Elspeth Barker, author of a beloved novel so little known, dies at 81

There are novelists, like Thomas Wolfe and Philip Roth, who repeatedly mine their lives for material, each book a thinly veiled piece of their personal history. And then there are novelists like Elspeth Barker, a Scottish bohemian who distilled her ramshackle existence into a single work, ‘O Caledonia’, published in 1991.

The book chronicles the short and unhappy life of a girl named Janet, who, like Mrs. Barker, grew up half-savage in a neo-Gothic castle in the Scottish countryside, avoiding people and befriending jackdaws. Both faced constant harassment from local boys and both sought refuge in foreign languages ​​and books.

Although the novel opens with Janet recently dead, murdered on a flight of stairs, it is full of life, energized by Mrs. Barker’s keen eye for natural detail: she writes of the mist that “floats in smoking filaments in the wide of the valleys” and on Janet shaking “wet honeysuckle on her face”.

“Ô Calédonie”, his only novel, was a success with readers and critics. It sold widely in Europe and won a number of minor British literary prizes, including the Scottish Book Prize, and was shortlisted for a major prize, the Whitbread Book Award (now the Costa Book Award).

Ms Barker was 51 when it was published, just months after the death of her husband, poet George Barker. They had five children together – he already had 10, from a previous marriage and multiple affairs – and lived on a drafty farm in rural Norfolk, filled with animals, wild and domestic.

During her husband’s lifetime, Mrs Barker helped make ends meet by teaching Greek and Latin at a girls’ school on the coast. After achieving literary fame, she became a frequent and valued essayist and critic, with her work regularly published in The London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement and The Independent.

Although she often hinted at another novel in the making, this never appeared, and over time “O Caledonia” faded from popular view, but not from the memory of her many admirers. In a 2017 interview with The New York Times, British novelist Ali Smith called it “one of the best, lesser-known novels of the 20th century.”

Ms Barker died on April 21 in Aylsham, England, near Norwich. She was 81 years old. His daughter Raffaella Barker, also a novelist, confirmed the death but said the death certificate did not specify a cause beyond “old age”.

Elspeth Roberta Cameron Langlands was born on November 16, 1940 in Edinburgh. When she was 7, her parents, Robert and Elizabeth (Brash) Langlands, moved their family to Drumtochty, a neo-Gothic castle in Kincardineshire that her father is said to have purchased from the King of Norway.

The Langlands established a preparatory school for boys, which Elspeth attended as the only girl. Her classmates, rough and rural, had fun tormenting her. She turned to books and animals out of friendship, and she marked the milestones of adolescence through the coming and going of pets.

“I remember being 18 and the dog that had been there all my life – a golden retriever called Rab – died,” she told Norwich’s Eastern Daily Press in 2012. tonic or go in college, the death of this dog marked the end of my childhood.

She went to boarding school and later attended Somerville College, Oxford, where she studied modern languages. She was brilliant but ill-suited to the rigors of higher education; after sleeping through her final exam, she was expelled without a diploma.

She moved to London, where she waited on tables, clerked in a bookstore, and became familiar with the literary body of the city. When she was 22, Canadian poet Elizabeth Smart introduced her to Mr. Barker. He was 50 years old.

Mr Barker was married but estranged from his first wife, Jessica Barker, a strict Roman Catholic who refused to divorce – a fact which did not stop him from having a long affair with Ms Smart which produced four children. Their love had cooled and Mrs. Smart showed few qualms about letting anyone take her place.

Thanks to a loan from one of Mr Barker’s friends, playwright Harold Pinter, the new couple moved north to a village outside Norwich. Their home became a stage for traveling students, poets and artists, as well as Mr. Barker’s already sizable offspring, many of whom grew up with their own families.

They finally married in 1989, after the death of Mr Barker’s wife. Mr. Barker died two years later.

Ms. Barker married Bill Troop, a noted black-and-white film processing expert, in 2007. They divorced in 2013. Along with her daughter Raffaella, she is survived by her sister, Finella Bryson; another daughter, Lily Law; three sons, Sam, Roderick and Alexander; and five grandchildren.

Ms. Barker’s first foray into published writing came in the late 1980s at the request of Raffaella, who was then an editor at Harper’s Bazaar. The magazine was planning a farm-themed issue, and Raffaella suggested that her mother write something about her fondness for chickens.

The essay caught the eye of a book publisher, and after Ms. Barker submitted a few pages, she won a contract for a novel. She completed it in just a few months.

She then edited “Loss” (1997), an anthology on bereavement, and published “Dog Days” (2012), a collection of essays and reviews.

A prolific journalist, Ms Barker has earned a reputation for writing perfect copy, an editor’s dream. But she complicated matters by relaying her articles orally over the phone or sending handwritten copies in envelopes absently inscribed with shopping lists.

Insofar as she had a public reputation, it was like a goofy, aging free spirit. Having no driver’s license and unable to obtain one despite having taken the test several times, she hit the road with a wig and sunglasses, the better to thwart the police, who were then on her.

But Ms. Barker was actually a keen, exacting but ultimately human observer, with a special ability to capture the natural world.

“What pigs they were, the pigs of yesteryear,” she wrote in the Daily Mail in 1999.”

“O Caledonia” was re-released in 2021 and will be re-released in the US later this year. The new edition is accompanied by an introduction by Northern Irish novelist Maggie O’Farrell, another of Ms Barker’s many admirers.

“‘O Caledonia’ is one of those books you proselytize,” writes Ms. O’Farrell. “I once decided to become friends with someone based solely on her naming ‘O Caledonia’ as her favorite book. I’m happy to report that it was a decision I didn’t never had to regret.

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