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Authors: A. L. Barker

John Brown's Body

BOOK: John Brown's Body
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John Brown’s Body


Audrey Lillian Barker was born at St Paul’s Cray, Kent in 1918, and published nine novels and eleven collections of short stories between 1947 and her death in 2002. Barker’s fiction was highly regarded in her own lifetime, most memorably by Rebecca West who wrote of Barker’s third novel: ‘You should ask your vet to put you down if you do not admire
The Middling
Barker won the inaugural Somerset Maugham Award in 1947 with her first collection,
; and her novel
John Brown’s Body
(1969) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Today, Barker is a marginal figure, often remembered as a ‘writers’ writer’. The label suggests that her writing is in some way difficult, inaccessible to the general reader. This could not be further from the truth. Barker’s stories and novels deal with familiar situations and questions, and are set in unremarkable locations: suburban streets, cul-de-sacs, terraces, parks, hotels, chemists. Barker wrote about the places and people she knew and, I think,
the people she knew, literary or otherwise. She avoided overly ‘high-brow’ publications and, from the outset of her writing career (which began proper in the 1930s at the department of juvenile fiction at the Amalgamated Press), she wrote for ordinary readers. Many of her short stories started their lives in popular women’s magazines of the 1940s and 1950s; more surprisingly, in the 1970s and 1980s over twenty of her ghost stories were published in bestselling horror anthologies. This involvement in mainstream publishing made her a flexible writer, able to adapt her precise, highly readable prose to the demands of various fictional genres.

On the other hand, Barker’s best stories tend to thwart both generic conventions and our expectations. Many of them appear on the surface to be about minor concerns but underneath there
is a strangeness, a darkness, a sense that she is, after all, concerned with bigger questions. The singularity of Barker’s prose style has a lot to do with this. The precision with which she uses vocabulary has been recognised, but it is worth noting how often in Barker’s writing the meaning is not clear, or the syntax of a sentence trips up the reader. For a writer so interested in the exact meanings of words (she was an avid reader of dictionaries) it is surprising how frequently in her work the meaning of a word or phrase remains elusive. This sense of ambiguity relates to the position of Barker herself. She wrote both literary fiction and genre fiction, short stories and novels; she was at once connected with the London literary scene and distanced from it; and she began writing at mid-century, a ‘critically awkward’ era after modernism but before postmodernism.

The ambiguity of Barker’s position sheds light on her preoccupation with the child, a figure at once intensely familiar and strangely enigmatic. Barker’s fiction explores how others have imagined childhood as well as the issues at stake in her own writing of the child. For Barker the modern child is firmly built on Romantic foundations. She is interested in Romantic conceptions of innocence and experience, particularly the dialectical interaction between these two states expressed in the work of William Blake. But her focus on the child is as much a response to the intense interest in childhood in her own lifetime. In mid-twentieth-century Britain children occupied an uncertain position: they were viewed with suspicion and uncertainty; and figured variously in discussions about human aggression and morality, as threats to society, as yardsticks showing the corruptive influence of the war, and as symbols of a future about which many were so unsure. Barker’s fiction resists some of the key narratives being told about children in post-war society and culture, and challenges the tendency in literature and
child-study to understand the child in terms of abstraction and opposition. But while she is critical of others’ attempts to pin down the child, Barker’s own preoccupation with this figure is clear. Her
is a catalogue of variations on the theme of childhood in which she writes and rewrites the child again and again, experimenting with different fictional forms.

The supernatural was another of Barker’s interests. In a lecture on ghost stories to the Royal Society of Literature (RSL) in 1990, she calls herself ‘a lifelong devotee’ of the genre.

Like the child, the ghost story frames Barker’s writing life. In 1942 she read Sacheverell Sitwell’s book on poltergeists which inspired her ghost story, ‘Fetched’. A story from her first collection, ‘Submerged’ was included in the first
Pan Book of Horror Stories
published in 1959; and her final novel,
The Haunt
, is in part a ghost story. If Barker could ever be claimed as a popular writer, it would be with reference to her ghost stories. One could also argue that it was by way of the ghost story that Barker achieved a move from the margins to the mainstream of the literary scene in the following decade: in addition to her RSL lecture, she had four stories commissioned by BBC Radio Four in 1992 and the same year published
Element of Doubt
, a collection of her ghost stories. For Barker, stories of the supernatural had not lost their power in modern times because of the necessity of ambiguity. ‘They endure’, she writes with typical Barkeresque frankness, ‘because we don’t know all the answers and we’re better off not knowing’.


John Brown’s Body
(1969) concerns Marise Tomelty, an agoraphobic young wife frequently left alone by her husband, and her fascination with their upstairs neighbour, Ralph Shilling, whom she believes is the acquitted murderer, John Brown.
In fact, Shilling is an administrator for a firm of pesticide manufacturers who lives a life of such regularity that even the neighbourhood cat can predict his routine. Dissatisfied with his ‘flat … neat and paltry’ life, Shilling becomes enamoured with Marise, captivated by what he sees as her purity and perfection. Marise, a childish fantasist, urges him on, enjoying the fear she feels when she imagines what he is capable of doing.

The title of the novel, which refers to a song about the hanging of nineteenth-century American abolitionist, John Brown, signals Barker’s interest in the distinction between body and spirit. The song’s chorus, alluded to several times in the novel, juxtaposes the body of John Brown, lying in his grave, with his soul, which continues to march against slavery. Barker’s novel considers the significance of the body to identity by way of a number of substitutes, doubles, and cases of mistaken identity: Marise and Barbra-Bear; Shilling’s wife, Bertha and her sister, Emmeline; the two murdered sisters; John Brown and Shilling. It appears to argue for the unimportance of physicality, suggesting that violence inflicted upon the soul is worse than that inflicted on the body.

The novel explores marriage, and considers the ways in which the physical routines of family and work contain and trap the spirit. Marriage for Barker is characterised by separation and loneliness; both the married couples in the book spend significant periods apart. Further, it requires repetition. Shilling leaves London every Friday evening to spend the weekend in Essex with Bertha and Emmeline. As a counterpoint to this,
John Brown’s Body
is about everyday passion and fantasy; the things needed to sustain the human spirit in the face of physical routine. Marise and Shilling make one another the object of their imaginative lives. Marise is uninterested in sexual passion but excited by the idea of John Brown’s violence and the passion she feels must be behind it. She enjoys the ‘ecstasy of fear’ which helps her to forget herself. Shilling has for a long time desperately hoped for some disruption to his routine and sees
Marise as it. Horrified at first by the idea of being John Brown, Shilling plays along with their private joke to keep Marise’s attention; but gradually his persona takes effect and he and his life begin to change.


Kate Jones


Kate Jones is shortly to complete her doctoral thesis on A. L. Barker at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. The project, which examines representations of the figure of the child in Barker’s fiction, will provide the first full-length introduction to her work and life. In 2011 Kate was awarded a dissertation fellowship from the Harry Ransom Center (HRC) at the University of Texas in Austin; the award enabled an invaluable research visit to the HRC’s A. L. Barker archive.

Rebecca West, ‘The Novelist’s Voice’. Typescript housed at the McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa.

Marina MacKay and Lyndsey Stonebridge, ‘Introduction’,
British Fiction After Modernism: The Novel at Mid-Century
(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 1.

A. L. Barker, ‘Ghosties and Ghoulies: A Loving Look at Some Tales of the Supernatural’, lecture for the Royal Society of Literature, 18 October 1990, p. 1. Box 2, Folder 3, A. L. Barker Archive, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin.

Ibid., p. 3.

Marise saw at once that this place was far behind Plummer Court. It had had years of people living over it and their rubbing and breathing had turned it grey. The carpet and the curtains and even the bunch of lilac she had brought in with her were grey, the colour of other people’s air was bathwater.

Her habit was to case anywhere new for the harm or benefit she could expect and she saw that she would be the loser here. She could not open her mouth without tasting the tall rooms and the plaster cornices and the swaybacked couch which smelt like a lion.

She saw herself running beautifully away under flamboyant trees, her hair jumping on her shoulders, silkily springing and falling. People turning to look drank her up with their eyes, she was an arrow flying from the fire to the sun.

At Plummer’s everything had been new and the little gilt lift came whining down with the company director who lived in the pent-house flat. Plummer’s was a good address, she had lived there for six months, all of her married life. One of the small mercies of being married was living at Plummer’s and the other mercy was not having to provide for herself. By keeping these in mind she had kept herself from running beautifully away.

Now one mercy was gone, never to be replaced, not here, anyway. Here was practically a drawback of being married, as if she needed more drawbacks. These windows looked on to a drive made of black stones rammed into the ground, nor was it possible to see the road because the drive was pincer-shaped round laburnum trees and a dry basin full of laburnum pods. From Plummer’s, eight floors up, she had a view of Lords and the river at Putney Bridge. “You take Jack Tomelty,” her mother had said, “he’s not much but he’ll do for a start.” “What of?” “Don’t try to tell me you don’t need a start, girl.”

One of the first words she had learned was “lounge” and it still amused her. “This is the lounge” she said aloud, passing with her lips very rosebud into what was undoubtedly the bedroom.

This struck her as disagreeable. She saw that it never would agree with her, she wouldn’t enjoy looking out from under a stuffy tree and twittering leaves, she was particular about what she wakened to, she needed to open her eyes to happy promising things. Hardier people could wake and wolf the day pushed into their faces but she needed to be coaxed and gentled.

At Plummer’s there had been uncluttered sky through the window, and twin divans. She poked the swollen pillows of the double-bed, what gentling would she get from Tomelty in that?

The wardrobe exploded when she opened it. Inside was a full-length mirror so blotched that it required contortion to find one clear place to look into. On the shelf was a coil of fine wire. She picked it up and was ready to be sick when she realised that it was not wire but hair, a ringlet of dead hair. What she could smell here was the hereafter.

Quick as she thought she stepped into the wardrobe and pulled the door behind her. She often did the last thing she was expecting. Now it was pitch dark, around her the old wood ticked, protesting, and dust was shocked out of crannies. Her fingers touched the walls and the scabby mirror. The door had clicked in the lock, it could not be opened by her – of course not, what provision need there be for opening a cupboard from inside? She was shut in, in a mahogany coffin. She had only the air she stood up in, not grey air this but black from the black clothes that had been hoarded here. It was air not fit for human consumption and it hung in stiff folds and was balled-up into the toes of shoes. When it was all breathed, which would be soon because it was such poor stuff, she would suffocate, unless someone came, which no-one could because she had the only key to the flat. She would soon begin to choke and by tomorrow or next week
or whenever someone had occasion to look into the wardrobe she would be found to be purple and puffy as a plum.

“No! No!” She hammered with her fists. Her heart raced, tears sprang to her eyes. “Let me out!” Already the air was cloying in her throat. Weeping and clawing she sank to her knees, pumped the screams out, bringing on an ecstasy of fear. “Let me out! I don’t want to die!” It really did send her right out of herself, she was like a rocket rushing away in a shower of sparks. When it subsided she felt very frail and pulped. Moaning a little she opened the door and stepped out.

The sun had come through, the pebbles in the drive were polished iron and a man’s check shirt jazzed as he came to the house carrying a basket of bread.

Marise made signs from the window. She could not find her purse. But I live here now, she thought, he knows where to find me, and she said to him on the front step, “A white loaf, please, and we shall be having one every day.”

“I’ve only got brown left.”

“Brown bread is peasants’ food.”


“Bring me a Coburg tomorrow. We’re living at No. 1 flat. I’m Mrs Jack Tomelty.”

“Well, I’d like to be Mr Jack. He’s alright, eh?” He smiled at her and she recognised his sort. With his sort it was never an encounter, it was a barrage, requiring her to be constantly on her guard. She was tired already of his tight trousers and his fringe down to his eyebrows. “Just moved in, have you?”

“I shan’t stay if I don’t like it.”

“You’re a nice change from the rest. The only one under forty is Shilling’s cat.”


“Old Ralphie. He’s got the top flat. You watch out for him, he’s dynamite.”

She said coldly, “I don’t discuss the neighbours with tradesmen.”

He rolled up his eyes and wickedly pinched one of the fat loaves in his basket. Marise went back up the steps. In the porch name-cards beside each bell-push read: “Madame Silva Belmondo” and “Mr Ralph Shilling.” There was not yet a card for the Tomeltys.

The baker called out, “Let me know when you’re going and I’ll come too.”

She shut the door on him. Anyone listening would suppose she was the same sort. Was anyone listening? At Plummer’s everything came through the walls, the walls identified but did not contain. Marise could lie in bed and not be lonely because she was surrounded by meaningful sounds, from the vacuum cleaner in the next flat to the shuffle of traffic in Goldwater Road.

She now listened for someone listening to her. There were rubbings and creakings and the tinkle of a spoonful of dust. She had the impression that she wasn’t being listened to so much as recorded. Very well, there would be something to record.

The suitcases were on the floor where the taxi-driver had dumped them. She supposed she should unpack and put their clothes away, it would be a wifely thing to do. She had never had any difficulty knowing what was wifely and surely the thought should be taken some way towards the deed? It wasn’t her fault if she was made of other stuff than wives.

She did open one of the cases to see what would turn up and on top was Barbra-Bear. Tomelty had pushed it in at the last moment. Marise remembered him half-angry, half-laughing at the spectacle of himself packing, “We’d owe another month’s rent before you got round to it.” The Barbra-Bear was made of honey-coloured plush filled with foam rubber. Marise took it out of the suitcase and coaxed back the rubber pieces that were leaking from a split in its side. She held the seam together, if she had had a safety-pin she could have mended it, but where to find a safety-pin in this new, strange place?

She said to the bear, “I’m new to it but it isn’t at all
strange to me, it’s a most
place,” and walked about with the bear in her arms saying, “Usual doors, usual windows, usual floor, usual offices, there’s nothing you could call strange. Here’s a kitchen and a sink and a larder and a gas-stove, is that staggering?”

It did not need the stone sink and the brass taps to recreate her childhood because she had felt the point of similarity as soon as she set foot in the place. It was on the way to being the same – it was not there yet, but it was of that order, farther up the scale of that same order – as her parents’ home. Our new flat is old, she thought, and had not the courage to voice it because she had married away from oldness.

She went to the window hoping to see birds fly. At Plummer’s she spent hours watching the sky; but apart from the starlings which were no better than animated tea-leaves there were few fliers. Pigeons floundered and sparrows peddled from chimney to chimney. She longed for birds shearing into the clouds, once she saw swans on the wing but they had their necks out and their feet dangling and looked silly.

“See, Barbra,” she tilted the bear’s snout, “there’s room only to paddle in the sky.”

Someone turned into the drive and trod confidently over the black pebbles. His hat was pushed back on the rims of his ears and his overcoat hung open. He carried a small suitcase in one hand and a bottle by the neck in the other. This was Jack Tomelty and now everything would be different though not necessarily better.

It was like him to leave her to move in by herself. “I’ve business to attend to, this shag’s off to Brussels in the morning, I’ve got to get his order. You’ll be all right, Gipsy, if I give the cabbie the address.” He could always have business when he didn’t want to be bothered, but of course Marise was alright. With the bags packed and the taxi-driver informed where to take her she could not be so terribly wrong.

She watched him bounce up the steps. It was he who was wrong and it could be terrible for him. Soon after they were
married he had suddenly jumped out of bed and stood with his back to her hitting his temples with his knuckles. She recognised a strong emotion and was humbled and touched that she could so deeply move anyone.

“I love you too, Jack,” she said timidly. He turned round, his face broke and his stomach heaved. He had doubled up, laughing like a maniac.

He sent the door of the flat wide to the wall, his first action was to knock down a piece of plaster.

“What a time I had getting away. Come and have dinner, they said, we’ve plenty to talk about. That’s certainly true, said I, but I’ve got a wife waiting to be carried across the threshold. What do you think? Do you like it?”

“It’s old. You didn’t tell me.”

“Not run down, though, not yet. And we shan’t be here long.”

“Why must we be here at all? We were all right where we were.”

“I’m slightly in the red, not much, more in the pink really. We’ll be out of here before you know. If you don’t like it – don’t you like it?”

“Where will we go? Will it be nicer?”

“You can bet your life it will. Are there any glasses?”

“How long shall we be here? A week?”

He said loudly, “Come off it, the place isn’t that bad,” and unwrapped a bottle of whisky. “Give me time.”

“The bedroom’s full of white hairs.”

He noticed the suitcases and his nose blanched, it did when he was annoyed. “You haven’t even unpacked!”

“Even? What else haven’t I done?”

Tomelty threw his hat into a chair. He had a counter-jumper’s skull someone had remarked, so neat and narrow, and Marise had overheard just at the moment when she was, or supposed she was, indissolubly bound to him. At her wedding breakfast, in fact. So that from then on she had the thought to carry with her that she had thrown herself away.
Later she realised that death was only one of many things that could part them.

“Glasses.” He turned his blanched nose to the kitchen. She heard him opening cupboards, running water. He came back shaking dry two cups he had rinsed. “There aren’t any glasses.”

“There’s no bread either.”

He didn’t upset her when he was angry. She didn’t always notice. Now she did, she noticed that he slopped the whisky into the cups and some of it splashed out and he planked the bottle down in the wet. Ordinarily he was a fastidious man, even fussy, and vain in his movements. He liked to watch his small, sinewy, spry hands and complete their actions with a flourish, an arabesque for five fingers and a wrist-bone.

“Here –” He picked the cup up by the rim and pushed it at her, and when she protested that she did not like whisky because it hurt her throat he drained both cups one after the other. “Here’s to Lilliput.”

“To what?”

“They call this place Lilliput Lodge. Don’t ask me why.”

“Because Lilly put it here.”

He glared at her. “Silly bitch,” and then he laughed. They both laughed, they had always been able to do that together. “How’s the bedroom? How’s the bed? Now that matters,” he put out his hand to her, “we should look at the bed.”

“Not now.”

“Why not now? What else is there to do now?”

Marise picked up Barbra-Bear and twisted her shoulders away from him. “I don’t like that thing in the daytime.”

‘You don’t like it any time.” He poured a cup of whisky and sipped it as he wandered round the room. He had a wellnigh indestructible sunniness which perhaps, since it did not warm but only sparked, came from somewhere colder than the sun. “Look at this clock, it’s a German line from Westphalia. I carried it for years and this is the first time I’ve seen one that wasn’t in going order. You know,” he
took a sip of whisky, drawing it piercingly through his teeth, “this place will be good for you. You’ll be on the ground here.”

“I liked it at Plummer’s, I didn’t want to change.”

“Eight floors up had a bad psychological effect.” In the bay window he twitched up the curtain and wound it like a coif round his face. “You were getting above yourself. Not holy – rarefied I should say, but not rare.” He winked. “You’ll be able to see everyone coming in and out.”

“What everyone?”

“The neighbours all have to come through that door.”

“Why should I want to see them?”

“To remind you that someone else is alive. Gyp, I think you sometimes forget.”

“What do I forget? I didn’t forget to unpack, the minute I got here I thought I’ll get my own things round me and it’ll seem more like home. And I didn’t forget bread, the baker came and he hadn’t any white, I didn’t forget that you like white bread.”

“You’ll see every move everyone makes.” He clowned to himself with the curtain across his nose. “Little Sister is watching.”

“I shall be too busy washing and cooking and cleaning.” Under this banner she bustled across the room and took a shoe-tree out of the suitcase. “A woman’s work is never done.
forget that.”

BOOK: John Brown's Body
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