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 Russian widow of Hector’s cousin. She trails around in veils, collects fungi, communes with a mangy cat, drinks, goes berserk, and is put away in an asylum. Janet pays her a surreptitious visit there, and tangles with a few other inmates whose broad Scots dialect contributes to a ghoulish and very funny black comedy episode.
Janet makes friends with Lila, because she “had taken to reading Edwardian books about isolated, misunderstood young girls whose intelligence and courage were noticed only by one adult friend, [and] decided that Lila was fitted for this part.” This passage is typical of the author’s deflationary technique and defines Janet as a female Don Quixote trying to live her life by books. Instead of damsels in distress she rescues animals. There seems to be an inordinate number of maimed and diseased ones about, and Barker’s overwhelming pity for them sometimes hovers on the edge of prurience. An episode involving a trepanned pigeon is particularly gruesome. The role of these poor creatures in the education of Janet is to teach her that life is nasty, brutish, and short. The one she identifies with is a manatee seen in the zoo. It hasn’t got anything wrong with it, but it looks lonely, sad, and ugly: a cetacean ugly duckling, in fact, as unloved and isolated as Janet feels in her family.
Things are no better when she is sent to a girls’ boarding school; she doesn’t fit in and makes no friends. Instead, she develops a sense of superiority over her stupid, philistine school-fellows and a proper contempt for the public spirit that takes the place of compassion in the school ethos. She loves language, especially the subjunctive; and she loves poetry, especially if it’s in Latin, French, or Greek. She yearns for love, even for a lover, whom she envisages as a poetry-loving soul mate. “Nudity had no part to play in her life.” This is borne in on her when one of the madwomen in Lila’s asylum bares her bottom. Janet is like the girl in Munch’s Puberty, crouched on her bed in apprehension of sex. The very idea of it frightens and disgusts her, and the helpful manual provided by her mother seems almost as threatening as the Beardsley erotica locked away in a secret room of the castle, or advances from boys, or the porn magazines in the gardener’s cubbyhole.
Janet’s death is monumentally ironic, because it is the gardener who stabs her in a fit of Calvinist prudery when he imagines she is making a pass at him. This final event takes place at night in the empty castle, to the sound of Gluck’s Orpheus on the record player. “You filthy wee whore,” says the gardener in a postmodernist attempt to cool the Gothick scene. This time, though, the ironic undercutting doesn’t work. The end destroys the credibility of what would otherwise be another naturalistic portrait in the long gallery of sensitive, misunderstood adolescents; not another Catcher in the Rye—it is too conventional for that—but touching and enhanced by the exotic Scottish setting.
Auchnasaugh means “field of sighing”: a fairly common kind of name in Scotland, where the sighs are usually for some bloody tribal massacre in the past. But this particular castle is really just another heritage theme park. Its sighs are for the past in general, like the ones incarnate in the repro trinkets and “home-made” preserves for sale at every British castle open to the public, and all gift-wrapped in William Morris paper. Even the literary allusions and pastiches cater to the reader’s nostalgia for his or her own past. They all invoke works that most people first got to love when they were very young: not just children’s books like Misunderstood and The Secret Garden, but the Romantic poets, the Brontës, and Edgar Allan Poe. Middle-aged British readers get an extra treat in the scatter of obsolete brand names from the Forties and Fifties: StartRite shoes, Gor-ray skirts, Fuller’s walnut cake, Elizabeth Arden’s Apple Blossom talcum powder. It’s like watching David Lean’s atmospheric Brief Encounter, a film set in a provincial town in wartime, and often to be seen on British late-night television. Nothing is more enjoyable than nostalgia, and this is a very enjoyable book; indulgent, but witty and civilized too. When it was published in Britain last year, it got favorable reviews and a prize.
December 3, 1992