Richard Harris Barham Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Richard Harris Barham 1788–1845

English novelist and humorist.

An English writer and cleric, Barham is known primarily for his ghost stories and tales of the supernatural collectively entitled Ingoldsby Legends. Written in skillful, lively rhyming verse, the stories have delighted generations of English school children, as well as adults, many of whom committed the comical and gruesome tales to memory. Although the stories began to fall out of favor by the 1920s, Barham is considered one of the most inventive and witty authors of light, humorous rhyme of the Victorian age.


Barham was born December 6, 1788, in Canterbury to Richard Harris Barham, a country squire, and Elizabeth Fox, his housekeeper. When Barham was a boy his father died, leaving him the heir to the family home. Under his guardians' care, Barham was well educated, first at St. Paul's in London, where he befriended Richard Bentley and, later, at Oxford, where he met Thomas Hook. At the age of fourteen, Barham was severely injured in a stagecoach accident and never regained complete use of one arm. After earning a Bachelor's Degree at Brasenose College, Barham decided to pursue Holy Orders and in March, 1813, he was established in his first church in Kent. A year later he moved to Westwell Parish where he met and wed Caroline Smart, with whom he would have several children. Three years later the family moved to Snargate in Romney Marsh where the family remained until they moved to London in April, 1821. Barham was injured again in an accident and, while recovering, wrote his first novel, Baldwin; or, a Miser's Heir (1820), and started on his second, Some Account of My Cousin Nicholas; To Which Is Added, The Rubber of Life (1841.) Neither novel was successful. After moving to London, Barham secured a minor canonry at St. Paul's and, in his spare time, entered the literary world, reacquainting himself with Bentley and Hook and meeting Charles Dickens and Sidney Smith. Almost immediately, Barham began to contribute reviews and then stories to various publications. In October, 1822, the London Chronicle serialized his story "The Ghost" the first of his Ingoldsby Legends. In February, 1837, Barham published "The Spectre of Tappington," using the pseudonym "Thomas Ingoldsby" for the first time. The tales became popular,

contributing to the success of the journal Bentley 's Miscellaneous in which most were published. Two collected volumes of the tales entitled The Ingoldsby Legends were printed in 1840 and 1842. All the while, Barham performed his duties within the Church of England successfully and was well liked by his parishioners. He advanced in the Church, rising to Vicar of St. Augustine and St. Faith Parish in London in 1842 and serving as president of Sion College, an institution for Anglican clergy. After a prolonged illness, Barham died on June 17, 1845. His son published a third volume of Ingoldsby Legends after his father's death.

Major Works

Although Barham published two novels and many reviews, he is known primarily for his Ingoldsby Legends, a series of ghost stories which are loosely bound by a common setting and family. Most, although not all, of the approximately seventy stories are written in rhyming verse and many are set at Tappington Everend, based on Barham's family home. In these stories, the characters commit crimes such as murder, adultery, abuse, and dismemberment, and they are punished for the crimes in grisly ways. They, as well as more innocent characters, encounter ghosts, are buried alive, mystified, tormented, and terrified. However, Barham infused the tales with humor and even the concluding moral tales seem to be in jest. Barham based many of the stories on folktales imparted to him by Mary Ann Hughes, who maintained an extensive correspondence with many people, including Sir Walter Scott. Barham based other tales on folklore and medieval history which he encountered in his reading. Among his best known stories are: "The Grey Dolphin," "The Spectre of Tappington," and "Legend of Hamilton Tighe."

Critical Reception

Despite the popularity of the Ingoldsby Legends, Barham has not elicited much critical attention. The greatest controversy surrounding his work occurred in 1844 when Richard Hengist Home published a series of essays entitled A New Spirit of the Age. In one of these essays, Home criticized Barham's tales, claiming they appealed to the baser side of human nature, relied upon cheap wit and slang, and were a bad influence on youth. Critics of the day rallied to Barham's aid, defending the stories for their humor and entertainment. Since Barham's death, critics have been interested in the author's skill at turning folktales into humourous, popular stories. David J. Winslow claims, "all Barham needed was the germ of an idea or story … to set in motion his genius and to bring laughter by his artistic remodeling and imaginative treatment of the original." Winslow compares Barham's skill at transforming folktales to that of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Edmund Spenser, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Finally, critics note the skill with which Barham employed rhyme and humor in his stories. William Lane states that Barham's position "as a delightful humorist appeared incontrovertible," and that the author continues to entertain readers more than a century after his death. Wendell V. Harris credits Barham with being "the first consistent English writer of the true short story."