Elspeth Roberta Cameron Langlands was born on November 16, 1940 in Edinburgh. When she was 7 years old, her parents Robert and Elizabeth (Bresh) Langlands moved their family to Dramtocht, a neo-Gothic castle in Kinkardinshire, which was rumored to have been bought by her father from the King of Norway.
The Langlands set up a preparatory school for boys, which Elspeth attended as the only girl. Her classmates, harsh and rustic, did sports to torture her. She turned to books and animals for friendship, and she celebrated the milestones of adolescence with the arrival and departure of pets.
“I remember when I was 18 and the dog that was there all my life – a golden retriever nicknamed Slave – died,” she told The Eastern Daily Press in Norwich in 2012. “And I remember it much more than permission to gin and tonic or going to university, the death of this dog meant the end of my childhood.”
She went to boarding school and then attended Somerville College in Oxford, where she studied modern languages. She was brilliant but ill-suited to the seriousness of higher education; after she missed the final exam, she was expelled without a diploma.
She moved to London, where she waited at tables, worked in a bookstore and got into the literary set of the city. When she was 22, Canadian poet Elizabeth Smart introduced her to Mr. Barker. He was 50.
Mr. Barker was married but separated from his first wife, Jessica Barker, a strict Roman Catholic who refused to divorce him, a fact that did not prevent him from having a long relationship with Mrs. Smart, who bore four children. Their love cooled, and Mrs. Smart did not regret allowing someone to take her place.
Borrowing from one of Mr. Barker’s friends, the playwright Harold Pinter, the new couple moved north to a village near Norwich. Their home became an intermediate station for itinerant students, poets and artists, as well as for Mr. Barker’s already considerable broods, many of whom grew up in their families.