It would be hard to imagine a more English book than this, either in theme (the healing effect of time spent in the countryside on those with inner pain) or in emotional tone. It seems particularly appropriate that we should include a review of it in an issue dealing with the rural myth. It has an ageless quality, perhaps because it was written by an old man in a decade (the eighties) in which poetic reflections on the First World War were not a common theme for novels. It is one of those books in which the stylistic flaws do not matter, because the whole transcends its parts.
Birkin, a Londoner who has survived the Great War but is left with a stammer, a nervous twitch, and vivid nightmares, is given the summer job of uncovering a mediaeval wall-painting in the church of a small Yorkshire village. When he arrives he discovers that another Southerner, Charles Moon, is already there, trying to uncover the bones of a medieval ancestor of the lady (now deceased) whose will stipulated that funds be allocated from her estate both for this and for Birkin’s job, and to find out the reason for their burial outside church ground. The fact of working for the same employer draws the two men together, and they share their horrific war-time experiences over early morning cups of tea in Moon’s tent, bonding in what soon becomes a strong, though understated, friendship. The delightfully untraumatised locals blunder (Mossop, the caretaker of the church) or bounce (Kathie Ellerbeck, the stationmaster’s 15-year-old daughter) in and out of their lives, forcing them to take part in community activities such as haymaking and church picnics, and gradually pulling them out of themselves.
The work on the wall-painting progresses and Birkin begins to fall in love with Alice, the beautiful wife of the cold and unsympathetic local vicar. This love is kept a secret for a long time, although it is sensed by Moon, who eggs Birkin on in his admiration of her. Meanwhile Birkin slowly uncovers the wall-painting, which shows the righteous trooping smugly off to heaven while the damned dive towards hell. One man in particular, a fair-haired man with extremely distinct features, catches his interest, and the interest of Moon, who comes up the ladder sometimes to see his work.
Towards the end of Birkin’s work on the painting he tries to tell the vicar’s wife of his love for her, but she takes fright and does not rise to the challenge. The vicar, perhaps suspecting Birkin’s attachment to his wife, tries to get rid of him as soon as possible once he has finished the work, and reveals, for a change, a human side to himself in a confrontation with Birkin, making Birkin have some sympathy for a man who finds it difficult being vicar to a group of basically irreligious people, and leaving him chastened and regretful over judging the man so harshly. It is also at about this time that Birkin finds out, from an old military acquaintance he meets in town one day that Moon, although a very brave soldier who won the VC, was dishonourably discharged from the army, following a court-martial, for homosexual behaviour. Birkin begins to realise that there may be inner hells more painful even than his own, and to wonder what Moon’s friendship for him might mean.
Then, in the most important scene in the book, Birkin is roped in by Moon to help him dig up Miss Hebron’s ancestor. The mystery of the burial outside sacred ground, which in medieval theology ensured that the dead would go to hell, is finally solved when Moon finds a metal crescent attached to the man’s skeleton: during the Crusades the man was captured by the Turks and forced to convert to Islam at sword point, and this was the reason for his becoming an outcast on returning home. It is Moon, not Birkin, who with the immediate instinct of the pariah recognises that this is Birkin’s falling man in the church wall painting. Moon also removes the incriminating crescent tag so that the man’s disgrace will not continue in the modern age.
The book ends with a moving scene between Birkin and the vicar’s wife, both of them in love and both unable to confess it, he because of paralysing shyness and she out of a sense of duty to her charmless husband. The next day she and the vicar have gone from the village, and the glorious summer is over. Birkin spends a few days wandering dazedly around the fields and then, in what must be one of the most finely-pitched endings in all literature, conveying at once resignation and a sense of relief he leaves, in what must be one of the most finely-pitched endings in all literature, he leaves.
A Month in the Country is a complex little book, with things to say about organised religion and the persecution of those who are different, and the elusiveness of love. Most of all, however, it conveys some of the suffering that survivors of the Great War had to cope with, and it underscores most movingly the potential of the countryside to heal. That it does all this in the space of a little over a hundred pages is remarkable, and that it was a first novel is extraordinary. It is a minor classic in the vast field of English literature, and it deserves to be. The film version by Pat O’Connor, starring Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth, is well worth watching, giving a visual depth to the book but inevitably leaving out a few of the book’s many strands.--Isabel Taylor