John Evelyn Barlas, A Critical Biography

Published 1 October 2012

Hardbound: 15.6 x 23.4 cm.,
374 pp.

ISBN 978 1 904201 21 2
£40.00 / $65.00

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John Evelyn Barlas, A Critical Biography:
Poetry, Anarchism, and Mental Illness in Late-Victorian Britain

by Philip Cohen

This comprehensive critical biography of John Evelyn Barlas (1860-1914) draws heavily on family archives as well as four unpublished memoirs by Barlas’s friends. He considered himself first and foremost a poet, and he produced some distinguished verse in the Aesthetic and Decadent modes, emphasizing withdrawal, contemplation, and the life of the imagination. Yet in seeming contradiction, he also engaged actively in radical politics. And he spent the last 20 years of his life in a mental institution. Although this book stresses Barlas’s literary output and associations, of necessity the author adopts an interdisciplinary approach. Barlas’s political thought emerges in the context of the writings of Herbert Spencer, George Henry Lewes, William Morris, Max Stirner, and others. Cohen also traces his involvement in the radical political movements of his day, including the Socialism of the Social Democratic Federation and the Anarchism of the Freedom Group and the Autonomie Club. The author also addresses the legal aspects of mental illness in late-Victorian Britain, as well as its diagnosis and treatment at the time. Against this background, he discusses Barlas’s illness, based on extensive case records. A final component of the book’s interdisciplinary approach is an account of Barlas’s publishing history and a comprehensive descriptive bibliography of his works, the byproducts of the need to establish texts before the oeuvre could be analyzed.

If at all, Barlas is remembered for firing a revolver on the grounds of Parliament in Anarchistic protest against Government. The few other components of his sparse legend—that he was bludgeoned on Bloody Sunday, that this caused his mental illness, and even that he was Jack the Ripper—have no basis in fact. Cohen replaces myth with a documented biography. Barlas’s friends included Oscar Wilde, Robert Harborough Sherard, Ernest Dowson, John Gray, John Davidson, Lionel Johnson, and Morley Roberts. The book presents new information about them as well.

Cohen analyzes Barlas’s writings in detail and places them in the context of the 1890s. Influences on him are explored, as is his probable influence on Dowson’s most important poem and Wilde’s The Soul of Man under Socialism.

This book should appeal to students of the literature of the 1890s, as well as readers interested in the equally under-examined fields of radical politics and mental illness in the late-Victorian era.

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