J. L. Carr – A Month in the Country

I’ve seen the film. I probably wouldn’t have picked up the book but for learning that J. L. Carr died the very day I was born. The title doesn’t do it any favours, I think: ‘A Month in the Country’ calls up Georgian images of greenwood trees and dusty parsons, the complacent England that Laurie Lee had to get out of. And the Guardian’s words on the front cover – “tender and elegant” – read less like a ringing endorsement than a stifled yawn. A good thing, then, that A Month in the Country speaks for itself, unlike the Booker-shortlisted ephemera that actually need a volley of press quotes.

Image credit: Penguin

It’s summer 1920. Tom Birkin is a young art restorer with a twitch from the trenches. His wife has run off with another man. He arrives in the Yorkshire village of Oxgodby, where he has been commissioned to uncover a whitewashed medieval mural in the parish church. The money comes from the late Miss Hebron, who is also funding another veteran, Charles Moon, to dig around in the neighbouring fields for an illustrious ancestor: all this archaeology takes place under sufferance of the Reverend J. G. Keach, who has Protestant misgivings about what the images might do for his flock’s attention span. As Birkin’s month passes and the locals make themselves known to him from down in the pews – he sleeps where he works, on the scaffolding – he realizes that he is falling in love with the vicar’s wife, Alice.

The narrative is signed off by Birkin as an old man, looking back on this month from nearly sixty years on. But age has not wearied him: his memory is sharp. Despite the idyllic Yorkshire setting – not a Yorkshire of Brontë heathland, but a Yorkshire of lavish greenery and stolid heat – the War never feels very far away. Carr doesn’t lay it on thick, and Birkin rarely alludes to it himself; his facial tic serves as an objective correlative. “I don’t need to be told you didn’t catch that twitch on the North-Eastern Railway,” Moon observes, “so we may as well start straight away swapping stories about the same bloody awful place.” But the stories remain between them, and reader is left to imagine.

However, A Month in the Country is not a well-worn tale of a damaged soul healing in an innocent, ingenuous community. Yes, it’s an unconditional welcome that Birkin receives from all the lay locals, especially from the Ellerbeck family, and by the end of the month his facial spasms have virtually disappeared. But Birkin’s hosts are far from pastoral cliché, just as Keach is far from a cardboard antagonist. When Birkin visits the vicarage to claim his first payment, a gothic cloud descends upon the prose. Alice Keach meets him on the doorstep, reeling from a nightmare: “trees had been closing in on her, first swaying menacingly, then dragging up their roots and actually advancing…And the air, it too had pressed in till she felt the house had become a compression chamber.” Lesser novels would pin it squarely on her husband and paint him as a country Casaubon, but it’s here that Carr gives Keach his own vulnerabilities, in “this wilderness of a house” where “they huddled together for each other’s company.” Later on, in a final showdown with Birkin, Keach allows himself a flickering moment of candour: “It’s not easy. The English are not a deeply religious people.”

Be that as it may, the old pieties hold very firm in Oxgodby, which lies too far from the Front for the shells to have pounded away Christian belief. One of the most touching scenes, omitted from the film, comes when Birkin, Mr Ellerbeck, his daughter Kathy and the blacksmith Mr Dowthwaite troop down to Ripon to find a new organ for the church. They incense the contemptuous vendor by holding a mini choir practice, under Mr Ellerbeck’s direction:

Here Kathy, let’s have No. 264, “Low, He comes with clouds descending once for guilty sinners slain”. It’s got  plenty of go in it.’…

   And off they went; Kathy leading off in an unusually strong soprano howl, Mr Ellerbeck’s exaggerated tenor almost harmonizing with the blacksmith’s basso profundo (both mighty hands across his waistcoat)…it was a splendid noise and they were well into verse 3 before a maniacal yell choked them off: it was the proprietor, beside himself with rage.

Amidst all these set pieces, the Oxgodby Last Judgement is inching into view, piece by piece, figure by figure, fanning out beneath the fearsome gaze of Christ – “no catalogue Christ, insufferably ethereal. This was a wintry hardliner.” Carr seems to know his technical stuff, his cinnabars and his sinoper haematites, but the poetry of these passages really turns the mural into something like a living organism, as it is for his protagonist. At some point on the job, it strikes Birkin that one of his flaming wretches is a portrait: “a crescent shaped scar on his brow made this almost certain” (and without wishing to drop spoilers, that scar turns out to be symbolically significant). If Birkin’s trek to the vicarage has shades of gothic, his exposure of the painting reads a lot like a detective story – but not entirely, because detective stories don’t give the sense of two people communing across a space of centuries, and detective stories always wrap up neatly. A Month in the Country doesn’t wrap up neatly; it bears out the either/or nature of Yeats’ choice, perfection of the life or of the work.

by Harry Cochrane

A Month in the Country is published by Penguin and is available here.

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