A few years ago I read and loved Melissa Harrison’s At Hawthorne Time, so I have really been looking forward to this one, which finally came in at my library. Harrison seems to be an author who works a groove, as the themes of this book reminded me of her previous one: life in an English village during a time of change (but when is not a time of change, as she reminds us); a love for and connection to the land; characters who are social outsiders, at least to some extent. All Among the Barley reminds me not just of Harrison’s previous novel, but of books I’ve loved like Reservoir 13 and Ghost Wall. Like the latter, it is astute about the ways nostalgic nationalism ill serves women, and can be read at least in part as a Brexit novel, as it’s set in 1933 with both echoes of war and a faintly looming political threat. (I don’t think this book is quite as good, though).
The narrator of All Among the Barley is Edith Mather, the 14 year old daughter of an East Anglia farmer. Edie is bright, but she has just left school, as her parents expect; she has little sense of what she wants from life, or even that she can want something. She loves the farm and its landscape, but what future do they offer her, especially under threat from an economic depression? Then a stranger comes to town in the shape of Constance FitzAllen, who is working on a book celebrating English rural life–in a blood and soil kind of way.
Edie and the much older Connie become friends of a sort, and Harrison plays them off each other in interesting ways. Each is naive in some ways, and wise or worldly in others. Connie has a lot of illusions about farm life and a nostalgia for “peasants,” while Edie doesn’t understand the political undercurrents of her views, or of the troubles on the farm. Added to this are Edie’s complex feelings about her family, a mix of love and resentment, and her relationship with a neighbor boy whom she knows she is “supposed” to like, but whose attentions she feels uncomfortable with (that plot goes where you fear it will).
What I liked most about All Among the Barley, as I did about At Hawthorne Time, was Harrison’s subtle interrogation of nostalgia. Connie’s passion for “traditional English ways” and the nobility of the farmer is naive and sinister, the road to fascism. But Edie and her family love their land and cherish traditions, too, even as they recognize that changes must come–and those that lighten their work are very welcome.
The landscape Harrison depicts is always marked by both the past and by change; it can’t be a stable reservoir of value. Here is Edie slipping off with her brother Frank for a day at the river:
On the other side of the field we left Rose Farm and ducked through a gap in a tall hedge to where a straight path ran west for a mile, flanked on each side by hazels and young oaks. Father said that before the War it had been a lane of rolled stone with a good, deep ditch on each side for drainage; now, though, it was just a narrow path overarched by trees. The hazels had not been coppiced for many years and had grown and spread to form huge stools, and cow parsley stood thick around them; the ground was covered in dog’s mercury and ransoms, dying back. The dauby clay that was now the path’s surface made a click-click sound under our feet as though in the heat it were dry-mouthed; on each side of the cool path, through gaps in the rampant June growth, the barley blazed.
This is typical of Harrison’s descriptions. There are hints of lyricism (that blazing barley) but much of it is matter of fact, precisely observed, and by someone familiar with the setting. What do all these plants look like? What is coppicing, exactly? Edie doesn’t tell us, because she knows (Google can help). We’re reminded here that the landscape changes, that old traditions, like the plants, may die back. There’s a reminder of the hard times here, too, in the failure to maintain the road and hedges after the War, from which many farm laborers never returned. These scenes are never just pretty or nostalgic, but full of tension.
At the same time, though, I wonder about what kind of nostalgia might be involved in setting a novel written just now in this inter-war period. I don’t know whether Harrison intended to allude to Brexit, but surely she knew people would read her novel through this contemporary lens. Clare Clark’s Guardian review says the novel “underplays the looming threat of fascism,” but I don’t think I agree; the reader can bring the context Edie is only vaguely aware of, and see the dangers of her narrow perspective and ignorance of the wider world.
At the same time, a reader who thinks “Ah, fascism looms again,” and who might equate Connie’s nostalgia for an older Britain with that of Leave voters, can take comfort in the fact that “we” beat fascism back then and surely will again–without, perhaps, lifting a finger ourselves. I wonder if that comforting nostalgia isn’t the most dangerous of all, and if All Among the Barley entirely escapes it. Edie, for reasons I won’t spoil here, never quite does.