Elizabeth N. Barrow

Skaneateles has never been known as a writers’ colony, but we do sprout the odd novelist now and then, and certainly Elizabeth N. Barrow is one of the most interesting. The niece of artist John D. Barrow, of Barrow Art Gallery fame, she was the daughter of his brother George, a Skaneateles attorney who had his fingers in many pies. Born in 1869, Elizabeth grew up in Skaneateles, went to school, enjoyed rowing, fishing and tennis.

At some point, however, she turned to writing and in 1898 blossomed into the public consciousness with The King’s Rivals: An Historical Novel of the Time of Charles II. Writing as E.N. Barrow, she treated readers to sentences like this one:

“It was in the spring of the year 1660 that I, John Hadder by name, being then in the four and thirtieth year of my age, and having a fair amount of prosperity, as the colony understood the word, sailed out of our good Cape harbour, as captain of the fishing sloop ‘Steadfast,’ with a figurehead of my own carving at the bow, thirteen men to command (myself took away the curse of numbers), and a goodly supply of spirling and porgies to make things attractive for the cod.”

She had a way with words, lots of them in every sentence, and the critics were kind. The Trinity University Review noted:

“This tale of adventure, sweet and wholesome as sea air amid which the story opens, carries us from shores of New England to the Court of Charles II and back again. Mr. Barrow writes in a simple but charming way. The chief attraction of the story lies in contrast between the artless frankness of the New Englanders and the very different spirit of the Restoration Court.”

Two years later, Miss Barrow produced another historical romance, and set a distance record with the title page, which read:

The Fortune of War, Being Portions of Many Letters and Journals Written to and for her Cousin, Mistress Dorothea Engel of Carthmoor Hall, Northumberland, England (whose descendants have preserved them until the present day) By Katherine, daughter of Major General James Patison, during the year which she spent in America at the time of the Struggle for the Independence of the Colonies. These writings have been condensed and arranged, in order to form a connected account of the Romantic Adventures of the writer during said period, and are thus for the first time offered to the public by Elizabeth N. Barrow. “

In this one, the somewhat sassy daughter of a British general comes to the colonies, sniffs at the rabble in New York, but experiences a change of heart when she is captured by the rebels and given shelter by Martha Washington, who is motherly and understanding.

Again the critics were kind. The New York Times Saturday Review wrote:

“The story is a good one, the historical data accurate, and the ways and manners of the period are cleverly presented… It is quite safe to say that this book vies in excellence with some of the historical romances which have caused more general comment.”

This was the last of Barrow’s novels. She did write at least one more piece of fiction, “The Broken Wedding Ring,” which appeared in The Railroad Man’s Magazine in 1906, but after that, silence.

Until, in 1916, one comes upon her having translated, from the Swedish,  Dr. Poul Carl Bjerre’s The History and Practice of Psychanalysis. One pauses to blink. Could this truly be our Elizabeth N. Barrow? Dr. Bjerre was a man who knew Freud and Jung. Practicing in Stockholm, he introduced psychiatry to Sweden. What could possibly link him to Elizabeth N. Barrow of Skaneateles, and when did she learn Swedish?

The answer is on the back of the book’s title page: “The translator desires to express keen appreciation of the valuable assistance given in this work by Ebba Tisell.”

This, we can be sure, is the Ebba Tisell who later appears in census records residing with Elizabeth N. Barrow in Skaneateles and New York. Born in Sweden, Ebba Tissel came to the United States in 1906 with her sister; they were trained as nurses, and lived in New York City. Elizabeth Barrow maintained a residence in New York as well, and perhaps first encountered Miss Tisell as a nurse. Certainly they knew one another well by 1915.

Ebba Tisell had a brother named Gunnar; a man named Gunnar Tisell was a publisher in Stockholm, where Dr. Bjerre was practicing and writing. Bjerre’s book on psychoanalysis came out in 1914; perhaps he was casting about for a translator; perhaps he spoke to Gunnar who said, “My sister could do it.” “But can she write?” “No, but she knows an American author; they could do it together.”

I’m guessing at this chain of events, but it’s the best guess I have. In 1916, the English edition came out, with translator Elizabeth N. Barrow gratefully acknowledging the assistance of Ebba Tisell.

In 1922, Elizabeth and Ebba sailed to Sweden together, and listed their residence as Skaneateles. In 1925, the New York State census finds them at home in Skaneateles; in 1930, they are living in New York, at 10 Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village. Ebba is listed as a servant, along with six more women, the latter being Irish. The records of sailings show them traveling to and from Europe frequently, although they sign in on separate forms, since Ebba is an “alien.”

In October of 1933, Elizabeth sold the Barrow family home in Skaneateles and had its furnishings and other contents auctioned off by A.L. Bentley. She and Ebba Tisell moved to New York City, and at some point in time, they returned to Sweden together, for good.

Elizabeth N. Barrow in 1946, at the age of 77

In 1966, at the age of 97, Elizabeth N. Barrow died in Trelleborg, the southernmost city in Sweden, at the home she shared with Ebba Tisell. On the form required by the American embassy, Miss Tisell claimed Miss Barrow’s personal effects. There we find Tisell listed not as a servant, not as a nurse, but as a friend.

* * *

Elizabeth N. Barrow’s body was cremated in Sweden, and her ashes were returned to Skaneateles for burial in Lake View Cemetery.

My thanks to the John D. Barrow Art Gallery for Elizabeth’s signature and photograph, and to the Skaneateles Historical Society.

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