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At the end of the 19th century, Lark Rise – an isolated hamlet deep in the Oxfordshire countryside – was a rough and ready place, simple in its routines and narrow in outlook. Its people lived by the land, and the village year followed that of nature’s cycle, as it had done for generations. They laboured from dawn till dusk, and would often find themselves on the brink of poverty, yet, for all the hardship, the inhabitants of Lark Rise led a happy life. A country wedding, dancing on the green ‘until dusk fell and the stars came out’, the gathering of cowslips for the May Day garland, the beauty of the ripened cornfields, the Harvest Home feast of hams, plum puddings and beer – such unselfconscious, joyous moments turned their lives into ones of real fulfilment and pleasure.
Flora Thompson was approaching old age when she wrote her wonderful trilogy Lark Rise to Candleford. Her instinct to set down what she had witnessed as a girl – the England of peasant, yeoman and craftsman, its roots firmly embedded in the soil – was true and heartfelt. She based Lark Rise on her own village of Juniper Hill, and its characters and customs were those of her own late-Victorian childhood. As a piece of social history, this beautifully detailed chronicle of life in pre-industrial rural England is second to none; as an elegy to a vanished world, it is pure magic.
Acclaimed biographer Kathryn Hughes examines Flora Thompson’s elegiac, semi-autobiographical chronicle of life in Victorian rural Oxfordshire.
‘Most flattering and astonishing’ was Flora Thompson’s response on reading the sunburst of praise which greeted the publication of her trilogy Lark Rise to Candleford in 1945. ‘Twenty years ago I should have been beside myself with joy, but I am now too old to care much for the bubble of reputation.’
It had all come too late for the woman who, after decades of sustained effort, had finally produced a literary masterpiece in her sixties. Since leaving school at thirteen, Thompson had read widely, tried her hand – not very successfully – at writing poetry and fiction, and had settled for producing monthly nature notes for a family magazine. The modest income from these various endeavours had supplemented her husband’s income as a suburban postmaster and allowed her to give her children the kind of education that would have been unthinkable for someone who, like her, had been born into the rural working class in the 1870s.
And yet, ironically, it was these early experiences as a village child, the poorest of the poor, that was to make Flora Thompson’s name and, had she lived longer, her fortune. In 1937, with the encouragement of an editor at the Oxford University Press, she had sat down to write about her early years in the Oxfordshire hamlet of Juniper Hill, lightly disguised as ‘Lark Rise’. The book’s matter-of-fact descriptions of cottage life during the agricultural depression of the late nineteenth century, as experienced by ‘Laura’ and her younger brother ‘Edmund’, were well received on publication in 1939. Thompson duly set to work on a sequel, Over to Candleford, which described life in a nearby market town where, instead of farm labourers, squires and outdoor privies, there were master craftsmen, shopkeepers and flush WCs. The themes of this second book, though, remained the same: the slow but inevitable impact of social and economic change on a small, and still predominantly rural, community.
Before Thompson was able to start on the third and, as it turned out, final part of the sequence, there came the blow that was to speed the end of her life. In 1941 her youngest son Peter was drowned while serving in the merchant navy, a shock which reanimated the first and terrible loss of her beloved brother Edwin – the lightly disguised ‘Edmund’ of Lark Rise – in the previous world war. Battling sorrow and failing health, Thompson painfully cranked out Candleford Green, which covered her early years as a postal clerk in a small village eight miles from Juniper Hill. Within five years Flora Thompson was dead, at the age of just seventy.
Yet if the publication of Thompson’s late masterpiece brought its author only muted satisfaction, the pleasure it has given thousands of readers around the world remains sharp and lasting. The book has never been out of print and, for the past three decades, has been regularly set as a school text. Since the 1970s historians have used the text as a source for evidence about agricultural wages and housing in the late nineteenth century, and then argued amongst themselves about whether they were right to do so. Literary critics have likewise puzzled over whether the book is a factual memoir in which real identities have been only slightly disguised, or rather a work of imaginative fiction, bearing only the most fleeting resemblance to the documented details of life in a small South Midlands farming community on the cusp of mechanisation.
None of these complexities weigh particularly heavy when you open the book and step straight into that vivid landscape which ‘we will call . . .Lark Rise’. The narrator, as confidently omniscient as any Victorian novelist, is able to give us chapter and verse on anything we might care to know. How, for instance, this used to be a ‘furzy heath’ before Enclosure brought it under the plough. Or why in some families the boys are sent to sleep with older neighbours. And so, with this all-knowing guide at our elbow, we proceed to set off ‘round the Rise’, stopping periodically at various cottage doors to learn more about the particular culture of this unremarkable corner of north-east Oxfordshire during the closing decades of Victoria’s long reign.
What may surprise the reader, though, is the discovery that there are many places in Lark Rise where Thompson’s narrative departs from what we know actually happened to her. Take, for instance, her claim that the population of Lark Rise was entirely stable, with no leavings or arrivals. A glance at the census for 1881 and 1891 shows this to be simply untrue. Most poignant of all, perhaps, is the fact that four of Flora’s young siblings died in childhood, events which go unrecorded in the book. Far from being the robust country animals of Thompson’s description, the real children of Juniper Hill turn out to be as fragile and vulnerable as the offspring of the poor always are.
This, of course, only complicates what many readers and critics have come to see as the central riddle of Flora Thompson’s work: to what extent is she Laura? Flora Thompson had been born Flora Jane Timms in 1876 in the hamlet of Juniper Hill (‘Lark Rise’ was the name of the settlement’s biggest field), the eldest surviving child of Emma, a former nursemaid, and Albert, a stonemason. Albert, like his textual stand-in Robert, was a man of intelligence and creativity whose liking for drink combined with a constitutional sluggishness meant that he gradually sank from the status of a craftsman who had once worked on the restoration of Bath Abbey to a mere bricklayer. And then, of course, there is Flora’s beloved younger brother Edwin, here transformed into ‘Edmund’, Laura’s bookish soulmate and partner in poetic adventures, whose death in the Great War brings Lark Rise to its painful, poignant closing paragraph:
A brass plate on the wall of the church . . . is engraved with their names. A double column, five names long, then, last and alone, the name of Edmund.
There are, then, obvious similarities between the author and her heroine. Their names, their looks, the employment history as a post office clerk all suggest an easy identification. We can also imagine that the fourteen-year-old who is described reading Byron under the bedclothes in Candleford Green might one day grow up to be a professional writer. But exactly what kind of writer it is less easy to say. For while Lark Rise to Candleford is narrated in a deliberately simple way – there are no long words here, no consciously fine writing – there is no doubting the intellectual and social sophistication of that voice. Here is a narrator who knows all about Freud and his theories of childhood neurosis, who spots that ‘men’s tales’ told during fieldwork constitute a kind of ‘rustic Decameron’ and who wonders out loud whether the village children’s attachment to the May Lady may represent some residual relationship with pre-Reformation Catholicism.
If readers have puzzled over the relationship between Flora Thompson and her heroine, they have also wondered at her attitude to the central dilemma posed in her books: the benefits and losses of long-term social and economic change. At many moments in her text she seems to be warning against the easy consolations of unthinking nostalgia, asking at one point in Candleford Green whether the fact that butcher’s meat is no longer as good as it once was is really worth worrying about, when contemporary readers now have such modern advantages as country buses and cinemas. Elsewhere she applauds the coming of the bicycle not simply because of its obvious convenience but because it liberates women from being tied to the home. As the daughter of one of the few Liberal voters in the village, she delights in the way that Lloyd George’s Old Age Pensions have spared a generation of elderly people from the terror of the workhouse.
And yet, in so many other places Thompson seems to be in mourning for the passing of the old ways. Right from the start of Lark Rise she declares that ‘people were poorer and had not the comforts, amusements or knowledge we have today; but they were happier’.
Read attentively, Lark Rise to Candleford in fact offers an even-handed and open-ended assessment of the profits and perils of modernity. And at a time when we are thinking rigorously about our own relationship to the physical landscape and industrial past, it is an approach that we surely ignore at our peril.