Julian Barnes's short story "Melon" is divided into three sections, covering three ages in the life of a British nobleman of the late eighteenth century: before, during, and after the French Revolution. Dividing his life into segments without explanation may be confusing for readers at first, but Barnes's precise imagery and thoroughness of detail make his story credible and compelling. Even readers who are unfamiliar with the time period in which this work is set can lose themselves in Barnes's lush rendering of a very specific life.
The characters of this story live lives of privilege; they have no idea where food comes from or what difficulties most people face just trying to provide basic sustenance for themselves and their families. Over the course of the story, the main character grows from a child of privilege to a prisoner of war, but he does not necessarily learn about humanity.
"Melon" was published in Barnes's 1996 short story collection Cross Channel. The stories in this collection, like many of his other works, are concerned with the relationship between France and England, two countries separated by just a few miles of water whose histories have been intertwined.
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 entire section is 1,222 words.)