The first section of “Melon” is presented as a letter that a young British nobleman, Hamilton Lindsay, writes to his cousin Evelina, in 1774. Lindsay is traveling in Europe and is on his way to Rome with his tutor, Mr. Hawkins, when, at Evelina’s suggestion, they change direction and stop at Montpelier, a city in the south of France (now spelled Montpellier). Lindsay makes observations about French food and French culture, noting, for instance, that the people of France seem to have no particular sport that they follow and that the women of the country strike him as homely: he says that pretty women are so rare that once, when one walked into an inn near Lyons where they were dining, everyone stood and applauded. Being a member of the nobility, he makes a distinction between those he refers to as “people of quality,” who are even more pampered than they are in England, and commoners, whom he finds to be dirtier and more poorly mannered than the English people of the same, landless class. His description of France ends with his praise for the melons that are grown in the southern French countryside. Unlike the melons grown in England, which need to be carefully cultivated, the melons of France grow abundantly and have a superior flavor. Lindsay reports that he has been eating these melons often.
The second section of the story picks up in August 1789, the first year of the French Revolution, although that fact is not revealed for some time. Sir Hamilton Lindsay is no longer the narrator, though he is still the subject. He is an adult aristocrat, fattened, with his own estate to manage. He has been married to Evelina for ten years.
The narrative follows Sir Hamilton as he is traveling to Dover to join a team of cricket players who are scheduled to cross the English Channel to play a goodwill competition against a French team. The English team is comprised of both aristocrats and commoners, which cricket enthusiasts such as Sir Hamilton approve since it allows them to recruit the best players. But others of the nobility, particularly the wives of some of the nobles on the cricket team, feel that blurring the class lines by letting servants treat their masters as equals on the cricket field sets a confusing precedent.
Sir Hamilton and his assistant gardener, Samuel Dobson, travel to Chertsey on August 6, 1789, to join other members of the British team. Dobson is required to ride on top of the coach in the rain because Sir Hamilton feels that the wooden cricket bats are more likely to be damaged by the water than Dobson is. During the trip, Hamilton Lindsay reflects on Evelina’s opposition to this trip: people in England know that there is trouble in France between ordinary citizens and the aristocracy. Still, Sir Hamilton is not afraid.
The cricket match between the English and French teams has been arranged by John Sackville, third Duke of Dorset. Ever since being appointed ambassador to France six years earlier, Dorset has returned every summer for the cricket season, but this year the political tensions have made his return impossible. To address the bad feelings between the French and the British aristocrats, Dorset has arranged a match on the Champs-Elysée. The British players are traveling to Dover at which point they will sail across the English Channel to France for the game.
As the band of British players approach Dover, they meet Dorset and his followers on the road. The cricket match is called off: a few days earlier, mobs of angry citizens forced the British ambassador to flee from his home in Paris and, presumably, looted the place. Dorset has escaped across the English Channel to England. He hopes that enough of the aristocrats he had arranged to play for the French team have managed to flee to England to enable him to arrange a match there.
The events of this section take place years later. The French government has fallen. King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette have been incarcerated and then, in 1793, are beheaded. Many of the people who knew Sir Hamilton Lindsay through cricket have died fighting the French. Sir Hamilton himself has been a prisoner of the government established by Napoleon Bonaparte and has been held for years until he can be traded for a French officer held by the British, a General de Rauzan. Three years into his captivity, Lady Evelina Lindsay was allowed to join him, along with Dobson, who is now the majordomo of the household. Barnes also refers to Dobson as the “chief forager” of the household, indicating that the government does not provide a decent standard of living for the Lindsays but that they must live on whatever can be scrounged. Sir Hamilton and Lady Lindsay are allowed to walk about the town freely, followed by a French army guard. They attend the Catholic Church every Sunday afternoon, even though Sir Hamilton does not think of himself as a Catholic. The town was sacked by angry peasants during the revolution. They have taken out their anger at the Catholic Church, which supported the aristocracy, by forcing priests to either flee or marry; by dressing mules in religious vestments and parading them in the streets; and by using the Catholic Church for target practice with canons. Sir Hamilton’s mind is as devastated as the town. His thoughts continually turn to the line-up of the cricket team that gathered in Chertsey in 1789, intent on playing against the French, listing each member, each time forgetting the name of one of the players, which Lady Evelina gently supplies for him. The story ends with their having dinner one Sunday after church service. While Sir Hamilton mutters about the cricket team, Lady Evelina tries to focus his attention on pleasant thoughts. While Barnes’s official web site at http://www.julian barnes.com offers biographical information, background about his many books, interviews, links, and more.
he talks incoherently about past events, about the people who are gone, and about his theory that the entire revolution might have been avoided had the cricket game between the French and English nobles been played, she points out what a delicious melon they have with their meal.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Julian Barnes, Published by Gale Group, 2006