‘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.
As an old man Tom Birkin is looking back to the summer of 1920 when he was asked to uncover a huge medieval wall-painting in the village church of Oxgodby in Yorkshire. J L Carr’s A Month in the Country is a beautifully written little book of just 85 pages, set in the aftermath of World War I. Tom, his ‘nerves shot to pieces, wife gone, dead broke‘, is still suffering from shell shock after the battle of Passchendaele. Living in the church bell tower, he begins to uncover the painting, excited and engrossed in his work.
Another war veteran, Charles Moon is also in Oxgodby, an archaeologist, camping in a meadow next to the church, whilst he looks for a lost 14th century grave. There are also two more people who are relatively new to the village – the vicar and his beautiful wife, Arthur and Alice Keach. Tom and Moon decide their marriage is an ‘outrage’ and Tom finds her enchanting – reminding him of Botticelli’s Primavera.
I loved this quiet novel, in which not a lot happens and yet so much happens as Tom describes the events of that summer – his relationships with the local people as well as with Moon and Arthur and Alice Keach. There’s the unforgettable Sunday School outing and a visit to Ripon with the Wesleyans looking for an American organ to replace the harmonium in their chapel. It’s during this visit Tom learns more about Moon.
I loved the detail of the wall-painting – the original methods of painting, the colours, the people in the painting. It’s a masterpiece, a Doom, a Christ in Judgement painting. Tom wonders about the original artist, the nameless man and why the painting had been covered and as he uncovers more of the painting thinks that he has lived with a great artist and had shared with the unknown man the ‘great spread of colour’ and feels ‘the old tingling excitement’.
But above all it is the writing that I loved the most – words that took me back in time to that glorious summer in Oxgodby. At the end Tom looks back at that summer with nostalgia for the things that have disappeared, contemplating that
We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever – the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.
I wanted to read A Month in the Country because years ago I’d watched a TV adaptation of the book and loved it. So after I finished reading it I thought I’d look for the film and watch it again. But the film was lost for years and the only available copies now are rare and expensive. So, I won’t be watching it and thinking about it I realise that it would be a mistake to watch it – as I enjoyed the book so much. But it would be good to see the wall-painting …