Summery Classics by J. L. Carr and L. P. Hartley

“Do you remember what that summer was like? – how much more beautiful than any since?”

These two slightly under-the-radar classics made for perfect heatwave reading over the past couple of weeks: very English and very much of the historical periods that they evoke, they are nostalgic works remembering one summer when everything changed – or could have.

 

A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr (1980)

Summer 1920, North Yorkshire. Tom Birkin, a First World War veteran whose wife has left him, arrives in Oxgodby to uncover the local church’s wall painting of the Judgment Day, assumed to be the work of a medieval monk and long since whitewashed over. With nothing waiting for him back in London and no plans beyond this commission, he gives himself over to the daily rhythms of working, eating and sleeping – “There was so much time that marvelous summer.” This simple life is punctuated by occasional incidents like a Sunday school hayride and picnic, and filling in as a lay preacher at a nearby chapel. Also embarked on a quest into the past is Charles Moon, who is searching for the grave of their patroness’ ancestor in the churchyard. Moon, too, has a war history he’d rather forget.

Though it barely exceeds 100 pages, this novella is full of surprises – about Moon, about the presumed identity and fate of the centuries-dead figures he and Birkin come to be obsessed with, and about the emotional connection that builds between Birkin and Reverend Keach’s wife, Alice. “It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies,” Birkin declares, but did he take his own advice? There is something achingly gorgeous about this not-quite-love story, as evanescent as ideal summer days. Carr writes in a foreword that he intended to write “a rural idyll along the lines of Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree.” He indeed created something Hardyesque with this tragicomic rustic romance; I was also reminded of another very English classic I reviewed earlier in the year: Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee.

Source: Free bookshop

My rating:

A contemporary readalike: The Offing by Benjamin Myers

 

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley (1953)

Summer 1900, Norfolk. Twelve-year-old Leo Colston is invited to spend the several July weeks leading up to his birthday at his school friend Marcus Maudsley’s home, Brandham Hall. Although the fatherless boy is keenly aware of the class difference between their families, in a year of learning to evade bullies he’s developed some confidence in his skills and pluck, fancying himself an amateur magician and gifted singer. Being useful makes him feel less like a charity case, so he eagerly agrees to act as “postman” for Marcus’s older sister, Marian, who exchanges frequent letters with their tenant farmer, Ted Burgess. Marian, engaged to Hugh, a viscount and injured Boer War veteran, insists the correspondence is purely business-related, but Leo suspects he’s abetting trysts the family would disapprove of.

Leo is right on the cusp of adolescence, a moment of transition that mirrors the crossing into a new century. As he glories in the summer’s mounting heat, “a liberating power with its own laws,” and mentally goads the weather into hitting ever greater extremes, he pushes against the limits of his innocence, begging Ted to tell him about “spooning” (that is, the facts of life). The heat becomes a character in its own right, gloweringly presiding over the emotional tension caused by secrets, spells and betrayals. And yet this is also a very funny novel: I loved Leo’s Franglais conversations with Marcus, and the confusion over mispronouncing “Hugh” as “you.” In places the tone even reminded me of Cold Comfort Farm.

Like A Month in the Country, this autobiographical story is an old man’s reminiscences, going back half a century in memory – but here Leo gets the chance to go back in person as well, seeing what has become of Brandham Hall and meeting one of the major players from that summer drama that branded him for life. I thought this masterfully done in every way: the class divide, the picture of childhood tipping over into the teenage years, the oppressive atmosphere, the comical touches. You know from the famous first line onwards (“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”) that this will juxtapose past and present – which, of course, has now become past and further past – in a powerful way, similar to Moon Tiger, my favorite fiction read of last year. I’ll be exploring more of Hartley’s work.

(Note: Although I am a firm advocate of DNFing if a book is not working for you, I would also like to put in a good word for trying a book again another time. Ironically, this had been a DNF for me last summer: I found the prologue, with all its talk of the zodiac, utterly dull. I had the same problem with Cold Comfort Farm, literally trying about three times to get through the prologue and failing. So, for both, I eventually let myself skip the prologue, read the whole novel, and then go back to the prologue. Worked a treat.)

Source: Ex-library copy bought from Lambeth Library when I worked in London

My rating:

A contemporary readalike: Atonement by Ian McEwan

25 responses

  1. Both these are favourites of mine. I read A Month in the Country having seen an excellent production by a fairly local itinerant community theatre project some years ago, while The Go-Between dates from my teenage years. I ought to read them again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can imagine it worked very well as a play! Do you know where Oxgodby is supposed to be based on?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I can’t get any better than ‘a fictional Yorkshire village’.

        Like

    2. Ok. He mentions the North Riding in his foreword, and there’s a trip to Ripon. But he also says he drew on other places he knew down South.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Only he could tell us ….

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  2. Why have I never read A Month in the Country? It sounds excellent!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It would be a great one to pick up for Novellas in November. So much said with so few pages.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve not read either either, although I’ve seen the film of A Month in the Country which is excellent (early Branagh and Colin Firth). I think I own copies of both though, so definiately candidates for Novellas in November. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh, Branagh and Firth — that’s an unbeatable duo! The Go-Between is more like 250 pages, so probably not what I would call a novella. Excellent, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Two of my favourite novels, although I would have swapped the star grading round. ☺️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was considering 5 stars for A Month in the Country for quite a while, but in the end it was a little thin and understated for my tastes. An excellent example of how much can be achieved in a novella, though.

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  5. I’ve heard of both these, but haven’t read them. They both sound pretty good to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would highly recommend them!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, weird. That cover for A Month in the Country is the same one I have for Winifred Holtby’s South Riding.

    Also, it is SO GOOD to find another person who couldn’t get through Cold Comfort Farm! 🙂

    Like

    1. I come across repeated covers for classics pretty often!

      I did eventually get through CCF, but it took several attempts (and skipping the prologue): https://bookishbeck.wordpress.com/2020/03/25/classics-of-the-month-cold-comfort-farm-and-crossing-to-safety/

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I keep meaning to read A Month in the Country and am going to keep an eye out for it more actively now. And I love The Go-Between even though I read it at school! I also really like his Eustace and Hilda trilogy, which I have in a super omnibus.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s the other work by Hartley that I’d most like to read. I think A Month in the Country would be right up your street. And you could read it in an afternoon!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I agree. I agree. Both are excellent. The film of AMITC is great too. The 1970s film and more recent TV adaption of TGB are great as well. L.P. Hartley has become a favourite author of mine. The Shrimp and the Anemone, which is the first volume in the Eustace and Hilda trilogy, is just as good, if not better, than TGB. I agree, perfect summer reads.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve had recommendations of the film versions come through on Goodreads as well. I expect I’ll make The Shrimp and the Anemone my next from Hartley.

      Like

  9. Alyson Woodhouse | Reply

    Funnily enough, I have A Month in the Country scheduled in to read this week, and I love The Go-Between too. It is among my favorite reads of this year so far, so I’m sure I will enjoy A Month in the Country as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Enjoy! How funny that we’ve both read both this year.

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  10. […] best two summer binge reads this year were Rodham and Americanah; my two summery classics, though more subtle, were also perfect. Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett, which I’m reading […]

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  11. Both of these are on my TBR. They’ve both come up on the BBC Books and Authors program that I so enjoy. But I think I remember you saying that you don’t listen to podcasts? (They were both already in my mind, but every recommendation does nudge me further in their direction. You know how some books can linger and linger. And, yes, sometimes they do require more than one attempt, depending on one’s mood. How funny that you had to skip the prologue but then enjoyed it as an afterword!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nah, I’ve never listened to a podcast. Sandra (A Corner of Cornwall) also recently reviewed both, so there must be something in the air this summer!

      Liked by 2 people

  12. Fiction Fan and I read each of them and posted our thoughts on the same day. I’m glad I missed your post here at the time. Although we’ve overlapped on most points I can be sure I wasn’t influenced 🤭 I agree about Atonement too, and thought it as I read the G-B. Cold Comfort Farm has been on my list for a long time. I’ll add The Offing too 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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