Barber, Mary (DNB00)

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BARBER, MARY (1690?–1757), poetess and friend of Swift, was born about 1690, probably in Ireland, where she became the wife of one Barber, a wool clothier or tailor, living in Capel Street, Dublin. Several children were born to Mrs. Barber (among them a son, Constantine, born in 1714), and she, being ‘poetically given, and, for a woman, having a sort of genius that way’ (Swift to Pope, Scott's Swift, xvii. 388), began writing poetry for the purpose of enlivening her children's lessons. She taught them at first herself, as they sat round her tiled fireplace (her own Poems on Several Occasions, p. 8); and at the same time ‘no woman was ever more useful to her husband in the way of his business’ (Swift to Lord Orrery, Scott's Swift, xviii. 162). About 1724, while Tickell, the poet, was secretary to the lords justices of Ireland, Mrs. Barber wrote a poem to excite charity on behalf of an officer's widow left penniless and with a blind child (Poems, &c. supra, p. 2, ‘The Widow Gordon's Petition’), and she sent the composition to Tickell anonymously, with a request that he would call the attention of Lord Carteret, then viceroy, to it. Tickell succeeded; Lady Carteret succoured the widow and sought out her benefactress, Mrs. Barber. The poetess was thus brought under Swift's notice, and a friendship sprang up between them. Swift visited her at her shop (Swift to Pope, supra); presented her to Lady Suffolk at Marble Hill (Scott's Swift, xvii. 430); received her at the deanery, and for a while took charge of one of her sons, eccentrically sent him as a birthday present, together with some of his mother's verses echoing the current enthusiasm roused by ‘Wood's Halfpence’ and others of Swift's Irish patriotic pamphlets. Sapphira was the poetic name given to Mrs. Barber at the deanery; and there her poems were read, and canvassed, and corrected. ‘Mighty Thomas, a solemn Senatus I call, To consult for Sapphira; so come, one and all,’ are the opening lines of ‘An Invitation by Dr. Delany, in the Name of Dr. Swift,’ and they indicate the friendly and sympathetic treatment she enjoyed at the hands of Swift and his friends. In 1730 Swift provided Mrs. Barber with introductions to his most influential friends on her first visit to England in an endeavour to publish her poems by subscription. Her husband took indiscreet advantage of his wife's position, and when Lady Betty Germaine had coaxed the Duke of Dorset to order liveries from him, he asked ‘a greater price than anybody else’ (ibid. xvii. 410); at the same time the gout attacked her incessantly, and she was one of Dr. Mead's patients; but, in response, mainly, to Swift's recommendations, Arbuthnot, Gay, Mrs. Cæsar, Barber the printer (then lord mayor), the Boyles, the Temples, Pope, Ambrose Philips, Walpole, Tonson, Banks, and a host of the nobility, either visited her or became subscribers for her book; and after passing to and fro between Tunbridge Wells, Bath, and Dublin, for a long period, she finally abandoned her Irish home, and settled in England. In June 1731, when Mrs. Barber was busily seeking subscribers, the ‘Three Letters to the Queen on the Distresses of Ireland’ were published, with Swift's forged signature; they called express attention to Mrs. Barber as ‘the best female poet of this or perhaps of any age,’ and it was rumoured that they had been concocted by her to injure her patron and to serve her personal advantage. All evidence goes against this supposition, and Swift himself never entertained it. His opinion of Mrs. Barber, on the contrary, was as high as ever, and Lady Suffolk bantered him on the ‘violent passion’ he had for her (ibid. xvii. 415); in 1733 he wrote to Alderman Barber that he had ‘not known a more bashful, modest person than she, nor one less likely to ply her friends, patrons, and protectors’ (ibid. xviii. 154). In 1736 he invited her back to Ireland, promising to contribute to her support (ibid. xix. 5). In his ‘List of Friends Grateful, Ungrateful, Indifferent, and Doubtful,’ he describes her with the best as ‘G,’ i.e. ‘grateful;’ and in his will, dated 1740, nine years after the ‘Letters,’ he makes a bequest to her of ‘the medal of Queen Anne and Prince George which she formerly gave me’ (Sheridan, Swift, p. 566). The false suspicion as to her authorship of the unfortunate ‘Letters’ did Mrs. Barber little injury with others of her friends. In 1734, her ‘Poems on Several Occasions’ (4to, Rivingtons) were at last published, and were prefaced by a letter from Swift to Lord Orrery. But many troubles now befell their authoress; a few severe critics said that the work was not poetic, and a few fine ladies complained that it was dull (ibid. xviii. 310). At the time Mrs. Barber was a victim to a three months' attack of gout; and she fell ‘under the hands of the law,’ in company with Motte, the printer, although she was discharged the same day with him (Hawkesworth, xiii. 105). Her condition excited pity in very many quarters, and the Duchess of Queensberry told Swift: ‘Mrs. Barber has met with a good deal of trouble … we shall leave our guineas for her with Mr. Pope’ (Scott's Swift, xviii. 198). In 1735 appeared a second edition of Mrs. Barber's ‘Poems’ (8vo), and in 1736 there followed a third. In November of the same year, at Bath, again laid up with gout, and having her husband and daughters to support, Mrs. Barber entertained a scheme for selling Irish linens. She could not let lodgings because of her ill-health (ibid. xix. 5); and, to support her meanwhile, she begged Swift to give her his ‘Polite Conversations,’ still in manuscript, though written thirty years before. Everybody, she said, would subscribe for a work of his, and the sale of it would put her in easy circumstances. In 1737 the manuscript was hers, conveyed to her by Lord Orrery (Scott's Swift, xix. 93); in 1738 it was published, and it met with so much favour that it was presented as a play at the theatre in Aungier Street, Dublin, with great applause (Hawkesworth, xiv. 692). It thus secured for Mrs. Barber all the benefits that Swift, in his continuous kindness to her, desired. In 1755 a selection from her ‘Poems’ was published in two volumes of ‘Poems by Eminent Ladies,’ including Aphra Behn, Elizabeth Carter, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and others, and Mrs. Barber's verse was given the first place. In 1757 she died. Of her two sons, Rupert was well known as a miniature painter and engraver, and Constantine became president of the College of Physicians at Dublin.

[Ballard's British Ladies, ed. 1752, 461 et seq.; Monthly Review, vol. viii., 1753.]

J. H.