Why Sara van Fleet and Wensleydale?

That rose, Sara van Fleet … I still have it. Pressed in a book. My Bannister-Fletcher, as a matter of fact. Someday, after a sale, a stranger will find it there and wonder why.

As Alice Keach said to Tom Birkin, “Sara van Fleet isn’t any old rose” – but why did J.L. Carr pluck this particular flower for his heroine?

Sara van Fleet is of the rugosa variety – that makes it one of the oldest and hardiest roses still in existence. A drawing by Chao Ch’ang, active around 1,000 A.D., features one. They were brought to Europe from Asia in 1784.

More importantly for literary purposes, it is one of the most richly scented roses. One specialist praised it as having “a contralto scent in contrast with the Tea’s soprano.” That means its linger with Tom Birkin in more than memory.

Along with the China Rose, it is pretty much alone in producing flowers from May to October. Alice Keach told us so:

“Sara van Fleet,” she said. It was a pink rose, a single. “It’s an old variety. Mind! It has sharp thorns. And it keeps on blooming. You’ll see  – there’ll be some right into autumn.” She smiled. “Even if you don’t visit us again, you’ll know – I usually wear one in my hat … Here, take one.”


Tom Birkin is quite specific about his eating habits: “I was going to be happy, live simply, spend as little as paraffin, bread, vegetables and a bit of bully-beef now and then might cost me. I could have managed on a couple pints of milk a week, but this weather it wouldn’t keep so I should have to have three: oatmeal porridge is very sustaining and needs only warming to make a second meal.” Bully-beef is a kind of corned beef, and it’s useful to remember that this was the time before refrigeration and, for most rural housing, before indoor plumbing. “Each day still began much alike. I brewed up, fried a couple of rashers and a round of bread…” Rashers are thin slices of bacon.

More than once, he tells us: “I usually cut two rough rounds of loaf and a wedge of Wensleydale and took it outside to eat.” But what is Wensleydale? The choice of this white, crumbly cheese gives us some notion of where the fictional Oxgodby is situated – for the cheese would not traveled more than a few miles from the small village of Wensleydale, situated in the upper valley of the River Ure in North Yorkshire. The cheese was first made by medieval Cistercian monks from France – and so has an unusual harmony with the work that occupied Tom Birkin by day. In Yorkshire, one has Wensleydale with apple pie in the summer, with Christmas cakes in the winter.

But the porridge and bully-beef, the antique roses and a well-known cheese associated with Yorkshire, make a bigger point: this is an England that was disappearing by time Carr published his book in the 1980. Carr conjures these disappearing  markers of British life, preserving them in the perfect world of 1920s Yorkshire he recreates for A Month in the Country. 

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