The eternal problem, for authors who write about nature and the British countryside, is how to avoid sounding like Fotherington-Thomas, the parodic schoolboy in Geoffrey Willans’s and Ronald Searle’s immortal Molesworth books who wafts about saying, “Hello clouds, hello sky.” Ever since Wordsworth the trap has been there, partly because where other nations tend to view the natural world with suspicion, British authors can’t help loving our landscape, our flora and fauna and even our weather. The dream of the pastoral is always with us even when we despair at what mankind is doing to the natural world.
Recently, there has been a boom in nature writing, with gifted and scholarly stylists from Robert Macfarlane to Richard Mabey, and Alex Preston to Helen Macdonald, leading the charge. One of the finest is Melissa Harrison, who is unusual in that she combines an eye for detail and an ear for prose with a skill for constructing a plot. I first discovered her with At Hawthorn Time, a novel that is part-ghost-story and part-suspense in that you know from the start that one of its four protagonists will be killed. Longlisted for the Bailey’s Prize in 2015, it led me to her equally fine debut, Clay, as well as to her essays in Rain: Four Walks in English Weather.
In scope and ambition, All Among the Barley is a leap forward. Her narrator Edith Mather is looking back on the summer of 1933, when she was helping her family farm 60 acres of arable land at Wych Farm. “An odd child” born into a stolidly conservative, patriarchal family of five, she prefers the company of books to other children, but when she encounters Constance FitzAllen, a woman in search of information about “the old ways” of farming and beliefs, that changes. Outspoken, charming, inquisitive and glamorous, Constance at first seems like the ideal friend and mentor for a 13-year-old girl bright enough to read Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (a title which hints at her possible sexual inclinations.)
As with all novels featuring adolescent protagonists, there are intimations of betrayals and misunderstandings to come, but what makes this book special is its knowledge of the hard labour of farming work. Like Tim Pears’s West Country Trilogy it is an unflinching account of both the harshness and the beauty of rural life, and the living being wrested from the planting and reaping of crops. “Land is like a woman… You may love her, but she must produce,” Edith’s father says. Meanwhile, the family is poor, and getting poorer. Left short-handed by the loss of men in the First World War, he eyes the overgrown meadows next to theirs that offer his daughter an escape from school and working the fields, and stakes all on a crop of barley.
The tension between Edith’s lyrical apprehension of the natural world and the grinding need to eke a living out of it is skilfully wrought. All the details of farming and farmers’ lives ring true, as do Edith’s perceptions of bliss and revulsion. Existing between the fantasies of childhood and the changes that puberty will bring, she resists the push towards banality. The corncrake chick that she nurses arouses more compassion in her than the poor family living in the abandoned neighbouring farm, whose trespass must be kept secret from the landlord, Lord Lyttleton.
Constance’s enquiries – and worse, her patronising and sentimental journalism concerning the vanishing traditions of quaint country folk – arouse suspicion, fury and new ideas in Edith’s family, while providing a thread of increasingly sinister comedy throughout. The opinions of the author of This Happy Breed and supporter of the Order of English Yeomanry will be all too familiar to those who have read George Orwell’s 1945 essay on anti-Semitism in Britain. Quite what Constance is about is not at all clear to the narrator, however, but she is more attractive than Alf Rose, son of a richer farming neighbour whose determination to court Edith becomes importunate.
An underlying irrationality, ignorance and stubbornness bring doom upon the Mathers – or possibly release. Edith’s belief in supernatural powers is charming until it all goes wrong; there is more than a touch of The Go-Between here, though Harrison takes it in a very different direction. She is, perhaps, too kind to her characters: the climax of the novel would have benefitted from more brutality. Despite the natural inclination of readers to love other, fictional readers, Edith is not an easy heroine to warm to, but it is a tribute to this exquisitely written, elegantly plotted novel that you not only come to sympathise with her, but feel that her family’s lost way of life is part of a bigger national tragedy.
Melissa Harrison appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 25 November
All Among the Barley
Bloomsbury, 333pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 05 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The hard man of the Left