Category Archives: Barker Elspeth

O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

I have to start by thanking Andy Miller for recommending O Caledonia during a previous episode of Backlisted, back in January, I think. It was introduced as Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle meets Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, a description that proved impossible for me to resist. Now that I’ve read the book myself, I can confirm that it definitely lives up to this billing, possibly with a dash of Barbara Comyns in the mix for good measure – The Skins Chairs and The Vet’s Daughter are the two that spring to mind.  

First published in 1991 and more recently reissued by Weidenfeld & Nicholson as part of their W&N Essentials series, O Caledonia is Barker’s only novel to date. it’s a dazzling gem of a book, rich in a wealth of vivid imagery – clearly the product of a highly imaginative writer with a sharp eye for detail and an affinity for outsiders. Ostensibly a coming-of-age narrative, the novel blends elements from a range of literary traditions from the Gothic novel to Classical Myths, skilfully weaving them into the fabric of the text.

Central to the novel is Janet, the eldest of five siblings – four girls and one boy – born in relatively quick succession at the end of the Second World War. We know from the opening page that Janet dies at the age of sixteen, found ‘twisted and slumped in bloody murderous death’ at the family’s rather forbidding home. However, the novel is not a murder mystery; instead, we are presented with an overview of Janet’s life, following a broadly linear arc from birth to death.

Barker wastes little time establishing the novel’s Gothic tone through a multitude of vivid descriptions, complete with touches of the macabre. It’s a world of glittering stained-glass windows, fox-fur tippets, jackdaws with crossed beaks, and animals nestling in prams.

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Janet is something of a misfit, an outsider in her family, viewing the world differently from those who surround her. A fiercely intelligent girl with an active imagination, Janet is rather unconventional in her ways, unwilling to conform to her parents’ traditional Calvinist expectations. Other family members are frequently exasperated by her idiosyncratic behaviour, typically resulting in punishment for the girl. However, she often acts out of a lack of understanding, especially when young – something a more nurturing approach from her parents would sorely help to address.

The first few years of Janet’s life are spent at her grandparents’ Manse in Glasgow – the war is still ongoing, and Hector, Janet’s father, is away for the duration. Luckily for Janet, there is solace in the company of her grandfather, a kindly, protective man who enjoys telling stories in the peaceful atmosphere of his study. Here Janet finds some respite from the stifling routines of domestic life, the rules laid down by her mother, Vera, and the family’s longstanding Nanny.

In this room was a genial liberality absent from the outer household with its routine, its timetable of rests and walks and meals, its grim insistence on self-control and cleanliness, scratchy vests and liberty bodices, tweed coats buttoned tight around the neck, hair brushed until the scalp stung, then dragged back into pigtails. (p. 20)

When Hector returns from the war, the family moves to a dilapidated castle in the wilds of North Scotland – a property left to Hector by his uncle, provided that Cousin Lila is allowed to stay, a condition which Hector duly accepts. The castle is a cold, shadowy place, exposed to the fierce winds that swirl through the Highlands. But for Janet, this new environment is a source of great wonder and beauty. With her strong affinity for animals, she revels in her surroundings, riding through the glens on her beloved pony, Rosie. There are some glorious descriptions of the natural world here; Barker writes beautifully about the Scottish landscape, capturing the wildness and feral nature of the landscape alongside its undoubted allure.

With her love of literature and languages – skills nurtured initially by her grandfather – Janet finds comfort in books, allowing her imagination to roam freely despite other constraints. There is solace too in the company of Cousin Lila, another outsider of sorts with her various eccentricities and habits. Russian by birth and a consummate daydreamer at heart, Lila spends her days collecting mushrooms, painting pictures and drinking whisky. Her room is another means of escape for Janet, complete with its heady aromas and eclectic possessions.

In one corner of the room a low archway led into a turret and here Lila’s cat Mouflon slept on a pile of old fur coats draped ineffectually over a mighty stack of empty whisky bottles. The aromas of ancient tom and evaporating spirits combined with Schiaparelli’s Shocking and Craven A tobacco to create an aura of risque clubland. (p. 54)

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Janet comes during adolescence when she is packed off to a girls’ boarding school, far away from home. With her preference for the company of animals over people and her intense dislike of team sports, Janet finds it challenging to interact with the other girls, most of whom are interested in clothes, games and their families. Naturally, Janet doesn’t care for these things, preferring school work and books to spending time with the other pupils. Nevertheless, she develops some basic coping strategies to deal with the inevitable cold-shouldering, a consequence of her rejection of group activities in any form.

She had tried St Uncumba’s in every season, months without end, fogs impenetrable, cold, windy sunlight – and she found it wanting, wanting in human kindness, in vision, in apprehension of the glories of the world. But the raw, sheer edge of her misery was blunted; she had learnt to cope, even to survive, by deviousness, by reading, and, as always, by day-dreaming. (p. 144)

Janet is a marvellous creation, and Barker excels in conveying a piercing portrait of her protagonist’s inner life, replete with all its frustrations and pain. The novel is semi-autobiographical, partly inspired by the author’s childhood, making it all the most affecting to read. While Janet is very much her own person, someone determined to stay true to her values and principles, part of her craves understanding from others – or, at the very least, a degree of acceptance. Consequently, this novel will likely resonate with anyone who has ever felt like an outsider, at odds with their peer group or those in authority. The sense of loneliness and bewilderment can be heartbreaking to bear.

Barker has created such a colourful, jewel-like novel here, almost kaleidoscopic in terms of style and tone. Her prose is expressive and evocative, portraying a world that combines the sharply recognisable with a dash of surrealism – a little like the Barbara Comyns novels I mentioned earlier or the work of Muriel Spark.

I’ll finish with a passage about Janet’s pet jackdaw, Claws, who nestles in an abandoned doll’s house in his guardian’s room – a quote that tugged at my heart, especially given the arc of Janet’s story.

He was free to range wherever he wished; always he came back to her and at night they repaired to her room, where he roosted like a guardian spirit on the Iron rail of her bed. He was a magic bird. She loved him more than she had loved anything, anything or anyone. (p. 182)