BOOK CLUB Melissa Har­ri­son takes us back to ru­ral life in the in­ter­war era.


In the Moment - - Contents - Words: Sarah Di­tum

Com­edy can eas­ily sup­plant his­tory. The in­ter-war ob­ses­sion with ru­ral life is prob­a­bly re­mem­bered best through Stella Gib­bons’ de­li­cious 1932 satire, Cold Com­fort Farm; like­wise, when think­ing of Bri­tish fas­cism at that time, an im­age of PG Wode­house’s ab­surd Rod­er­ick Spode of­ten re­places the real-life char­ac­ters. Melissa Har­ri­son’s third novel is a more ac­cu­rate re­turn to that time. All Among the Bar­ley is told through the eyes of Edie, an old woman now, remembering a shat­ter­ing pas­sage of events that hap­pened on her fam­ily’s Suf­folk farm.

This story ex­plores the se­crets in the ev­ery­day, the in­ter­play be­tween hu­mans and nature, and the place of out­siders. Her tal­ent for in­tri­cate de­scrip­tions of wildlife and land­scape is ten­der but never sen­ti­men­tal. The novel’s rich, beau­ti­ful coun­try­side is marked with loss: “It was im­pos­si­ble in those years not to know there was an army of men miss­ing from the farms and elds,” says Edie. And there is loss yet to come: this is a world that will have ceased to ex­ist by the time she tells her story.

Farm­work is de­mand­ing and bru­tal. There’s vi­o­lence in the hedgerows. Edie’s psy­che starts to frac­ture. When ru­ral chron­i­cler Con­nie FitzAllen ar­rives from Lon­don on her bi­cy­cle, she brings not only a vi­sion of be­trousered fe­male in­de­pen­dence that’s daz­zling to Edie, but also some of the 20th cen­tury’s most dis­turb­ing po­lit­i­cal cur­rents. Con­nie’s pas­sion for the coun­try­side is born of a de­vo­tion to fas­cism – a theme with chill­ing con­tem­po­rary res­o­nance. Har­ri­son exquisitely re­cov­ers the time she’s writ­ing about, but this is most of all an es­sen­tial novel for our own era.

This is your rst his­tor­i­cal novel. Did it feel like a big jump from writ­ing about the con­tem­po­rary world?

It did. It was ter­ri­fy­ing. That, and writ­ing in the rst per­son (which I hadn’t done be­fore ei­ther) made it al­most im­pos­si­ble to start. I was wor­ried about get­ting things wrong about farm­ing in the 1930s. I was wor­ried about get­ting things wrong about farm­ing in Su olk in the 1930s, which would have been di er­ent than farm­ing in Devon or some­where else. And I was wor­ried about words and lan­guage. Su olk di­alect is so pre­cise – in the past, you could be up the road from some­where and use com­pletely di er­ent words. But I’m not in­ter­ested in things that feel too easy.

Were there any sources that helped?

Adrian Bell moved from lit­er­ary Lon­don to Su olk [in 1920], learned to farm, and wrote a tril­ogy of farm­ing nov­els. I fell in love with these books a few years ago when I re­viewed the sec­ond one. I think in the in­ter-war pe­riod there was a huge hunger for a con­nec­tion with land­scape and a cer­tain kind of English­ness, and Adrian Bell tapped into that re­ally suc­cess­fully. I was in­ter­ested in the feel­ings it con­jured up in me; an in­tense sense of nos­tal­gia and de­sire to live in that world. I had to stop and ques­tion that feel­ing, be­cause it wasn’t a bu­colic par­adise by any means. What we don’t hear is the voices of the farm labour­ers.

Dorothy Hart­ley was also a re­ally big in uence. She was this amaz­ing woman who cy­cled about the coun­try­side, go­ing to vil­lages and writ­ing down peo­ple’s recipes and cus­toms. She was in­de­fati­ga­ble. Com­pletely char­ac­ter­ful. A bril­liant jour­nal­ist – not the fas­cist that I turned her into in the book, which I’m quite keen to point out!

The novel’s themes of fas­cism, pop­ulism and sex­ual vi­o­lence all feel in­cred­i­bly cur­rent now. Were you aware of that when you were writ­ing?

It wasn’t on the hori­zon when I started writ­ing. Brexit hadn’t hap­pened. Trump hadn’t hap­pened. #metoo hadn’t hap­pened. None of these things that have ac­tu­ally be­come cen­tral to the book were any­where. I don’t think they were part of my con­scious­ness, although I think that one of the things that writ­ers and artists can do is to kind of be a light­ning rod. But as I started writ­ing, the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the book got heav­ier and heav­ier, be­cause I re­alised that I couldn’t be writ­ing a book set in 1934 and not talk about these things. The par­al­lels be­tween now and then were be­com­ing more and more ob­vi­ous and harder to ig­nore, and it would have been a dere­lic­tion of duty re­ally.

How did you nd writ­ing in rst per­son, es­pe­cially as a char­ac­ter who has a trau­matic story and a del­i­cate psy­che?

I found it re­ally hard ac­tu­ally. I don’t think it’s my nat­u­ral mode. One of my strengths is be­ing able to write very de­scrip­tively, but the mo­ment you write in rst per­son, that goes out the win­dow. Peo­ple don’t gen­er­ally stand around hav­ing in­ter­nal mono­logues about what­ever they’re see­ing in enor­mous de­tail! It’s not as sim­ple as just be­ing in­side some­one’s head.

I also re­alised I had to de­cide whether I would be 100 per­cent in­side the viewpoint of a 14-yearold girl all the way through, or whether I would al­low the older Edie to com­ment and re ect. I ddled around with that quite a lot. I worry, of course, that I’ve just writ­ten a ver­sion of me again. There’s a quote about writ­ers ei­ther cre­at­ing them­selves over and over, or cre­at­ing di er­ent char­ac­ters each time, and I think I’m prob­a­bly in the former camp.

Why do you keep go­ing back to the sub­ject of nature in your writ­ing?

Partly be­cause, like a tube of tooth­paste, if you squeeze me that’s just what comes out.

But I think that try­ing to help foster a con­nec­tion to the nat­u­ral world in other peo­ple is a valu­able thing to do. That maybe makes me feel a bit bet­ter about spend­ing my life quite in­dul­gently, wan­der­ing around and then writ­ing stu about it, which is a nice job most of the time.

Melissa’s novel jux­ta­poses her love of writ­ing about nature with the re­al­ity of farm­ing life in the in­ter­war years.

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