Elspeth Barker’s first and only novel, O Caledonia, has been described by novelist Ali Smith as “the most misunderstood novel of the 20th century”. But in 2021, 30 years after it was first published – and a year before the author’s death at the age of 81 – it is reprinted by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and finds its place as a modern classic of Scottish literature. The book has won international success and will be published in September by Scribner in the United States and is due to appear in France, Spain (and also Catalonia), Estonia and Italy.
The novel tells the scintillating and dark story of the short life of a young girl, Janet, who lives in a dark Scottish castle, calls her cats subjunctives, keeps a jackdaw as a pet and learns poetry by heart. The only bright spot in his life is his risque cousin Lila, whose room vibrates with empty whiskey bottles and smells of Schiaparelli’s Shocking and Craven A cigarettes.
While the novel’s literary ancestors are Emily Brontë and Walter Scott, it is more akin to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and Molly Keane’s Big House novels. Clever and clumsy, Janet is in many ways a manifestation of Elspeth as a child, and Cousin Lila perhaps a manifestation of her adult self. But Ô Calédonie is much more than a delicious initiation novel, because it is original, poetic and passionate, a hymn to the importance of nature, books and the imagination.
I was an editor at Virago Press in the late 1980s and one of my authors, Raffaella Barker, Elspeth’s daughter, suggested that her mother write a novel. With a few pages of lively, lyrical and funny prose, I commissioned him and took the book with me to Hamish Hamilton, where it was published in 1991.
It has won four literary awards including the Winifred Holtby Prize and was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award. Elspeth was 51 when her novel came out, and she and I have been on the road together, traveling to awards shows and literary festivals. She was an awful driver in the back, sitting behind me, moaning and exclaiming as I drove her across Britain.
At the Hay festival, we stayed in a particularly gloomy B&B garlanded with signs forbidding us to wash our panties. We drank red wine from teacups and smoked so many cigarettes that we set off the smoke detector, whereupon Elspeth threw herself under her bed, leaving me to take care of our landlady.
Wild, beautiful, erudite and very funny, Elspeth shone in any occasion. At a big dinner party I hosted that year in a Polish cafe in Hampstead, Joseph Brodsky and Clive James, longtime mutual admirers, had finally met. All evening they sat together quoting poetry to each other. Lower on the table was Elspeth. Tired of this masculine display of intelligence and memory, she banged the table and to their astonishment began quoting poetry in Latin and ancient Greek. When she and I left, she flagged down a police car and persuaded the occupants to drive us home.
Born Elspeth Langlands in Edinburgh, Elspeth was brought up in the neo-Gothic castle in Drumtochty, Aberdeenshire, believed to have been purchased from the King of Norway. The castle was the site of a preparatory school run by his parents, Elizabeth and Robert Langlands.
Like her heroine, a bookish child with a passion for the classics from an early age, Elspeth describes in her novel the hell of being surrounded by boys who pull pigtails at her on the rugby pitch, throw cricket balls at her head and punch her tender teenage chest.
She escaped to a boarding school, St Leonard’s, in St Andrew’s, Fife, and went on to study modern languages at Somerville College, Oxford. Elspeth fell asleep during her final exam. Later, she had gone out to a friend’s wedding, not realizing that her father had persuaded the principal to allow her to sit again. His failure to appear for the additional examination resulted in his possessions being bagged and his room emptied. She was sent off that day without a degree, ending up in a studio in London.
When Elspeth was 22, Elizabeth Smart, author of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, introduced her to her former lover, poet George Barker. Elspeth became what she described as a “co-wife” with Elizabeth. Both women had fallen in love with Barker’s poetry before they met him, and it turns out they would only write one novel in their lifetime, novels that span decades.
Elspeth and George settled in a 17th century farmhouse in Itteringham, Norfolk in the 1960s. Bintry House was owned by the National Trust and had pepper rent. They had five children, the last five of George’s 15. (They were to marry much later, in 1989, unable to do so before the death of George’s first wife, Jessica, a Roman Catholic, who had refused to divorce.) Their life was an old bohemian life, a chaos considerable and constant visitors during the infamous and sometimes violent Saturday drinking parties.
“People wanted to sit next to him,” Elspeth said. “So they knew they wouldn’t have anything to throw at them.”
George was busy working as a poet, while Elspeth taught classics at Runton Hill Girls’ School, where she wrote and produced Latin plays with her pupils. It wasn’t until he was nearly 50 that his book was commissioned.
Upon publication, journalist Lynn Barber arranged to travel to Bintry House to interview him. Lynn was known for tearing down many of her subjects and most writers were too scared to even meet her. “Whatever you do,” I said to Elspeth, “don’t drink until she’s gone.” Anyway, they drank a few bottles of red wine and fell into each other’s arms, after which Lynn wrote a vivid and loving portrait of Elspeth.
Shortly after the publication of O Caledonia, George Barker died. Unaware of her recent death, John Carey wrote something scornful about her poetry in The Sunday Times. At The Sunday Times Christmas party at the Reform Club, Elspeth rushed up to him and spat out a curse in rhyming couplets ending with the words: “Be careful, Carey.”
After George’s death, Elspeth became a regular contributor to the Independent on Sunday, writing witty and intelligent articles on topics such as her beloved pig Portia who has taken up residence under her kitchen table. She has contributed to the London Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, Guardian and Observer. Harpers & Queen sent her and writer Caroline Blackwood on a trip where they drank and cried on the battlefields of the Somme.
She taught creative writing at Norwich University of the Arts with poet George Szirtes and was a tutor at the Arvon Foundation with her friend Barbara Trapido. It is there that they meet the young Maggie O’Farrell and spot her talent; O’Farrell wrote an introduction to the 2021 reissue of O Caledonia.
In 1997 Elspeth published Loss: An Anthology, with excerpts ranging from Ecclesiastes, Ovid and Horace, through Ben Jonson, John Donne, Rilke, Yeats and Housman, to Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath and Carol Ann Duffy, and finally a short piece of her. daughter Raffaella, about her father’s funeral. In 2012, his featured journalism, Dog Days, appeared.
Elspeth married a second time to Bill Troop, in 2007; they divorced six years later. She remained in Bintry. His daughters lived nearby and there was always one or two of his sons and plenty of animals in residence. She spent her final months in a local nursing home, where she held court with characteristic charm and style.
She is survived by her five children, Raffaella, Progles, Bruddy, Sam and Lily, and five grandchildren, Roman, Lorne, Esme, Ollie and Felix.