A Month in the Country, by J L Carr

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J L Carr’s A Month in the Country is a novella that works on two levels.  On one it is a slow, slight, tale set in 1920 about Londoner Tom Birkin, an ex-soldier recovering from the trauma of war, who comes to Oxgodby, a rural North Yorkshire village.  He has been employed to restore a church’s medieval wall painting depicting the Last Judgement that had been limewashed over shortly after being painted.  Underneath these surface events it is a beautifully understated reflection on how we cope with lost opportunities, and how they manage to retain their ache through the succeeding decades, yet how our experiences can heal and strengthen and make us who we are.

Birkin, who narrates, is looking back in old age to that idyllic summer when, his unfaithful wife having left him, he obtains his temporary job in Oxgodby.  He takes up residence in the belfry to eke out his meagre savings and gradually adapts to the rhythms of country life, talking to the villagers, becoming part of the community, helping with the harvest, umpiring, even taking a chapel service (finding the Wesleyans more congenial company than the Anglicans in whose church he labours), helping with their Sunday school and going on its ‘treat’.  And falling in love with the vicar’s wife, a love he cannot declare.

Birkin is commissioned as a result of a bequest.  Also engaged from funds left by the same benefactor is Charles Moon, ostensibly looking for the coffin of the benefactor’s ancestor who was excommunicated and buried outside the church’s precincts, but in reality plotting the outline of a demolished chapel.  He too is an outsider and a marginal figure, living in a tent near the church.  Despite their similarities – both have survived the horrors of war and both are southerners – Moon is not accepted by the community in the way Birkin is, and he does not involve himself in their activities.  Ultimately, despite initially seeming to be the stronger, this lack of connection marks him as the frailer of the two.

While Birkin works, painstakingly revealing the painting as he cleans away the wash and dirt, peeling away the centuries, he gradually heals psychologically, his facial tic becoming less pronounced.  He becomes absorbed in uncovering the painting, the work of an anonymous master, and through immersing himself in the process is both restorer and restored.  His work concludes as summer ends, and he has to leave the safe haven of Oxgodby.  He regains hope in his life through the connection to the past the painting has given him.

The book is partly about those peak experiences, epiphanies, golden moments that you know have a wonder which cannot last however much you try to stretch them, but which afterwards are carried in memory and provide strength through the trials and disappointments that follow. As Birkin the narrator looks back over his long life, this is the episode that sticks out, a few weeks which have the power to sustain him for a lifetime.  Carr’s treatment is wistful, but not emptily nostalgic.  There is a melancholy about opportunities not taken, paths left unexplored, but it is balanced against the hope that the past enriches and strengthens the individual to face the trials to come.  Birkin and Moon are of a generation of young men who never expected to survive the war, and cannot quite believe that they made it when so many did not.  Birkin has to learn to come to terms with what he suffered and to live again, and the tranquillity of Oxgodby allows him to find the strength and the optimism he needs to confront the future.

This striving for peace must come through at a personal level, grounded in those who have come before us.  Consolation may be achieved through the institution of the Church, but that is not inevitable.  When Birkin goes to the vicarage to complain about not having received his wages, he finds that the vicar and his wife, Arthur and Alice Keach, also from the south,  live lives of quiet despair at odds both with the Wesleyans and with the more secular understanding Birkin comes to in his personal communion within the church.

Paradoxically, Birkin has survived the hell of war and overcome the demons that were haunting him whereas Rev. Keach, who never saw active service, is mired in his own pain from which there is clearly no easy escape.  In the painting, souls are receiving their just deserts, going upwards or downwards, but we make our own hell or heaven.  We cannot vicariously hope for salvation to be given to us by a supernatural force claiming to die on our behalf.  That is something in our own hands.

Keach senses this, telling Birkin that the English are not particularly religious, and from being unsympathetically hidebound he becomes a figure to be pitied for his pointlessness.  At the same time, he is opposed to the uncovering of the painting and obstructive in his dealings with Birkin; he only agreed because refusal would have entailed the loss of a large bequest to the church, which makes his acquiescence ethically compromised.  Despite being imbued with the spirit of religion, this is a supremely humanist book.

Leavening the sadness, not least the death of a teenager from TB, a dark side of the pastoral, are scenes of humour, notably the expedition to buy a new organ for the chapel.  Carr, a Yorkshireman himself, expresses huge affection and respect for the people and their way of life.  He captures the rhythms of the countryside but makes it clear that while they may feel unchanging they are not, and in 1920 mechanisation was just around the corner even in this remote area, changing life on the land out of all recognition.  Permanence is an illusion.

The book is a delicate miniature.  In particular Birkin’s war experiences are understated.  It would have been easy for Carr to lay them on but we can sense how damaged Birkin is without it being laboured.  There is only one misstep in terms of the plot.  Birkin is sitting in a Ripon cafe and by chance meets another ex-soldier who knew both him and Moon during the war, and who gives Birkin dramatic information about Moon.  The chances of that happening are remote and the coincidence jars as an obvious plot manoeuvre.

Even so, Oxgodby exerts a spell it is hard to break.  You can imagine John Betjeman visiting the church decades later, taking off his bicycle clips and going in to marvel at the painting and the genius of the artist, but thinking not at all about the restorer who lovingly brought it back to life.  Both will in time become anonymous.  What is left after we are gone is the art, whether a church mural or A Month in the Country.  It’s a book to be savoured slowly, just as one savours slowly the atmosphere and decoration of a country church.

As an aside, James Carr’s middle name was Lloyd, and one wonders whether Jim Lloyd in The Archers is named after him.  If so it is a happy tribute.

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