"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

February 28, 2012

"A Month in the Country" (1980) by J.L. Carr (The Art of the Novella 5)

A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr (1912-1994) is a wonderful pastoral novella, which in the compass of just a hundred pages does as much as other books that are five times as thick. Although the novel also deals with "romantic regret," and despite the elegiac undertone, the overall impression is one of happiness, a rare commodity in literature.

The story takes place in the gorgeous summer of 1920 when art historian Tom Birkin comes to the sleepy village of Oxgodby to restore a medieval church mural that is hidden under a coat of plaster. Birkin himself is just as much in need of restoration, for he has crawled shellshocked out of the trenches of the First World War, and also his marriage is in shambles. He has come to the countryside, in this wonderful summer, to be healed.

Coincidentally, another war veteran, John Moon, is doing an archaeological survey in the field next to the church. He has been hired to find and dig up the remains of a church forebear. The two men become acquaintances in a very British way, a quiet fellowship of tea and smokes. In the end, their jobs are shown to be closely connected: on the Last Judgement painting Birkin is restoring to the light of day, there is a man falling down into Hell, and Moon discovers the forebears' grave in the field outside the church walls, the place where infidels were buried. The slow revelation of this mystery at the crossroads of art and archaeology deepens the interest of the novel.

Birkin also meets people from the village. Curious to see the stranger who has come from London to this out of the way place, Kathie Ellerbeck, the 15-year-old daughter of the stationmaster comes time and again bouncing into the church and forces Birkin to join the Sunday dinners at her home, and also various community activities such as haymaking and church picnics. In this way, Birkin is gradually pulled out of himself. He looses his facial twitch, makes friends, returns to society.

But the largest role here has Alice Keath, the wife of the unsympathetic vicar, a sensitive woman who seems buried in an incompatible marriage. She often comes to talk to Birkin and watch him work. Their discussions develop more and more layers of affinity and implication. In the end, both are in love with the other but unable to confess it. It is only shown in the blushes flaming Alice’s cheeks. Towards the end of the story, before Birkin’s departure, there is a moving scene up in the church tower where Birkin has been lodging, in which they nearly kiss. “Then everything would have been different. My life, hers.” But nothing happens. The next day Birkin returns to London and they never meet again.

The beautiful summer is over. Birkin leaves with resignation but also with happy memories. Memories that are insignificant to others, but doubly precious to the person who experienced the events that gave rise to them. Memories that are just as fleeting as life, because they die with us. But until then, they can be  a valuable source of contentment - that is what J.L. Carr seems to want to tell us in this delicate novella.

Incredible that this wonderful book is so little known (just like its author, Carr - I haven't been able to find another of his eight novels yet). 
Filmed in 1987 by Pat O'Connor, with Colin Firth as Birkin and Natasha Richardson as Alice. The excellent (but also almost unknown) film follows the book closely and deftly brings out the inner landscapes.