A Month in the Country by JL Carr

published 1980

This is famously a book where nothing happens.

I read it when I was much younger and thought, yes well, fine, what was that about?

But re-reading it in later life – several times - I can totally see it: a magical book, a book for grown-ups.

It is set in 1920: a young man, Birkin, returned from the war, comes to a small church in the Yorkshire countryside to restore a wall painting. It’s a 14th Century judgement picture. He has no money, is in a failing marriage, and was damaged in the trenches. He sleeps in the bell-loft of the church, to the disdain of the rather stiff and formal vicar, and gets on with his work.

a mediaeval judgement wall painting as featured in the book

There is another ex-soldier camping in the next field, Moon, who is doing some archaeological research, and they get to know each other. A local family – who go to Chapel, not the church – befriend him. He meets the vicar’s wife, a woman of great beauty, maybe ill-suited to her life partner.

There are meals, outings, expeditions to the nearest town. Eventually Birkin finishes his work and leaves the village of Oxgodby, saying he will never return. The reader may conclude that the summer and the work and the locality have worked on him to give him some restoration and healing, although he will not be without regrets.

When I first read the book, I assumed JL Carr was the age of the protagonist, but he would have been 8 at the time the book is set. I knew nothing then about Carr, who is a most eccentric an extraordinary figure: it is a hopeless task to try to describe him.

Blogfriend Roger Allen first recommended to me a biography of the poet RS Thomas by Byron Rogers – a book I absolutely adored, read more about this here. He then said I should read The Last Englishman, the biog of JL Carr by the same author – and it is indeed a most compelling book, and Carr an unusual subject. And after reading it I read this book again.

From the biography you can see that Month in the Country features many of Carr’s interests: Church architecture, history, organs, stoves, chapel vs CofE. Carr is also quoted as saying that there had been a woman who was Alice. He apparently said: ‘Alice Keach – I see her quite often, and she knows she’s Alice, and she knows I know she’s Alice. But she daren’t ask… when I last saw her, she casually asked if she could pick a rose, Sara van Fleet, from my back garden. That’s as far as she dare go.’

[‘she knows I know she’s Alice’ doesn’t seem to make any sense at all…]

That particular rose is significant in the plot – well I say significant, I say plot – the book is not overburdened with either.

What else can you say about the book, other than this: ‘it is extremely short, it is very beautiful, please do go and read it’?

I suppose I wonder why Birkin didn’t ever come back to Oxgodby– it is strongly stated that the judgement wall painting will be famous, as will the archaeological dig in the area. It seems it would be easy to keep in touch, to visit, to know what happened to the characters. (In general I have no patience with people in works of fiction who regret not going back, when there was nothing stopping them – see also the film Cinema Paradiso)

The book is so short, and so nuanced, that you can choose your own interpretation. It might be that Birkin misses out on his one chance of happiness – but I think it is more important that his month in the country restored him, gave him the chance to recover, and let him go on to live another life. To me it is a book about redemption, not regret. YMMV, and I’m very interested to know other’s views.

There is this line about the fleeting nature of happiness:

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.

I’ve seen this quoted as showing the message of the book – but in context it’s not saying quite what you might think it is…

Although Birkin lives in the bell loft, and is in there on Sundays when the bell rings, there are no ill-effects like those in Dorothy L Sayers’ The Nine Tailors.

Moon wants to go to join the Leonard Woolley archaeological expedition in Iraq – the dig is generally accepted to be the basis of the one in Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia.

There is a film of the book, made in 1987 and starring Colin Firth as Birkin, Kenneth Branagh as Moon, and Natasha Richardson as Alice. It is very beautiful and faithful to the book, though not quite perfect.

I was looking for pictures to represent Alice, and came across this above which seemed totally Kathy Ellerbeck from the book…

Frances - Frederick Carl Frieseke - The Athenaeum (the-athenaeum.org)

I was sure I would find an Alice Keach amongst William Orpen’s works and I found two.

Susan Vanderpoel Clark - Sir William Orpen, R.A., R.H.A. - The Athenaeum (the-athenaeum.org)

Grace reading at Howth Bay - Sir William Orpen, R.A., R.H.A. - The Athenaeum (the-athenaeum.org)


  1. I've heard of this one, Moira, and always wondered what it was like. It sounds as though it really is lovely, though. And it sounds as though restoring paintings, architecture, and the whole church context suit the story quite well, too. A really interesting look at the lives of the characters, too. Little wonder you liked it so well.

    1. It is a lovely book, Margot, and I'm sure you would like it. Also short, and contains (if not a mystery) a few secrets. He packs a lot in...

  2. "she knows she’s Alice, and she knows I know she’s Alice."
    Perhaps Carr meant that the lady in question knew he had deliberately based Alice on her, rather than subconsciously.
    For some reason or other, I keep appearing here as Rawdon Crawley - a nom de guerre I adopted elsewhere and don't seem to be able to get rid of - so you'll know that's me too.

    1. It could mean that - I think 'she knows I know she knows she's Alice' is clumsy as hell, but probably what he means?
      Right, now I get that you are RC too, I will indeed bear that in mind.
      In very early online forum days, I ran a board at the US political magazine Slate - wild west days of the internet those were. About a year into the job, we put in a new feature which meant you could see what other posts someone had made. I found to my astonishment that 3 or 4 of my top 10 best posters were all the same person. He went on to a stellar career as a political blogger.
      (I also found out which of the writers were commenting on their own articles with pseudonyms, and tracked down someone's long-lost father. Heady days)

    2. As a primary school teacher I think Carr would have enjoyed playing with English sentence structures.
      Wasn't there an historian who was caught putting down his colleagues/rivals under various pseudonyms on Amazon reviews? I chose Rawdon Crawley as a joke on a Victorian literature discussion board and he keeps popping up for no apparent reason.

    3. Yes, Orlando Figes. I think now people have wised up, but back in the day most people had no idea how easily they could be tracked, and thought nothing of faking it.
      An academic once wrote a piece about politics in a South American country. Someone came and commented on the piece, a heart-rending criticism saying the writer had got things wrong, and had put the commenter at risk, he said he was likely to be arrested because of what academic had said.
      The academic was properly horrified by this, and asked if I could find out more and what we could do to protect the commenter, should we take the piece down to save him? After some deep research I was able to tell the original writer that the comments were written by someone in his own academic dept, and were an extremely ill-natured hoax.
      And don't even start me on the comment forums on the advice/etiquette column - I have stories to make a person's hair curl...

  3. You won't be surprised to hear that this is one of my favourite novels, Moira! I think of it whenever I visit a church with a medieval wall painting. And I see something new in it every time I read it. That picture is Kathy to the life.

    1. I was pretty sure you'd told me that! yes indeed to all you say, and I am as proud of Kathy as if I'd painted her myself!

  4. I read this about a year ago and I loved it. I regret that I did not review it. I hope to read it again sometime. I haven't watched the film yet.

    It was the book that got me interested in reading novellas, which I had always shunned in the past.

    1. I'd love to read a post on it if you ever get round to it Tracy! I'm sure you would like the film. and I think it is the perfect novella, because it leaves you wanting more, but at the same time you know it was the right length

  5. Hilary McKay

    I've only just discovered this, by way of your twitter post today. Thank you so much. A Month in the Country is completely perfect and the film was very close to perfect too. I am so glad to see the wall painting and Kathy. I used to hope that the characters might crop up in different novels, he does sometimes do that. I would like to have met Kathy and Moon again.
    I agree, it's a book about redemption. A healing book. And very wise and very funny too.
    I have got the rose Sara(h) van Fleet growing by the garden gate.
    Hilary McKay (not anonymous!)

    1. Oh thank you Hilary, and glad you liked it. Yes, just a small perfect book. Yes, would love to know more about what happened to the characters.
      It is so charming, and such a hopeful book, almost against Birkin's will. As I say above, you just want everyone to read it...


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