It is 1934 and Edith is a 14-year-old girl living on her family’s farm somewhere in East Anglia. She has just left school and now helps her parents in the house and on the farm, while escaping into her obsessions with books and daydreams. Awkward, shy and clever, Edith didn’t quite fit in at school and has become increasingly lonely ever since her older sister Mary left home to get married. She feels as if she is waiting for something but she doesn’t know what.
One day a woman named Connie arrives from London to research rural life and traditions. The independent Connie seems very glamorous and sophisticated to Edith and even wins over some of the more reluctant villagers, persuading them to share their farming and household techniques, along with the old stories, songs and superstitions, so she can write them up for her magazine articles. But it gradually emerges that there is more to Connie than appears at first sight…
There are hints right from the start that Connie’s interest in the villagers is based on an ignorant and idealised preconception of country life, that she is patronising and seeing them as rural archetypes rather than as individual human beings. The novel cleverly shows how Edith is made uneasy by Connie’s approach but is not able to articulate why. She is young, vulnerable and bewitched by the promise of a different kind of life (urban, exciting, educated) that Connie brings with her. It is possible to sense from early on in the novel that Connie’s nostalgic views of the land and Britain’s rural heritage may be darker and more political than she first reveals, but it is still intriguing to see her true opinions being revealed and the reactions by the farmers as she tries to recruit them to her cause.
All Among The Barley is also a very compelling portrait of a young woman. Melissa Harrison writes very evocatively about Edith’s feeling of being an outsider and the incidents of sexual violence that she feels unable to speak about, about a teenage girl’s anger and what happens to it when it is unexpressed and cannot find an outlet. The way in which the reader can see Edith grow in independence and power only makes what happens towards the end of the novel all the more tragic.
What I particularly like about this novel is the way it portrays cultural appropriation, the relationship between researcher and subject, and how a way of life or group of people can be misrepresented by an outsider’s view. This is all written about in an understated way but it had a strong emotional impact on me and adds a self-reflective layer to the novel, deepening its exploration of these ideas and making the lives of John, Doble and Edith’s family seem even more precious and threatened.
There is also some vivid writing about the natural world and the countryside. As Edith becomes more disturbed, the descriptions become more intense, creating an almost supernatural quality to the landscape that stayed in my mind after I’d finished the book.
All Among the Barley brings to light historical events that I knew very little about (the growth of fascism in Britain in the 1930s and the treatment of some patients in mental hospitals throughout the 20th century) and is a deeply political book. Its strength lies also in the character of Edith and her struggles to work out her own opinions, express her feelings and find a place for herself in the world. The fact that this is prevented from happening makes the end of the book very unsettling and moving.