Far from the Front: The Women Who Worked the Land
Melissa Harrison, celebrated author of the Costa-shortlisted 'At Hawthorn Time,' considers and admires Xavier Beauvois' The Guardians, a studied and emotive work that shares a great deal with Harrison's upcoming novel 'All Among the Barley,' as they each turn their gaze upon the women who tended the farms of France and Britain, respectively, during the First World War and the inter-war period.
Think of the French countryside during the First World War and what comes to mind is shell-holes and trenches thick with mud, the stark, smashed trees of no-man’s-land and the rubble of deserted villages. Yet there was another rural France, far from the Front, that continued as best it could: ploughing the land with what horses had not been requisitioned, or if necessary with oxen; sowing, manuring, and harvesting by hand. With the men called away to fight, as they also were in Britain, this vital work fell largely to women, and The Guardians is as much a celebration of that work and of its legacy as it is a paean to a lost way of life.
At the Paridier farm in Limousin all the men of fighting age have gone to the Front, leaving elderly matriarch Hortense Sandrail and her daughter Solange to work the land alone.
First to return home on leave – his blue serge uniform less familiar to us than the khaki of the English Tommy – is gentle eldest son Constant who, before the War, was the village schoolteacher; he urges his exhausted mother to hire some help during the coming harvest, which she does in the form of Francine, a young woman recommended by the local mayor. Francine proves a hard worker, and is kept on; when younger, more bullish son Georges comes home on leave a connection is forged, and when Georges returns to fight the two begin to correspond.
With the brief return of Clovis, Solange’s hard-drinking husband, we meet the last of the absent men: all damaged by war, all lost, yet still authority figures during their brief respites from the trenches at the farm.
Yet this wartime film is not about the men, but about the three women and their struggle not just to preserve but to make a success of the precious family acres, and of themselves; and against a beautiful pastoral backdrop it unflinchingly shows us the true nature of that labour: the back-breaking task of guiding a plough; the sheer monotony of gathering potatoes; the exhausting work of threshing with a flail and harvesting with a sickle, instead of a mechanised reaper-binder or even a scythe.
The attention to detail is staggering, from the height of the wheat (far taller than modern varieties) to the ease with which the women broadcast seed compared to cutting corn, one a task familiar since childhood, the other newly learned.
This work was something women were doing all over Europe at that time, and in my novel 'All Among the Barley,' set in East Anglia in 1934, farmer’s wife Ada has been transformed by her experiences during the War years: “She came from a family of horsemen, and despite having my sister Mary to look after, and then Frank coming along, we knew that she had been seen to plough and harrow and drill from foredawn to sunset. I sometimes wondered if she missed those days now,” muses Ada’s daughter Edie, who is just 14:
Once, at the table, Frank asked Mother if she was a true horsewoman – if she really had ‘the power’, as it was called… I suppose we just wanted to know if she really was as rare a woman as we wanted her to be; or whether she had just attempted to do a man’s job for a few years, in the War.
‘Oh give over, Frank,’ she’d replied, and changed the subject; but I saw that [our horseman] John was giving her a long, level look.
‘You must miss it, though,’ Frank continued blithely. ‘Being useful, I mean.’
‘She doesn’t miss it,’ said Father. ‘She’s had you three to keep her out of mischief – isn’t that right, Ada?’
Hortense, Solange and Francine not only keep the farm going but do better than many neighbouring farms, allowing them to invest in a reaper-binder and then a small Fordson tractor, daring but labour-saving investments for those years; yet everything must meet with the approval of the men when – and if – they return.
Agriculture across Europe was transformed by the First World War. In Britain the conflict brought mechanisation, temporarily inflated grain prices, signalled the end of many of the great landowning estates, and began the long process of overhauling labour relations – not least because the workforce itself was decimated after the War. “It was impossible in those years not to know that there was an army of men missing from the fields and farms,” Edie recalls in 'All Among the Barley':
“Some were our fathers and uncles; many were farm boys or horsemen. We knew them by the empty pews at St Anne’s and the seats untaken at the Bell & Hare; the hay-rakes and scythes leaning unused in the barns; the ricks thatched indifferently for want of skilled men… the War left gaps in the land and the working of it, and even if you were born in peacetime, as I was, you could feel it everywhere.”
At the close of The Guardians war has ended, although everything is changed – for all three women, but particularly Francine. And while the film’s gaze at the rural past is in some ways a loving one, it is also unflinching – and rightly so, for nostalgia can be dangerous. “I used to dream all the time about the valley I grew up in,” muses my character Edie, towards the end of her life:
“I would picture in loving detail the valley’s fields and farms, its winding lanes and villages, conjuring up a vision of a lost Eden to which I longed to return. But at last I came to see that there is a danger in such thinking; for you can never go back, and to make an idol of the past only disfigures the present and makes the future harder to attain.”
'All Among the Barley' by Melissa Harrison is published by Bloomsbury on August 23.