Jane Barker Barker, Jane (Vol. 80) - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Poetical Recreations: Consisting of Original Poems, Songs, Odes, &c. with Several New Translations. In Two Parts, Part I. Occasionally Written by Mrs. Jane Barker. Part II. By Several Gentlemen of the Universities, and Others [editor and contributor] (poetry) 1688

Love Intrigues; or, the History of the Amours of Bosvil and Galesia, As Related to Lucasia, in St. Germains Garden (novel) 1713

Exilius: or, The Banish'd Roman. A New Romance in Two Parts: Written After the Manner of Telemachus, For the Instruction of Some Young Ladies of Quality (novel) 1715

The Christian Pilgrimage: or a Companion for the Holy Season of Lent: being meditations upon the Passion. Death, Resurrection and Ascension of … Jesus Christ [translator; from works by François Fénelon] (meditations) 1718

*The Entertaining Novels of Mrs. Jane Barker. 2 vols. (novels) 1719

A Patch-Work Screen for the Ladies, or Love & Virtue Recommended in a Collection of Instructive Novels. Related After a Manner intirely New, and Interspersed with Rural Poems, describing the Innocence of a Country-Life (novel) 1723

The Lining of the Patch-Work Screen: Design'd for the Father Entertainment of the Ladies (novel) 1726

*This work contains revised versions of Exilius and Love Intrigues.

†These three works comprise the “Galesia Trilogy.”

Jane Spencer (essay date 1983)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Spencer, Jane. “Creating the Women Writer: The Autobiographical Works of Jane Barker.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 2, no. 2 (fall 1983): 165-81.

[In the following essay, Spencer claims that Barker's main concerns were to define herself as a woman and as a writer and to create for herself and her audience an acceptable self-image. Spencer also states that Barker's works are especially important to those interested in the history of women's writing and women's self-definition because they seem to be largely autobiographical.]

To some extent, the autobiographer's problem with the meaning of the self is shared by all writers. “For all literary...

(The entire section is 8090 words.)

Jane Spencer (essay date 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Spencer, Jane. “Jane Barker.” In The Rise of the Woman Novelist: From Aphra Behn to Jane Austen, pp. 62-70. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.

[In the following excerpt, Spencer claims that, throughout her work, Barker is concerned with the creation of her self-portrait as a woman and a writer.]

Like Delariviere Manley, Jane Barker presented herself as her own heroine, but a very different kind of heroine. Virginity, instead of eroticism, was the keynote of her self-portrait. Autobiographical elements take a central place in Barker's work, none of her writings being free of them, and in fact much of what is known about her life comes from her own account. Born...

(The entire section is 3988 words.)

Kathryn R. King and Jeslyn Medoff (essay date 1997)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: King, Kathryn R. and Medoff, Jeslyn. “Jane Barker and Her Life (1652-1732): The Documentary Record.” Eighteenth-Century Life 21, no. 3 (November 1997): 16-38.

[In the following essay, King and Medoff offer an account of the life of Barker that contrasts with the biography that has been erroneously reconstructed from her fictional works.]

Jane Barker's time has come. That this poet, novelist, lay physician, Catholic convert, exile, and Jacobite is an immensely intriguing figure has been an open secret among specialists for the past fifteen years. Now that much of her best work is finally available in modern editions, Barker's stock as a writer in the larger...

(The entire section is 14053 words.)

Toni Bowers (essay date 1997)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Bowers, Toni. “Jacobite Difference and the Poetry of Jane Barker.” ELH 64, no. 4 (winter 1997): 857-69.

[In the following essay, Bowers examines the poetry of Barker, a staunch Jacobite, to argue against the myth of Jacobite certainty, as the poet shows disappointment, uncertainty, and dark regret in her political choices despite her loyalty to the royalist cause.]

The more I learn about the partisan politics of Augustan England, the more difficult it becomes to trust what once seemed stable points of demarcation among the categories of players, and especially between Jacobites and Tories. “Tory” and “Jacobite” once seemed clearly distinct...

(The entire section is 4932 words.)

Kathryn R. King (essay date 1998)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: King, Kathryn R. Introduction to The Poems of Jane Barker: The Magdalen Manuscript, pp. 1-23. Oxford: Magdalen College, 1998.

[In the following essay, King claims that the Magdalen manuscript of Barker's poems is particularly important for the glimpse it affords into Barker's writing life and her evolution as a artist; for the light it sheds on seventeenth-century English Catholicism, early Jacobitism, spiritual autobiography, and women's writing; and for the oppositions it discloses between public/private and political/domestic in writings about politics and affairs of state.]


One of the...

(The entire section is 7466 words.)

James Fitzmaurice (essay date 1998)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Fitzmaurice, James. “Barker and the Tree of Knowledge at Cambridge University.” Renaissance Forum 3, no. 1 (spring 1998): 1-15.

[In the following essay, Fitzmaurice examines the 1723 version of Barker's poem “An Invitation to my friends at Cambridge” to show that later in life the author was not as enamored of the opinions of academic men as she had been as a younger woman, because she saw the limitations of worldly knowledge and no longer felt she needed to justify her lack of formal education.]

Jane Barker is perhaps most widely known these days as a writer of novellas who was active during the early eighteenth century. The 1997 Oxford University...

(The entire section is 8883 words.)

Kathryn R. King (essay date 2000)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: King, Kathryn R. “A Jacobite Novelist.” In Jane Barker, Exile: A Literary Career 1675-1725, pp. 147-79. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, King tells the story of Barker as a Jacobite novelist, showing the connections between the plots of her novels and the political activities and ideologies of the Stuart court.]

Barker is in fact a supremely self-regarding writer, mindful of her gendered singularity and fascinated with the many ways to tell her own story; and it seems undeniable, if hard to prove, that her heroine, Galesia—poet, healer, virgin, femme savante, and odd woman—is in many ways a self-portrait. However, when the...

(The entire section is 12831 words.)

Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


King, Kathryn R. Jane Barker, Exile: A Literary Career 1675-1725. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000, 263 p.

The only full-fledged biography of Barker, emphasizing her writing life—her literary friendships, readers and readerships, relations with men in the book trade, and dialogue with literary conventions.


Gibbons, G. S. “Mrs Jane Barker.” Notes and Queries 12th Series, no. 33 (30 September 1922): 278.

Brief biography and description of the Magdalen manuscript of Barker's poems.

King, Kathryn R. “Of Needles and Pens and Women's Work.” Tulsa...

(The entire section is 287 words.)