Penelope Fitzgerald, J.L. Carr, and the “death of the spirit we must fear.”

When Booker prize-winning poet, essayist, and novelist Penelope Fitzgerald wrote the introduction to the Penguin edition of J.L. Carr‘s A Month in the Country, she cited Carr’s epigraph from The Harpole Report: “It is the death of the spirit we must fear.”

Then she explains what might be considered the unconventional author’s credo: “The death of the spirit is to lose confidence in one’s own independence and to do only what we are expected to do. At the same time, it is a mistake to expect anything specific from life. Life will not conform.”

It’s hard to imagine an author of more independent mind than Carr. Part of that stubbornness, certainly, was the refusal to bow to the passage of time – as evident is his fight to save St. Faith church in Yorkshire (read about that effort here). That was in life, but in his writing?  The magic is in how he turns time to his own fashioning. Fitzgerald writes:

‘And it’s gone. It’s gone. All the excitement and pride of that first job. Oxgodby, Kathy Ellerbeck, Alice Keach, Moon, that season of calm weather – gone as though they’d never been.’ Early in the book the perspective of time is established. Birkin is looking back, with wonder, at the very last years of a lamplit, horse-drawn age. Of course, he and Moon have another set of memories to haunt them, from Passchendaele. But Birkin believes that the future is opening up. ‘Well, I was young then.’

Carr is by no means a lavish writer, but he has the magic touch to re-enter the imagined past. Birkin notices, as he walks back down the road, how he first smelled, then saw, the swathes of hay lying in the dusk. At the Sunday school outing, ‘Afterwards, most of the men took off their jackets, exposing their braces and the tapes of their long woollen underpants, and astonished their children by larking around like great lads.’ Those tapes! Who would have remembered them except Jim Carr?

From the first Birkin has seen that the wall-painting is a Doom, a Christ in Judgement with its saved and its sinners in a great spread of reds and blues. He finishes the restoration according to contract, just as the first breath of autumn comes to Oxgodby. But the moment when the year crosses into another season becomes indistinguishable from his passion, making itself clear as it does quite suddenly, for Alice Keach.

‘All this happened so long ago.’ The tone of A Month in the Country, however, isn’t one of straightforward remembering or (if there can be such a thing) of straightforward nostalgia, or even an acute sense of the loss of youth. More complex is his state of mind when he thinks of the people – perhaps only a few – who will visit Oxgodby church in its meadows and regret that they missed seeing the master painter himself – ‘as one might come to Malvern, bland Malvern, and think that Edward Elgar walked this way to give music lessons’. This is a nostalgia for something we have never had, ‘a precious tugging of the heart – knowing a precious moment gone and we not there’. But even this has to be distinguished from downright pain. ‘We can ask and ask, but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever.’ You can only wait, Carr says, for the pain to pass, but what is it that once seemed ours for ever? Or is this, like the Shropshire Lad’s, an unanswerable question?

Read the whole introduction here.

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