At some point, I don’t know where or when, I read a favourable review of JL Carr’s A Month in the Country, and it obviously made an impression on me, because I remembered it when I came across a copy while I was sorting through donations in the charity shop, so I had to buy it, and I’m very glad I did, because it’s an absolute gem.
This is a very slender novel – just 111 pages in my 1982 Penguin edition – but every word really counts: it’s a beautifully crafted little masterpiece, which should appeal to anyone who loves those understated, between-the-wars, English novels, where the focus is on thoughts and feelings rather than action. In fact, if the words ‘Winner of the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1980’ hadn’t been printed on the front cover, I would have assumed it was from that earlier period but, surprisingly, it was written in 1980.
But it’s set in 1920 as Tom Birkin, his marriage on the rocks and his nerves shot to pieces by the war, arrives in the Yorkshire village of Oxgodby to uncover and restore a long-lost medieval wall painting in the small, unassuming church. He sleeps and cooks in the historic building, while in the field next door Charles Moon, another scarred survivor of the conflict, has set up camp while he searches for a long-lost medieval grave. Both men are damaged, not just by their experiences in the war, but by life and love, and they seek healing from the horrors of the past.
They are being paid thanks to bequest left by a local spinster – though the Vicar, the chilliest clergyman I’ve encountered outside the pages of ‘Middlemarch’, is less than enthusiastic about the projects, believing the money could be better spent. And, just like George Eliot’s narrow-minded, mean-spirited Casaubon, this cleric also has a beautiful, young wife who is warm and caring, full of life and laughter, who befriends and beguiles Tom.
Gradually he makes friends and gets sucked into village life when the stationmaster (a leading light in the local chapel), his wife and their young daughter take him under their wing. But he becomes more and more obsessed with painting, which turns out to be a huge mural of the Day of Judgement, and is of the very highest quality. As he uncovers the picture, the vision of hell reflects the horrors and carnage he saw on the battlefields of Flanders, and more mysteries are revealed, for it was painted over within a few years of its creation (long before the Reformation) and one figure – a man with a crescent scar falling into hell – was covered earlier than the rest.
The painting inside the church becomes more real to him than life outside, and there is a link between the mural and the skeleton found by Moon, but when his quest ends Tom must move on – and, as you might guess from the title of the mural, there can be no happy ending, although he dreams of reaching an understanding with Alice.
He never returns to Oxgodby, never knows what happens to the friends he made while he was there, but many years later he looks back on the long, hot, golden summer, recalling the heat and the haze, the lazy days, the sights, sounds and smells of the English countryside. It was perfect, a rural idyll, and Tom remembers this period in his life as something whole and good, when he was happy and at peace with himself, while the village remains unchanging.
But there is nostalgia and regret for missed opportunities and a life that might have been different. In the end he makes to move to move his relationship with Alice beyond normal friendship – due, perhaps, to a kind of inertia or fear rather than any conscious desire to ‘do the right thing’. And if things had been different, would he have been happy? That we will never know, but there is also the possibility that Tom has misread the situation, so by not acting or expressing his emotions he cannot be rejected.
In some ways ‘A Month in the Country’ reminded me of LP Hartley’s ‘The Go-Between’. There’s the obvious parallel of an older man looking back on his younger self, but I think it’s more to do with the feeling of nostalgia that suffuses the novel, and the sense of loss – loss of a place, and a time, loss of a more innocent past, and a future that never was. We never really learn what Tom makes of his life after Oxgodby, but you get the impression he is not happy, and that he never fulfils his potential.