A field that is forever England?
Photo by Charlotte90t, under Creative Commons Licence
As usual at Christmas, I received a gratifying pile of historical novels. Top of the pile, with its blazing yellow cover, was Jim Crace’s Harvest, short-listed for last year’s Man Booker Prize. Reviewers have had mixed feelings: some heaped lavish praise in Harvest, while others grumbled at its lumpy plot. I will nonetheless be strongly recommending Harvest to my early modern British History students because it is such a bold – though problematic - act of historical imagination.
Harvest tells the story of the last barley harvest in an English village about to be obliterated by enclosure – the controversial practice whereby landowners converted arable land into sheep pasture, displacing people from the land, because there was far more money to be made in wool than in wheat and barley. Throughout the 20C historians tried to recover the experiences of pre-modern English villagers (the ‘common man and woman’), using anthropology, folkore, archaeology and through fresh readings of sources produced by social elites. For me, none of these academic publications has conjured up early modern English village life as vividly as Crace does in Harvest. He shows us Walter Thirsk, the narrator, and his fellow villagers weaving baskets and mending tools on winter nights, making mischief with ale and magic mushrooms, electing their Gleaning Queen, living in fear constantly that the land might fail to provide. Crace gives us a community which is self-policing, supportive, claustrophobic and deeply suspicious of the world beyond the parish bounds.
However, like a lot of academic writing on early modern English rural life – books on ‘merrie Englande’ – Harvest heavily mythologies and idealises its subject matter. This book is not just an attempt to explore how ‘ordinary people’ (whoever they were) lived in the early modern period, but a novel which implies that barley-farming by a village-kingroup, tied to the land, is a particularly authentic form of human experience; humans in their ‘natural’ and prelapsarian state. Crace’s village is timeless. Whereas many historical novelists labour to convey minute period detail, Crace does not tell us where or when this enclosure novel is set, which could be at any point between the 16th and 19th centuries. Harvest is a historical novel which, with its picture of an ancient and timeless village culture, tries to keep history at the margins. This is also a pre-modern rural England as refracted through the prism of very modern concerns – the environment, national identity, refugees & immigration, and belonging. Villages like those of Jim Crace / Walter Thirsk seem to be a world we need to believe in – no coincidence, perhaps, that Harvest was published in the same year that the BBC broadcast its successful historical-reality TV series, Tudor Monastery Farm. As one of its presenters said ‘it’s a bit of fantasy, really’. Perhaps historical imagination alone (however vivid) is not enough to see the past; we also need highly self-reflective, self-aware, and critical forms of historical imagination.