All Among the Barley, by Melissa Harrison, is set in rural Suffolk in the 1930s and features the coming-of-age of farm girl Edie Mather and the impact on her life of the arrival of outspoken young woman Constance FitzAllen from London. Edie is grateful for her kindness and friendship but all is not what it seems in a book which the author intends in part as a warning against creeping Fascism stalking Britain in that era.
Book review by Robert J Davies
All Among the Barley is not without weaknesses but these are transcended by its qualities. The writing has a lyrical beauty to it as the author describes with hugely-impressive authenticity, rural life in Suffolk in the mid-1930s. Melissa Harrison has a depth of knowledge about the natural world which evidently comes not merely from careful research but from the heart.
Yet all is not entirely well in rural paradise and readers hoping to sink into a misty-eyed vision of a bucolic idyll, populated by poor, hard-working but cheerful peasants, with not a care in the world, will repeatedly be offered a reality check – culminating in a dramatic ending which simply cannot be written about without spoiling the novel for those yet to read it.
For those of us, like myself, who have grown up in the countryside, it is not in the least bit disappointing that the hardships and drawbacks of a life lived on the land – especially in that era – be fairly portrayed and indeed, how can one truly appreciate light unless it is in the context of shades of dark?
Melissa Harrison hopes to unsettle us as we plunge deeper into the book – and the appearance of Constance FitzAllen from London is intriguing and absorbing. We guess that there will be more to this young woman than meets the eye and that her friendship with 14-year-old Edie is likely ultimately to blow up in some dramatic way. Connie’s character is well drawn and her likeability maintained, despite the fact that, evidently, her mindset is one for which the author herself has very little time.
Connie has an idealistic and patronising view of country people although she develops great affection, not only for Edie, but for her family and the wider community. She undoubtedly sees rural Britain through rose-tinted spectacles and, as time goes on, we realise that there is a political edge to her which underpins that uncritical view.
(Next paragraph contains a mild spoiler . . . )
When it comes, the to-be-expected discrediting of Connie is brutal and shocking, and I was disappointed by its harshness. She needn’t have been monstered in that way but the author wished to and that’s the way of it. Nonetheless, I very much liked Constance FitzAllen through most of the book and admired the way that, politics aside, she developed an abiding love of her surroundings and was eager to play her part in village life, and help out with harvesting and farm work. She adapted well and progressed from an urban dweller who worships country living from afar, to becoming part of it.
(Fairly big spoiler) . . .
The climax to the book is swift, viciously bleak and somewhat contrived in my view. For a novel so gentle and with plots and sub-plots which build slowly, it comes as a real and sudden punch in the gut. I recoiled from it at first and wished that it might have wrapped up differently or at least, at a more measured pace.
In the Historical Note at the back of the book, Melissa Harrison gives us further insight into the political message she intends to convey, namely to warn of the dangers of creeping Fascism – not just in the 1930s but in the present era and undoubtedly she wishes us to make that connection. She sees a “murky broth” of nationalism, “anti-Semitism, nativism, protectionism, anti-immigration sentiment, economic autarky . . . rural revivalism, nature worship, organicism, landscape mysticism and distrust of big business” as being the key elements. Miss Harrison barely draws breath before reminding us that 1945 was the year Auschwitz was liberated and the horror of the Nazis’ Final Solution revealed, and that it was also the year Orwell published an essay called “Antisemitism in Britain”. The inference one is supposed to draw from all this is pretty clear.
Incidentally it was also Orwell who, in the late 1930s, shrewdly pointed out that Fascism had become an empty term of abuse used by anyone to describe anything they didn’t much like. There is no reason, of course, why those who like the taste of Melissa’s “murky broth” (hopefully without the anti-Semitism) should necessarily graduate to the odious belief system which led to the Nazi Holocaust. Nor is it reasonable, in painting a warts-and-all picture of tough rural life in the 1930s to condemn those who would still claim that life was better then and much that was precious has been lost in the stampede to modernity, consumerism, globalisation and diversity.
Any belief system can be perverted and corrupted. Think of the noble ideas which underpinned communism. And though one might say that its merits in theory were never achieved in practice, few would argue that someone with sincerely-held Marxist views would be likely to approve of, say, Stalin’s policy of genocide against the Ukrainian people which also occurred in the 1930s. It’s an interesting fact that to this day, everyone knows the meaning of the Holocaust but far fewer have heard of the Holodomor.
In warning against right-wing excesses and the importance of accepting change, Melissa Harrison is potentially at risk of tripping up against her own self-evident love of the timeless English countryside and its long-held traditions. And interestingly, (spoiler . . . ) her central character Edie, many decades later, looks forward to ending her days going back to where she had spent her formative years, presumably hoping to find it as she left it.
A novel which is intentionally disconcerting is never going to be wholly pleasing and there are numerous elements in All Among the Barley which I wince at and feel saddened by. And some readers undoubtedly will have issues with the pace of the novel in places. Those niggles aside, it’s a powerful, thought-provoking piece of writing, meticulously researched and crafted, painting a luxuriously rich, vivid, atmospheric portrait of 1930s rural England at a time of great change. Whether I am permitted to or not, I love the world which Melissa Harrison evokes, for all its inevitable shortcomings. Long may what’s left of our rural heritage endure.
I hope the author – also a nature columnist for The Times – will write more works of fiction which tap into her superb knowledge of the English countryside. I for one – with a degree of trepidation – will be waiting to read them.
Robert J Davies is the founder of the Rural Conservative Movement, a writer and former newspaper journalist