Elspeth Barker’s first and only novel, O Caledonia, was once described by the novelist Ali Smith as “the best least-known novel of the 20th century”. But in 2021, 30 years after its first publication – and a year before the author’s death at the age of 81 – it was reissued by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and found its place as a modern classic of Scottish literature. The book has achieved international success and will be published this September by Scribner in the US and is set to appear in France, Spain (and also in Catalonia), Estonia and Italy.
The novel tells the glittering, darkly funny story of the short life of a young girl, Janet, who lives in a bleak Scottish castle, calls her cats subjunctives, keeps a jackdaw as a pet and learns poetry by heart. The only bright spot in her life is her risque Cousin Lila, whose room rattles with empty whisky bottles and smells of Schiaparelli’s Shocking and Craven A cigarettes.
While the novel’s literary forebears are Emily Brontë and Walter Scott, it is more akin to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, and the Big House novels of Molly Keane. Clever, awkward Janet is in many ways a manifestation of Elspeth as a child, and Cousin Lila perhaps a manifestation of her adult self. But O Caledonia is much more than simply a delightful coming-of-age novel, for it is original, poetic and passionate, a hymn to the importance of nature, books and the imagination.
I was a publisher at Virago Press in the late 1980s and one of my authors, Raffaella Barker, Elspeth’s daughter, suggested to me that her mother should write a novel. On the strength of a few pages of vivid, lyrical and funny prose I commissioned her and took the book with me to Hamish Hamilton, where it was published in 1991.
It won four literary awards including the Winifred Holtby prize and was shortlisted for the Whitbread first novel prize. Elspeth was 51 when her novel appeared, and she and I went on the road together, travelling from one prize ceremony and literary festival to another. She was an appalling backseat driver, sitting behind me, whimpering and exclaiming as I drove her around Britain.
At the Hay festival we stayed in a particularly dismal B&B garlanded with notices forbidding us to wash our knickers. We drank red wine out of teacups and smoked so many cigarettes we set off the smoke alarm, at which Elspeth flung herself under her bed leaving me to deal with our landlady.
Wild, beautiful, erudite and very funny, Elspeth shone at every occasion. At a large dinner I hosted that year in a Polish cafe in Hampstead, Joseph Brodsky and Clive James, long mutual admirers, had finally met. All evening they sat together quoting poetry to each other. Further down the table was Elspeth. Tiring of this male display of intellect 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 Drumtochty castle, Aberdeenshire, rumoured to have been purchased from the King of Norway. The castle was the site of a prep school run by her parents, Elizabeth and Robert Langlands.
Like her heroine, a bookish child with an early passion for the classics, Elspeth describes in her novel the hell of being surrounded by boys who pulled her plaits on the rugby pitch, hurled cricket balls at her head and punched her tender adolescent 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 in her final exam. Later she was out at a friend’s wedding, little realising her father had persuaded the principal to allow her to re-sit. Her failure to attend the additional exam resulted in her possessions being bagged up and her room cleared. She was sent down that day with no degree, ending up in a bedsit in London.
When Elspeth was 22, Elizabeth Smart, the author of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, introduced her to her former lover the 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 meeting him, and both it turned out were to write just one novel in their lifetimes, novels that have endured for decades.
Elspeth and George set up home in a 17th-century farmhouse in Itteringham, Norfolk in the 60s. Bintry House was owned by the National Trust and had a peppercorn rent. They had five children, the final five of George’s 15. (They were to marry much later, in 1989, unable to do so until after the death of George’s first wife, Jessica, a Roman Catholic, who had refused to divorce him.) Theirs was a life of old bohemia, considerable chaos and constant visitors on the infamous and sometimes violent Saturday drinking nights.
“People wanted to sit next to him,” Elspeth said. “Then they knew they wouldn’t have anything thrown at them.”
George was occupied with working as a poet, while Elspeth taught classics at Runton Hill school for girls, where she wrote and produced plays in Latin with her pupils. It was not until she was nearly 50 that her book was commissioned.
On publication the journalist Lynn Barber arranged to go to Bintry House to interview her. Lynn was known for the demolition of many of her subjects and most authors were too frightened even to meet her. “Whatever you do,” I instructed Elspeth, “don’t drink until she’s left.” Regardless, they drank a couple of 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 his recent death, John Carey wrote something slighting about his poetry in the Sunday Times. At the Sunday Times Christmas party in the Reform Club, Elspeth stormed up to him and spat out a curse in rhyming couplets ending with the words: “Be Wary, Carey.”
After George’s death, Elspeth became a regular contributor to the Independent on Sunday, writing witty, clever pieces about such subjects as her beloved pot-bellied pig Portia who took up residence under her kitchen table. She contributed to the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian and the Observer. Harpers & Queen sent her and the writer Caroline Blackwood on a trip where they drank and wept their way around the battlefields of the Somme.
She taught creative writing at Norwich University of the Arts with the poet George Szirtes and was a tutor at the Arvon Foundation with her friend Barbara Trapido. It was there they met the young Maggie O’Farrell and spotted her talent; O’Farrell wrote an introduction to the 2021 reissue of O Caledonia.
In 1997 Elspeth published Loss: An Anthology, with extracts 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 by her daughter Raffaella, about her father’s funeral. In 2012 her selected journalism, Dog Days, appeared.
Elspeth was married for a second time, to Bill Troop, in 2007; they divorced six years later. She remained at Bintry. Her daughters lived nearby and there were always one or two of her sons and a lot of animals in residence. She spent her final months in a local care 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.