O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

Weidenfeld & Nicolson Essentials, 2021, 212p, plus vi p Introduction by Maggie O’Farrell First published 1991.

From the outset we know where this tale of growing up as a misfit is going; Barker shows us in her prelude, titled Janet. This is not foreshadowing as such – it goes beyond prolepsis even – but it does set up an intriguing question. Why will what Barker tells us happened, happen? Why was Janet’s misadventure so easily glossed over? What was it about her that made her dismissable? But this is arguably fairer on the reader than Kate Atkinson’s revelation in A God in Ruins which turned upside down what we thought we had learned in all its pages up to that point.

Some reviewers have observed similarities to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle (written much earlier than O Caledonia) but the characters of Cassandra Mortain and Janet are very different and Barker is a much subtler writer but I did wonder while I was reading O Caledonia if Kate Atkinson was familiar with Barker’s novel. I found the weird incidents of Janet’s childhood oddly similar to the manifold earlier days of Ursula Todd in Life After Life; there were perhaps even greater similarities to Atkinson’s first novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum (from 1995.) Still, it allows Barker the acid observation “The subject was closed in favour of the living, who offer continuous material for persecution.”

Janet is a child in wartime living in the manse inhabited by her grandfather and subject to many an admonitory sermon. Scotland’s religious heritage, though never pushed, is an intermittent drum beat through the book as in, “At this time there were many Polish officers in the village. The Marine hotel had been requisitioned for them. They were popular with the lonely girls and the more flighty wives, so that after the war some stayed on and married, while others left behind girls who were even lonelier now, alone with tiny children in the unrelenting chill of a Calvinist world.” (This sort of memory of Polish soldiers was familiar to me from the tales told by an acquaintance who had lived in Kelso during the Second World War.) Barker also has Janet remark, “There seemed no place for gallantry and romance among Calvinists,” and, in a particularly self-flagellating moment “the nature of Caledonia was a pitiless nature and her own was no better.” That it had unintended effects is illlustrated by a passage wherein nannies asked children if they had done what they should today (ie moved their bowels) and unwittingly unleashed dissembling- “a horde of artful dodgers on the world.”

It is when the family inherits Auchnashaugh, a crumbling pile in the Highlands, that Janet’s alienation blossoms. She resents her younger siblings, fails to comprehend adult concerns or live up to their expectations and when older retreats into books, having an appetite for things beyond her age, Latin and Greek tags and the like. Her experience is summed up by Proust’s phrase ‘l’étouffoir familial’ the family suffocation chamber. Of how many sensitive souls has that been true.

She similarly fails to fit in at St Uncumba’s, the boarding school she is sent to far south in England where her distaste for, and inability at, games and liking for literature are mocked. Until she learns to dissemble.

The signal feature of her otherness is her adoption of a not yet fledged jackdaw whom she names Claws and who is her constant companion at Auchnashaugh.

O Caledonia is far too little known for a book so accomplished. How it did not get onto the list of 100 best Scottish books is beyond me. Perhaps its reissue far too late (2021) could explain it.

Pedant’s corner:- The young Janet sees the beam of a lighthouse sweep her bedroom (but this was in wartime; the lighthouses were switched off as part of the blackout precautions,) “she sucked a vengeful Pandrop” (a pan drop,) “the baby prone within” (the baby supine is more likely,) “golden rod” (goldenrod,) “je men fous” (je m’en fous,) “Miss Wales’ grizzled hair” (Wales’s,) “the gaping maw of the furnace” (stomachs do not gape,) standing in a great Victorian cemetery in Glasgow for her grandfather’s funeral (at that time in Scotland women did not go to interments, still less children,) clipe (usually spelled clype,) “Sir Patrick Spens’ lords (Spens’s,) Sawney Bean is said to have carried out his cannibalistic activities on the Aberdeenshire coast (most accounts put this legendary tale in Ayrshire,) “True Thomas’ faery queen” (Thomas’s,) “Euripides’ Medea” (Euripides’s,) “Barr’s Iron Brew” (the proprietary name is Irn Bru,) “came Francis’ voice” (Francis’s,) “the war memorial” (War Memorial – used later,) “‘a wee Doc and Doris afore ye gang awa’!’” (usually spelled Deoch-an-Doris,) Kiichen (a manuscript misreading of Küchen?) “Watt and Grants” (Watt and Grant’s,) swop (swap,) “Francis’ voice” (Francis’s,) “she was couched out there” (crouched makes more sense,) “Propertius’ poem” (Propertius’s,) “Tiresias’ description” (Tiresias’s) “Claws’ residence” (Claws’s,) “jeune jille” (jeune fille,) “passage from the Georgies” (the Georgics that would be,) “Orpheus’ final loss” (Orpheus’s.)

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