A Small Book
A Month in the Country was J. L. Carr’s fifth work of fiction. The novel (though it might easily be called a novella; it is little more than 100 pages), was published without fanfare by a British academic press in early 1980. The book received courteous minor reviews, and as its author J. L. Carr reported, “was sinking without a trace to join its four predecessors,” when it was taken up in an appreciative critique in The London Review of Books. “Slight but beautifully done, this book has a quality of its own that will not be easily forgotten.”
The word of mouth began to build. Eventually A Month in the Country was shortlisted for the 1980 Booker Prize and won the Guardian Prize for Fiction. In four years it was reprinted seven times. It came out in the United States in 1983. “Carr’s blessedly small tale of lost love is also a small hymn about art and the compensating joy of the artist, both in giving and receiving,” wrote a reviewer in The New Yorker. “It stays with us, too, and is oddly haunting.”
To those who come upon the book after savoring the silences of the film, the novel’s Birkin (as narrator) may seem, at first, almost garrulous. Access to his thoughts gives him added dimension, however; one relishes his unsentimental musings about art, history, balky stoves, and the Yorkshire people. And by the close of the story Birkin’s recognition of his lost moment, sixty years late, underlines the terrible finality of time.
“I should have lifted an arm and taken her shoulder, turned her face and kissed her. It was that kind of day. It was why she’d come. Then everything would have been different. My life, hers. We would have had to speak and say aloud what both of us knew and then, maybe, turned from the window and laid down together on my makeshift bed. Afterwards, we would have gone away, maybe on the next train. My heart was racing. I was breathless. She leaned on me, waiting. And I did nothing and said nothing.”
After almost three decades, A Month in the Country is still in print. As its author noted matter-of-factly in 1986, “It has made a life of its own.”
J. L. Carr
James Lloyd Carr was not a cozy person. He had the terseness and formality of the schoolmaster he had been, and the austerity of the staunch Methodist he’d been raised to be. He was a deeply private man. The author’s biography in one edition of A Month in the Country read, in its entirety, “J. L. Carr lives in England.”
Though gruffness and reserve were essential parts of J. L. Carr, they were the carapace of a man of intense enthusiasms. As he never troubled to temper his enthusiasms to conform to public opinion, he was known as an eccentric. (His dry, antic sense of humor helped this reputation along.) As a school headmaster in his forties he was “famously unorthodox,” a Pied Piper who led children out of dull classrooms to hunt for fossils or to play math games on Sports Days or to throw messages in bottles into a river (to understand the movement of water over the globe).
J. L. Carr loved history and taught it; he loved art and constantly created it; he loved poetry and literature, quoting one from memory and writing the other. His own fertile brain kept him busy. He had no small talk.
Another enthusiasm was for ancient churches, specifically St. Faith, an abandoned medieval church in the lonely fields of Newton in the Willows, not far from his home. From the time he discovered St. Faith in 1964, J. L. Carr was its passionate protector against vandals hoping to rifle it and officialdom content to close it and possibly have it razed. Over the next decade he wrote scores of letters high and low; he wooed Bishops and battled diocesan flunkies, vicars, and archdeacons; he enlisted the aid of police and local Rover Scouts; he gave poetry readings to raise cash; he spent weekends scrubbing and making repairs with his own scant funds. No detail was too small for his attention.
But he was one man, up against the byzantine machinery of the Church of England. Even as J.L. Carr was paying out of his own pocket to have windows reglazed, the church pulpit was silently removed by a neighboring vicar. Next amateur archaeologists were somehow given official permission to pry up the floor and excavate under the nave. Then thieves broke in and stole the brasses. Finally one of J.L. Carr’s many letters on behalf of the church brought relief — though not in a way he expected. An architectural heritage society to which he had appealed stepped in and persuaded the diocese to sell the church for use as a field centre for nature study.
The building was saved, but St. Faith of Newton in the Willows was gone. J.L. Carr was not one to air his disappointments. Five years later, however, writing A Month in the Country, he would bring the little church in the fields back to life and give it to Birkin.
Late Life Renown
At age 55, J. L. Carr retired without a pension to try his hand as a full-time publisher (of whimsical maps and miniature books of poetry and humor) and novelist. He was brusque and disciplined. Time — for writing, for art, for pursuing his passions — was the commodity he cherished. He was almost 68 when his breakthrough novel was published. He was 74 when he visited the set of A Month in the Country to see his book being filmed.
Colin Firth was slightly unnerved. “It was not simply because he had dreamt up this character I was struggling to portray that I found myself taking him so seriously; it was something in the nature of the man.” The young actor found the author “dry,” “watchful,” and “without airs” — adding diplomatically that it was soon clear that quiet Mr. Carr functioned “very much on his own terms.” “...I found him so like Birkin that I was intrigued to see how much he would admit to. The answer was nothing. Apparently Birkin is in no way autobiographical.”
In fact all of J. L. Carr’s novels were at least partly autobiographical. The chapel-going Ellerbecks of A Month in the Country were the Carrs of 1920. J.L. Carr’s father had been a Yorkshire railwayman and lay Methodist preacher. (God and trains were family preoccupations; his elder brother was a lifelong Yorkshire stationmaster so devoted he bought his rural station when it closed in 1965.) The book with its charming portrait of Kathy Ellerbeck was dedicated to J.L. Carr’s own sister Kathie. There had even been a childhood visit to a dying girl and a trip to buy an organ. In creating Birkin, Moon, and their restorative summer idyll, J. L. Carr had transmuted scattered details into art.
Just as the prizes and honorary degrees for A Month in the Country began rolling in, his beloved wife Sally died after a thirteen-year struggle with lung cancer. J. L. Carr himself soldiered on resolutely into his 80s, still writing, still publishing, still painting his treasured landscapes of England. He died of leukemia in early 1994.
”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, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass. ...”