Elspeth Barker, Author of a Single Beloved Novel, Dies at 81

There are novelists, like Thomas Wolfe and Philip Roth, who repeatedly mine their lives for material, each book a thinly veiled chunk of personal history. And then there are novelists like Elspeth Barker, a Scottish bohemian who distilled her ramshackle existence into a single work, “O Caledonia,” published in 1991.

The book recounts the short, unhappy life of a girl named Janet, who, like Ms. Barker, grew up half-feral in a neo-Gothic castle in rural Scotland, avoiding people and befriending jackdaws. Both faced constant harassment from local boys, and both sought refuge in foreign languages and books.

Though the novel opens with Janet newly dead, murdered on a staircase, it is full of life, energized by Ms. Barker’s thistle-sharp eye for natural detail: She writes of mist that “floats in steaming filaments off the glens” and of Janet shaking “wet honeysuckle over her face.”

“O Caledonia,” her only novel, was a hit among readers and critics. It sold widely in Europe and won a number of minor British literary awards, including the Scottish Book Prize, and was shortlisted for a major one, the Whitbread Book Award (now the Costa Book Award).

Ms. Barker’s novel recounts the short, unhappy life of a girl named Janet, who, like Ms. Barker, grew up half-feral in a neo-Gothic castle in rural Scotland.

Ms. Barker was 51 when it was published, just months after the death of her husband, the poet George Barker. They had five children together — he already had 10, from a previous marriage and multiple affairs — and lived in a drafty farmhouse in the Norfolk countryside, filled with animals, wild and domestic.

While her husband was alive, Ms. Barker helped make ends meet by teaching Greek and Latin at a girls’ school on the coast. After she rocketed to literary fame, she became a frequent and well-regarded essayist and critic, her work running regularly in The London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement and The Independent.

Though she often alluded to having another novel in the works, it never appeared, and in time “O Caledonia” faded from popular view, though not from the memory of her many admirers. In a 2017 interview with The New York Times, the British novelist Ali Smith called it “one of the best least-known novels of the 20th century.”

Ms. Barker died on April 21 in Aylsham, England, near Norwich. She was 81. Her daughter Raffaella Barker, also a novelist, confirmed the death but said the death certificate did not specify a cause beyond “old age.”

Elspeth Roberta Cameron Langlands was born on Nov. 16, 1940, in Edinburgh. When she was 7 her parents, Robert and Elizabeth (Brash) Langlands, moved their family to Drumtochty, a neo-Gothic castle in Kincardineshire that her father was rumored to have bought from the king of Norway.

The Langlandses established a boys’ preparatory school, which Elspeth attended as the only girl. Her classmates, rugged and rural, made a sport of tormenting her. She turned to books and animals for friendship, and she marked milestones of adolescence by 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,” she told The Eastern Daily Press of Norwich in 2012. “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.”

She went away to boarding school and later attended Somerville College, Oxford, where she studied modern languages. She was brilliant but ill fit for the rigors of higher education; after she slept through her final exam, she was ejected without a diploma.

She moved to London, where she waited on tables, clerked in a bookstore and fell in with the city’s literary set. When she was 22, the Canadian poet Elizabeth Smart introduced her to Mr. Barker. He was 50.

Mr. Barker was married but estranged from his first wife, Jessica Barker, a strict Roman Catholic who refused to divorce him — a fact that had not kept him from carrying on a long affair with Ms. Smart that produced four children. Their love had cooled, and Ms. Smart showed little compunction in letting someone take her place.

With a loan from one of Mr. Barker’s friends, the playwright Harold Pinter, the new couple moved north, to a village outside Norwich. Their home became a way station for traveling students, poets and artists, as well as for Mr. Barker’s already sizable brood, many of them grown with families of their own.

They finally married in 1989, after the death of Mr. Barker’s wife. Mr. Barker died two years later.

Ms. Barker married Bill Troop, a noted expert in black-and-white film processing, in 2007. They divorced in 2013. Along with her daughter Raffaella, she is survived by her sister, Finella Bryson; another daughter, Lily Law; three sons, Sam, Roderick and Alexander; and five grandchildren.

Ms. Barker’s first foray into published writing came in the late 1980s at the behest of Raffaella, who was then an editor at Harper’s Bazaar. The magazine was assembling a farm-themed issue, and Raffaella suggested that her mother write something about her fondness for hens.

The essay drew the attention of a book editor, and after Ms. Barker submitted a few pages, she won a contract for a novel. She finished it in just a few months.

She later edited “Loss” (1997), an anthology about bereavement, and published “Dog Days” (2012), a collection of essays and criticism.

A prolific journalist, Ms. Barker developed a reputation for filing letter-perfect copy, an editor’s dream. But she complicated matters by relaying her articles orally over the phone, or mailing handwritten copies in envelopes absent-mindedly inscribed with shopping lists.

To the extent that she had a public reputation, it was as a slightly zany, aging free spirit. Lacking a driver’s license and unable to obtain one despite sitting for the test multiple times, she took to the road in a wig and sunglasses, the better to foil the police, who by then were on to her.

But Ms. Barker was in fact a keen, demanding but ultimately humane observer, with a special faculty for capturing the natural world.

“What swine they were, the pigs of yesteryear,” she wrote in The Daily Mail in 1999. “Tusked, dragon-snouted, hirsute and angular, they bear no resemblance to the cute, cheeky chaps of late-20th-century iconography.”

“O Caledonia” was republished in 2021 and will be reissued in the United States later this year. The new edition comes with an introduction by the Northern Irish novelist Maggie O’Farrell, another of Ms. Barker’s many admirers.

“‘O Caledonia’ is one of those books you proselytize about,” Ms. O’Farrell writes. “I once decided to become friends with someone on the sole basis that she named ‘O Caledonia’ as her favorite book. I’m happy to report that it was a decision I’ve never had cause to regret.”

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