Obituary: Tribute to award-winning novelist Elspeth Barker, 81

Short story writer Elspeth Barker on the coast at Weybourne - which was the inspiration for her stor

Writer Elspeth Barker on the coast at Weybourne - which was the inspiration for her story which involve the cliff, seagulls, the sea, and seaweed - Credit: Archant 2007

The family of renowned novelist, Elspeth Barker, has paid tribute to their “beloved mother”, following her death at the age of 81. 

Following the announcement of the author and journalist’s passing, her children said she was “deeply loved”. 

They added: “She will be missed and cherished eternally.” 

Born Elspeth Roberta Cameron Langlands on November 16, 1940, in Edinburgh, Scotland, she grew up in Aberdeenshire after her family moved when she was aged seven. 

Short story writer Elspeth Barker on the coast at Weybourne - which was the inspiration for her stor

Elspeth Barker on the coast at Weybourne - Credit: Archant © 2007

Her parents, Elizabeth and Robert Langlands, bought Drumtochty, a neo-Gothic castle in Kincardineshire, where they opened a boys’ preparatory school. Mrs Barker was the only girl to attend. 

A bookish child with an early passion for the classics, she eventually escaped the prep school to attend St Leonard’s boarding school, Fife. She then went on to study modern languages at Somerville College, Oxford, but after sleeping through her final exam she was ejected without a diploma. 

She later moved to London where she waited on tables, clerked in a bookstore, and became ingrained in the city’s literary set. 

Elspeth Barker, one of the writers taking part in the Norfolk Authors Day for the Hostry Festival. P

Elspeth Barker - Credit: Archant 2012

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At the age of 22, she was introduced to the poet George Barker, then aged 50, by his former lover and mother to four of his children, Canadian poet Elizabeth Smart. Mr Barker was married at the time but estranged from his first wife, Jessica, a strict Roman Catholic who refused to divorce him. 

With a loan from playwright Harold Pinter, the couple set up home during the 1960s at National Trust-owned Bintry House, a 17th-century farmhouse in Itteringham, near Aylsham, in north Norfolk. 

Together they had five children, the final five of Mr Barker’s 15. Their eldest daughter, Rafaella Barker, is also an author and was born in the capital before the family moved to Norfolk when she was three years old. 

Elspeth Barker with her cat

Elspeth Barker with her cat - Credit: Archant

While Mr Barker continued to write poetry, Mrs Barker taught Greek and Latin at Runton Hill school for girls. Here she wrote and produced plays in Latin with her pupils.  

Mrs 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. She suggested that her mother write something about her fondness for hens, which went on to draw the attention of a book editor. 

She was almost 50 when her first and only novel O Caledonia was commissioned.  

O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker - Credit: Archant

Published in 1991, the book achieved international success and won four literary awards including the Winifred Holtby Prize and the Scottish Book Prize. It was also shortlisted for the Whitbread first novel prize, now the Costa Book Award. It was republished in 2021.  

In 1989, the couple eventually married following the death of Jessica. Mr Barker died two years later – just months after the publication of O Caledonia. 

Norfolk authors(l to r) Stash Kirkbride, Peter Beck, Peter Barrow, Sarah Ridgard, Simon Gough, Elspe

Norfolk authors (l to r) Stash Kirkbride, Peter Beck, Peter Barrow, Sarah Ridgard, Simon Gough, Elspeth Barker, Dennison Smith and Doug Scroggins came together for the Norfolk Authors in Profile event during the Hostry Festival at Norwich Cathedral - Credit: Simon Finlay

After his death, Mrs Barker became a regular contributor to the Independent on Sunday, as well as a contributor to the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, the Independent, the Guardian, and the Observer. 

She taught creative writing at Norwich University of the Arts with the poet George Szirtes and was a tutor at the Arvon Foundation with her friend Barbara Trapido.   

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

Elspeth Barker's new book Dog Days.

Elspeth Barker's book Dog Days - Credit: Supplied

She remarried for a second time, to Bill Troop, in 2007; they divorced six years later in 2013. 

Mrs Barker spent her final months in a care home in Aylsham. She died on April 21 and is survived by her five children Raffaella, Lily, Sam, Roderick, and Alexander, five grandchildren Roman, Lorne, Esme, Ollie, and Felix, and her sister Finella Bryson. Her funeral took place on May 5 at St Mary's Church, Itteringham. 

Elspeth Barker, one of the writers taking part in the Norfolk Authors Day for the Hostry Festival. P

Elspeth Barker - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2012