Title: John Brown’s Body
Author: Barker, A. L.
Publisher: The Hogwarth Press, London
Publication Date: 1969
Edition: SIGNED First Edition
Book Condition: NF
D-j Condition: VG
Comments: This is a very rare signed copy. This copy of the book was sent to a friend of A. L. Barker’s and includes a letter to the recipient from the author. Light soiling to d-j.
Synopsis: Marise Tomelty is a child-wife who dislikes sex and is terrified of open spaces. Ralph Shilling, a dealer in pesticides, lives in the flat above the Tomeltys’. One day, Marise’s traveling-salesman husband casually mentions that he recognizes Ralph as John Brown, the suspect who, for lack of evidence, was acquitted in an actrocious double murder. Nevertheless, Marise encourages Ralph’s attentions, intoxicated by a heady mix of passion and fear. In this shrewdly-observed novel, A. L. Barker explores the tug between body and soul, life and death, truth and fantasy.
Biography: “I know nothing of A. L. Barker, except that she writes like an angel and I love her,” exclaimed Auberon Waugh on reading her novel The Gooseboy (1987). In 50 years of writing short stories and novels with a voice uniquely her own, Barker, who has died aged 83, never boasted great sales, but never lacked critical accolades. As one of her publishers, Norah Smallwood of Chatto & Windus, put it when asked why Barker had never sold, “What do you expect? She’s caviare to the general.” Four years ago, Barker, known as Pat to her friends, suffered a stroke, which necessitated her removal to a nursing home in Carshalton, Surrey, where she was cared for until her death. It was while she was there, and much to her pleasure, that The Gooseboy, and another of her novels, John Brown’s Body (which had been shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1969), were republished in Virago Modern Classics.
In the same year, 1999, her last novel, The Haunt, was also brought out by Virago. This drew a somewhat odd tribute from the Independent, which found that she possessed “the deadpan timing of Kingsley Amis at his driest, with a tinge of eerie nature mysticism that brings Iris Murdoch to mind.” Rather more soberly, the Atlantic Monthly noted that “there is humour at the surface here, but darkness at the heart.” This is indeed true of her ghost stories, for the supernatural gave her an enjoyable frisson.
It continued to be the mainspring, with jobs in the editorial office of the Amalgamated Press (1936) and as publisher’s reader for Cresset Press (1947), followed, in 1949, by three decades at the BBC, where, under her married name of Pat Bourne, she was a subeditor on the Listener for five years, until she retired in 1978.
In 1947, Barker’s debut collection of stories, Innocents, won the first Somerset Maugham award, which allowed her to spend time in France and Italy, useful background settings for her future stories and novels. She won the Cheltenham literary festival award in 1962, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1970. In 1988, The Gooseboy carried off the Macmillan Silver PEN award for fiction.
The novel that Waugh liked so much is set in the south of France, where Barker spent many summers with friends, and the idea was sparked off by the presence, near the village, of the reclusive Dirk Bogarde. It sizzles with lively invention, macabre overtones and her dry sense of humour.
An earlier novel, The Middling (1967), drew praise from Rebecca West. In her opinion, it was “the finest book written by a woman in our time, and if the critics don’t think it is, that is their fault, not hers”. The story begins as an autobiography but, because she felt her own life lacked drama, Barker invented the character Ellie Toms, and put her through the hoop in five searing episodes.
The gift of perfect pitch in both dialogue and startling imagery permeates her work: “lightning stripped the sky like a blade”; “stone dragons, blunted with age, their eyes upturned, blind as eggs”; “Madge was not excitable, that would have been out of keeping with her build”.
Barker always stood a little aside from her characters, viewing them with somewhat malicious amusement, touched with compassion. A mistress of scrupulous prose, she paid close attention to the delicate balance of power and how it shifts between man and woman, man and man, woman and woman. Relationships tend to break up, as if the protagonists are alarmed by their own perceptions, as in the title story of the collection Any Excuse For A Party (1991).
In all, Barker published 11 novels and nine collections of short stories. For her, poetry was the greatest form of literature: next came the short story, and then the novel. She was happiest writing short stories, which she once described as explosions in the dark.
Since the war, she had shared a house with her lifelong friend, Dorothy McClelland, who died in autumn 2000. Their harmonious domestic routine gave Barker the freedom she needed. She wrote every morning, sitting at the kitchen table, until Dorothy came in to prepare the lunch. As is evident from her stories, she was also a great gardener.
A small, modest and private person, acute and humorous, Barker was given to warm friendship, and generous in her praise of other writers. When we were both on the executive committee of PEN in the 1980s, she put forward the idea of a writers’ house, which one could use for offices, meetings, and accommodation for visiting authors – but this is still a pipe dream.
We have not heard the end of A. L. Barker, however. This July, Virago will publish a selection of her stories, with an introduction by Jane Gardam. The title is Submerged, which strikes a bell, for the story of this name was in the prizewinning Innocents of 55 years ago.
Barker has come full circle, and the short story reigns triumphant. “Her work,” as Robert Nye remarked at the end of his review of the collection No Word Of Love (1986), “has elements in it which will make it endure, in its own quiet way, long after her louder and more ambitious contemporaries have been forgotten.”