Elspeth Barker, Author of O Caledonia
By Elodie Barnes | On November 22, 2023 | Comments (0)
Elspeth Barker (November 16, 1940 – April 21, 2022) was a Scottish novelist and journalist. Her only novel, O Caledonia, published in 1991 and reissued in 2021, has been hailed as a classic of modern Scottish literature.
Darkly humorous, skillful, lyrical, and somewhat autobiographical, it tells the story of the life and death of a young girl named Janet. It won several awards on its first publication and remained Elspeth Barker’s only published work of fiction.
Early life in Scotland and Oxford
Elspeth Barker was born Elspeth Roberta Cameron Langlands in Edinburgh, Scotland to Robert and Elizabeth Langlands, who had married in 1939. Robert was enlisted in the Royal Scots for the duration of World War II. In addition to Elspeth, the couple had three other daughters – Finella, Alison, and Flora, and a son, David.
For the first years of Elspeth’s life, the family lived in Edinburgh, with a holiday home in Elie. Elizabeth in particular loved the beach and swam in the sea no matter the weather or season.
When Elspeth was seven the family moved to Drumtochty Castle in Aberdeenshire, a Neo-Gothic castle reputedly purchased by her father from the King of Norway.
Elizabeth was a talented and dedicated teacher, especially of English, and together with Robert, she ran the castle as a boys’ prep school. Elspeth (and presumably her siblings) attended classes along with the paying pupils.
Much like her heroine Janet in O Caledonia, Elspeth later remembered the torment of being surrounded by boys who pulled her braids, poked her chest, and threw cricket balls at her. She took refuge in books and a love of animals.
Elspeth marked the passage of adolescence with 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. And I remember that, far more than being allowed a gin and tonic or going to university, the death of that dog signaled the end of my childhood.”
Elspeth later went to boarding school at St Leonard’s in Fife, and then to Somerville College, Oxford in 1958, where she read the classics.
She never graduated, however; she fell asleep in her final exam, and didn’t realize that her father had persuaded the principal to allow her to retake it. Her failure to even attend the rescheduled exam led to her being “sent down” with no degree.
Marriage, children, and a Bohemian Lifestyle
After the disaster at Oxford, Elspeth moved to London, where she worked in a bookshop, and as a waitress. At age twenty-two, she was introduced to poet George Barker (then fifty years old) by his former lover, the Canadian author Elizabeth Smart. Smart was the author of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.
George Barker was married, though estranged from his Roman Catholic wife Jessica, and already had ten children — including four with Elizabeth.
Despite initially saying that she found George to be “incredibly rude,” Elspeth began a love affair with him that would last for the rest of his life. Later she became what she described as a “co-wife” with Elizabeth. She was unable to marry George until 1989, after Jessica died.
In the 1960s, the couple took a loan from playwright Harold Pinter and moved to Bintry House, a 17th-century farmhouse in Itteringham, Norfolk, which was owned by the National Trust. There, George wrote poetry while Elspeth taught classics at Renton Hill School for Girls. They had five children together — Raffaella, Lily, Sam, Roderick, and Alexander.
They led a bohemian lifestyle with a steady stream of visitors, and infamous Saturday night drinking parties that could sometimes turn violent.
Elspeth was known as an erudite, witty, and eccentric character: later, many of her friends would remember how she had no driving license, having repeatedly failed her test, but insisted on driving anyway while wearing a wig and sunglasses to fool the police.
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Elspeth’s first writing was commissioned by her daughter, Raffaella, who was then an editor at Harper’s Bazaar. The magazine was assembling a farm-themed issue, and Raffaella asked her mother to write something about her fondness for hens.
Elspeth then secured a contract for a novel after a submission of only a few pages. The resulting book, O Caledonia, was published in 1991, when she was fifty-one.
It was later described by novelist Ali Smith in a New York Times interview as “the best least-known novel of the 20th century…a sparkly, funny work of genius about class, romanticism, social tradition, and literary tradition.”
Glittering and darkly humorous, it opens with the death of a young girl, Janet. But rather than focusing on “whodunnit,” the novel tells the story of Janet’s short life in a bleak Scottish castle.
Clever and awkward, and a social and familial misfit, Janet learns poetry by heart and keeps a jackdaw as a pet. She assumes a certain semblance of outward conformity. The descriptions of the Highland landscape are vividly beautiful, and the novel as a whole is a lyrical showcase of Elspeth’s love of words and language.
O Caledonia has often been described as a coming-of-age novel, but this is a limiting view of a book that skillfully defies genre. It takes inspiration from the Gothic, classical myth, Shakespeare, nature writing, Scottish tradition, and what would now be termed auto-fiction.
The central theme — ostensibly that of a young girl growing up in trying circumstances — reaches into the universal struggle of the individual against authority; the forging and maintaining of an individual identity when everyone around you has their own ideas of what you should be.
It won the Winifred Holtby Prize, the David Higham Prize, the Angel Fiction Prize, and the Scottish Book Prize, as well as being shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award (now the Costa Award).
A shift to journalism
George died not long after the publication of O Caledonia. Elspeth remained in Bintry House with her daughters nearby and several animals in residence, including her beloved pot-bellied pig Portia.
She turned to journalism, becoming a regular contributor to the Independent on Sunday, the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian, the Observer, Country Living, and Vogue.
She had a reputation for filing perfect copy that needed little to no editing, and would usually either relay her articles over the phone or send them handwritten, often with shopping lists scribbled on the envelopes in which they were enclosed.
Elspeth also taught creative writing at Norwich University of the Arts alongside poet George Szirtes. She was a visiting professor of Fiction at Kansas University and tutored at the Arvon Foundation.
In 1997 she edited Loss: An Anthology, which included extracts from writers as wide-ranging as Ovid, Sylvia Plath, Carol Ann Duffy, John Donne, Rilke, Yeats, and Dylan Thomas. In 2012, an edition of her collected journalism called Dog Days was published.
Elspeth married again in 2007, to Bill Troop; they were divorced six years later. However, she was philosophical:
“At this interesting point of life, one may be whoever and whatever age one chooses. One may drink all night, smash bones in hunting accidents, travel the spinning globe. One may teach one’s grandchildren rude rhymes and Greek myths. One may also move very slowly round the garden in a shapeless coat, planting drifts of narcissus bulbs for later springs.”
O Caledonia was republished in 2021 with an introduction by Maggie O’Farrell (who had, coincidentally, worked on one of the book desks when Elspeth submitted her handwritten copy and often had to phone Elspeth for clarification when her handwriting proved elusive).
In this new introduction, O’Farrell summed up the sentiments of devoted readers on O Caledonia: “This book … is the equivalent of a literary phoenix – rare, thrilling, one of a kind. Read it, please, with that knowledge.”
As dementia gradually took hold, Elspeth moved into a care home in Aylsham, Norfolk. She died in April 2022 of old age.
Contributed by Elodie Barnes. Elodie is a writer and editor with a serious case of wanderlust. Her short fiction has been widely published online and is included in the Best Small Fictions 2022 Anthology published by Sonder Press. She is Books & Creative Writing Editor at Lucy Writers Platform, she is also co-facilitating What the Water Gave Us, an Arts Council England-funded anthology of emerging women writers from migrant backgrounds. She is currently working on a collection of short stories, and when not writing can usually be found planning the next trip abroad, or daydreaming her way back to 1920s Paris. Find her online at Elodie Rose Barnes.
More about Elspeth Barker
- O Caledonia (1991; new edition 2021)
- Loss (1998)
- Notes from the Hen House: Collected Essays by Elspeth Barker (2023)
- Podcast episode on Lost Ladies of Lit
- Noir for the Anthropocene: On Elspeth Barker’s O Caledonia
- Obituary in The Guardian
- Obituary in the New York Times
- Tribute in The Book Hive