A descendant of Massachusetts's earliest settlers, Shirley Barker has spent most of her life in New England, the setting for nearly all of her novels. Educated at the University of New Hampshire, Radcliffe College, and the Pratt Institute, she has advanced degrees in English and library science. Her first book of poetry, The Dark Hills Under (1933), was selected for the Yale Younger Poets series.
All of Barker's novels are historical, and most of them are set in New Hampshire, where her family has lived since the 1670s. Peace My Daughters (1949) focuses on the Salem witch trials; Rivers Parting (1950) moves between an ancestral home in Nottingham and a newly established one in colonial New Hampshire; Fire and the Hammer (1953) involves Tory Quakers in revolutionary Bucks County, Pennsylvania; Tomorrow the New Moon (1955) traces the life of a Puritan minister and his cousins; Liza Bowe (1956) is set in Elizabethan England and is Barker's only attempt at first person narrative; Swear by Apollo (1958) concerns a medical student who moves from revolutionary New Hampshire to the Hebrides; The Last Gentleman (1960) is the governor of New Hampshire during the American Revolution; Corner of the Moon (1961) is set in England at the time of the French Revolution; and Strange Wives (1963) traces the Jewish settlement of Newport, Rhode Island.
Barker writes formula historical novels. The characters are subservient to the settings, which are rife with war, plagues, epidemics, spiritual crises, and historical personages such as Shakespeare and Washington. Almost every novel has an obligatory bastard, a smattering of occultism, and incipient madness. Although Barker varies the pattern, each novel contains a triangle—either the hero must choose between the undyingly faithful but commonplace woman and the exciting but capricious one (Rivers Parting, Tomorrow the New Moon, Swear by Apollo, Corner of the Moon) or the heroine must choose between the dull but dependable male and the dangerous, independent one (Peace My Daughters, Fire and the Hammer, Liza Bowe, The Last Gentleman, Strange Wives).
The hero invariably chooses the faithful woman, but only after a little fling with the other, who usually turns up pregnant. After some harrowing moments while the hero wonders if the child is his and the faithful heroine threatens to reject him for fathering the child, the paternity is placed elsewhere and all is forgiven. In the other triangle, the heroine always chooses the dangerous man, who loves her but finds her too saucy and independent to make a good wife. Only after the heroine is subjected to Psyche-like trials of fidelity and endurance does the hero relent.
Although Barker's novels are not original, they are, as popular novels, a good indication of the moral attitudes still prevalent in the 1950s and early 1960s. Naughty girls are punished: they bear bastards, occasionally go mad, and never get their man. Good girls are rewarded for their morality and their fidelity. Men can have the naughty girls and marry the good girls providing they don't father any bastards. Barker has reaffirmed that despite plagues, wars, and tyranny, a man's life has always been more exciting.
A Land and a People (1952).
TCA, First Supplement (1955).
Newsweek (1 Jan. 1951). NYHTB (7 Jan.1951). NYT (27 Feb. 1949, 22 Nov. 1953, 9 Jan. 1955, 24 Aug. 1958). SatRL (16 April 1949).
—CYNTHIA L. WALKER