J. L. Carr: A Month in the Country (1980)

A Month in the Country

It’s not easy to write about A Month in the Country, but it’s easy to a summarize it. It’s 1920 and Tom Birkin, a man in his late twenties, has come to Oxgodby where he’s hired to spend the summer uncovering a medieval mural in the church. Birkin is a man who feels unmoored. He has a facial twitch, a legacy from his time in the trenches, no money, and his wife ran off with another man. Coming from London to the north of England, he feels like he’s in enemy territory at first, but the stationmaster’s warm welcome and the offer of friendship from the archeologist Moon, a veteran like Birkin, make him soon feel at home. His keen sense of detail and his fondness of things, people, flora and fauna, soon help him to recover. Birkin enjoys these blissful, enchanted moments in the country and even falls in love. As the days go by, he becomes more and more part of the village life, uncovers the stunning wall-painting, and makes friends. The book ends with the first days of autumn and a dramatic, tragic twist, which illustrates that even really awful things we experience are often not as fatal as our own hesitations.

That rose  . . . Sara van Fleet . . . I still have it. Pressed in a book. My Bannister-Fletcher, as a matter of fact. Someday, after a sale, a stranger will find it there and wonder why.

In a review, I read that this was an account of happiness, which puzzled me. Yes, we are told that Birkin was happy, but we never feel it. Or rather, I never felt it, because the narrator of this story isn’t the young Birkin, but the old Birkin looking back. And we also know, early on, that his life didn’t turn out happy and that he mourns not only this summer but a whole way of life that’s long gone in 1978.

She lived at a farmhouse gable end to the road – not a big place. Deep red hollyhocks pressed against limestone wall and velvet butterflies flopped lazily from flower to flower. It was Tennyson weather, drowsy, warm, unnaturally still. Her father and mother made me very welcome, both declaring they’d never met a Londoner before.

A Month in the Country is a stunning book. Not so much for the story but for the fine observations and subtle descriptions. And most of all for the structure and use of time. There’s very little backstory clogging up the story; only a few sentences, inserted here and there, paint a full picture of what happend before. What’s masterful as well is that not only does the narrator look back but he writes about himself in 1920 and how he did then look back at his time in the trenches. This really gives away the main theme of the novel – the passing of time and the fleetingness of life.

Ah, those days . . . for many years afterwards their happiness haunted me. Sometimes, listening to music, I drift back and nothing has changed. The long end of summer. Day after day of warm weather, voices calling as night came on and lighted windows pricked the darkness and, at day-break, the murmur of corn and the warm smell of fields ripe for harvest. And being young.

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.

The painting Birkin uncovers illustrates this perfectly. It is more than just a story element, it’s a symbol. It’s magnificent but has been covered up. Nobody knows why. It’s a painting of a man at the height of his art but it’s not finished, Yet, you can see that he wasn’t an old man. The brushstrokes are too vigorous. So why did he stop? Birkin uncovers it all in the end

Death and the passing of time are ever present in the book and all the joy that Birkin experiences—the Sunady meals with the stationmaster, the strong tea in a tea room, his early morning talks with Moon, the funny outings with the villagers, talking to the woman he’s in love with— it all speaks of bliss but it is tainted with sorrow. Carr achieves this through authorial intrusions, which never allow that we stay in the moment, but always remind us that the moment is long gone and the man telling us about it is looking at things past.

I liked him from that first encounter: he was his own man. And he liked me (which always helps). God, when I think back all those years! And it’s gone. It’s gone. All the excitement and pride of that first job, Oxgodby, Kathy Ellerbeck, Alice Keach, Moon, that season of calm weather—gone as though they’d never been.

I can’t praise this novel enough and would really like to urge everyone to read it. It’s not only a joy to read but illustrates what great writing can do. It will be on my “best of list” at the end of the year and I might even add it to my all-time favourites.

I’ll end with one of my favourite quotes

It would be like someone coming to Malvern, bland Malvern, who is halted by the thought that Edward Elgar walked this road on his way to give music lessons or, looking over to the Clee Hills, reflects that Housman had stood in place, regretting his land of lost content. And, at such a time, for a few of us there will always be a tugging at the heart— knowing a precious moment gone and we not there.

I first read about A Month in the Country on Max’s blog here and knew right away it would be a book for me.

63 thoughts on “J. L. Carr: A Month in the Country (1980)

  1. I’m really glad you loved it, not that I know anyone who hasn’t so it was a pretty sure bet. Lovely review, and really good to be reminded of it.

    “we must snatch at happiness as it flies” – that for me is the essence of the book. You capture it well.

  2. Lovely review, Caroline. The quotes are gorgeous, very evocative of sun-drenched days and the fleeting moments of time you mention in your review. I bought a copy of this book fairly recently and I know I’ll enjoy it.

  3. I only read this a year or so ago but the effect of it has remained. It seems like a longer book than it is as the author crams so much into it. I think everyone should read it.

  4. Hi, Caroline. Thanks for your review. This book sounds like it is just for me, though I almost don’t know if I can bear to read it, it sounds so evocative of my own attitude. For example, times in the past that were happy don’t make me happy to look back upon, but instead mournful, because I don’t have them in the present. It’s entirely the opposite of my mom, who feels happy when she thinks about happy times in the past, as if she still had them with her. I’m almost afraid to read the book, though I know I might find a literary friend therein!

    • Hi Victoria, I’d be so interested to know what you think and how it affects you. I had mixed feelings. It made me sad more often than happy. But I think I’m right in the middle between your mom and you. It depneds on the memory. I had a summer, right after my A-levels that was so perfect that, at the time, I thought, I’ll never be this happy again. And in some ways it was true. I was in an in-between world. I had free time and nothing to worry about yet. I like to think back but I’m sad when I think how perceptive I was, although nothing told me that there would be tragic things to come or that a lot would be so difficult.
      I still think you shouldn’t miss reading it. It’s too good not to.

      • I’ll check my online library sites and see if they have it; I’m a bit stuck right now for reading material, because here where I am the local libraries are either too far or are having renovations, and (wouldn’t you know it!) a week or so ago, my major bookshelf in my room collapsed and my mom and I had to store all my books away in spare spaces, with the result that I can’t get to them! Though I don’t think I had this one anywhere, for some reason the name J. L. Carr sounds familiar (and I don’t think I’m confusing it with “The Liar’s Club” Mary Carr). But at any rate, I’ll check, and if I can read it online, I’ll go ahead and brave the sadness and read it. It’s funny that you had somewhat the same experience as I did, of a happy time you had in the past. But it sounds like you have a somewhat healthier attitude than I do about it.

        • I hope you can find it. It’s a very slim book so it might be somewhere in your boxes. I haven’t had a collapsing bookshelf in a while but it’s amazing what chaos that generates.
          I don’t dwell in the past much. Or, like your mum, I take my memories out like photos, dust them a bit and store them away again.

          • Ah, yes, I too take out old memories, but you see, I’m sort of obsessive about them, and the “photo albums” remain out long after the thrill of looking through them has gone! Seriously, though, maybe this book is just what I need to read, to see an example that will jump-start my overall enthusiasm for life (and good books!). You never fail to find something else of interest to say about really good reading material.

            • Thanks, Victoria. I really hope you like it but it’s mournful. He does what you do, looks at his memories but he has specific reasons for being sad. I couldn’t mention it or the book would be spoilt.

              • Hi again, Caroline. I thought of something else that this book reminds me of (I just did a post of Tennyson’s “Tears, Idle Tears” because it seems to have the same themes, and then when I just came back to look again at your post–which I mentioned in mine–I saw the quote above, about “it was Tennyson weather”! Now I wonder if your author had that poem in mind–I think it must’ve triggered a memory in me, somehow, too). But the title kept bugging me, and I somehow thought of Chekhov (totally the wrong Russian, but my memory gets older every day, like everyone else’s), and when I looked it up on Wikipedia, I found that there’s a play by Turgenev, “a comedy of manners in five acts,” also called “A Month in the Country.” I’ve heard the title, but never read the play, and why I thought of Checkhov, I’m not sure. Anyway, do you think there’s any other coincidence to the title? I mean, do you think Carr had the play in mind?

                • My memory is even older than yours because I think the play is mentioned in the foreword but I can’t remmeber exactly what it said. It struck me that he mentioned Tennyson and I’ll have to vicit your blog when I get a chance.
                  Ella seems meanigful too. I thought of the Cello concerto and almost added it. It’s just amazing that you picked up on this. Tennyson-Chekhov. So fascinating. I’d like to read your post now but I’m not sure I’m not already too tired. I had an exhausting and exciting day – I’m taking a short story course with Hannah Tinti (At One Story Magazine). It’s great but makes me tired.

                  • As always, your posts inspire further thought about many other books and stories, etc. But I think I made a mistake when thinking of Chekhov, because he and Turgenev were really a generation apart, in styles and stuff even if not in years. I guess it’s the influence of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” which got me confused with Turgenev’s “A Month in the Country.” I did check the two library online sites I have and neither of them has anything at all by Carr. The problem with such sites is, they either feature a lot of rubbish that’s popular genre stuff, or are so up-to-date even with the good stuff that older works (other than absolute classics) haven’t been put on the site yet. My best shot is if Carr suddenly writes something new right now: then, they go back and eventually publish everything that the person did which was of note. But maybe I can get it on Amazon on sale in a month or two (this month, I bought a copy of a CD by Leonard Cohen, to get his version of his song “Hallelujah,” which everyone under the sun has done a cover of, but it’s about my favorite song of all time popularly speaking, and I wanted the original. Anyway, I’ll look for Carr there next month).

                    • Priorities, priorities . . . I rather like Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah version but the original is great, of course. Only, Jeff Buckley had such an amazing voice.
                      Anyhow – aha Turgenev. Now that explains why I couldn’t find Chekhov in the intro yesterday. I don’t think it has anything in common with The Cherry Orchard.

  5. I loved this book, and I agree I don’t think it’s about happiness either. There’s a film version of it that I also recommend. Not as good as book of course but how could it be?

    • I found that so strange that the reviewer said it was a moment of happiness. Sure, we can see he was happy but it’s long gone.
      Thanks for telling me about the movie. But I’ll wait or it will spoil the book. Maybe before a re-reading.

  6. Lovely review. I so want to read this now. So much so I may have to buy a copy immediately. This is a book I have been dimly aware of, I wonder why I have never read it.

    • Thanks, Ali. I was so sure you’ve read this already. You’re in for a treat. I think this is your kind of book. Can’t wait to see what you think of it. Letters from Constance arrived yesterday!

  7. Great review of what sounds like an impressive novel Caroline.

    I love the idea of the mural being uncovered as the story progresses. It sound like a great allegorical and literary device.

    • Thanks, Brian. What I liked so much is that every little detail – and the big ones like the mural – have meaning. Nothing’s there just for the sake of being there.

  8. Beautiful review, Caroline! I loved your description of the story – I want to read it now! The phrase ‘Tennyson weather’ made me think of ‘Champagne weather’ which you wrote about a while back 🙂 They seem to mean different things though. I loved this sentence from the passages you have quoted – “It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.” I think that is very true. I sometimes try to think about the happiest times in my life and always wonder whether they would have lasted if I had stayed in that place, with those people, in those moments. But as this passage says, things change and they don’t stay the same. We have to snatch happiness as it flies. The only moment we can be happy is now.

    Thanks for introducing me to this beautiful book, Caroline. I can’t wait to read it. It is sad that the book’s ending is a bit tragic, but I think I will still like it. If it is going into your year’s favourite books list – well, I have to definitely read it 🙂

      • Thank you, Vishy. I also agree with you that the present is the time to be concentrated on. We learn, of course, from past experience, but sometimes we teach ourselves counterproductive things when we do so. What’s hardest for me to master is that contentment, plain and simple, is the thing to be prized, really. Delirious happiness only comes rarely, and no one could live at that fever pitch all the time; sometimes I forget this when I mourn that things aren’t as they used to be, or that a particularly good time has passed.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I’m sure you’ll like it. It has so many elements that will speak to you. Tennyson weather is calmer, I would say. I love the expression and it put me in the mood to get my Tennyson copy and read some of his poems.
      I never left a place when I was happiest there, so I always saw the decline come slowly. It’s a very feeling thing.

      • Tennyson was a bit of a mournful bloke himself. I think late summer-early autumn would be his season of choice, when there is still warm weather, but a slight chill at some hours, and the premonition of winter and death. His concentration on his friend Arthur Hallam’s death, which he used as inspiration for his long poem “In Memoriam,” seemed so extreme to one of my students that she asked me if he was gay and in love with Hallam. A speculation for the ages! I very cautiously said “No, I don’t think so, but it was an intense friendship. Perhaps we no longer form the types of very close and intense friendships that people did then. What do you think?” And then we got off-topic on what was wrong with the modern world, but at least it was a discussion which stemmed from Tennyson. He waited a long time, I believe, before he was able to marry the girl of his choice, and so maybe he had a special insight to key moments of happiness which come on an instant, and then just as quickly settle down into a routine or etc.?

        • I think what you say about friendship is very true. Even more so for men. I saw a a book recently that looked into this. For my master’s exam I studied Montaigne’s On Friendship. He too, mourned the loss of his friend La Boëtie and he too, wasn’t gay.
          Yes, late summer – early autumn is what Carr captures at the end of the novel and what he calls Tennyson weather. I had an interesting dream last night – I wonder now if it had something to do with our discussion. Because I dreamt of more than five people I haven’t seen in years and who were part of a happy time/crowd.

          • Yes, I too have on occasion had a dream about a literary conversation (or in relation to something someone posted about, including when I dreamed I was in No-Man’s-Land being shot at after looking at one of your Literature and War posts). I don’t know much about Montaigne, although I’m aware that I should. I can imagine that as an essay writer and a thinker, he probably put a lot of material in “On Friendship” which broadened his topic’s consideration out from just a personal grieving to something accessible and interesting to everyone. Tennyson did this by writing in “In Memoriam” about a lot of others things going on during his time and in the time of his friendship with Hallam. For example, he wrote about evolution (and generated the famous “nature red in tooth and claw,” and “let the ape and tiger die” in man’s nature). And then there was the subject of faith, which was supposed to console him for his loss (and I think one of the most famous bits about that is something like: “There lives more faith in honest doubt/Than is contained in all the creeds,” or words to that effect. Probably there are equally bits of Montaigne that people have found it fit to quote a lot too, and it would surprise me if some of them didn’t come from so promising-sounding a work as “On Friendship.” As to this quality in your selections from Carr, I think the elegiac, nearly poetic quality of such conversational lines as “Ah, those days!” and (answering the speaker’s own question as to whether or not the happiness would have remained permanent) “No, I suppose not” comes across very well. There is a sort of poetry in such prose, and I think combining the descriptions of the surroundings with this elegiac and personal questioning tone makes it. And I guess I’d better stop gabbing now and give someone else a chance!

            • You should read Montaigne. He’s not as quotable as you would think. He’s famous for his thougths but there’s not a lot of bite-sized writing, not like Pascal or many others.
              Very interesting bits about Tennyson.
              I loved the contrast of those elegiac moments and the narrator speaking to himself, like in a real, modern-day conversation. We have that too in the book. He looks back on 1920 but he’s very much a man of the 80s.
              I hope you’ll read it some day.

  9. Very high praise, Caroline! I will have to put this one my list.

    Sometimes I find the retrospective narrator to get in the way of the storytelling, but it sounds like a good choice for this story and expertly done.

    • I would love to know what you think of it.
      It would be an entirely different story without the retrospective narrator. And it’s masterfully done. At first almost didn’t notice his intrusions. I just felt them and the I became more aware.

  10. Great review, Caroline, I’m definitely adding this one to my TBR pile. I do love that time period, and the writing style sounds like something I’d enjoy immensely. Thank you for sharing.

  11. Thanks for this thoughful and lovely review. I knew this was a great book.

    Again, I wish it were translated into French. I can’t read it in English, it’s too difficult and I’d miss the beauty of the text because of all the struggling with the language. Let’s hope some French publisher decide to have it translated.

    • Thank you, Emma. I saw your comment on Max’s blog where you say you’d wait for my review – I thought I’d read it sooner – and was wondering why you didn’t get to it yet.
      Well, I don’t say that often but it wasn’t an easy read. It might be the most difficult book – language wise I’ve read in …. years. I was Ok but I read more slowly than ususal.

      • I know Max found it rather difficult too, if I remember well. And if Max (or Guy, that would be the same) or you find it difficult, it really means I should get a French copy.
        Let’s cross fingers!

  12. Hard to imagine anyone not being bowled over by this book, but I’m sure such odd people do exist somewhere.

    One thing I find curious about this book and Carr more generally, is how it totally overshadows his other books. Not that they’re as good as this – they’re not – but that you’d think he never wrote anything else. I’ve read two others which are fine in their own right – A Season in Sinji, which is about an affair and a cricket match all wrapped up in WW2; and The Harpole Report which is a very funny and touching tale about a young teacher trying to handle life in a chaotic English school. I’d be surprised if at least *some* of the people praising AMITC didn’t enjoy these as well.

    • So far I haven’t come across a negative review of this. But I haven’t seen reviews of any of his other books either.
      It happens sometimes that one work overshadows all the others. I was wondering if anything else was worth looking for, so thanks for your comment. They actually both sound interesting.
      I wonder why they are overlooked. A Month in the Country is so good, it’s hard to imagine he wrote anything that’s not at least interesting.

  13. I read this some years ago for a book club and remember liking it very much and reading your review makes me want to go and read it again. It’s the sort of story that is deceptively simple–so slight yet has so very much to it–definitely a book to keep!

    • It’s a book to re-read. I’m just finishing One Fine Day and I find it has similarities. I guess she’s more widely read. It’s amazing how much he packed into this book.

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  17. Really nicely done! I haven’t been a reader of Carr, but you have convinced me that I should read this one. I recently bought Carr’s How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup for my husband. What a title. J.L. Anyway, Happy New Year and take care! Jenny

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