It is the balmy summer of 1920 when Tom Birkin arrives penniless at Oxgodby station with his nerves “shot to pieces.” He has been commissioned under a bequest to carry out restoration work on a Medieval mural in the local church and has an appointment to keep with the Reverend J.G. Keach – a man he describes as having a “cold, cooped-up look about him.”
Haunted by his experiences at Passchendaele, Birkin has returned from the war with a conspicuous facial twitch. The doctors tell him it may get better, and he believes then that time will “clean [him] up”; indeed, his escape to the idyllic Yorkshire countryside proves to be cathartic.
The local people come to know him as “that chap from down south,” but they nevertheless take a liking to him. Besides, he isn’t the only stranger in the village. There is the enigmatic James Moon, an ‘archaeologist’ and fellow veteran seeking a lost 14th century grave; the dour vicar who consigns Birkin to sleep in the belfry; and his attractive young wife, Alice Keach, who reminds Tom of Botticelli’s Primavera.
He recalls this brief but momentous period of his life many decades hence: the lush meadows and dense hedgerows; snoozing outdoors on warm, hazy afternoons; men working in the fields; cart rides along quiet country lanes.
“And then they came, the morning sun gleaming on their chestnut and black backs, glinting from martingales medalled like generals. Their manes were plaited with patriotic ribbons, their harness glowed – those great magical creatures soon to disappear from highways and turning furrow.”
I was vaguely familiar with A Month in the Country from the film of the same name, but thought it about time I read J.L. Carr’s widely admired 1980 novel after continually coming across rhapsodic reviews on the Internet.
The copy I obtained has a compelling Introduction from Penelope Fitzgerald, who, during her lifetime, was one of the most distinctive and eloquent voices in contemporary British fiction. She describes Carr (1912-1994) as someone who “always dwelt lovingly […] on details of behaviour that separate one region of England from another.” She saw that while he was “by no means a lavish writer,” he did have the “magic touch” when it came to revisiting “the imagined past.”
Like Fitzgerald, I believe that A Month in the Country is a nostalgia for something we never had and agree when she suggests the tone “isn’t one of straightforward remembering,” but more about Birkin’s state of mind when he thinks of the people who will “visit Oxgodby church in its meadows and regret that they missed seeing the master painter himself” – the nameless creator of the outstanding artistry concealed beneath centuries of grime.
For me, however, this is a tale of both joy and mourning, which becomes clear to Birkin only when he looks back on that dreamlike summer from the distance of old age.
“If I’d stayed there, would I always have been happy? No, I suppose not. People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvellous thing around each corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.”