman with literary aspirations. The second and third novels in the trilogy, A Patch-Work Screen for the Ladies (1723) and The Lining of the Patch-Work Screen (1726) reiterate some of the themes of the earlier novel. These works are an interesting mix of fiction, philosophy, poetry, recipes, and hymns woven together by a number of narrators (including Galesia), much like a patchwork quilt, that tell interrelated stories of political and domestic life.
The heroic romance Exilius: or, The Banish'd Roman, published in 1715, was written as an imitation of Archbishop François Fénelon's Telemaque. The long, episodic narrative has an intense moral purpose: to show the proper behavior of young ladies in various real-life situations. Each of the several simultaneous plots is designed to place its heroine in a situation that tests her resilience, trains her into the proper way of conformity to social expectations, or punishes her for transgressions against accepted norms. Some critics have suggested that the titular “Banish'd Roman,” a man of impeccable virtue, courage, and wisdom, is a reference to the exiled Stuart monarch James. Barker also translated works by Fénelon in the collection of meditations, The Christian Pilgrimage (1718), which, according to some scholars, was an attempt by Barker to make Catholicism more accessible to those schooled in the Protestant faith.
Although she was not well known in her lifetime, Barker was paid for her writing, making her one of the first professional female writers in Britain. Although she claimed that Poetical Recreations was published without her consent, and she professed a disdain for commercial publication, she sought to have her fiction published, in part because she had financial difficulties. Two of her novels were published by the infamous Edmund Curll (who, during his career was sued for literary piracy and was tried and convicted for publishing obscene books); he actively marketed her works to an expanding reading public, labeling them “novels” rather than “romances,” a term increasingly unfashionable.
Very little mention was made of Barker after her death, but feminist scholars began to show interest in her work in the 1980s, seeing her as a central figure in the rise of the woman novelist. The autobiographical nature of her fictions, and what they said about female authorship in the eighteenth century, was also of interest. As research into Barker's life and work has expanded, critics have examined more closely the connection between autobiography and fiction in her work, the self-image she projects in her novels and verse, her relationships with literary and learned men, her attitude toward her own education and literary achievement, her entry into the literary marketplace, and her political ideology as revealed in her writing.