Kenneth Braganth as James [Colin] Moon and Colin Firth as Tom Birkin eating the food Mrs Ellerbeck sent (1987 Month in the Country; film)
Natasha Richardson as Mrs Alice Keach kneeling beside the striken Tom Birken after Colonel Hebron has wantonly (if not conscious of this) thundered a rifle shot to kill a bird
Dear friends and readers,
It’s that time of year where I resort to making blogs for my classes. If I’ve not yet made one for J. L. Carr’s gem masterpiece, A Month in the Country and its film adaptation by Patrick O’Connor, Simon Gray, and (produced by) Kenith Trodd, it’s been because I had no stills for a discussion of the film, and a sense of how daunting it is to write adequately from even some minor position of either Carr or O’Connor. Well this year at long last this neglected film has come out as a “print-on-demand” DVD, complete with intelligent features and commentary. I’ve assigned film and book at least 4 terms (sometimes to 2 sections), and now I’m here again, making a new blog out of my college lectures.
I begin with the book, move on to the author, and then the film aesthetically; I end on the themes shared by book and film. O’Connor’s book is a transposition, or strongly faithful adaptation.
The Story in brief: A man has badly shattered by the horrors of World War One. He has a wife who has been dislocated too. She leaves him regularly. Both displaced persons. Lost. Homeless. He is hired to restore a magnificent but terrifyingly pessimistic wall mural on an ancient church deep in Yorkshire. He does want to go back to his wife.
The characters in book:
Patrick Malahide as an uptight alienated Vicar
Major themes and Characters: they are not real people like your neighbors; they are made to act in ways that embody themes or values. One problem is aesthetic appreciation, not always by any strength of puritan preoccupations.
What is Birkin in the book like? Do we like him altogether? Moon is sympathetic throughout. Both wounded, both maimed. We watch them slowly heal. It’s a story about resurrection and healing but the healing can only go so far.
Kenneth Branagh as Charles [James] Moon: the film begins in great darkness (Birkin at that terrible battlefield, or in his dream) and wakens into dazzling sunlight and hope, only to reveal behind the facade despair (Moon’s closing soliloquy as a gay man alone)
1. The first most obvious way of characterizing Birkin is the parallelism and doubling between Tom and Moon. Both are damaged by their war experiences, both have retreated to their various secluded bolt holes to lick their wounds and try to recover, the one, however significantly up in the gods, the other deep in the depths. This gives each of them an instinctive, though often unspoken, understanding of and sympathy with the psychological and social effects of those horrific experiences that separate them emotionally from the non-participants surrounding them, and so each for the other forms an amical bond that helps them on their way back into social society.
2. The main difference psychologically, I think, is that Moon is more aware and actually brings Tom’s attention to the slow process of healing he has much more unconsciously been undergoing. I feel the author here is leading the reader through him. Moon doesn’t say much you just get the feeling he understands more.
3. Is Birkin in God’s position bringing the art out. He says emphatically no. He’s a servant of the artist. A journeyman labour. But he brings it out. He needs sensitivity and care. Who but him could have saved this painting? So question, too, whether Tom as a restorer of other people’s creations is just a journeyman craftsman or an artist himself also forcibly presents itself. Also art restoration has parallels with literary translation and that, just as Tom was a signaller in the army, here he was acting as a receiver and transmitter of signals from the past to the present.
4. Why is our second hero called Moon? On a symbolic level, both Moon’s name and search links him to that Crusader ancestor whose grave bears the Crescent moon symbol of Islam that ultimately proves him to have been the inspiration for the striking man with the crescent mark hurtling into the hellish depths in Tom’s fresco. The heights and depths of the external real world thus parallel the heaven and hell opposition in the fresco Tom bears his own correspondingly visible mark and stigma: the twitch shell-shock has left him, which negative representatives of established society like vicar Keach find it equally difficult to look at and accept, but which still doesn’t set him as far apart as Moon’s sexual difference
5. Birkin lower middle class; his father made and sold soap. A joke. Moon is a man of evidently good birth and former standing, a highly decorated soldier, who has literally been cast into depths – first those of the trenches and then those of his dig – by an intolerant and self-seeking society very reminiscent of those smug-seeming bourgeois Tom’s fresco shows marching up to heaven. Moon is rejected and punished for the stigma attached to what was then regarded as his deviant sexual orientation, the Crusader because of a ‘deviant’ religious affiliation. But not wholly: he fits in academic world; he is on its margins the way Birkin did .He can hope to publish and get some job.
6. Moon is finding Piers remember. I was struck here by the fact that even Tom’s feelings to Moon are negatively affected by the knowledge of his sexuality in the book. It seemed to me the film made the man in the inn far worse and crueler and sneering and nasty. . In fact, it seemed to me as if sexuality in general, as opposed to platonic love and friendship, was often seen as a disturbing and destructive force in the book. It’s certainly that in Moon’s case and in Tom and the Keach’s marriages. Distrust of sexuality in this book. It’s there in the film insofar as it reflects the book.
At end of summer, early fall, (elements in that part of the earth)
Piers Hebron. He’s a character in the story too. Brooding over everyone. The medieval prodigal son; he left for the crusades and came back profoundly wounded and a Muslim. It’s the finding of Piers’s body that brings an end to the story. Recovering his painting. Dark vision of the world which matches the horror of WW1 and perhaps amorality of our own.
1. The original painter was ejected from the church. It may be because he was Muslim, but another reason for burying someone outside consecrated ground is they committed suicide. He may have painted himself falling and then jumped. Loss of faith. But then the painting is there. Was he isolated? We see that despite Birkin’s early bitterness, he is taken in. Was his name Piers Hebron? Was he a relative of Miss Hebron? Rosamond McGerr speculates we don’t know much about him and the story is made up by Birkin and Moon. Perhaps he converted to Islam. Some of my students have suggested that Piers was a practicing homsexual and ex-communicated because of this. I’d have to read very carefully behind the novels too.
2. On religious theme and contrast of medieval to early 20th century: an idea I often heard expressed is that before the Renaissance God was regarded as the only original creator. Since everything was ultimately divinely inspired and created, man was only the vessel and physical executor and so couldn’t claim authorship. To do so would be vanity and hubris.
3. Also there was no literary marketplace to sell your work; no copyright; you had a patron. No reason for individuality to be brought out. You are taught these older masterpieces were often cooperative efforts of a whole atelier. Carr asks if this is so? If you start to study older works, you discover selfhood is everywhere.
4. The finding this painter and uncovering his painting fit thematically. The book and movie link both a conscious and an unconscious process of restoration together. Just as Tom gradually and carefully uncovers and restores the pieces of the church wall fresco, so, too, is his fragmented emotional and psychological health gradually restored, almost without his being aware of it. This happens as much through his physical interactions with the villagers, Moon, his fellow war victim, and of course his growing love for Mrs Keach as through his increasing sense of mental and creative connection with the original fresco artist himself. Book organized around the stages of Birkin’s restoration. At successive moments, more and more is uncovered.
5. Though the intention of the work is universal, it’s also fascinating to see how uncovering the fresco also helps to reveal the surviving individual aspect: the hidden form and personality of this unnamed artist and the topical aspects he introduced into the painting that prove to have a relevance and forge yet another link to Tom’s own time – human archaeology that parallels Moon’s dig. It’s a book about human communities rooted in and across time.
Alice and Mr Keach — how do we feel about them? Keach a genuine sensitive religious man, a misfit in this world. In fact it wouldn’t be happy if Mrs Keach left Mr Keach. He’s human too. Then she’d be behaving like Vinny, and Birkin would be the men who take Vinny from him. She has clung to Mr Keach as a substitute for a father. In the movie she’s linked to Eve and goddess of light — through eating the apple and offering him apples.
Natasha Richardson as Mrs Keach first seen by Birkin as he awakens from a dream
He regrets intensely not taking her up on it.
The Keaches connect to Ellerbeees and Sykes. In real life Carr was himself angry at the church and agnostic. His sympathetic presentation of these people is meant to question them as well as see them anthropologically. Their community finds hope and strength through the religion. Ellerbee is a present day chapel preacher; Mr Keach a vicar. There’s a contrast set up. Ellerbee seems far more embedded and content in his community than Keach.
Jim Carter as Ellerbeck, offering to share his umbrella
1. Alice contrasted to Kathy Ellerbee. Kathy is a dominating presence, is she not? Both want to take him in. Kathy jealous of Lucy. What stops him from responding? Vinny.
2. When does community find out about Vinny. It’s hard to say. When he first visits Mr and Mrs Sykes, no one beyond Moon could know, p 88. Moon is told on p 77. However on p 100 when Birkin asks if Lucy Sykes is coming, he gets a sharp “no” from Kathy; it’s not clear whether Kathy now knows he’s married or whether she’s jealous. He does mean to tell Mrs Keach, but when he begins it seems she already knows, p 113-114. It’s a small community. How many letters could come from the post office? Vinny writes to him we are told. Would she put a “Mrs Tom Birkin” on the corner of the envelope?
3. We see other women: Mrs Ellerbee, Mrs Clough, Emily Clough, Lucy’s mother, Mrs Sykes. The son’s name was Perce. A common name in middle ages.
4. It could be over-sentimental, but the often wryly humorous narrative voice, the realist details and the refusal of a facile, romantic happy end.
Kathy’s brother, Edgar listening, watching
Point of view is Birkin’s and we are not necessarily to accept what he says and sees as what Carr wants us to conclude is true or accurate.
Colin Firth as Birkin standing in the rain checking on drainage pipes; if they are gone, the painting is gone (water is a big destroyer, says the gravedigger in Hamlet)
A. Book about history and human beings set against the forces of history, culture and nature. Death a force in book but just insisted on in film. Graves everywhere, history everywhere. Emphasized by mise-en-scenes of film. Time too, again. How do you create a meaningful life when you are going to die and you have little control over your destiny?
1. Art is one way
2. Community and family life is another. Group identity seems to give people meaning.
3. Self-satisfactions which are often ephemeral
In this one a nostalgia for the past and escapism are placed against painful self-awareness of vulnerable people in need of affection. Just reveling in beauty of nature and countryside, peaceful retired older world.
Perhaps the present is used as a metaphor for many pasts in the novella:
1. As a boy Carr brought up in a religious world he found narrow, bigoted, harsh; as poor boy unable to go to university. Looking back on it he finds metaphors, analogies, beauty rooted in past which depends on community, brings people together in quiet and fructifies the imagination with harrowing/blissful archetypal thought and imagination. Carr very much valued community and roots in a place and time
2. Carr’s manipulation of time: the way he makes the summer seem so long and leisurely and yet in effect it’s one very short golden moment, reflecting his thematic opposition of permanence and transience.
3. What we have is surfacely idyllic, healing nature and the war and hell imagery in the book. I’d say it’s strongly anti-war. Irony is that Moon is going to a dig in Baghdad. He’d not bother today. Much was destroyed. A huge museum and library were sacked, burned, looted. The US sent troops to protect the oil fields and contracts given out to wealthy people close to Bush administration, but no money or troops to protect art. It really is gone and destroyed forever.
4. By setting book at end of World War One he makes analogy with the imperial wars of the last third of the 20th century. Very great anti-war poetry written at the time, for example, Wilfred Owen’s:
Dulce Et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!-An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Family life: we are shown couples who have troubled relationships. Is it at all easy to overcome these troubles?
1. When did troubles for the Keaches, Birkin and Vinny, Moon start? With the nature of the community and sexuality itself.
2. Strong theme of forgiveness in both. Least forgiven in A Month in the Country is Vinny. It’s really quite unfair. We know nothing of her. Birkin returns to her. She seems to be treated like a slut but note we are to long for Alice to leave Keach. Mrs Keach visits Birkin with lovely apples: Adam and Eve. Birkin seems to feel hell is what occurs in our minds — and that is reinforced by religion.
What is heroism in this world? Carrying on? How about reclaiming the past? Can you do this? Mr Keach runs away, hides with his violin.
Gemma Artherton as Tess (2008 mini-series)
Natasha Richardson as Mrs Keach (we never see or meet Vinnie in the book or film)
A Month in the Country repays research — like in the article on the middle ages; it’s more learned than you think; it’s the more literary book. References to older art (Islamic knowledge of colors).
Numbers of references to Thomas Hardy and he said he was thinking of Under the Greenwood Tree, a pessimistic pastoral. The characters discuss Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Angel Clare is blamed. In the story Tess falls in love with this super upright young man, very conservative and traditional; when she is seduced and half-coerced, half-raped by someone named Alex, he hates her and deserts her. She commits suicide. Were Birkin to leave Vinny he’d be an Angel Clare. Self-righteous. Admittedly we’d feel better if Birkin weren’t suffering humiliation and if he’d have an affair too. Still, there the fallen women is unfairly treated, the one allusion which suggests we are getting only one side of the story.
Emily and the children’s favorite books, p 53. What they want as prizes for going to church steadily.
Forgotten Garden by Caroline Repchuck, Illustrator Ian Andrew
1. A poignant tale of an elderly man’s return to his childhood home where his father had created unusual topiary figures many years before. Overgrowth and neglect threaten the once-thriving formal garden. As the man busies himself with the task of reinstating the grounds to their former beauty, he is transported back in time. Through happy memories of his father’s garden, he capably transforms the unkempt bushes into copies of the original statuaries and clears the fountains. Real critters roam freely across the estate; some make it their home. So like Birkin
2. Andrew’s brown and gray pencil illustrations in the opening pages echo the text’s somber mood as the man evaluates the garden’s condition. Warmer, but muted, greens and blues pick up the pace while the protagonist busily clips and snips. The final spread is still muted but details colorful birds, butterflies, flowers, and animals as readers see the child that was. On the surface, this story is a fairly gentle remembrance, but scattered throughout the pages are disturbing faces, hands, and a haunting image wrapped in a tangle of vines.
3. An old man returns to the home of his youth, an ancient manor house where his father was the gardener. Its once-beautiful garden, now overgrown, turns magically mysterious as he transforms it and his life.
Coral Island by R. Ballantyne and The Children of the Forest by Frederick Marryat. Adventure stories which show the world to be a dangerous place filled with violence.
The Art (Plotd-design) of the book
A composite still
Plot-design of book.
It opens differently from the movie. What’s left out? The opening sequence in the movie is of the war and bad dreams.
First moment of film
We find out about that inwardly though the text later on. The movie has to make it visual. Deep loss in book which is not overcome — except by painting. Typical passage, p. 20. Then p. 135. That implies hope is thwarted. It is the older man looking back and mourning as well as celebrating what he once knew for a summer. What could have been (the romance with Alice Keach) and what did not. We can add Charles/James Moon’s aspirations.
How are the events in the movie arranged: forward, chronological with memories brought in of the past through conversation. The story has flashbacks in little tiny parts in our narrator’s mind.
1. In the book the story told by Tom Birkin many years later, remembering back. What’s the effect of this in the book?
2. Movement of book which the film does follow, leaving out incidents (as when at the end Birkin chases after Mrs Keach at the last moment and finds she and her husband have gone) and adding imagery and scenes too (like the one of Mrs Keach and Birkin walking together in the wood): in first case it softens the blow but we lose a sense that Alice Keach wanted to escape Birkin, feared him; in the second it makes the relationship tighter and more romantic.
Outline of book
First clear shot of Birkin as he enters church to talk to Keach
Pp. 1-16: Birkin arrives, meets Ellerbee in passing, gets to church, first encounter with anguished Keach — not a happy man as the people in the community according to him don’t appreciate religion. Well they aren’t theological and they don’t like condemning themselves — for real. They are willing to pretend to.
pp. 16-30: deep encounter with painting slides into deep encounter with Moon. Birkin learns as much of the story of Hebron as Moon knows; learns about patroness, Miss Adelaide Hebron (Piers an ancestor probably)
pp. 31-34: how days passed typically: he and Moon and painting.
pp. 35-44: Kathy Ellerbee (described as having a moon-shaped face) followed by first encounter with Alice Keach. Alice like a goddess of spring; Kathy a prosaic mother type, strong, soon her mother is sending food. She and brother play music.
pp. 44: Back to work and we begin weaving of Birkin on scaffold and Birkin uncovering painting.
pp. 47-54: home life of Ellerbees. Good. Here’s where we go to church and visit home of bravely dying child, Emily.
pp. 55-60: visit to Keaches; home life hollow. But there is Keach playing the violin. He seeks solace too. Another enigmatic encounter with Mrs Keach
p. 61: there was so much time that marvellous summer: by simply asserting it and interweaving occasional redolent detail he persuades us it’s taking a long time.
pp. 61-81: long extended sequence on the scaffold; now Alice Keach visits him and they talk; compared to Kathy Ellerbee talk. He brings things out from prosaic truth; so too Ellerbee. She slowly reveals her background, who she is. Then Moon and he, pp. 76-82.
pp. Different details are parsed, for example, pp. 74-75. The living people on the wall, brought out.
pp. 82-94: now he is taken deeper in country and meets Lucy Sykes. All the while he works at his job. What is a job for: “our private fantasies, our disguises, the cloak we can creep inside to hide,” p. 64. Art is treated as something much better than the job sheerly for money, without creativity, without soul. Against selling the self. Plot starts to come together, and we discover we are in something of a detective story when Birkin realizes the painter fell,
died falling off the scaffold, p 94
pp. 94-112: he and Alice getting closer and there’s a sense they could become lovers; she shies away too. At this point Emily Clough dies. He goes with Ellerbees to purchase a used organ and while in town learns from a passerby that Moon is gay and what happened to Moon during the war.
pp. 112-16. The work coming to an end.
pp. 116-20. Now Mr Keach comes with money. I suggest we are to surmize Alice not so unhappy with Keach; she told him she longed for this young man. It worries him. The choice to flee may have been the desire to flee Birkin on her part, the community he’s failing in on his.
pp. 121-27: Climax, he and Moon dig up bones. Moon says he could stay there …
pp. 127-31: last meeting with Alice; she comes up to his belfry; she is willing this time; he can’t get himself to act.
pp. 131-2: the Keaches have fled. Maybe she fled him
pp. 132-35: a letter from Vinnie; time to return to her again.
Firth as Birkin leaving Oxgodby
Book and movie combine suspense of mystery with dramatic irony of discovering things the characters know but we don’t: psychological depth and realism as well as form of mystery. Not a book which makes a lot of use of irony except plot irony I’d say it’s a mystery story. How so? What don’t we find out at the end? What happened to the Keaches? Why is Alice Keach married to this older man? We never learn for sure: only she lost her father shortly before she married him
I usually begin by talking about the life of the author and relating the book to the life. There are 3 ways to look at works of art: as a mirror, reflecting the age (late 20th century), as a lamp, reflecting the person’s life (autobiography often opens up a work), and as art: look at structure, themes, characters, setting, point of view, style.
From The Last Englishman by Byron Rogers. I’m going to what is relevant to our book, not all.
1. J.L Carr grew up in a community very like Oxgodby. His parents were lower middle class. His father was a night station master like Mr Ellerbee; his mother had been trained as a dressmaker. His grandfather had been a farmer, and his father had rebelled to become a sort of civil servant. They were methodist and one of the large pieces of furniture in the house was an American organ. His mother’s father, that is the maternal grandfather had been an alcoholic and died falling down a steep flight of stairs one night. Just like Mrs Ellerbee’s father. In the rural villages of the 1920s churches were central places for social activity and community. They were definitely working class and Joseph Lloyd was a gifted boy.
2. In such a home the way to get ahead is through school. In England at the time there was a test children took at age 11 which determined what schools they got into ever after. It could make the difference of going to college or ending up in a factory or manual labor. He was a very clever boy but kept failing this exam. Perhaps a psychological block; perhaps he rebelled against this; too much pressure to succeed just on this placed on him. Thus he was excluded. At great sacrifice his parents sent him to an equivalent good school out of their own funds where he learned to paint. But he remained an outsider, outside the network of the upper class.
3. One of his books is a very funny and bitter satire on schools, Harpole Report. He himself became
a headmaster later in life and was one for 30 years in Northamptonshire. He had himself had to endure the “chickenshit” of bureaucracies and tried to get rid of this sort of way of people’s interacting. He found when he did anything unconventional it had to be presented in ways that fell into ideas about what school was for.
4. Such communities had strong bigotries and class consciousness which you see here. Early on Carr himself became what we’d call agnostic. He wrote in a newspaper he edited about his belief after asking others to tell theirs (most didn’t):
I can’t believe in the superbeing of the familiar prayer. But I do believe a holy spirit is within us (in greater or lesser degree) as I’ve seen many times in children’s faces and in the way men and women live. As far as school is concerned, I think the holy spirit is a lot more likely to be present at a well and pleasantly taught maths lesson than in a morning service pontificated over by some blatherer or tyrant. He makes a joke of hell and fire sermons, but he deplores them: he is fond of the people but thinks it’s much better to tell about what you are doing that’s useful.
5. He traveled about a good deal. He spent a year in South Dakota, and he traveled to the far east (Japan), Burma; also around the British Isles. During World War Two he was in Basra Baghdad. This is recounted in the McGerr article I linked in for you. He particularly loved Scotland.
6. He began to love art and was much interested in the history of the people of his country. The book emerges from an incident that happened in 1964. Carr was walking in the countryside and came across a very dilapidated church near Kettering, Northamptonshire where he then lived. It has been vandalized: Church of St Faith at Newton in the Willows. He got in touch with the people in positions of power in the Church of England to tell them. The church was salvageable and he offered to spend his own money and time to get up a committee and people to bring it back into use. The church leaders seemed very happy. But as time transpired he began to see that they were utter hypocrites and themselves conspiring to let the church fall into ruin so they could get rid of it and sell the land. In this book is reprinted the letters alongside the actual events of what happened showing the hypocrisy and relentless determination of the church leaders to hide what they were doing while letting the church crumble to bits. They didn’t think there were enough parishioners to support it. He did think it was destoyed so the novel is wish-fulfillment. What didn’t happen. A dream.
7. In these letters we hear the real voice of Carr: he talks of “the disdain for Authority which we all must cherish.” Some years later he took the children in his school for a long walk around this place to show them empty space and expatiated on what happened. This is the sort of thing that is meant when it’s said he riled parents up. He thought this was an important lesson.
8. Now recently on his son’s site I’ve found something which contradicts the account in Last Englishman. The building was in the end saved and is now a small scientific centre (2008). My hunch is perhaps it was rebuilt after the book’s renown and the movie and the Rogers’ Last Englishmen revealed this incident.
Look at opening poems in novel. Epigraphs. All about love. Shortly before Carr wrote this book his wife died after a 13 year battle with cancer. They had had a long successful marriage. The book is written out of a vision he has — Mrs Keach is her come back. Particularly the Trench is effective.
A Month in the Country is a reverse of reality. In reality nothing was restored. In reality a fairly sound structure was allowed to be vandalized and rot and then pulled down. Carr imagines someone coming in and finding a painting which projects a vision of the nature of nature (supernatural too), of human nature both as it really is and as it imagines its gods. Strong melancholy undertone and yet there is such beauty in the countryside and it seems such potential in people.
For his other novels see The Quince Tree Press.
Natasha Richardson as Mrs Keach with Firth as Birkin alongside her, both in the sun
For the movie, see comments
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