“By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept” by Elizabeth Smart has received its deserved recognition this October, beating Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” and Nancy Mitford’s “The Pursuit of Love” to come in second place to “Animal Farm” in the long-awaited Cheltenham Booker Prize for 1945. (I wonder what Elizabeth Smart’s mother, who insisted on burning any copies of the book she could get hold of, would say!) The prize is awarded once a year at October’s Cheltenham Literary Festival to what is judged to be the best book published in a chosen year, picked from the time before the Booker Prize was established. (Read more).
On top of this, the novel has just been reunited with it s “lost half” (as Cassandra Pybus puts it), which, after 30 years out of print is now published as an ebook. “The Dead Seagull” by Raffaella’s father, George Barker, discusses the affair which Elizabeth Smart recounts in her book, from his perspective. As Raffaella explains in her introduction to the new ebook http://amzn.to/2dL2UZt, the two books were inextricably connected to one another: “‘The Dead Seagull’ carves the same wounds that Elizabeth Smart described. They both went for truth scarred with guilt.”
But there are significant differences too, which reminds us that “history” can show many faces. While Smart’s account of her affair with Barker is set on an expansive scale - a wild exiled romance, transgressing barriers and even geographical borders - Barker’s account is far more domestic and claustrophobic, and the sense of sexual guilt is perhaps darker. In Barker’s version, the narrator conducts the affair in a remote cottage where he is living with his unsuspecting, pregnant wife. This disparity is generated in the sentence structure itself; in contrast to Smart’s full, extravagant poetry, is the more stark prosaic form of Barker’s lines.
For Raffaella of course, these texts were not initially comfortable to read. She explains in her introduction to the ebook, how she discovered her father’s past when she read “By Grand Central Station” at 17, “a cult book, a page turner about a love triangle, a scream of sexual guilt and yearning, and it was about my father. Not ideal.”
But Raffaella soon learned from her father that memory and myth were often blurred. What appeared autobiographical in his writing shouldn’t be taken too seriously. (Perhaps Elizabeth Smart’s mother could have done with realising this too!) After all, he struggled to even write his autobiography, declaring “I’ve stirred the facts around too much ...It simply can’t be done.” It was his discomfort with fact which lead him to identify with the myth and surrealism of the New Apocalyptics movement in opposition to 1930’s realism.
Raffaella’s writing similarly plays with the fine line between fiction and non-fiction. Her first novel “Come Tell Me Some Lies”, is loosely based on memories of her unconventional childhood and her wild father, while many others, including “Hen’s Dancing” are preoccupied with complex, or even dysfunctional, families.
The theme of Family features strongly in the work of her parents too. George Barker’s poems include “Sonnet To My Mother”, a celebration of the strength of the mother figure and “Grandfather, Grandfather”, a heart-warming depiction of a grandfather engaging with his granddaughter’s innocent imagination. Elspeth Barker’s novel “O Caledonia”, which won four prizes and was shortlisted for the Whitbread, evokes a haunting picture of her upbringing in a Scottish boys’ boarding school run by her father, and the close relationship between a mother and daughter.
The literary effect of mythologising history and character, engaging with autobiography without giving everything away, has attracted fascination with the Barker family. Being given a number of blinkered glimpses into a wild romantic existence teases our desire to access the exact history: what actually happened and what were they really like. There is an interview with Raffaella in The Independent where she is represented as a kind of actress switching between multiple characters, a portrayal which seems to reflects more on the interviewer’s frustration in not being able to fully pin her down than Raffaella herself. It was a similar curiosity about the figure behind the writing which attracted Elizabeth Smart and Elspeth Barker into meeting George Barker.
It is human nature to be fascinated with the autobiographical. How much would you give to be a fly on the wall of an intimate conversation between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, for example? How many people know the story of Percy Shelley running off with Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Mary Shelley but can’t name one of his poems? The historian Antony Beevor argues that now more than ever “we seem to be experiencing a need for authenticity even in works of fiction.” This “fly on the wall” craving can be seen in the rise of reality TV and the obsession with “real” (but very constructed) characters on social media, such as Kim Kardashian.
But maybe the pursuit of the autobiographical is unnecessary, or even illusory. Reality and Fiction are so closely wrapped up together that rather than trying to extract them from one another, perhaps, like Raffaella and George Barker, we should just enjoy their complimentary dance.
As a postscript on a similar theme: This year’s Booker Prize shortlist reveals the brilliance of fictional family portraits - six of the three books focus on the relationship between a young girl and her parents. “Eileen” by Ottessa Moshfegh depicts a young girl dealing with her inebriated father, in “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” by Madeleine Thien, a young girl grieves after her father’s suicide, while dealing with a new member of the family, and “Hot Milk” by Deborah Levy focuses on the relationship between a girl, whose father has been absent for years, and her ill mother. The winner is to be announced today so keep an eye out!