Histories of Manuscripts: Jane Barker's Poems in the Archive


British poet and novelist Jane Barker (1652-1732) left behind a two copies of her manuscript poems "Refering to the times." These have been considered nearly identical, though their variations suggest their design for two distinct and meaningful histories. In this conference presentation, I inspected these copies' material and textual differences, in order to explore the information scholars might gather from studying textual creation and transmission as a source of literary significance. In this rare example, Barker's physical and literary work upon her manuscripts suggests her poems functioned in two different contexts and would convey for us slightly different meanings. The British Library presentation copy [A Collection of Poems Refering to the times (1701), BL Add. MS 621], acquired by a collector traveling in Europe, features the handwriting of Barker's male amanuensis and the coat of arms of Anne-Charlotte, duchesse d'Aiguillon, a relative of Cardinal Richelieu. These aspects suggest the text's preparation for a wider, continental Catholic community, of which Barker was a part during her writing and exile in France. The Magdalen Manuscript copy (Poems Refering to the times, Magdalen MS 343) features two sets of revisions in Barker's hand, one that is written on a piece of paper sewn over the deleted lines and called "athe[i]stical" by her footnote. These corrected lines, Barker claims, were not presented to her dedicatee, the Prince of Wales. They are contained in a three-part copy of her life's works, suggesting the book was retained for personal use or circulated to a sympathetic audience as a collected edition. These findings illustrate the importance of analyzing literary works as singular, physical objects with histories, by which they were first afforded meaning.

The focus of this presentation was on the specific artifact of Barker's revision to the Magdalen Manuscript. Her technique demonstrates an important connection between her literary work and aesthetic: she actually does patchwork (a form of stitching) to a page, which in her later fictions would serve as a metaphor of female authorship. I suggested Barker used thread for her revision because it would allow her to remove these "atheistical" lines at a later time. Her book, I argued, is in this way a complex, interactive, and mutable work that refuses a single interpretation. As a work of two objects, techniques, genres, and histories, its life in the seventeenth century and in the archive requires a thicker description for our deeper understanding of Barker and her work.