Amelia E. Barr
( Originally Published 1901 )
FOR the last sixteen years the name of Amelia E. Barr has been one of the foremost in the list of popular American writers.
Strictly speaking, Mrs. Barr is as much English as American, for she was born in Ulverston, Lancashire, England, in 1831, and since the establishment of her fame her books have been almost as widely read in the old country as in this. But, not-withstanding the ties of birth and popular affection, and notwithstanding the fact that many of her stories have dealt with British countries and British character, she is, as she probably would say herself, more American than foreign. For nearly fifty years she has been a resident of the United States ; here her children were born, here her noble husband died, here she has struggled and here succeeded. A more interesting career we have not had the pleasure of sketching.
Amelia Edith Huddleston was her name in girlhood. Her father was the Rev. William Henry Huddleston. She is fond of applying to her own case, they say, the old Scotch proverb : It is gude luck to be born in a house fu' o' gude company, wi' a fu' moon and a high tide." When she was a girl she served her father as reader, and thus she was introduced into the literary as well as into the social world.
Our feminine readers will probably en-joy learning how strong an influence dolls had on Mrs. Barr's early life. " The dolls most in use when I was a child in Yorkshire and Lancashire," she says,
"were wooden ones ; a round head, square body, legs and arms of thin slats of wood, fastened to the body with wire, thus making the limbs flexible and movable.... I possessed a number of all sizes, and I don't think I used them in the ordinary way. I valued them as entities for representing my story books, with big dolls for giants, little ones for children and fairies, and medium ones for men and women. She was an imaginative child, it will be noticed. ,,When I was six years old there was a great agitation on the slavery question, and a black leather doll was given me to represent a negro. For some time I failed to place him ; then I read ' Robinson Crusoe,' and he became, of course, Man Friday, then a little later a slave. My first copy-book, I remember, was covered in pale, yellow paper, bearing a picture of a very black slave, loaded with chains, toiling in the sugar field, and a tall white overseer, with a whip, standing near. I very soon abstracted the steel chain that held my mother's bunch of keys, loaded my negro doll with chains, selected a white doll to act as overseer, and finally I allowed the doll I called after Apollyon in ' Pilgrim's Progress' to run away with the overseer. Cinderella was one of my favorite play-mates. She was a lovely blonde, as was her fairy godmother, and the only doll I possessed that might be called a baby was a large wax affair that could open and shut its eyes, and who came to me on my fourth birthday in a long narrow box lined with blue satin. When I was eight years old my story books were too complex for such illustrations as the dolls once provided, and I have a dim memory of a wet Saturday and ' Stories from Ancient History,' and a miniature funeral pyre within the nursery fender, on which all the heroes of my first romances received the fiery solution. I think of them all tenderly now. There was a pathos about those graceless wooden toys, some of which I can recall with a vividness almost startling. They still live, though they never had life, and this is a mystery which in my next idle hour I must ponder."
Idle hours come seldom to Mrs. Barr, in spite of her fulfilled three-score years and ten. She is not of the idle race, and she is distinguished no less for her enthusiastic industry than for her tenderness of heart and her fertility of imagination. Mr. Hamilton W. Mabie tells us also that " as a child she was her father's boon companion in his preaching tours through the fishing villages, and that rocks and boats and the surge of the sea were the background and accompaniment of many happy days."
In 1850, shortly after her education had been completed at Glasgow, she married Robert Barr, a Scotchman, and four years afterward she came to this country with him. They lived for a while in New York, then in the West, then in the South, and finally they settled in Austin, Texas, where Mr. Barr established himself as a merchant. At the close of the Civil War the family, which then included three sons and three daughters, moved to Galveston. There took place the tragedy which changed the course of Mrs. Barr's life. We repeat the circumstances as they were related a few years ago :
" The yellow fever broke out with extraordinary violence in Texas in 1867. The terror of the visitation is still remembered. People died on every side. The Indians, especially, fell like flies before the poisoned breath of the pestilence. The panic spread, and all the white folk who could, abandoned the affiicted district. Mr. Barr refused to leave, for the Indians trusted him, and took from his hand medicines which they refused to take from an-other. The doctors and nurses all died or left. Still, Mr. Barr stood his ground, and his wife remained by his side. His gallant efforts are honorably mentioned in the official reports of that terrible visitation. Mr. Barr literally laid down his life to save others' lives. Before the pestilence abated, Mrs. Barr had lost three sons and her husband. The three daughters still remained to her, and for them she resolved to live and work." Or, as Mr. Mabie says, In the desperate struggle against despair, which followed, Mrs. Barr turned her face northward and settled in New York in the autumn of 1869." She was then thirty-eight.
She was fortunate in bringing with her to New York a letter of introduction to Robert Bonner, the generous and influential editor of the New York Ledger. Her first original literary undertaking was a short story published in the Christian Union. While writing, she was learning to write. Circumstances had thrown her virtually upon her own resources. Her naturally buoyant disposition stood by her well ; it sweetened her work, it brightened the future. Here is an account of those days that we once ran across :
"She wrote advertisements, circulars, paragraphs, verses, etc. She spent hours daily in the Astor Library, studying the secrets of her craft, getting up materials for descriptive articles and historical stories. For a long time she considered herself rich if a ten-dollar note stood between her and the future. The precious notes were deposited between the leaves of a Bible, with tarnished clasps, which still lies on Mrs. Barr's table. One of the incidents that she and her daughter, who is her devoted companion, often recall, is of a night when thieves broke in and stole all they could lay their hands on, breaking open the desk and taking the trinkets that had been deposited there for safety, but the Bible that lay near it, and that held all the family's fortune, was left untouched.... The stress of that time of struggle and privation was lightened when Mrs. Barr's first serial story appeared in the columns of the Ledger."
Her first great success, the success that founded her renown, came in 1885 with the publication of "Jan Vedder's Wife," although we find records of the publication of at least three other books " Scottish Sketches " and " Cluny MacPherson " (1883) and "Paul and Christina" (1882).
But there was power as well as originality in "Jan Vedder's Wife," and to this day it remains one of the novelist's most note-worthy and most characteristic tales. It has passed through many editions, and it has been read in many countries and many languages. It was on Thanksgiving Day, 1884, by the way, that Mrs. Barr received notice of its acceptance. The scene of Jan Vedder's disappearance and apparent resurrection has especially been given wide quotation because of its rare dramatic force its singular commingling of the earthly and the spiritual element, a commingling that has had much to do with the establishment of the author's remarkable popularity. For, in addition to an intimate knowledge of the world's simpler folk, Mrs. Barr displays the deepest reverence for religion. Which fact tends sometimes to make her books unique.
A bit of episode characteristic of the author comes to mind. It is the scene in the " Bow of Orange Ribbon," that delightful picture of New York in provincial days, when Joris Van Heemskirk decides to cast his lot with the patriots. He had ended the discussion with his wife, Lysbet.
" Then he rose, put on his hat, and walked down his garden ; and, as he slowly paced between the beds of budding flowers, he thought of many things the traditions of the past struggles for freedom, and the irritating wrongs that had embittered his own experience for ten years. There was plenty of life yet in the spirit his fathers had bequeathed to him ; and, as this and that memory of wrong smote it, the soul-fire kindled, glowed, burned with passion-ate flame. ' Free, God gave us this fair land, and we will keep it free. There has been in it no crowns and scepters, no bloody Philips, no priestly courts of cruelty ; and, in God's name, we will have none !
"He was standing on the river bank ; and the meadows over it were green and fair to see, and the fresh wind blew into his soul a thought of his own untrammelled liberty. He looked up and down the river, and lifted his face to the clear sky, and said aloud, ' Beautiful land ! To be thy children we should not deserve, if one inch of thy soil we yielded to a tyrant. Truly a vaderland to me and to mine thou hast been. Truly do I love thee.' And then, his soul being moved to its highest mark, he answered it tenderly, in the strong-syllabled mother-tongue that it knew so well : Indien ik u vergeet, o Vaderland ! zoo vergete mijne regter-hand zich zelve.
Since 1885 book after book has come from the pen of Mrs. Barr with amazing regularity. It is a pen that fairly rivals Marion Crawford's in fertility, which is no light statement to make. And yet, not-withstanding this abundance this luxuriance, it might be said the quality is generally excellent, not brilliant, indeed, or stylish, but rather sweet and endearing. The author of " The Maid of Maiden Lane " holds the mirror up to nature but, as a rule, at the right time, at the good and happy time. So, her men, for the most part, are honest and magnanimous, her women chaste and charming. Her latest book, " The Lion's Whelp : A Story of Cromwell's Time," is one of her strongest.
During the middle of the winter, Mrs. Barr, we are told, seeks recreation in New York City or in Virginia, but the spring finds her back in her home on Storm King Mountain, which lies two miles from Cornwall-on-the-Hudson, Cherry Croft " the house is named. It was built, we are told, on plans drawn by the writer herself. Her workshop is on the top floor. A writer in the Boston Transcript (July 8, 1901) thus describes Mrs. Barr's method of working:
" When a book is to be completed from cover to cover, this woman is up and doing long before the ordinary person is awake, often rising before daylight, A cold plunge, taken directly on rising, a light lunch of fruit and coffee, usually partaken of on the veranda, for she is another famous lover of the open air, spending as much as possible of her time within its invigorating embrace prepare her for the day's duties, and by the time the sun is beginning to gild the mountains opposite her study window, she is busy with her pen. At twelve comes the important meal of the day. A two hours' nap, followed by an-other cold plunge, is then in order, after which the morning's work is carefully type-written by the author's own hands no one else being allowed to handle her manuscript and labors for the day are over. Then comes relaxation, indoors or out, calling or receiving calls, but the moment the clock strikes nine, no matter what guests or engagements the family may have, she is off to bed. This exacting routine is followed until the book is finished."
Not many men or women of seventy live more vigorously or work more enthusiastically, and still fewer at that age court the success and esteem which still attend Amelia E. Barr.