Melissa Harrison is the author and nature writer behind the acclaimed novels Clay and the Costa-shortlisted At Hawthorn Time. Her latest book All Among The Barley is set in 1930s Suffolk and tells the story of Edie, a farm girl on the cusp of adulthood, and a way of life caught between tradition and modernity.
Ahead of her appearance at Southbank Centre's London Literature Festival we caught up with the novelist to discuss the origins of All Among The Barley, the similarities between its 1930s setting and the present, and how she sees England in 2018.
All of your novels have given great prominence to the nature and landscape in which they are set. What comes first for you, a desire to write about a particular environment, or the premise of the novel?
A particular environment can be the premise of a novel – the two aren’t necessarily separate at all. All my writing is concerned with nature, landscape and place; the natural world is the beating heart of everything I do. I tend to assemble novels by exploring a set of ideas that interest me, rather than sitting down to write a story, and one of the first elements that comes to me is setting: where am I, what time of year is it, what plants and trees grow here, what crops or livestock are in the fields, what’s the human history of the place, and so on. From setting comes theme, character and finally plot, for me.
Was there something in particular that drew you to the mid-1930s time period in which All Among The Barley is set?
The inter-war years were a period of great uncertainty and change in this country, especially on farms. Horsepower was giving way to tractors, which was nothing less than one entire belief system, and social order, giving way to another. The working of horses involved a great deal of superstition, traditional beliefs and folklore, whereas mechanisation was all about science, efficiency and democratisation.
That change occurred very fast – in a single generation, in some areas – and it marked the beginning of the end of a longstanding traditional system of farming, and the start of the highly efficient agribusiness that dominates the countryside today: a system which has increased production and given us cheap food, but has also resulted in the loss of a great many of our birds, insects and wildflowers.
Edie is just 14 years old. Does that allow you to tell the story from a more neutral point of view, in that she is not weighed down by lived experience, and more open to the world around her?
Edie’s point of view is anything but neutral: she lives inside her own subjectivity as we all do, weighed down by fears, beliefs and biases and prey to her own particular insecurities and confusions. More than that, puberty is, I think, a particularly vulnerable time, when we are being forced to leave behind the safety and certainty of childhood with its clear moral distinctions and move into the more complex world of adulthood, without yet having accrued the experience to help us navigate it safely.
My aim, in writing the book in the first person, was to open up a gap between what Edie reports as her experience, as what we, as adults, can see is really happening. That requires readers, I hope, to see past comfortable moral judgements and exist in a state of complexity and doubt – something I think is essential, particularly at the moment.
An older woman called Constance FitzAllen arrives in Edie’s home village of Elmbourne with a very romanticised, nostalgic view of country life. Do you see a danger in such nostalgia?
It seems to me that our English identity is bound up with a sense of nostalgia for an imagined rural past. Think of ‘England’ and you’re likely to picture a village with a little church and a half-timbered inn surrounded by green fields, a powerful but worryingly incomplete idyll that countless writers and politicians have drawn on over the years, and one that I absorbed as a child, too: my mother, who was born and brought up in what’s now Pakistan and grew up with a very particular vision of ‘home’, read us books like Lark Rise to Candleford, Cider With Rosie, A Country Child and the Miss Read books when we were growing up.
With this book, I wanted to conjure up and then disrupt that cosy, nostalgic vision of England; not least because at this moment in time, to rest a sense of national identity on a highly exclusive, Anglican, wealthy, south-eastern and white rural idyll that never really existed seems extremely troubling to me.
A sense of impending change runs through the book, meaning that parallels between the between the 1930s England you’ve so vividly depicted, and the England of today are perhaps inevitable. Was this by design… or has life followed art since you first began the novel?
When I began work on All Among The Barley, in 2015, the EU referendum was still some way off on the horizon, and I couldn’t have imagined that Trump would really become president of the US. The world changed around me as I was writing it, the 1930s becoming more and more resonant as a period of economic depression and political instability during which far right beliefs gained ground. It became clear to me that I had a responsibility, in setting a book in that period, to address the similarities with the present day; the challenge for me was to not let that aspect of the book overbalance the story of Edie, and of Wych Farm.
You’re joining us at London Literature Festival for a discussion with Sam Byers on ‘Visions of England’, so how do you see England in 2018?
Right now, our vision of ‘England’ is contested and vulnerable. To move forward as a nation, rather than fracture painfully into schisms or atomise altogether, we need to find a way of reimagining ourselves that avoids jingoism and nativism; that’s inclusive, forward-looking, and finds aspects of our shared landscape and shared experience to be proud of and patriotic about.
“The past is gone, and that’s just the way of it,” says one of the characters in All Among the Barley. “Change allus comes, and all that falls to a man to decide is whether he’ll be part of it or not”.
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Released in August this year, All Among The Barley has been described as ‘a masterpiece’ by author Jon McGregor. It is published by Bloomsbury and available to order direct, or via your local bookshop, from Hive.
Photograph of the author, produced by Rebecca Morris Knight