“Mummy will want me to go up to London for the Season, even though she knows I’ll loath it. It’s all backed up because of the war: four years’ worth of girls shovelled on to the marriage market with no buyers in sight.” [Ariadne]
I was intrigued by the premise of this novel, it’s the story of three young women and their families; they are all facing an uncertain future, as is the country, in the aftermath of World War One. Were it not for the war, their futures might have been far more orthodox and in line with the expectations of class and society. The fact that so many of the young men sent to war are never coming home has changed everything. But there is much more to this story than that, A Bitter Harvest is a reimagining of the post-war malaise. This is a novel that reflects a new climate of uncertainty and change. As personal and societal issues collide the novel slips toward tragedy.
This is an elegantly structured novel; the early chapters (set scenes – a hunt, a dinner party) put the characters and their complexities out there. We sense the awkwardness of a grandeur in decline and the ‘elephant in the room’, the absence of eligible men, which will shape the young women’s relationships with the world around them. Behind a thin veneer, the survivors are weighed down by loss and grief and by mental and physical trauma, yet they rebuild and carry on, it’s almost a rebirth. However, the past catches up with them, old causes are resurrected. This is upper class, upper middle class England, it’s a world where people are reluctant to talk about their feelings, particularly the men, and the healing is much harder for it. The families here are connected to the architects of war, who are also the architects of the peace. Power is resistant to change but the young, the returning soldiers expect better, they are disappointed.
Girton College, Oxford, 1917. The mistress of the college addresses the girls and drives home a terrible truth. The war has wreaked such havoc, killed so many men, that many of the girls in the room will never marry. Only one in ten may find a husband.
The Milborne Estate, Dorset, late Spring, 1919. Julian Belmore, an amateur, has fallen from his horse during the hunt. Ariadne encourages him to remount to avoid giving the others the satisfaction of seeing him fail. Robert Granville (Lord Milborne’s brother) feels he should be the master of the hunt not the interloper, he resents Julian. Julian is the recipient of Lord Milborne’s patronage, he has a small cottage on the estate. He has spent the war in the British navy, he had a Protestant father but a Catholic mother. Julian’s Anglo-Irish background leaves him conflicted and unwilling to accept the ready prejudice of the English gentry to the Irish. However, Julian can’t return to his native Ireland, that becomes clear as the novel progresses. His pre-war past will catch up with him and that will have dire consequences.
A few days later, Lord and Lady Milborne, their daughter Ariadne, the Granvilles (Robert and Daphne), Julian and the Rev. Dr. Richmond and his daughters, Isobel, Rose, and Davina are all at dinner. Of the young women, Isobel is the most immediately striking, she went to Girton and got a first. She reacts fiercely to Robert Granville’s assertion that women lack the intelligence of men, it is a robust defence of her sex. She is a suffragette, a sculptor, not quite a free spirit but open to it. Rose, who looks after her younger sister Davina, a gentle affectionate girl, and her father, is quieter. Ariadne is a woman feeling hemmed in by the structures of expectation. From first impressions our understanding of these women is subverted. A Bitter Harvest exposes the difference in the generational attitudes, class and sexual politics. It examines the struggle against expectation and conformity as the tragedy of the war weighs on everything.
This novel has a really interesting set of characters who ring true to the time and their social status. Julian, who actually is prepared to open up, knows that hiding his war is unhealthy but is instantly saddled with a burdensome secret. Robert Grenville is a man of a certain class, a certain type, but he turns out to have more depth than you originally realise. The women of the book, Ariadne, Rose, and Isobel, have something of their class about them but soon turn out to have minds of their own – rebels, suffragettes, artists as well as carers and lovers.
There are big political themes here too. The Irish question, the Peace Conference of Versailles, universal suffrage. From the home of the German fleet at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys to Paris to Ireland and Dorset these events are intelligently and knowledgeably integrated into the plot. The portrait of real people; Lloyd George, William Nicolson, Lawrence among them, are believable. I particularly liked Ellingworth’s sketch of Michael Collins, a brief scene early in the novel has an impact on the story and the man comes across as larger than life, just as you might imagine him to have been. Even Dorset celebrity author Thomas Hardy makes an appearance.
A Bitter Harvest is a novel of an era coming to an end, speeded up by the war. It’s about marriage, concepts of what that union means but more generally it’s about relationships. This is the first volume of a series set during the interwar years. I enjoyed this novel enough to look forward to the prospect of more to come.
Paul Burke 4/4
A Bitter Harvest by Charles Ellingworth
Quartet Books 9780704374591 pbk Apr 2019