A timely novel which neatly skewers the still-pervasive myth of an idyllic English countryside.
As the self-mutilatory repercussions of Brexit become ever clearer and we career with increasing velocity towards leaving the European Union without any kind of negotiated safety net, Leavers are being forced to draw in the boundaries of their fantasy land further with each passing week. In no time at all we’ve gone from having our cake and eating it to at least getting our sovereignty back to any positive effects not showing up for half a century.
Many Leavers have retreated to their safe space, banishing the realities of Brexit to immerse themselves in a Britain – or, rather, England – of reassuringly rural archetype. The village green, the blacksmith’s forge, the thatched roof on the inn where the farmer wets his whistle with a foamy pint of English ale after a long day behind the plough to which his faithful old horses are yoked, pausing between sips to impart a sagacious piece of meteorological lore or croon a couple of verses of a song passed down from his father and his father before him.
This is the land to which many Brexiters want to return; a place bound by the rhythms and traditions of the agricultural year. Theirs is a prelapsarian England of self-sufficient micro-communities where the man in the big house places a reassuringly paternal arm around the shoulders of the ruddy-cheeked rustics in his care, the hunt and the harvest are the highlights of the calendar and the machinations of international politics lie somewhere beyond the big yellow moon that hangs over the village when the crops are gathered in.
The thing is, we can’t return to that place because, at least in the cosy version that comforts the more delusional Brexiteer, it never existed in the first place. It’s an invention; at best an aspiration, at worst a wilful shunning of anything perceived as ‘other’. It’s the equivalent of the propaganda films put out by Stalinist Russia and Hitler’s Germany, a hijacking of rural reality to present a clean, healthy image of a nation capable and comfortable thanks to its horny-handed toilers of the soil working in cheery unison to feed a population free of sinister interlopers that’s entirely comfortable in its own skin.
A particularly effective way to counter this fiction is with fiction. As you read this there are novelists slaving away at their takes on Brexit and the notion of Britishness today. Some of these books will be dystopian, some satirical, some searing indictments of the social and political zeitgeist in which we live. Melissa Harrison has turned to history. Not only that, in setting her new novel All Among The Barley in rural Suffolk during the 1930s she’s plunged us right into the fantasy heartland of the Little Englander to produce what will surely turn out to be one of the books of the year.
A long-established writer on nature both in fiction (she’s produced two previous novels Clay and At Hawthorn Time) and non-fiction (a highly-rated book about rain and a brilliant four-volume anthology of writing related to the seasons), Harrison (inset below) is more than qualified to write about a rural community during the drought-addled English summer of 1933. All Among The Barley is her best work yet.
Harrison’s great skill here is to create a fictional world governed by the rhythms of land and seasons that preserves a sense of the bucolic while also tackling the realities facing a small community during the inter-war years. As well as highly evocative descriptions of landscape and the agricultural methods and traditions of the age we see also the harshness of rural life with its all too human flaws and horrors, from infant mortality to sexual abuse.
Our narrator Edie Mather was born in 1920 and has lived her whole life at Wych Farm outside the village of Elmbourne, land farmed by her family for generations. She’s an intelligent, bookish child, an unreliable narrator of great depth and nuance infused with a streak of darkness at the heart of her personality.
‘Sometimes when I was younger I would imagine I had secret powers and pretend to curse the other children, visiting ills and sickness upon them with a glance,’ she admits early in the book.
She’s led an introverted life on the farm with her parents, elder brother, a sister who has recently married and moved to another village, her grandfather and two loyal farm hands.
Then Constance FitzAllen arrives from London and everything changes. A former suffragette, Constance inserts herself into the locality declaring her intention to document the old ways in order to preserve, celebrate and propagate them, ultimately preventing them from disappearing altogether. Constance is charismatic and modern, arriving by bicycle, wearing trousers, dazzling Edie with her urbanity and independence.
She opens up a world beyond Elmbourne and its inevitabilities – a largely loveless marriage to a local man deemed by others to be suitable and an unchanging annual routine of relentless hard work and pregnancy.
Constance’s attitude to the locals is a mix of admiration and condescension. She’s in awe of the wisdom of generations she sees instilled in rural people yet she seeks to prevent them from progressing. Her England is one where the city is a place for innovation and debate while the countryside plays out its annual rituals, always returning to where it began in a bucolic four-season groundhog day of sow and harvest, untroubled by progress, unconcerned with the world beyond.
The Mather family is patronised by Constance from the start. She all but scolds Edie’s mother for not making her own butter and cheese and informs Edie’s grandfather that he should worry about the increasing role of mechanisation in farming.
‘It don’t worry me,’ he responds with vigour. ‘We must have change. We must have it! I didn’t farm like my father and George don’t farm the same as me. That’s the way of it. You can’t stand still, not if you want to get on.’
This is one of the key themes of All Among The Barley, the countering of the assumption that traditional, rural Britain was something that appeared fully-formed and never changed, not to mention the notion that the agrarian population liked it that way.
Harrison is excellent at burrowing into the bucolic to expose how country life was anything but an idyll. There’s domestic violence, serious illness, raw unspoken grief for local lads who never came back from the war, not to mention the presence of sexual predator Alfie Rose, a boy from a nearby farm who has been abusing Edie since she was 10 years old. Because he’s a popular youth whom everyone regards a lovely lad, Edie is forced to question her own revulsion at his actions.
The wider social and economic realities of the 1930s are strongly present, notably in the abandoned farm next door from which the family had been evicted by the local landowner after falling behind on rent, its windows smashed, its fields left untended. In the village there are empty, broken down cottages that Constance considers perfectly charming and suitable for people from the city, even when Edie points out the damp and lack of running water and sanitation. Reality is irrelevant to Constance here; the fantasy is all that matters.
It would have been easy to over-egg these scenes but Harrison handles it all with skilful characterisation and a touch light enough for the reader never to feel they’re being poked in the chest. Neither do they risk being lulled into the sun-dozed rural whimsy of an H.E. Bates novel: a short passage about gassing rabbits in their warrens and making a petrol-fuelled bonfire of their corpses, for example, is all the more effective for being almost an aside.
It’s not all grim, either: there are long passages of beautiful description that make the book practically thrum with the rhythm of the land, and there are some wonderfully subtle allusions to how much things have changed since the 1930s. Evie’s mother complains at one point about being kept awake at night by the constant cries of corncrakes, for example, a bird now so rare its harsh sound has all but disappeared from the landscape.
As we’re drawn further into the world of the Mathers we realise there is more to Constance than we might have suspected. Her apparently benevolent enthusiasm comes from an overtly political place and her conversation becomes increasingly seeded with references to a sinister cabal of ‘international moneylenders’.
When it becomes clear a homeless family has moved surreptitiously into Hullets, the abandoned farm next door, there is sympathy among the Mathers but not from Edie, who is aghast when her grandfather suggests they could find work on the Rose farm.
‘But there are plenty of village people who’ll work for Bob Rose!’ she hoots. ‘And anyway they can’t just move in anywhere they want. Can they?’
Later, piqued by curiosity, she enters the Hullets farmhouse, observes evidence of the family’s residence and wonders: ‘Whose fault was it that they had lost their home – were they simply idle or was the father a dipsomaniac? Or perhaps they were of bad character, or Irish, or all of these things’.
It’s this fear of the other that has the strongest resonance with the world we know today and is the key to the power of Harrison’s outstanding novel.
Through the story of Edie and the inhabitants of Wych Farm we see exposed the mixture of naiveté and condescension that underpins the Little Englander branch of the Brexiteer movement. All Among The Barley is an eloquent and convincing rejection of nativism and a timely warning of the dangers that lie in the evocation of a particular kind of Englishness when sinister forces are only too willing to harness it for nefarious ends.
As farmhand John puts it towards the end of the book: ‘Some notions – well, it’s like when a horse comes down with the farcy, or strangles; or when bindweed gets into a crop. Once things like that take hold they’re terrible hard to shift.’
• All Among The Barley by Melissa Harrison is published by Bloomsbury, price £16.99