Can this Booker-shortlisted novella really live up to expectations? When Fiction Fan and I decided to publish our thoughts about this little book on the same day, no one seemed to have a bad word to say about it and what’s more, everyone seemed to respond to it with real affection. Winner of the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1980, presented as the genuine much-loved English classic, the risk of disappointment seemed alarmingly high. I need not have worried. Reading A Month in the Country was a joy.
The fifth novel written (and subsequently published) by J L Carr is a slender book, around 100 pages. It recounts a sojourn in the summer of 1920 when Tom Birkin, veteran of Passchendaele and recently separated from his wife, arrives from London in the North Yorkshire village of Oxgodby. Rootless, roofless, virtually penniless, with prominent facial tics and twitches betraying the toll of his time in the trenches, he has accepted a commission to reveal a medieval painting in Oxgodby church, financed by a bequest from a local woman, the late Miss Hebron. The current church incumbent, Reverend Keach, is openly hostile to the project but if his church fund is to receive its own bequest in turn, he must permit the work on the painting to proceed.
Just outside the churchyard another young veteran is also labouring on behalf of the late Miss Hebron, to uncover the burial place of her ancestor. Charles Moon has been working for a while before Birkin arrives and has already determined the most likely spot for the grave. This he keeps to himself, using the time available to him to investigate other archaeological remains he has observed. He will not ‘discover’ the hidden grave, he explains to Tom, until the final days of his tenure in Oxgodby, by which time he will have all the information he needs to be able to write a scholarly report on his other findings. The two young men are bonded by their work and through their harrowing experiences of war. Moon camps in a tent outside the churchyard; Birkin sleeps in the belfry from where, each morning, he gazes at view from the window:
“… the mist rose from the meadow as the sky lightened and hedges, barns and woods took shape until, at last, the long curving back of the hills lifted away from the plain.”
When Tom first steps off the train, the rain is falling heavily. But from then on the Yorkshire countryside is replete with the bounties of a glorious summer. People visit him as he works atop the scaffolding, slowly revealing the work of a master craftsman. Among them are the kindly stationmaster’s daughter, Kathy Ellerbeck, and Alice Keach, the young and beautiful wife of the resentful vicar. The villagers take him to their hearts; Tom is pulled into community life. As the days pass, his damaged soul is soothed. It is a golden, halcyon period of healing.
The marvellous thing was coming into this haven of calm water and, for a season, not having to worry my head with anything but uncovering their wall painting for them. And afterwards, perhaps I could make a new start, forget what the War and Vinny had done to me and begin where I’d left off. This is what I need, I thought – a new start, and, afterwards, maybe I won’t be a casualty anymore.
Well, we live by hope.
Fiction Fan and I chose to post our responses to this book on the same date – just as we did with The Go-Between by L P Hartley. In each book we have a male narrator looking back on the events of a single idyllic summer in the early years of last century – the parallels between these books would have been there anyway but perhaps they are sharpened by this blogging co-incidence because as I read Carr’s novella, Hartley’s book loomed large.
The sunshine in Hartley’s novel is relentless and foreboding. The summer is one of tragedy and innocence lost. In Carr’s novella tragedy has already extracted its price and innocence lies slain on the battlefields. Yet the tone is lighter. Carr’s sunshine enables; Hartley’s sunshine oppresses. Both are novels of loss, both describe summers with lifelong consequences. But for Tom Birkin the summer was essentially one of healing; for Leo Colston in The Go-Between the summer wrought irrevocable damage. I cannot rank one novel over the other but I know that I will return to A Month in the Country often.
Reading it now – at the end of an unprecedented summer of our own – adds further piquancy. As I write, there is a bright crisp day beyond the window, with blue skies, cotton wool clouds and a fresh nip in the air. This is the first sunshine we have seen for some while but there is no doubt that autumn is at the door. Tom leaves Oxgodby as summer gives way to autumn. His final morning is replicated here today, forty years later:
“Then it was one of those marvellously clear days which come after a good blow.”
I’m not sure there can be anyone who has yet to read A Month in the Country but if there are, I urge you to read it soon. I understand now why others think of it with fondness. Poignant and bittersweet yet written with the lightest touch, it is filled with memorable vignettes and characters. Many significant themes are woven as subtle threads into a bucolic tapestry. None are laboured but there is more here than a pastoral tale of the Yorkshire Wolds in the sunshine. The story ambles without haste and reading should not be rushed. Time seemed to stand still in the novel itself but also whilst I read. (Perhaps this explains my only criticism of the novel: that events described must surely have taken longer than the titular month.)
I began reading by a library edition from the Penguin Decades series, an edition which jarred for its cover – I really wanted that bold pastoral scene which is on the cover of the Penguin Modern Classics edition – but also heightened the unease I felt about when this book was written. The nineteen-eighties: a decade which represented the very opposite of the era captured in its pages. If I had picked up this book then, could it have transported me as it does now? I find that hard to believe, clearly remembering my life at that time. But I imagine that it transported many others – away from Thatcher’s Britain, beleaguered strikers, soaring interest rates and unemployment. Perhaps even then, alongside its deeper themes, A Month in the Country represented an oasis of nostalgia, a tale out of time.
I am happy that I’ve left it until now to finally read this book; this is the right time for me. And I’m even happier to have discovered that Quince Tree Press, which Carr and his wife established in order to fund his writing, continues to publish all his works. It is still run by the Carr family. Knowing very quickly that this was a book I would return to often, I was delighted to be able to order my own copy of this little book from them, with illustrations throughout and a cover which speaks to me of the tale within in a way that the Penguin Decade edition could not.
My final thoughts? Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh… I watched the film (released in 1987) immediately I had finished the book. It’s a charming film and it was absolutely the right time to watch it, whilst the subtleties in the book were still fresh in my mind. But oh, was it the right thing to watch Colin and Ken so young and fresh-faced? They are (just about) my contemporaries. Surely it was only yesterday that we all three were equally young and fresh-faced? (Any lack of fresh-faceness on my part at the time can be attributed to juggling three young children and degree-level study. Without that I’m sure I could have played the winsome, dewy Alice Keach every bit as well as the delightful, late Natasha Richardson.)
Watching the film, it was hard to turn away from the inexorable passage of time. But for a while, A Month in the Country allowed me to step outside of time. It led me to a place far away from pandemics and personal issues to a place where life seemed simpler; folk were respectful of each other and honourable; wounds could be healed by kindness, acceptance, physical labour and routine; people were hopeful. And the sun forever shone in August.
“During any prolonged activity one tends to forget original intentions. But I believe that, when making a start on A Month in the Country, my idea was to write an easy-going story, a rural idyll along the lines of Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree. And, to establish the right tone of voice to tell such a story, I wanted its narrator to look back regretfully across forty or fifty years but, recalling a time irrecoverably lost, still feel a tug at the heart.”J L Carr