Tuesday, January 02, 2024

Reading group: O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

When John suggested this, Elspeth Barker's only novel, the members of our group who glanced at the beginning imagined it was going to be something of a grim read - typical Scottish Gothic, as Doug put it. In fact, the novel is a subversion of that genre, and is full of black humour and anything but a grim read. Everyone enjoyed it very much, and most of us were unable to put it down, and read it in a sitting.

It begins with the description of the stairs of a gaunt Scottish castle, on which, it will be revealed by the end of the first page, lies the body of Janet, a sixteen-year-old girl 'oddly attired' in her mother's black lace evening dress. The first chapter goes on to tell that she was mourned by none, even her parents, apart from her pet jackdaw who 'searched for her unceasingly' in the woods and glen, eventually killing himself by flying into a wall.

After the first chapter the novel switches immediately to an account of Janet's life, beginning with her birth during the Second World War. The tone becomes immediately wry, the rhythm of the prose lively, and the whole effect satirical as the author paints a picture of a girl growing up with distanced aristocratic parents and disappointing them with her lack of femininity and a passionate character expressed in a love of poetry and identification with the wildness of nature. There are moments that made us laugh out loud. Here are two ancient sisters at the village hall party, one of whom has been at the first sitting of the party tea, the other of whom has yet to eat:

Very old Miss Pettigrew came trembling up, leaning on her stick. 'Here you are then, Annie,' she said to her sister. Her jaw dropped loose, her mouth hung limp and open; in went her black-veined claw, out came a set of pinkly glistening false teeth. Her sister grabbed them; with no ado she popped them into her own mouth. She paused for a moment, sucking noisily. 'Macaroons!' she cried, 'Och, that's braw!'

The novel is full of this combination of grotesquery and hilarity, though, as Ann and Clare said, as Janet grows, the mood grows darker. Janet is indeed treated cruelly, by her distant, preoccupied mother (who only really likes babies, and keeps having them - children who turn out to be much prettier and more amenable), and by the boys of the boarding school her father establishes in his inherited castle. The feisty Janet is quite capable of taking revenge on the son of visitors after he tries to trap her and exposes himself to her, by pushing him into the poisonous giant hogweed in the unkempt garden at which he has sneered. But once she is forced to accept her own burgeoning sexuality and has to experience the horrors of boarding school, her feelings become more complex and difficult to deal with, and the mood becomes bleak. (Anne and Clare noted that there is no mention of menstruation which one would expect to be central to this crisis of identity for Janet. This book was first published in 1991. While some feminist authors had then been tackling such matters head-on for some time, they were still considered by many a subject unfit or too delicate for literature.)

Finally it will be revealed how Janet died on those stairs (which I won't give away here). The book is however no whodunnit, more of a whydunnit, though none of the four of us present were convinced by that ending. My main, and John's, doubt about the book was that there is no real story arc or thematic development propelling it - it's really basically a simple, linear account of a childhood - extraordinary and curious to most readers in its setting and milieu (the gothic castle and the eccentric aristocratic ways of the family), though in fact fairly typical of that social milieu, with the same point, Janet's role as a sore thumb in her family, illustrated repeatedly if entertainingly. We did in fact get a little frustrated, even wearied, by this, and it was the brilliant prose and sensibility that kept us reading. Ann made an interesting point. She said that when she was at boarding school herself she and her schoolfriends read scores of books beginning with this kind of setup, an ugly duckling made unhappy in a family. Jane Eyre, she pointed out, is a literary version of the same thing. (She imagined that this was what influenced O Caledonia, although in fact it is known to be strongly autobiographical.) However, in these books this setup was always the prelude to a story of escape from the situation and the transformation of the ugly duckling into a beautiful, successful swan (in fact Elspeth Barker herself did escape to London to become a successful journalist and member of the literary set). Here, however, no such transformation takes place, and this is what makes the book a subversion of the tradition, and its radicalism was why, no doubt, it was originally published by a feminist press. However, the fact that Janet remains in that establishing (and establishment) situation (which leads to her death), while making an interesting political point, did give the book for us a certain stasis, fortunately compensated for by the dynamic prose and the compelling insight into Janet and the family dynamics.

John did say afterwards that, in spite of the book's publication by a radical press, he felt uncomfortable with what seem some politically incorrect notes: the child Janet's attitude to the maimed soldiers living nearby (before the family move to the isolation of the castle) is one of horror. I said, Isn't it actually more complicated than that, more Janet's reaction to the horror of maiming (rather than just to the men themselves), which goes along with her empathy towards the animals that most people ill treat or kill? Also, it is Janet who befriends the grieving and mentally unstable aunt, Lila, who lives with them in the castle, while Janet's mother cruelly packs her off, committing her finally to a 'lunatic asylum', where Janet visits her during her Christmas holiday from boarding school. But John felt that the grotesque descriptions of the other patients in the mental hospital were lacking in empathy. And I didn't really have much argument against the fact that the hunchback gardener at the castle turns out to be evil, in true disablist tradition.

We discussed other, more minor points. Some people felt that, though most of the novel takes Janet's viewpoint via the close third person, there was the odd strange change of viewpoint that seemed to have no useful purpose, such as to that of Janet's mother in a somewhat prolonged and seemingly levered-in section about a Teasmaid that causes tension between the parents. 

Overall, though, everyone very much enjoyed this book in spite of our early lack of expectation.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here