Monday, May 27, 2019

All Among The Barley - Melissa Harrison

It's hard to believe that it's more or less 4 years since I read 'At Hawthorn Time' and fell for Melissa Harrison's writing, but so it seems to be. 'At Hawthorn Time' was one of those books that has really stuck with me, and partly because I liked it so very much I've been hesitant about reading 'All Among the Barley'.

I was always going to wait for the paperback anyway (not a hardback fan) but even when I bought it (more or less the moment it hit the shelves in my local Waterstones) it made me a little nervous - which is the downside of keen anticipation.

Set in East Anglia across the high summer months between hay and harvest in 1934 the book is told from the point of view of 14 year old Edith. Just finished school, she is clever, bookish, the baby of the family, sheltered, isolated, and caught between child and adulthood.

Meanwhile between the continuing agricultural depression, an increasing pace of change towards mechanisation, and the country's inter war flirtation with fascism (Nancy Mitford's Wigs on the Green was published in 1935 and is an interesting comic counterpoint to some of the events in this), as well as the farmers annual anxiety about weather and harvests tensions are building.

I have a bit of a prejudice against books set in the past - it's not everybody who can make it work convincingly, but Harrison does. This is partly because of the focus she puts on describing the farm and its wildlife, which is both pure Harrison and also very much part of a contemporary trend in the 1930's.

Dorothy Hartley is specifically referenced, but it's impossible not to think of Adrian Bell if you've read Corduroy/Silver Ley/The Cherry Tree, or the work of Claire Leighton. I don't think I've read all of Vita Sackville-West's 'The Land' (worth following the link to listen to the clip of her reading from it though, even if just to hear her diction) but she's part of this tradition too. Lolly Willows and Tarka the Otter are also mentioned amongst others - Lolly Willows signposting where Edith might be heading, Tarka more of a warning about Constance FitzAllen.

Initially Constance seems like she might be working along the same lines as Dorothy Hartley or Claire Leighton, or even Adrian Bell - keen to record an England on the cusp of disappearing. But it becomes increasingly clear that her interests go far beyond recording and into creating a specific sort of propaganda.

The brilliant thing about this book is how nothing is overstated. Edith is utterly convincing, and whilst it's clear something is going wrong it's not entirely clear what, or how serious it actually might be. Constance Fitzallen is a catalyst in the midst of tensions that were already present and again utterly believable. The dramas are both profound and banal - the fear of bankruptcy, old age and infirmity, war time losses leaving an absence of men to work the fields, alcoholism, not knowing how to say no to something you don't want, and so on.

All of them go to build towards a conclusion that's both shocking and inevitable. It's also a book that speaks clearly about the dangers of nostalgia and an idealised vision of an imaginary past in our own era, and again it's done with a lightness of touch which makes it all the more powerful.

Basically this book really is as good as everybody has been saying, and you should absolutely read it.


  1. This is a book I've read about, placed a hold on at the library, and then didn't read.....why?! Glad to read that it met your expectations and I'll be sure to sign it out again. Thanks for posting your thoughts!

  2. Maybe for the same reason it took me so long - a vague idea that it wouldn't live up to the hype? It did for me so I'm very happy I finally got round to it. She's definitely a writer to watch.