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Jane Barker and Her Life (1652-1732): The Documentary Record
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Eighteenth-Century Life 21.3 (1997) 16-38

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 scholarly community is almost certain to rise. The 1996-97 academic year alone saw the publication of a paperback edition of three of her novels and a selection of her verse; the inclusion of her work in two important anthologies, one of which claimed for her first novel "nearly canonical" status; and an extended discussion of her poems in a critical study. Since this recent spate of scholarship will surely generate further interest in an author whose life and personal circumstances have been, until quite recently, deeply shadowed, we offer here for the first time an extended, archivally based account of the life of Jane Barker.

To date, accounts of the life have relied heavily on Barker's own writings, especially the three seemingly autobiographical Galesia fictions (1713-26). Their relationship to the actualities of the life has been more often invoked than investigated, however. A 1983 article that has been the starting point for much subsequent work on Barker asserts, for example, that readers are "safe in assuming her works to be autobiographical"--when, as Jane Spencer was the first to admit, almost nothing was then known about Barker. Critics since have been content to operate in a near vacuum so far as real biographical information goes. Less excusably, so have biographers, who regularly resort to the fictions for at least some portion of their biographical "fact." Such incautiousness is not hard to understand. The novels certainly seem to be "about" their author: not only is Galesia's interior life rendered with a psychological complexity well in advance of anything then available in novelistic discourse, but as a heroine she behaves in ways unheard of in narratives of the time. Add to this the fact that details from the fictions could be seen to match what little was known about the life and it becomes only too easy to see why some biographers would permit themselves to quarry the novels as if they constituted alternate versions of the documentary record. Our research suggests, however, that this uncritical reliance on Barker's self-representations has distorted our understanding of the life and has blinded us to some of the more interesting features of the novels, as well.

The present account makes available biographical information that has come to light in the decade or so since Spencer wrote. Much of it was excavated by Jeslyn Medoff in connection with research on seventeenth-century women poets for the anthology Kissing the Rod (1989). She has since been joined in the archives by others, among them Carol Barash, Carol Shiner Wilson, and Kathryn King, whose endeavors make it at last possible to tell the story of the life independent of Barker's own accounts. Barker was not a public figure and was only indirectly involved in affairs of state; she belonged to the minor gentry; she never married; and from 1685 or thereabouts she belonged to an outlawed church. Much of her life, in other words, was played out on the edges of the official system of record-keeping. Nonetheless, a good deal of documentation is now available for analysis.

Our account relies mainly on four classes of evidence. First, materials drawn from a variety of local archives, as these permit more informed speculation about the social and economic standing of the Barker family. Second, a recently discovered Chancery case from 1717, which sheds light on Barker's personal circumstances during the period when she began publishing her novels. Third, two extraordinary letters by Barker, the only correspondence by her known to have survived, which offer glimpses of her involvement in the Jacobite network and illustrate in macabre detail or thinly veiled code her steadfast devotion to a lost cause. Fourth, the Magdalen Manuscript, a substantial volume of original verse produced by Barker while an exile at St. Germain...

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