The Barnes family name can be traced to southeastern England and derives from the Norse "bjorn," meaning warrior. Colonial records indicate that at least ten or twelve Barneses emigrated to America before 1650. A descendant of these early emigrants was Shamgar Barnes, who died in 1750 in Middletown, Connecticut, where the family resided for five generations. Duane Barnes (1814-1900), a great-great grandson of Shamgar Barnes, was a schoolteacher, bookseller, and poet. Among his fourteen children was Zadel Barnes, grandmother of the most prominent literary figure of the family: journalist, illustrator, dramatist, novelist, and poet, Djuna Barnes. The Barnes family is distinctive for its longstanding tendency to select unconventional names and for a particularly high rate of solitary life and divorce much before this became commonplace. The Barnes family even had one divorce in the seventeenth century.
Zadel Barnes (1841-1917), daughter of Duane Barnes and Cynthia Turner, began her career as a journalist at age thirteen and continued to contribute articles and fictional pieces to leading magazines and newspapers throughout her life, including the Pall Mall Gazette, Leslie's Weekly, and Harper's Monthly Magazine. She initiated and edited the National Philanthropist in London in 1884. She was a feminist who wrote and lectured in various countries on women's suffrage, alcohol prohibition, and abolition. She claimed to have known Harriet Beecher Stowe and leading feminists of the mid-nineteenth century and was mentioned in passing in the memoirs of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Andrew Field, Djuna Barnes's biographer, described her as belonging to "that undergrowth of literary nationalism that flourished after the Civil War," a generation "conspicuous for the role of women in it." Of her literary works she was best known for "Meg--A Pastoral, and Other Poems," published in Harper's in 1878. She also published a novel, Can the Old Love?, in 1871 and edited Zöphiel--Or the Bride of Seven in 1879. Her works were published under the name Z. B. Budington and Z. B. Gustafson, as well as Zadel Turner Barnes.
She was married for twenty years to Henry Aaron Budington. The son of a successful sheep farmer and abolitionist Republican, Budington was also a journalist and worked for the Springfield Republican, for which Zadel Barnes wrote editorials. He described himself as a spiritualist, and his writings reveal a mixture of his righteous Methodist upbringing and the mystico-scientific ideas characteristic of his time. Zadel Barnes finally rebelled against his stringent moral standards, as did their son, Henry.
After her divorce from Budington in 1877, Zadel Barnes married Axel Gustafson and lived for a time in Great Britain. Mr. Gustafson was a writer and an activist in the temperance movement; he and Zadel co-authored The Foundation of Death, a popular pro-temperance book, in 1884. Some hold that Zadel Barnes Gustafson established a writer's salon in London where she entertained various pre-Raphaelite figures including Oscar Wilde. Although she did reside in London during this time and befriended notable figures including Swiss royalty and the daughter of Karl Marx, it is uncertain whether her literary salon actually existed. After her separation from Gustafson, Zadel returned to Connecticut where she lived with her son Brian and his family. A powerful and independent woman, Zadel Barnes Gustafson served as a role model for the young Djuna Barnes.
Djuna Barnes's father (1865-1934) was named Henry Budington but rejected his name because he disliked his father. He used several names throughout his life, including Brian Barnes, Brian Eglinton Barnes, Harold Barnes, Wald Gustafson, and Wald Barnes. He appears to have begun his adult pursuits as an engineer, for, at an early age, he designed a "wind plane" which he named the Barnes Air-Ship. However, he seems to have dedicated most of his life to artistic creation. Although he never gained public recognition for his works, he was a prolific writer of poems and novels, composer of operas, and painter. He built a home on the estate of his wealthy brother, Justin, located in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, an area popular among bohemians of the time. Here he lived with his mother Zadel Barnes Gustafson; his wife, the British-born Elizabeth Chappell; and their children, Thurn Barnes (b. 1891 or before?), Djuna Barnes (b. 1892), Zendon Barnes (b. 1900), Saxon Barnes (b. 1902), and Shangar Barnes, a.k.a. Charles Chappell (b. 1904). He is known to have had several mistresses. One of his lovers was Marguerite Amelia d'Alvarez, an opera singer who worked with Oscar Hammerstein and who was the model for the character Kate Careless in Djuna Barnes's novel Ryder. Brian Barnes and Elizabeth Chappell divorced in 1912, a considerable time after his long-time lover and eventual second wife, Frances (Fanny) Faulkner, joined the family at Cornwall-on-Hudson. Frances Faulkner was the daughter of John Faulkner, a prominent Irish painter who was an associate of the Royal Hibernian Academy from 1861 to 1870 and lived in the United States during the 1870s. Frances Faulkner had three children with Brian Barnes: Muriel (b. 1899), Duane (b. 1902), and Brian (b. 1904). The responsibility of caring for their father fell to Muriel and Duane after Djuna and her siblings left the estate.