Of the Amours of Bosvil and Galesia (Barker)

Love Intrigues is one of Jane Barker’s three Galesia novels. The version I read is from 1719. It’s short, it’s all about, well, love intrigues, and my copy now has comments like “Sheesh!” or “Duh!” or “Just tell him already!” all over the margins. Now, I don’t want to be unfair to Barker or her character Galesia. The dramatization below oversimplifies the matter:

Galesia & Bosvel

Galesia & Bosvil

But overall, that’s kind of what happens. The frame narrative: Galesia and her friend Lucasia are hanging out, and Lucasia doesn’t want to talk politics and war anymore, so she asks Galesia to tell of her youth. And the story begins. Galesia first enchants (involuntarily) an older man, Mr.Braford. Even though she shows no interest in him, he proclaims (even publically) that he will not marry any other woman, but he will wait for the little girl to grow up a little and then wed her. In what to today’s readers will seem a creepy manner, he makes sure he spends plenty of time with her: he watches her play and joins in her games.

At age 15, Galesia is sent to London, to learn about city life, and gather life experience in a safe way — she is to stay with her prim and proper aunt who will keep a watchful eye on the young lady. There, she meets her cousin Bosvil, who catches her eye.

Bosvil has been told, by one of Braford’s men, that Galesia’s reason for going to London is to buy a wedding gown, and that she is to be married as soon as she returns. Galesia, hearing this from her cousin, is very much surprised and denies the charges. Relieved, Bosvil is not reticent to declare his interest, but realizes that they have to avoid the aunt. The girl decides to “hide her passions” and give him the cold shoulder because he’s too openly interested in her: “I disdain’d to be courted thus in hugger-mugger” (11).

“Almightly Providence” causes Braford to die of a fever shortly after, and Galesia thinks herself safe from marriage for now. She has a vision where she vows to stay a virgin and choose the muses over matrimony. She wants to learn and her older brother humours her by lending her his grammar books.

Another Braford shows interest in Galesia, but Bosvil makes sure to discourage him. Bosvil courts Galesia, but she feels bound by her vow to the muses and does not want to be married, she wants to be independent. She shows him only disinterest and coolness while deep inside she is madly in love with him. This goes back and forth for a series of visits. In the end, he finally sweet-talks his way through her defenses and promises to get his father to talk to her parents about the two getting married.

He doesn’t come back for a while, and when he does, he’s a different character. At this point in the book I actually wondered if maybe there weren’t two Bosvils, identical twins, but that would have been too much of a soap-opera I suppose. Heartbroken and angry, Galesia sends him a letter insisting he never see her again if he does not want her. He stays away. She pines for him, wonders about her vows, but insists her feelings for him are getting weaker and weaker.

After a year (!) of separation, he gets seriously ill, his parents fearing he might die. Galesia worries but cannot think of a pretense under which to visit him, so she sends a servant to find out how he is: if the parents say Bosvil is better, the servant is to simply come back, but if not, he is to see Bosvil in her name. Bosvil is better, so he never finds out she almost went to see him. He visits and she realizes she still has strong feelings for him. When he announces his imminent wedding she wonders, hopes, that it’s another ruse, but he returns married. He explains that he tried to make her jealous, but she didn’t get jealous enough. And when he was sick, she didn’t come to him, so his decision was made.

Now we are back in the frame narrative, Galesia has finished her story. Lucasia asks her why she didn’t try to talk to her parents, at least to her mother, who could have helped this work out better, but Galesia doesn’t think it appropriate to discuss these awkward and embarrassing things with her parents.

two lovers

I’ll admit that a few times I was exasperated with her and felt reminded of romantic comedy movies where a simple conversation could have fixed everything in minutes, but instead, people keep quiet, creating lots of drama. Still, Barker’s novel is an interesting text, and shows more insight into the human psyche than any rom-com I could think of. Barker’s narration is intensely focused on the inner workings of Galesia’s heart and her heroine is shamelessly honest in talking about her shortcomings and wayward thoughts. What Galesia is doing is unusual. She’s not docile or tame, she is not subservient, — she’s not a women’s rights activist, but then, she actively resists the institution of marriage, and this is the 1700s. Galesia is a proud, stubborn girl. She teaches herself grammar with her brother’s books — an endeavor he dismisses as a fleeting fancy — and does honour her vow to choose the muses over marriage.

Overall, this novel refuses to give an easy, decisive answer to “the woman question” — How much freedom should (18th century) woman have in decisions about her own life? Where should she put her priorities? Is it good for her to be married? Is it good for her to be educated and alone? Should woman marry for love, for convenience, for survival? Galesia ends up alone, but not friendless, sad, but not desperate. She is neither there to illustrate how independence or love or knowledge lead to unhappiness, nor a positive rolemodel in the service of a political agenda for women’s rights.

Kathryn R. King and Jeslin Medoff argue that while Barker is usually seen as the moral counterpart to the more scandalous writers of her day (such as Aphra Behn), most assumptions about her life and the intentions of her writing are in fact wild guesses and hugely mistaken. King suggests that Barker has been largely misread, that she actually had a lot in common with Behn et al. who made their contemporary readers rather uncomfortable. At the same time, they conclude that Barker should not be classified as the beginning of the modern novel because the definition of novel as a space where the private self appears can be applied neither to Barker’s texts nor to the general literary culture at the time.*

Well, that sounds complicated, doesn’t it, but what does it mean? It means that in the 1700s, the private and the public self were not separable the way we separate them now. They are so closely interwoven and interconnected that looking at one without looking at the other is impossible. Galesia is not Barker’s version of ‘woman’s private self’ and Barker herself was — while (possibly without intent) an unusual writer — no literary revolutionary. Her own views about women and morals were rather reactionary, in keeping with her Jacobite and Royalist convictions.

Despite longstanding claims to the contrary (from the side of critics), King and Medoff have found that Barker did not have a cushy life; in fact she was quite poor, often strapped for money. Being a member of the Roman Catholic church when this was illegal in England didn’t help: she had to pay higher taxes because of her faith. She fled to France, came back, had a litigious argument with her own niece, and raised her (abandoned) grand-nieces, even though she was virtually blind at the time, having had 18th century cataract surgery. She may even have tried to earn money with medical remedies, under the name of “Dr.Barker.” Certainly an interesting woman. To learn more actual, factual information about her, look up this article:

  • King & Medoff: “Jane Barker and Her Life (1652-1732): The Documentary Record.” Eighteenth Century Life 21.3 (1997) 16-38.


*) This lack of a clear concept of distinct public and private selves may also explain the different attitude people had towards letters and sharing and even publishing correspondence. Somehow I don’t feel so bad now, about reading Charlotte Stieglitz’s letters… 🙂 For those, go here (if only i were a whale) and here (reading other people’s mail).


About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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