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"It's not all that easy to find your way back to the Middle Ages": Reading the Past in A Month in the Country

From: Criticism
Volume 47, Number 3, Summer 2005
pp. 353-386 | 10.1353/crt.2007.0002

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At the center of J. L. Carr's novel A Month in the Country and Pat O'Connor's film adaptation of the work is a young man from London who comes to the Yorkshire village of Oxgodby shortly after World War I to recover an artifact from the Middle Ages. Art restorer Tom Birkin has been hired to uncover a medieval wall painting that has lain hidden under layers of whitewash in a parish church for centuries. There Birkin meets archeologist Charles Moon, who has been hired to find the grave of a medieval man who was buried outside the church graveyard because he had been excommunicated. Both the novel and the film present Birkin and Moon as men who have studied medieval England and use their learning in a professional capacity. At the same time, the novel and film also raise questions about the ability of these men to make accurate assessments of evidence from the past, despite their expertise. The dubious readings of the past made by Birkin and Moon are worthy of examination, for they contribute significantly to themes in each text. Analysis of the differences between the film and the novel in regard to interpreting the past also reveals the film's perceptive commentary on Carr's multilayered text. While the novel's Birkin (as narrator) comments, "What I'm really getting at is that it's not all that easy to find your way back to the Middle Ages" (Carr 66), O'Connor's film uses other means to suggest that people read the past through the mediating lens of the present, but also read the present in terms of their perceptions of the past.

As Michael Wood's 1984 review aptly observed, Carr's novel depicts the past as a puzzle: "his book beautifully registers a bewilderment about what is gone and what remains." More directly than Carr's novel, O'Connor's film depicts the interplay of representations of present and past and constructions of the self and other—issues at the heart of current debates about the nature of historical inquiry. Dominick LaCapra describes the "problematic, perhaps fragile" relationship between past and present as ways to conceive of time or interpret events, while Paul Ricoeur argues for the "dialectical nature of the correlation between objectivity and subjectivity" in representations of the past. Ernst Breisach sums up the challenge that postmodern theory poses to historians as a question of whether anyone has "the ability to distinguish between the 'is' on one side and the 'wished for' or the 'ought to be' on the other" in representations of events. Like Carr's novel and O'Connor's film, many scholars in these debates explore the role of memory in constructions of the past and the present: Ricoeur argues that a "common problematic" joins "the phenomenology of memory, the epistemology of history, and the hermeneutics of the historical condition" (Memory, History, Forgetting xvi), while LaCapra argues, "History and memory should neither be opposed in binary fashion nor conflated. Their relations are complex" (History in Transit 67). By encouraging questions about historical analysis, Carr's novel and O'Connor's film problematize the relationship of historiographical representation to other forms of discourse, just as Ricoeur situates historiography in ambiguous discursive space "between science and literature, between scholarly explanation and mendacious fiction, between history-as-science and history-as-narrative" (Memory, History, Forgetting 340). Both novel and film versions of A Month in the Country also address the problem of reading the past by entering into dialogue with other works of art in literature, music, and painting. In this regard, the film and novel seem to support LaCapra's argument that "a complex, supplementary relation [obtains] between literary or artistic practice, related theoretical discourse, and historiography which goes counter to formalistic or sociological conceptions of discrete spheres of activity and instead calls for inquiry into mutual interactions and resistances" (Writing History 186). My discussion of Carr's novel and O'Connor's film endeavors to clarify how each participates in such inquiry.

O'Connor's film foregrounds the ambiguities in Birkin's reading of past and present, self and other, with opening and closing scenes that...



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