Sighing Fields

O Caledonia

by Elspeth Barker
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 152 pp., $18.95

Elspeth Barker is the widow of the English poet George Barker. He died last year and was reincarnated on the British stage this year as a member of London’s Bohemia in the Forties. The play—Colquhoun and MacBryde, by John Byrne—is about two Scottish painters who were part of that scene. Elspeth Barker was not. She did not come into Barker’s life until the early Sixties when she was a student at Oxford and fell in love with his poetry after reading some of it in a bookshop. This is her first novel, and the interviews she gave when it appeared in London last year suggest that it is autobiographical—a memoir of her childhood, except for the end (flashed forward in a prologue), when the sixteen-year-old heroine is stabbed to death.

Her body is found at the foot of the stairs in her parents’ freezing Scottish castle, Auchnasaugh, where the plumbing and heating are inadequate, but in the moonlight

shafting drifts of crimson, green and blue, alive with whirling atoms of dust, spill translucent petals of colour down the cold grey steps. At night, when the moon is high it beams through the dying cockatoo [a heraldic bird in the stained glass window] and casts his blood drops in a chain of rubies on to the flagstones of the hall.

Just like Madeline’s Gothic chamber in The Eve of St. Agnes. In general, though, O Caledonia is more Words-worthian than Keatsian, with ravishing descriptions of nature which manage to be simultaneously rapturous and precise. Perhaps there are a few too many of them, but the wild beauty of the scenery is effectively contrasted with the grim villages chilled by the Calvinist spirit as much as by the bitter wind. This short book has a great deal of writing in it, but the author undercuts the lushness with irony, self-irony, and flashes of cinéma vérité that seem intended to disarm impatience, and generally succeed.

The title is taken from the epigraph by Sir Walter Scott:

O Caledonia! stern and wild,
Meet nurse for a poetic child!

The poetic child is Janet, the eldest of five children. They grow up in the remote north of Scotland, and in spite of his decrepit castle, their father Hector is not an impoverished aristocrat, but the headmaster of a boys’ boarding school. So was Elspeth Barker’s father, and the fact that she has let him keep this prosaic profession can be counted as a small victory over romance. The book wears its Romantic literary ancestry on its sleeve: the weather is from Wuthering Heights, with howling storms giving way now and then to luminous days of calm: a sinister gardener lurks outside the windows with a blood-stained rabbit-skinning knife; Janet’s cynical little brother teaches her pet jackdaw to say “never mind” instead of “never more”; and a relative of Mrs. Rochester’s has been installed at the end of a dark passage. This is Aunt Lila, the White …

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