Barker, A(udrey) L(ilian)
BARKER, A(udrey) L(ilian)
Nationality: British. Born: St. Paul's Cray, Kent, 13 April 1918. Education: Schools in Beckenham, Kent, and Wallington, Surrey. Career: Worked for Amalgamated Press, London, 1936; reader, Cresset Press, London, 1947; secretary and sub-editor, BBC, London, 1949-78. Member of the Executive Committee, English PEN, 1981-85. Awards: Atlantic award, 1946; Maugham award, 1947; Cheltenham Festival award, 1963; Arts Council award, 1970; South East Arts award, 1981; Society of Authors travelling scholarship, 1988. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1970. Agent: Jennifer Kavanagh, 44 Langham Street, London W1N 5RC, England. Address: 103 Harrow Road, Carshalton, Surrey SM5 3QF, England.
Apology for a Hero. London, Hogarth Press, and New York, Scribner, 1950.
A Case Examined. London, Hogarth Press, 1965.
The Middling: Chapters in the Life of Ellie Toms. London, HogarthPress, 1967.
John Brown's Body. London, Hogarth Press, 1969.
A Source of Embarrassment. London, Hogarth Press, 1974.
A Heavy Feather. London, Hogarth Press, 1978; New York, Braziller, 1979.
Relative Successes. London, Chatto and Windus, 1984.
The Gooseboy. London, Hutchinson, 1987.
The Woman Who Talked to Herself. London, Hutchinson, 1989.
Zeph. London, Hutchinson, 1992.
The Haunt. London, Virago Press, 1999.
Innocents: Variations on a Theme. London, Hogarth Press, 1947;New York, Scribner, 1948.
Novelette with Other Stories. London, Hogarth Press, and New York, Scribner, 1951.
The Joy-Ride and After. London, Hogarth Press, 1963; New York, Scribner, 1964.
Lost upon the Roundabouts. London, Hogarth Press, 1964.
Penguin Modern Stories 8, with others. London, Penguin, 1971.
Femina Real. London, Hogarth Press, 1971.
Life Stories. London, Chatto and Windus, 1981.
No Word of Love. London, Chatto and Windus, 1985.
Any Excuse for a Party: Selected Stories. London, Hutchinson, 1991.
Contributor, Seduction: A Book of Stories, edited by Tony Peake. New York, Serpent's Tail, 1994.
Introduction, Hester Lilly, and Other Stories by Elizabeth Taylor. London, Virago, 1990.* * *
The theme of A.L. Barker's work is the ambivalence of love and the dangers of egoism. She examines those relationships that exist between victor and victim, he who eats and he who is eaten. This material is handled lightly and skillfully; she has the satirist's ability to select detail, placing her characters socially as well as psychologically. Her territory covers childhood, the worlds of the outcast and the ill, and the impoverished lives of the lonely. She is close to the English tradition of the comic novel and like Angus Wilson, a major writer in this genre, she often indulges in caricature.
Many of her short stories reveal a fondness for the macabre, introducing elements of horror into the midst of apparent calm. Her first collection, Innocents, begins with a study of a boy testing his courage in swimming; he becomes involved in a scene of adult violence that is far more dangerous to him than the tree-roots in his river. Innocence in these stories is seen as inexperience, as the blinkered vision of the mad and as the selfishness of the egoist. Lost upon the Roundabouts is a further exploration of these ideas, and contains two very fine short stories, "Miss Eagle" and "Someone at the Door."
The central characters in Barker's novels are parasites, dependent on other people for a sense of their own identity. For Ellie in The Middling love means "turning another person into a colony of myself." Charles Candy, the central character of Apology for a Hero, loves his wife Wynne "because she could give him himself." After Wynne's death he acquires a housekeeper and finds that "when he was with her he felt located." He meets death on a reckless voyage, persuaded that sea-trading will, at last, show him the real Mr. Candy.
The egoist in A Case Examined is Rose Antrobus, the chairman of a charity committee with the power to allocate money either to a destitute family or to the church hassock fund. Rose has always insulated herself against suffering. She remembers a childhood friend, Solange, whom she credits with the understanding of despair: Solange provokes violence, she feels, by her own wickedness. This fantasy is shattered by a visit to Paris and a meeting with the real Solange, whose account of Nazi persecution shakes Rose into compassion. A bridge has been made between the worlds of the two women, between the petty and the tragic, and the committee decision is altered accordingly.
Femina Real is an entertaining set of portraits, nine studies of the female character. In many of the situations an apparent vulnerability hides an underlying strength. A frail woman dominates those around her: adolescence vanquishes middle-age; a ten-year-old cripple turns the tables on the man holding her prisoner. As always, Barker's clear prose style matches the accuracy of her observations. The Haunt, which Barker completed just before she was struck by a debilitating illness in 1998, marked a departure in that, unlike earlier works, this one is not an "articulated novel" of short stories, or even an extended short story, but rather a fully realized narrative. The haunting of the title refers not to ghosts, of which there are plenty in earlier writings, but rather to the act or experience of being haunted—a phenomenon she treats as something to be enjoyed and treasured, not feared. Indeed, Barker's is a talent to be treasured as well.
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