Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Jane Barker and Mothers of the Novel

Jane Barker (baptized 17 May 1652)


Jane Barker, the daughter of royalist parents, was born in Blatherwick, Northamptonshire, the parish records noting that she was baptized on 17 May 1652. 

There are relatively few details about her early life. In her writing, she later indicates that she was sent to study at a girls' school in Putney (then a parish in Surrey, now in the southwest part of London). Her family relocated to the manor of Wilsthorp in Lancashire in 1662, after which she rejoined them. There she seems to have devoted her time to educating herself by reading, though, again in her fiction, she suggests that she was aided in her pursuit of knowledge by her brother, who studied medicine at Oxford.

Jane's brother Edward died in 1675; after her father's death in 1681, Jane and her mother inherited Wilsthorp and the Northamptonshire property. (There was a younger son who inherited the sum of £10.) By 1685, Jane had relocated to London, and by the end of 1687, she had begun to publish her writing; Poetical Recreations: Consisting of Original Poems, Songs, Odes has a 1688 date on the title page, but Barker's recent biographer, Kathryn King, notes that the volume was on sale in December of 1687. 

The publisher of Barker's collection of poems was Benjamin Crayle--and the survival of advertisements for "Dr. Barker's Famous Gout Plaister, " available at Crayle's bookshop, has led to some speculation that Jane Barker's own study of medicine may have led her to produce and market this product. Some of her poetry and parts of her prose fictions also suggest her interest in medicine, if not her practice of some kind of medical treatment.

At some point after her relocation to London, Barker converted to Catholicism, and when James II was forced to abdicate and leave England in the "Glorious" Revolution of 1688, Barker was one of 40,000 English men and women who left London and took up residence in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where James II established a court-in-exile. (I put the "Glorious" in quotation marks, because as a Catholic Royalist, Barker would not have regarded the end of James's reign and his exile as "glorious.") 

She continued to write, presenting a volume of poetry to James's son, James Francis Edward, in 1701. In addition, a large manuscript collection of her work from this period survives. But by 1704, Barker had returned to Wilsthorp, and at some point she turned her attention to fiction. Between 1713 and 1726, she published the novels that would earn her a notable place among the women writers who helped to popularize the novel. These autobiographical novels, in which Barker fictionalizes herself as Galesia, deal with issues of sex and gender, sexual desire and fantasy, marriage, female anger, and the difficulties of identity for a woman as a writer. 

The first of these novels, Love Intrigues, or, the History of the Amours of Bosvil and Galesia, was published in 1713. In this romance, Galesia's modesty leads Bosvil to marry another woman. This first novel was followed in 1715 by Exilius; or, The Banish'd Roman: A New Romance: In Two Parts, Written after the Manner of Telemachus

Barker returned to the character of Galesia and published two novels that, with The Amours of Bosvil and Galesia, make up a trilogy: A Patch-Work Screen for the Ladies; or, Love and Virtue Recommended (1723) and The Lining of the Patch Work Screen (1726). Since she has lost her beloved Bosvil, Galesia dedicates herself to the life of a single writing woman (over her mother's objections and to her dismay). After her mother's death, Galesia meets an aristocratic lady working with silks and brocades. Since Galesia has no rich fabrics, she contributes stories, recipes, and poems to the lady's project. In the Lining, Galesia's storytelling continues. What I find particularly intriguing about these last two novels is the way storytelling is related to women's sewing and needlework: the multiple narratives of The Patchwork Screen are like bits and pieces of fabric stitched together.

At some point Jane Barker returned to the Royalist community in France, since her death on 29 March 1732 is recorded in the register of Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

There is an excellent full-length biography, Kathryn King's Jane Barker, Exile: A Literary Career 1675-1725. You can order print-on-demand copies of her novels on Amazon, but you will also find them freely available online at eBooks@Adelaide by clicking here.