“A Horse Caught In A Stable On Fire”: The Predicament of the Learned Woman in 18th century England

By Yvette Dell

Jane Barker’s semi-autobiographical heroine in The Galesia Trilogy – three novels published between 1713 and 1726 – embodies not only the literary female but the educated woman. Like Barker’s conflation of needles and pens in the titles of her novels, A Patch-Work Screen for the Ladies (1723)and The Lining for the Patch-work Screen (1726), Galesia’s name, which recalls Apollo’s son Galaesus, presents her almost as a thought-experiment in female education, the embodiment of the feminine learned figure. Barker endeavours to present an absent hybrid: ‘I ought to say something in Favour of Patch-Work,’ she writes in the dedication to Path-Work, ‘the better to recommend it to my Female Readers, as well in their Discourse, as their Needlework’. Barker introduces respectably feminine literature, assuring readers that to pick up a pen, or a book, is not to throw down your needle. According to Barker’s fictional narratives, the Learned Woman – this walking, contradiction-in-terms – risks being destroyed.

Contemporary female conduct books such as John Essex’s 1722 publication The young Ladies’ Conduct give fair warning: ‘[education] will render her contemptible to her own sex, and a Prey to men’. In Patch-Work, Galesia echoes Essex, as she observes her education in mathematics ‘served to make me unfit Company for every body; the Unlearn’d fear’d, and the Learned scorn’d my Conversation’. Galesia falls between the cracks, straddling two social circles and belonging to neither. In an ironic and earnest gibe by Barker, Galesia bemoans: ‘At the Toilet, I was as ignorant a spectator as a Lady is an Auditor at an Act-Sermon in the University, which is always in Latin’. The strong gendering of education is epitomised in the gendering of Latin. The Learned spoke their own language, and it was not a language for ladies. Yet, exceptionally, Barker herself understood Latin. As Janet Todd observes, ‘those that did know the language well, like Jane Barker, felt self-conscious and unsexed by their knowledge’. This embarrassing knowledge, along with Galesia’s social faux pas in Patch-Work, are almost a parodic justification of Essex’s warnings: ‘One [lady] ask’d me: If I liked Mrs Philips or Mrs Behn best? To whom I replied, with blunt indignation, that the two ought not to be named together’. Galesia’s bookishness renders her unmannerly, portrayed as a snob who will not condescend to idle chatter. Yet she lacks alternatives, and subsequently sinks into ‘the Silence that the Ignorance of the Town laid upon me’. In her desire for a certain kind of conversation, she forfeits conversation altogether. Galesia learns the hard way ‘how far one is short, in Conversation acquired only by books’. One does not want to be a bore, Barker shows us, but equally one does not want to always be discussing frivolities.

The Lining of the Patchwork Screen (The Galesia Trilogy Book 3 ...

Galesia’s narrative is at once a cautionary tale in line with contemporary thought on the fate of women who strayed from their station, but most powerfully it is a lampooning of the absurd mutual exclusion of femininity and learning, as though a woman who studies Thomas Willis must lose her ability to like clothes. Barker’s writing continually encircles what is not there; a place for someone who is ‘capable to distinguish which Dress became which Face’ and also, theoretically, appreciate the Act-Sermon at the University. This middle-ground that Galesia is missing, does not exist in her society: ‘A Learned Woman being at best like a Forc’d-Plant, that never has its due or proper relish’. The learned woman forfeits friends and gains none, and is considered a fool by both sides. Stunted and starved, she is a plant that never blossoms, always missing something integral to her flourishing.

The dilemma of the Learned Woman is mirrored in Galesia’s attempts to conform to standards of feminine behaviour. Essex reminds ladies ‘they may be prudent and discreet without being deceitful’, yet this, Barker shows, is easier said than done. ‘Truth and Sincerity were supplanted by a Tincture of Modesty and Pride; for no Mouth spake more directly against the Sentiments of a Heart than mine’ narrates Galesia in The History of the Amours Between Bosvil and Galesia’ (1713).  Galesia’s refusal to confess her love to Bosvil before granted permission by her father, leads to the failure of their romance altogether. ‘I kept my Words close-prisoners’ narrates Galesia, and so she becomes a prisoner of her words. It is the ‘too strict adherence to codes of female virtue’ as Kathryn King writes, that leads to the flaunting of these same codes. Hearing of Bosvil’s abandonment, Galesia is thrown into a turmoil that she, by codes of temperance, cannot express: ‘I was ready to die in the place, but durst not remove… I was like a Horse Caught in a Stable on Fire, burnt if he stays yet dares not go out’. The trapped and trembling horse seems to perfectly emblemise Galesia’s every predicament, and more widely, of Barker and her contemporaries. Hemmed in and ostracized on all sides, the Learned Woman is like the Woman generally: she cannot secure her own happiness by any recourse. Resolving on Bosvil’s murder, and then her own suicide, Galesia realises she is as powerless to bring about her marriage to her lover, as she is inferior to the task of killing a man with a rapier. Conventional happy endings, marriage and vengeance, are barred to her as a woman. Galesia finally recourses to write: ‘I will go Home, and write the whole scene of this Treachery, and make myself the last Actor in the Tragedy’. In this hyperbolic scene, Barker outlines that the pen, far from being an unwomanly instrument, is the only fitting instrument for a woman to express herself. Galesia’s ‘Unlucky Muse’, elsewhere the root of her social alienation, is the hope that, however parodically, saves her life.

Omne tulit punctum qui miscuit utile dulci is printed on the title page of the 1713 edition to History of the Amours. From Horace’s Ars Poetica, Barker’s motto translates as ‘The poet winning every vote blends the useful and the sweet’. Barker’s writing argues not only for legitimate female learning, but a needful female contribution. Her playful conflation of needlework and writing in her characterisation of women’s stories as patches, attempts to legitimise not only female but feminine writing. ‘Useful and sweet’ is the ideal that Barker sees embodied in the Learned Woman whose femininity is not lost to, but meets and marries with, education.


Barker, Jane. Galesia Trilogy and Select Manuscript Poems ed. Carol Shiner Wilson (Oxford University Press, 1997)

King, Kathryn. Jane Barker, Exile (Oxford University Press, 2000)

King, Kathryn. ‘Of Needles and Pens and Women’s Work’ in Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 14 (University of Tulsa Press, 1995)

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. Desire and Truth: Functions of Plot in Eighteenth-Century English Novels (University of Chicago Press, 1990)

Todd, Janet. The Sign of Angelica: Women, Writing and Fiction 1600-1800 (Columbia University Press, 1989)

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