Barber was born in Rastrick, Brighouse, West Riding of Yorkshire, the youngest of three daughters. She was initially tutored at home by her mother, Maria Louisa, née Musgrave (1831–1890) and elder sisters. Barber was an eager reader but when her father, solicitor and amateur archaeologist Fairless Barber, died in 1881, her mother, unable to cope, sent her to relatives in Torquay where she attended a local school. It was here that she became aware of a spinal condition that would affect the rest of her life. She settled with her mother in Bungay, Suffolk.
In 1884, Barber went to London to train as a nurse at a children's hospital. She also travelled to Torquay to care for a relative and did charitable work in the East End of London. However, her health continued to deteriorate, including her sight and she was in continual need of care herself. To the dismay of her relatives, she was effectively "adopted" by the cultured Dowson family who took care of her in their family home.
Unable to continue her charitable work, Barber took up writing under the pseudonym Michael Fairless, the "Michael" inspired by her childhood friend Michael McDonnell (1882–1956), subsequently chief justice of the British Mandate of Palestine. Her first book was the religious romance The Gathering of Brother Hilarius (1901) but it was The Roadmender (1902) that achieved a wild success, being reprinted 31 times in 10 years.
- "The Roadmender by Michael Fairless". Goodreads. Retrieved 7 September 2014.
- Room (2004)
- Room, A. (2004) "Barber, Margaret Fairless (1869–1901)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, accessed 2 July 2007 (subscription or UK public library membership required)
- Palmer, W. S. [M. E. Dowson] & A. M. Haggard, A. M.(1913) Michael Fairless: Her Life and Writings
- M. E. Dowson (1931) "A biographical note" in The complete works of Michael Fairless
- "The Tramp" [A. H. Anderson] (1924) The Roadmender's Country
- Wilde, A. (1938) "A Pilgrimage to the Roadmender Country: Memories of Michael Fairless", Sussex Daily News, 25 Feb
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