Two versions of interwar pastoral

August 27, 2021 0 Comments

The charity shops have yielded two beautiful books in succession.  Both, as it happens, are novels in which first-person narrators look back, many years afterwards, to painful turning points in their lives in the English countryside between the two world wars.

Melissa Harrison was much praised in 2018 for her astonishingly detailed picture of a Suffolk farm in 1933, All among the barley.  Edie Mather, who tells her story, is fourteen years old.  She lives at Wych Farm on the edge of a remote village, with her family, a father turned bitter by hardship and ill-luck, a mother who covers up his alcoholism and bad temper, and her brother Frank.  There are also two farmhands, John the horseman and Doble the yardman.  The lives of all of them are wholly dominated by the unceasing effort to win a living from the wheat and barley they grow.  Harvest, the crucial event of the year, might save or destroy them, depending on the size of its yield.  Edie observes the farm’s unfolding year with a sharp eye, but also with a deep love for traditional rural way of life and the richness of the natural world around her.

Edie is an unusual child, bookish and reluctant to play her expected role as the farm girl, and as a future farmer’s wife.  Her pet corncrake means more to her than the farm animals.  Her gifts and interests go unremarked until an intruder from the distant urban world arrives in the village.  This is Constance (Connie) FitzAllen, a liberated young woman: ‘she wore loose trousers held in my bicycle clips at the ankles, a man’s shirt, sleeves rolled, and no hat’. She’s intent on recording the traditional characters, customs and language of the countryside (much as the Welshman George Ewart Evans did in East Anglia after the Second World War).  She wins a guarded acceptance from Edie’s family and others, and strikes a warming friendship with Edie by showing interest in her and her future.  Soon the two are riding their bicycles through the countryside, and Edie’s world begins to open wider.

Melissa Harrison

But clouds are gathering over the farm.  Edie has no grasp of economics, but the reader slowly realises that Wych Farm is struggling with debt in the post-war agricultural depression.  The harvest is likely to disappoint.  Edie herself suffers a trauma: what she, as narrator, is reluctant to regard as rape, at the hands of the son of a local farmer.  This wound leads to a psychotic episode, again unrecognised as such by Edie herself, in which she comes to believe she holds, like other women in her family, supernatural gifts that lend them powers they so clearly lack.

Connie turns out to be more than she seems.  She belongs to the ruralist wing of the British fascist movement, seeking to harness discontent by blaming foreign financiers and Jews, and preaching ‘blood and soil’ nationalism.  A political meeting she calls leads to violent conflict between John and Edie’s father, the destruction of the harvest, the death of Dobie, and Edie’s own downfall (explained fully in a grim epilogue).

What makes All among the barley so successful is the mixture of two elements.  The first is the extraordinarily close observation in the descriptions of the farm and farm work:

One morning Father set Frank and me to hoe and hand-pull Crossways, while he and Mother went to work on Far Piece.  It was nearing the end of July and the wheat was golden, the barley ash-blonde; but despite all we’d done earlier in the year, amongst it all grew corn poppies and cornflowers, dockweed, thistles, wild onion, mousetail, cleavers, shepherd’s needle, charlock, rye brome and corn buttercup, and before we could harvest, as many weeds as possible had to be pulled, for too much green in the sheaves would make them heat and spoil in the rick.  It was the kind of work I hated: mindless and monotonous, hard on the back and hands, and it went on for days.

Harrison combines this brilliant mix of present eye and filtered memory with a steady, ominous build of momentum in Edie’s story.  As harvest day approaches we sense a coming catastrophe, and the pace of the storytelling accelerates to a climax (some readers might find it melodramatic).

The other novel, though it shares the same framework, is very different.  Like All among the barley, J.L. Carr’s A month in the country was recognised, almost immediately after it was published in 1980, as an outstanding evocation of a last world and the capturing of a lost moment.

The narrator is a man, Tom Birkin, who writes about the ‘month’ (in 1920) over fifty years later. This time he’s the intruder, rather than the native.  Scarred physically and mentally by his experience in the Great War, and unhappily married, he gets off a train in the north Yorkshire village of Oxgodby to carry out a contract: uncovering a medieval wall painting that lies under layers of plaster in the local church.  He’s welcomed, coolly and officiously, by the vicar, who shows him his quarters, a makeshift bedsit fixed high in the church and equipped with an antique stove.  Rev. Keach asks him, ‘You are a Churchman?’

Oh yes, I told him, he could rely on me.  I saw him considering a possible ambiguity here, wondering what precisely he could rely on me for.  From his expression – the worst.  I didn’t look like a Churchman.   Indeed I looked like an Unsuitable Person likely to indulge in Unnatural Activities who, against his advice, had been unnecessarily hired to uncover a wall-painting he didn’t want to see, and the sooner I got it done and buzzed off back to sin-stricken London the better.

Llancarfan wall painting

But as time goes on Birkin finds himself becoming part of this alien but calming village.  He takes pride in his skill as a conservator and his success in revealing the old painting:

By the end of the second day a fine head was revealed.  Yes, a very fine head indeed, sharp beard, drooped moustache, heavy-lidded eyes outline black.  And no cinnabar on the lips; that was a measure of my painter’s calibre: exciting as cinnabar first comes over, he’d known that, given twenty years, lime would blacken it.  And, as the first tinges of garment appeared, that prince of blues, ultramarine ground from lapis lazuli, began to show – that really confirmed his class – he must have fiddled it from a monastic job – no village church could have run to such expense.

He also recovers his spirit through his immersion in the natural world around him in ‘that marvellous summer’, and through encounters with other villagers: Charles Moon, an archaeologist engaged in another temporary project, unearthing a lost medieval tomb, and Kathy Ellerbeck, a girl from a local Methodist family, who ‘adopt’ and feed him.  Alice, the vicar’s wife, introduces herself to him at work, triggering an observation:

The butterfly flew into the air once more.  Fir a moment it seemed that it might settle on the rose in her hat, but it veered off and away into the meadow.  The sound of bees foraging from flower to flower seemed to deepen the stillness.

J L Carr

Alice continues her visits as Birkin’s work nears completion.  Finally she askes to see his living quarters.  They recall the rose in her hat (‘I don’t think Arthur knows what I’m wearing’).  A moment arrives, a brief promise of sexual contact, and as quickly disappears.  Regretful, Birkin seeks out Alice at her home, but finds the couple gone.  Soon afterwards he packs and leaves the village for good.  He hears no more of the people there.  ‘So, in memory, it stays as I left it, a sealed room furnished by the past, airless, still, ink long-dry on a put-down pen.  But that was something I knew nothing of as I closed the gate and set off across the meadow’.

These closing words occur on p.102.  This is a very short novel.  While Melissa Harrison builds her world by heaping up words and sentences in luxuriant detail, Carr uses extreme economy, conveying the natural and human lives of his village as much by what he omits as by what he includes.

The two writers use the interwar setting in different ways.  In All among the barley both world wars cast a shadow: villagers have gone missing in the trenches, and fascism looms darkly.  The brief peace is a time of economic and social change – tractors arrive to replace farm horses, and science displaces folk wisdoms – and of depression and despair.  Oxgodby, by contrast, is a place of calm retreat and regrowth for Tom Birkin, after the (undescribed) horror of war and trauma.  His uncovering of the wall painting parallels the rediscovery of his own inner self.  Yet at the same time the village is a place of missed opportunity and untaken happiness.  Through the long retrospection of their narrations both books conjure nostalgia – but then complicate and counterpoint it with harsher themes: of pain, regret and loss.

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