BOOK CLUB Melissa Harrison takes us back to rural life in the interwar era.
EVERY ISSUE WE’LL PICK A BRILLIANT BOOK WE THINK YOU’LL LOVE TO READ. THIS MONTH, WE TALK TO MELISSA HARRISON ABOUT HER HISTORICAL NOVEL
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.