by Lane Jones02/22/01
J. L. Carr's A Month in the Country describes a few summer weeks spent in rural Yorkshire by Tom Birkin, a shell-shocked veteran of W.W.1. Commissioned by the estate of an eccentric noblewoman to uncover a medeival mural in her parish church, he finds himself immersed in local life. While in the village of Oxgodby, he encounters a fellow veteran, Charles Moon, also employed on behalf of the estate, who has been charged to find and excavate the tomb of the lady's excommunicated forbearer, Piers Hebron. Their labors literally uncover the story, revealing what is initially hidden frmo the reader's eye.
Among the book's themes that I will be discussing are: Christianity, Islam, homosexuality and suicide. My thesis: during this talk, I will interpret what I believe to be some of the author's symbolism as I propose a significantly different interpretation of his work.
As the dominant religion of England, and the underpinning of the narrative, Christianity provides the scale against which much of this story is measured. During his month in the country, every sphrere of Birkin's life is defined by either chapel or church. We find him living and working within the walls of the Church of England. On a scaffold above the stone floor, painstakingly restoring a rendering of the Last Judgement or asleep in the belfry, much of his time is literally spent in church.
His Life outside of the walls revolves, in large part, around the character of the stationmaster, Ellerbeck, and his family. The Ellerbecks are devout Wesleyans, evangelical Protestants, whose conscious interests largely exclude history, art, and ritual (though they continually practice the last), focusing instead on the imminent salvation of the soul. While the high church may offer subsistence wages and rudimentary shelter, it is the chapel whch feeds Tom's body and spirit.
The Ellerbeck children are dispatched as missionaries, sent with gifts of food and music to bring Birkin into the field. He becomes a frequent guest in the Ellerbeck household sharing meals and accompanying them to worship. ALthough he's far from being converted, Tom teaches a Sunday school class and accepts, though rather reluctantly, a request to preach. Birkin himself, may be ambivalent about religion, but it colors and shapes his every hour whether he is conscious of it or not.
In contrast, Islam plays a more subtle role. Coming, as it does, later in the narrative, 14th century Islam is one of the keys to understanding the symbolism and unlocking the mysteries of this little book. Carr gives the reader her first clues in three ways. First, the naming of the character Charles Moon draws an obvious parallel to the crescent, the symbol of Islam. Second, the crescent-shaped mark on the forehead of the meticulously-drawn hellbound figure in the painting. And thirdly, the discovery in Piers Hebron's tomb of a crescent predant indicating, pehaps, that the wearer had converted to the Islamic faith. These however, are only the signposts directing our attention to certain features in the literary landscape. There is more at work in this country than the simple naming of an outcast or burial of an excommunicant.
The next landmark in our journey is Carr's treatment of homosexuality. Charles Moon is identified as a homosexual man disgraced when his behavior is discovered while serving in the Army. The telling of this differs between the book and movie, with the film version more sympathetic, but this is of minor interest. The essential fat is that Moon, an officer, is found in flagrante delicto with his batman, the British army term for a manservant or valet.
The theme of sucide is approached more obliquely. As he restores the mural in the church, Tom Birkin uncovers a figure being cast into the pit of hell. This person is finelydrawn and rendered with greater care than his fellow sinners. Birkin comes to the conclusio that this is the medieval painter himself. He suggests that the painting appears to have been finished by someone less skillful than the primary artist because the master has died, possibly in a fall from the scaffold. But there is another mystery. Why has the self-portrait been painted over years before the rest of the work? could this be because th painter was associated with some sort of shameful act, a suicide perhaps? Carr doesn't provide us with a definitive answer: we are left to sort it out for ourselves.
At this point I am going to suggest that the body in the field, the one we are to presume is Piers Hebron's, was not placed there because he was a Muslim, which I rather doubt, but because he was a homosexual and possibly a suicide. At this point I'll set aside the question of personal faith for a moment, and focus on the beliefs surrounding homosexuality and suicide in medieval communities.
It's difficult for us in 21st century America to comprehend the degree to which life in the 14th century was defined by religion. In England, if you weren't a Jew or a Muslim, and their numbers were so small and their impact in rural areas so minimal that we'll leav them alone for the time being; you were Catholic. This was a Catholic church that burned witches, tortured heretics, and had a monopoly on literacy and learning. There was only one way to be virtuous and that was to live by an uncompromising interpretation of scripture and to do as you were told. Sins varied from large to small, and for a pirce, if you could pay it, you could be absolved of even the mortal kind . But in the case of abominable acts such as suicide, sacrilege, or challenge to the primacy of the pope or his surrogates, the punishment was expulsion from the church and damnation in the eternal world to come. In many cases all a person had was his soul and it was his or her fervent desire not to lose it.
In the medieval Christian mind, homosexuailty and unnatural acts (oral and anal sex regardless of gender) were grievous sins, ranked after bestiality and before rape, adultery incest, masturbation, and fornication. These behaviors were held to be against the laws of nature, of man and of the church and transgressors could expect little in the way of mercy from either of the last two.
Contrast this with what we know of life in the Arab world of that time. Trade and conquest had opened the Arabs to science and art. Between the eighth and twelfth centuries much human knowledge was extended in Islamic lands. From India to the Iberian peninsula, the Arabs acquired skills in medicine, mathematics, weaponry, arts, and fine living. Rich silks, stained glass, the cusped arch, glass mirrors, the lute are all legacies of the East. Exotic social structures prevailed as well, polygamy and the harem were institutionalized; homosexuality while not overtly encouraged, was view with tolerance unimaginable in the Church-controlled West.
So, we have young Piers Hebron, wealthy, creative, noble, the possessor of considerable artistic gifts; does he go crusading to the Holy Lands or North Africa? Does a thirst for adventure lead him to Spain? Could he have incorporated what he learns in his travels wth monastic illustrative techniques, creating works centuries ahead of his European brethren? And finally , could, he during his wanderings, have been able to discover and freely experss his true sexual nautre. I suggest that he did all of these things.
How difficult it must have been for him to return to Yorkshire, to leave the exotic, stimulating East for cold, damp, repressed England. But here we find him and his assistant painting away. The glorious work in his family church is nearly finished, and down in the far corner of hell, he includes an image of himself. Carr writes; "... And here, I could have sworn was a portrait -- a crescent-shaped scar on his brow made this almost certain. His bright hair streamed like a torch as, like a second Simon Magus, he plunged headlong down the wall. Two demons with delicately- furred leggs clutched him, one snapping his right wrist whilst his mate split him with shears."
The allusion to Simon Magus is interesting. Simon Magus or Simon the Magician is mentioned briefly in Acts 8:9-29, he has the dubious distinction of being designated by the church as the first heretic, the "Father of Heresies," and his followers were known for their "unbridled and licentious lives". (This could be a scary label used by the church to black-mouth anyone someone in the church wanted to destroy.) That the author would have drawn a comparison between Piers and Simon tells us something more about the author's view of Piers.
Returning now to the question of Piers's faith, we have the artist depicting himself as hell-bound; he knows he's damned but this is no Muslim hell. Piers is not submitting himself to Allah; this is the hell of a Christian. The demons are cutting him in two, dividing the body through his sexual organs, cleaving the self. At the same time they're removing hs right hand, his artistic member, his means of self-expression. And over all of this reigns Christ, "a wintry hard line" as Carr writes, uncompromising and threatening, his wounds still red, is sitting to judge the quick and the dead.
In the book, when Moon sees the restored head of head of this Christ; Moon, who has already had his trial and suffered his judgment, he looks at the figure and says "I wouldn't fancy being in the dock if he was the beal,- .. " But Moon is a modern creature, I seriously doubt that he believes his soul is in mortal peril.
Not so for poor Piers, something monstrous has happened, perhaps his proclivities have been discovered. Perhaps, like Charles Moon, whom he is said to resemble (fair haired, the same height, right handed), Piers the gentleman has been found in a carnal embrace with his personal assistant, his servant-apprentice. He knows he's doomed, whether he kills himself or not, his fate is sealed.
Piers might have worn a crescent around his neck but in my opinion, he was no more a Muslim than Charles Moon. Crescents and moons here denote the outsider, the different, the other. There are many heresies after all, heretical thoughts, heretical words and heretical deeds. And this brings us to the final clue in our little puzzle. Where is ex-Captain Moon bound? He's off, to the center of Arab culture, Baghdad. The circle is complete.
I realize that my postulation may not please everyone. Like Birkin's Piers-as-convert theory, it is conjecture that cannot be proven beyond a doubt but piecing it together has been enjoyable and I hope I have at least given you all something to think about. The book we should recall is a mystery too, and meant to remain one, like life, like our pasts, historical and individual (which the book is about too).