A Writer in Hiding

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I first saw A. L. Barker’s books lined up in a row on a shelf in the University of East Anglia library, their dust covers removed, their red, blue and green cloth bindings faded, their pages clean and unmarked – it seemed as if they’d never been read. I borrowed the books and read them one after another. Here was a writer who clearly deserved attention. Her fiction seemed so contemporary, not in terms of style but because of the ideas with which it grappled: the strangeness of so-called ordinary life; the dangers of ignorance or innocence; the consequences of taking, and not taking, action.

I wanted to know more about her but there was little information available ‒ a few obituaries, a couple of mentions in academic monographs. The bare facts were these. Audrey Lilian Barker was born in 1918 at St Paul’s Cray in Kent and grew up in Beckenham. She left school at 16 because her father, a railway worker, didn’t believe in further education. During the war she served as a Land Girl and married. The marriage was not a success and she later said that it failed because she was selfish: for her, writing was the main thing. She worked for the BBC for three decades, including five years as a sub-editor on The Listener. After the war she lived with a friend, Dorothy McClelland, and achieved the domestic stability that she needed to write. In all she wrote nine short-story collections (including ghost stories) and eleven novels, published over a period of fifty years. She died aged 83 in Sutton, Surrey, only sixteen miles from her birthplace.

In the late 1930s A. L. Barker worked with an all-male team of girls’ fiction writers in the department of juvenile fiction at the Amalgamated Press. The experience is hilariously described by Barker in her autobiography and short-story collection, Life Stories (1981). The time she spent writing the adventures of idealized child figures with names like ‘Sally-Never-Grow-Up’ influenced her subsequent lifelong interest in writing stories about children for adults, a fine example being her first short-story collection, Innocents (1947), which won the inaugural Somerset Maugham Award and allowed her to travel in France and Italy.

Speaking about ‘The Art of Fiction’ in the Paris Review in 1981, Rebecca West said of Barker: ‘She really tells you what people do, the extraordinary things that people think, how extraordinary circumstances are, and how unexpected the effect of various incidents . . . The people come off the page to tell you what this would be like. You feel: Now I understand this better.’

High praise indeed, though Barker must have been surprised as well as delighted by West’s account of her as a writer focused on the extraordinary and unexpected. In Life Stories, she insisted that she had no desire to write about the events in her ‘predictable’ life; readers, she felt, ‘were accustomed and entitled to lives that were rich and/or strange’. Much to her dismay, however, she did want to write about how the events in her life had affected her writing. Her anxiety about doing so stemmed from the idea of ‘all those pages, x-hundreds, it could be x-thousands, peppered with I’s’. Bearing in mind that by this point Barker was in her early sixties, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a member of PEN and the author of a novel that had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, her reticence is su

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About the contributor

Kate Jones’s Ph.D. thesis was on A. L. Barker’s work and writing life. She now teaches at the University of East Anglia and lives in Cambridge with her partner, her son, her cat and her books.

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