Escaping the curssed orange

Norma Clarke

  • Jane Barker, Exile: A Literary Career 1675-1725 by Kathryn King
    Oxford, 263 pp, £40.00, September 2000, ISBN 0 19 818702 5

There is a moment in Jane Barker’s 1723 novel, A Patch-Work Screen for the Ladies, which prefigures Jane Eyre, and makes one wonder how much or how little 19th-century women like Charlotte Brontë were acquainted with their sister writers (as Barker might have put it) of this earlier period.

Barker’s heroine, Galesia, is supporting herself by practising medicine in London while at the same time writing poetry, a passion she finds it impossible to resist, ‘poetry being one of those subtle devils, that if driven out by never so many firm purposes, good resolutions, aversion to that poverty it entails upon its adherents; yet it will always return and find a passage to the heart, brain, and whole interior’. Galesia discovers a tiny room under the eaves of her landlady’s house – ‘this hole was to me a kind of paradise’ – and there, in the ‘den of Parnassus’, she reads and writes.

Galesia, like Jane Eyre, is a woman of frustrated energies, living a constrained life. The attic has a door giving out onto the leads where she takes the air, looking across the rooftops of London to those institutions of male power, the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey. Like the third storey at Thornfield Hall from whose terrace Jane surveys the landscape, vowing to have her share of life, even if she is a female and ‘poor, obscure and plain’ to boot, Galesia’s ‘garret-closet’ occupies a symbolic space between the life she lives and the life she desires. Jane, wanting more, hears the mad laughter of Mr Rochester’s wife. Galesia, making herself into a writer, is similarly distracted: a distressed gentlewoman appears on the roof and knocks at the attic door. The woman, unmarried and pregnant, has been chased across the adjoining roofs by the officers of the parish who do not want charge of the brat.

These alter egos or split-off selves function, according to standard feminist criticism, as witchy warnings to overweening women: they manifest the suppressed energies (ambition, sex, rage) that make madwomen in attics of us all. The knocking at Galesia’s door bodes ill. The distressed gentlewoman is taken in by the household of women – Galesia, her mother and their landlady – who deal kindly with her, but they also fear contamination. Galesia’s mother reacts by banning Galesia from the attic room of her own. The writer’s ‘uncouth kind of solitude’ with her books and her thoughts, her ‘idle dreams on Parnassus’, doesn’t constitute a safe haven from the reality of female sexual vulnerability. Her mother urges marriage. But Galesia’s traffic in stories and poems does not end; it merely moves on to less auspicious locations than the attic. Writing about female life, exchanging tales, is as natural as living it and as subject to the misfortunes of ‘time and fate’.

Galesia is an engaging authorial persona, chatty and quirky, opinionated, philosophical, a collector and disseminator of stories about and for women. Her expulsion from her study poses a question: not could a woman write, but could a woman make a career for herself in literature? Virginia Woolf famously thought not, and illustrated her case by inventing Judith, a sister for Shakespeare, highly gifted like him but thwarted and denied because of her sex. The male genius writes plays and is admired; the female genius gets pregnant, goes mad, commits suicide. Woolf declared that a 16th-century girl who wrote poetry would have been ‘beaten and flung about the room’. Barker tells us something different. Nobody objects to Galesia’s writing, not even her mother; the issue is whether it can be put to good use. Questions of identity arise in relation to her marital status, not her authorial ambitions. Galesia records experience, political and personal, social and psychological, and relates her own trials and tribulations with much the same detachment that she brings to the stories of others. The structural metaphor of the patchwork screen asserts the importance of women’s work (intellectual, artistic and practical) as a democratic and communal endeavour. Just as women sew fabric patches together to form a larger whole, so Galesia sets about assembling the stories and poems, fictions and history, which compose ‘this glorious Fabrick of the UNIVERSE’.

How far Galesia is an autobiographical projection of the historical Jane Barker is impossible to say, not only because the divisions between fictional character/authorial persona/author are so porous, nor because we know so little about Barker except from her own writings, but, most important, because we know so little about female authorship in the 17th century. We know about Charlotte Brontë’s childhood dreams of being an author in what had become a heavily commercialised literary culture, but what do we know about how a woman born in 1652 might have imagined a future for herself as a writer and thinker?

Barker published six books between 1688 and 1726, and so wasn’t completely ‘hidden from history’ as so many women were, but she was a ‘close inhabitant of obscurity’, little known during her lifetime and all but forgotten after her death in 1732. In this, the first full-length study, King has new archival research to draw on and is able to piece together some obscure periods of Barker’s life, especially her years of exile in France between 1689 and 1704. She can ‘reasonably surmise’ that her subject was at different times an anatomy student, medical practitioner, vendor of a gout cure, head of a female household, Chancery litigant and Jacobite agent. She knows Barker never married and that she converted to Catholicism in the mid-1680s – a decision which more or less guaranteed a difficult life. These facts and surmises apart, Barker the historical woman remains something of a mystery. The career of Barker the writer – beginning as a poet made much of in provincial coteries, going on to be unofficial poet laureate of the exiled Stuart Court, and emerging as a writer for pay under the imprint of the notorious Edmund Curll – can, however, be tracked. Jane Barker, Exile isn’t so much a biography of Barker as ‘the biography of a remarkable literary career’.

To tell the story of a literary career, remarkable or not (and whether this one was remarkable is one of the key questions this study raises – Barker’s was not a lone female voice), is to engage with the practicalities of literary production: who writes, for whom, how the writing is circulated and what rewards it might bring. Jane Barker’s writing life spanned a crucial half-century which saw the beginnings of a transition from court to commerce, from manuscript to print. She began as a poet, and although it is likely that Poetical Recreations was printed without her permission, it is less likely that she minded very much. Coterie verse, her work had been circulating in manuscript among a small group of fellow poets – mostly young Cambridge men with whom she was connected through her brother – for a number of years. At that time, it would have had commercial value: women’s verse was ‘much the fashion of late’, according to Lady Masham in 1685.

A smart bookseller friend, Benjamin Crayle, published Barker’s poems in a volume that also included some of his own. This arrangement was not unusual: the male admirer and female poet form an ideal literary couple exchanging enthusiasms and ideas with an effervescence that is implicitly sexual. John Dunton, a later and better known bookseller, developed this format when he founded the first literary magazine, the Athenian Mercury, in 1694. His find was a young woman from Somerset, Elizabeth Singer, who sent in poems praising King William. She was hailed and adored in print as ‘Philomela’ or the ‘Pindarical Lady in the West’, and exhorted to ‘Sing, bright maid! Thus and yet louder sing thy God and King!’

Barker would have cut her own tongue out sooner than sing the praises of King William. She was a fervent divine-right royalist. For her, the Glorious Revolution which brought William of Orange – the ‘curssed orange’ – to the British throne was the second major misfortune of her life. (Her brother’s death was the first.) When James II fled to France in 1688 she followed his court into exile in St Germaine-en-Laye, just outside Paris. She wasn’t an aristocrat like those other royalists Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, and Anne Finch, Countess of Winchelsea, she was ‘an insect scribbler’ (her words) looking for patronage and protection. She sought, by circulating fierce anti-Williamite verses, to be the voice of the cause. Even after the Hanoverian succession in 1714 (by which time she was back in England, although something of an exile in her own land) she continued to write in coded support of the Stuart cause.

As far as published work was concerned, these later decades were the years of her greatest productivity. For some of the time she lived in Lincolnshire, in the village where she had passed much of her early life – a happy childhood evoked in her striking poem ‘A Dialogue between Fidelia and her little Nephew, Martius, as they walk in Luxembourg, disguised as a shepherdess or country maid’. The pastoral elements in this poem make explicit connections with Milton’s Lycidas. The history it tells, of Cavaliers and Roundheads, of the Civil War battles of Naseby and Edgehill, as recalled by the family gardener who ‘skipt’d about the Bon-fire like a boy’ when the anniversaries came round, is that of the religio-political crisis of the mid-17th century in which ‘John Milton, Englishman’ was the poetical voice of the Puritans. Barker remained loyal to the losing side, scraping her ‘old Tune, in fashion about threescore and six years ago’ and sharing in the general discredit. Managing a farm and struggling to make ends meet, she seems to have been estranged from her (Protestant) neighbours and at odds with her relations. A niece took her to court in 1717, providing a disagreeable pen portrait of her aunt in the Chancery deposition: manipulative, litigious, imperious and mean-spirited. The Jacobite uprising of 1715 had probably not made the life of a Catholic landowner more mellow.

Politically anachronistic, the sexagenarian spinster was nevertheless a literary innovator. Insofar as she has been recovered at all it has been by feminist scholars excited by the self-conscious modernity of her Galesia trilogy, The History of the Amours of Bosvil and Galesia (1713), A Patch-Work Screen for the Ladies (1723) and The Lining of the Patch-Work Screen for the Ladies (1726). (They became available in a fully annotated OUP edition by Carol Shiner Wilson in 1997.) These critics have valued Barker for her representations of female subjectivity, but Kathryn King gives much more weight to Barker’s politico-religious identification, and reads the Galesia trilogy as a complex response to the collapse of Jacobite ambitions.

As histories such as Barker’s are filled in, some of the older approaches to women’s writing begin to look distinctly thin. The initial impetus of the feminist recovery of ‘lost’ women writers was the desire to find ‘foremothers’ who could delineate a distinct female tradition. The search was for women who resisted, protested and showed evidence of ‘modern’ feminist yearnings. Colluders with patriarchy, rich women who wrote on the side, and aristocrats who defended class privilege were an embarrassment, except when they complained about the woman writer’s lot. Hence, these lines by Anne Finch were often quoted –

Alas! A woman that attempts the pen,

Such an intruder on the rights of men,

Such a presumptuous Creature, is esteemed,

The fault can by no virtue be redeemed.

– and inserted into the history of female exclusion from the right to write. It now seems, however, that religion and politics are far more pertinent to her work: Anne Finch was an ambitious poet and royalist partisan, not the ‘harmless’ woman of Virginia Woolf’s imagining, ‘rambling about the fields and dreaming’. King’s use of the idea of exile to provide a framework for her book is sometimes strained, but it is an improvement on earlier formulations. Compare ‘exile’, a state implying action and intent, with the old term used to describe such women writers: ‘marginal’. Jane Barker was marginalised, but by the movement of history and because of the political and religious choices she made. She wasn’t marginalised because she was a woman. Indeed, the publishing opportunities that opened up to her after her return to England in 1704 seem to have owed a good deal to her sex and to the new fashion for marketing the woman writer.