Barr, Amelia Huddleston (1831–1919)

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Barr, Amelia Huddleston (1831–1919)

British-American author of American historical fiction. Name variations: Amelia Edith Barr. Born Amelia Faith Huddleston on March 29, 1831, in Ulverston, Lancashire, England; died on March 10, 1919, in New York; daughter of Mary Singleton and William Henry Huddleston (a Methodist minister); sporadically educated at home and in private schools; married Robert Barr (1826–1867), on July 11, 1850, in Kendal, England; children: thirteen, including four who died at birth, and Mary (b. 1851), Eliza (called Lilly, b. 1853), Edith (b. 1854), Calvin (b. 1857), Alice (b. 1859), Ethel (b. 1861), Alexander (b. 1863), Archibald (b. 1864), and Andrew (b. 1867).

Selected works:

Jan Vedder's Wife (1885); Remember the Alamo (1888); Friend Olivia (1889); All the Days of My Life (1913).

In 1867, widowed in Texas with no money and three daughters, Amelia Barr moved to New York, where she hoped to support her family by writing. A compulsive writer, working until she made herself ill, Barr produced more than 80 books in 40 years of writing, including five novels in 1892 alone.

Born in England in 1831, Amelia Huddleston Barr was one of several children of Mary and William Henry Huddleston, a Methodist minister. The Huddlestons moved often to parsonages throughout Lancashire, and the family was left poorer after a friend absconded with their small inheritance. Though the children attended school only when funding allowed, Amelia loved to read and started writing stories and poetry as a young girl.

With her father's retirement due to illness, Amelia decided to become a teacher to bolster the family income, studying first with a family friend. Through the sponsorship of another minister, she attended a school in Glasgow, Scotland, which taught the Stowe method for educating poor children. There, she met Robert Barr, a Scottish merchant, and married in July of 1850. Robert's mother objected to the marriage because Amelia brought only debts as her dowry. A fear of financial debt was to haunt Amelia throughout her life, both because she often had so little money, and because she worked so hard to earn it.

Robert Barr was a successful entrepreneur, but overzealous dealings soon bankrupted him, and his reputation was ruined in Glasgow. Thus, in August of 1853, three years after their marriage, Robert, Amelia, and two daughters left England covertly (to evade Robert's mother and his business enemies) and sailed for New York. Barr felt confident. In her dreams, she'd had premonitions which assured her that the move was a positive step.

It was not long, however, before their arrival in America was marked by misfortune. Aboard the steamer, Robert had met and become partners with a like-minded businessman from Chicago. By year's end, the Barrs were settled in the North Side of the city, in a house large enough for a school. Three years later, because of more business reversals, the Barrs were forced to move. They went south to Memphis, Tennessee, taking with them the coffin of their small daughter Edith, who had lived only eight months. Six months later, the Barrs were fleeing Memphis and a cholera epidemic.

They sailed to Texas on a slave transport ship, eventually settling in Austin. Good fortune followed with the birth of their first son Calvin, and Robert's job as comptroller for the Texas legislature. By 1861, two more Barr daughters were born, but the political climate had changed. As North and South took up arms against each other, Texas faced the decision of remaining with the Union, joining the rising Confederacy, or returning to its former independence. For fear of entanglement in political affairs, Robert resigned his position in the legislature and turned to accounting. His meager list of clients were scarcely enough to keep his burgeoning family fed. In all, Amelia gave birth to thirteen children, six of whom died in infancy.

With the Emancipation Proclamation of 1864, the Union reasserted its hold on Texas. In 1866, the Barrs moved to Galveston, hoping to find work. A few months later, yellow-fever struck. From April to September of 1867, as the epidemic raged throughout Texas, Barr's husband and four sons died, while Amelia and her three daughters, though near death, survived.

Stunned and weak from her illness, Amelia spent a year trying to forge a life in Texas. Friends helped her establish a boarding house, but the venture failed. Carrying a letter of introduction from a friend, she headed northeast and found work as a music teacher for the sons of a publisher in Ridgewood, New Jersey. The post lasted 18 months, until her young students went to college, at which time she moved her daughters to New York City.

"I was nearly 39 years old," Barr wrote in her autobiography, "when I … began a life so different from the lives I had lived in Glasgow, Chicago, Austin and Galveston, that I might have been born again for it." She launched her writing career with an account of the unrest she witnessed in Texas (the distant state was a mystery and curiosity in the Northeast). She became a regular contributor to Henry Ward Beecher's Christian Union and spent hours doing research at New York's Astor Library.

Publisher Henry Holt recommended that Barr take on historical fiction. Writing eight to ten hours a day, often until she became seriously ill (including a six-month bout with "inflammation of the brain" in 1880–81), Barr was financially rewarded for her efforts. She also received critical acclaim with the 1885 publication of Jan Vedder's Wife. Her exhausting pace continued. "My right thumb was almost useless, … and the outside of the little finger was so sensitive that I wrapped it in cotton wool to prevent it feeling the movement on the paper." A typewriter enabled Barr to write even faster, the most famous result of which was the 1888 Remember the Alamo.

At last financially secure, Barr established a home, Cherry Croft, in Cornwall-on-Hudson and occasional summered in Europe. Her later years were spent at Richmond Hill, where she lived quietly, surrounded by friends, still devoting most of her time to her writing. When a 1909 fall down the stairs caused paralysis in her right arm, she learned to write with her left hand. In 1911, she wrote her autobiography, All the Days of My Life, in just two months. It was published in 1913, six years before she died.

Barr, who did not start writing until she had reached the age of 53, wrote no fewer than 80 novels. The last one completed in June 1918, was entitled The Paper Cap and was based on labor troubles in her native England. She was best in historical tales that dealt with religious persecution, and in scenes of Scotland, the north of England, and Dutch New York. "I say gratefully, yes, joyfully," she once wrote, "they were all good days, for always God has been what He promised me—'Sufficient!'"

suggested reading:

Barr, Amelia. All the Days of My Life: An Autobiography. NY: D. Appleton, 1913.

Crista Martin , freelance writer, Boston, Massachusetts