James Lloyd Carr’s fifth novel, A Month in the Country, saw his career rise to its most popular and visible height. The book, published in 1980, was nominated for the Booker Prize, won the Guardian Prize for Fiction, and was adapted (apparently unusually faithfully) into a well-received film, staring Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh and Natasha Richardson who, at the time, had a total of three previous film credits between them.
A Month in the Country is a short novel, shorter even than Steeple Sinderby at a mere 105 pages in the Quince Tree edition. It may be slight, but it is far from thin. It does not waste word, but sketches out the image of a summer, an old-fashioned summer, a rural idyll in a self-contained setting. The summer is 1920, a mere eighteen months after the end of the Great War, and the book without once ever being explicit, markedly conveys the sense that the seeming permanence of the scene, that has survived the War unchanged, will soon fragment and be blown away.
The book is set in Oxgodby, in the North Riding of Yorkshire, the Vale of Mowbray. It’s physical setting is that of Carr’s childhood, and the book is salted with experiences of his and his family. But the story is told by an outsider, a Londoner, Tom Birkin, from the vast distance of a long life.
Birkin is a veteran of the War, an atheist, a survivor, but a seriously damaged man, one side of his face disfigured by uncontrollable tics, his speech mocked by a stammer. He is all-but destitute, with a broken marriage behind him, a wife who has left him for another again, and whose faithfulness is far from pristine. He has come to Oxgodsby to restore a medieval wall-painting in the local church: his fee is paid by a legacy from a recently deceased adherent, but the legacy and his presence is opposed by the Reverend Mr Keach, the incumbent, whose forbidding attitude sets the tone for Birkin’s summer.
Nor is he the only veteran working around the church: there is James Moon, camping out as he pursues his commission of finding the grave of one of the lady’s distant forebears, buried outside the churchyard after excommunication. Moon has plans of his own: he has detected an ancient Saxon basilica, and is excavating that whilst ‘searching’ for the long-deceased (Birkin intuits quickly that Moon knows exactly where the grave is and can produce it when he’s finished).
The two veterans become not exactly friends, but what they once were, comrades. One works inside, the other outside the church, both slowly, patiently. Both are outsiders, Southerners.
But Oxgodsby is not the insular place its setting and its era would normally suggest. Birkin is adopted by the Ellerbeck family, in particular fourteen year old daughter Kathy and her lay preacher father, the Stationmaster, and the first man Birkin meets on arrival. They are a Chapel (i.e., Methodist) family and take him in as one of their own.
Their instinctive warmth and generosity is sharply in contrast to that of the Church. Keach is hostile and cold, withdrawn, deliberately reserved about paying Birkin ask for the first half of his fee. The restorer is left to sleep on the job, in the Church loft, with the barest minimum of facilities. When he visits the Vicarage, Keach’s main concern is for how he is expected to maintain so big a place, when it is used only by himself and his wife.
His wife… Ah yes. Alice Keach is at least fifteen years younger than her husband, a natural, unaware beauty, a sweet-natured, seemingly confident creature. That she is even with a man like the Reverend is wholly inexplicable to Birkin and Moon (Carr, astutely, never explains it). Like Kathy Ellerback, she comes and sits in the Church whilst Birkin is working, holds long distance conversations with him in the still and quiet. Gradually, he falls in love with her.
But as much if not more of Birkin’s slow relaxation, the beginnings of recovery from the traumas of his war, is the slowly-uncovered wall painting. It is a vast religious allegory, the elements of which Birkin understands, and from an early stage it is clearly a masterpiece. Birkin increasingly begins to respect, and perhaps even revere the painter, seeing him as a mystery the details of which he can never hope to master.
He becomes fascinated by a detailed portrait of a distinctive man, with a crescent scar on his face, falling into the Pit. He also recognises a small area left to a poorer hand, an apprentice, adequate but not genius.
Time passes. Birkin settles. He umpires on Saturday afternoons for the team in nearby Steeple Sinderby (?!). He visits the dying girl with Kathy and her silent younger brother. He is tricked into lay-preaching at a remote Chapel, but impresses and entertains with his talk of the patient, careful restoration work he is doing.
And then everything folds in on itself with a near abruptness that brings this suspended summer to an end.
Birkin, wandering in Ripon, bumps into an old military comrade who knows Moon as well: Moon was cashiered in disgrace, drummed out of the Army, despite his Military Medal, for being a homosexual. Birkin’s friendship undergoes a pall.
One day, in Church, he tells Alice Keach that she is not merely pretty, but that she is beautiful. She leaves, flustered. The next day, the Reverend arrives unexpectedly, to proclaim the restoration done and pay the balance of Birkin’s fee (though there is still work to be done, a little). Alice Keach catches him out, climbing at last to the loft to look at the painting. It is hot, they are alone, she stands close enough for him to feel the pressure of her breasts… but Birkin does not act. The next day, sheand the Reverend are gone, the Vicarage empty.
Moon has finished his researches and, with Birkin’s aid, ‘discovers’ the tomb. They open the coffin, discover a crescent on a change: the man was a converted Muslim, perhaps converting upon threat of his life. He was also an artist. Birkin connects him, now, as Moon has already done, with the man who fell, leaving some work to be done by an apprentice.
Everything has now gone, and the last to go is Birkin himself. His wife has written, wanting him back. In the knowledge of the pain yet to comes, he leaves. He will never return to Oxgodsby, never write, never meet anyone again who has news of it. The past is locked away, secure, in a dry place upon which no decay can fall. Carr’s final words are as poignant as any that have ever been used to end a book, and I will leave you to discover them for yourself.
The film has all but vanished. Twenty years after it was made, it was discovered that all the 35mm prints were lost. One was found, in Italy, and a DVD was produced, until it was determined that Channel 4 owned the rights. Colin Firth as Birkin, his first starring role in his third film, Kenneth Branagh as Moon, his debut, poor, departed Natasha Richardson, who I can see in my mind’s eye as Alice Keach, her second role. And Patrick Mallahide as the Reverend.
But the book remains, and the window is forever open into that summer, into that world long dead, emerging from the smoke and flame of Hell into a permanence that had itself not long to live. I may love How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won The FA Cup most out of J.L. Carr’s books, but I can recognise this as his best work.