A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Sir Humphrey Milford was head of Oxford University Press from 1913 to 1945. In those 32 years he presided over the publication of many hundreds – if not thousands – of books but in his own estimation three of the most important were Flora Thompson’s semi-autobiographical Lark Rise, Over to Candleford and Candleford Green, eventually published together under the evocative portmanteau title of Lark Rise to Candleford.
Part autobiography, part social history and paean to a lost way of life, Lark Rise to Candleford has captivated generations of readers ever since the first volume, Lark Rise, was published in 1939. Over to Candleford and Candleford Green followed in 1941 and 1943 respectively.
Note those dates: they are not insignificant. Britain was at war. Invasion was imminent and the whole ‘British way of life’ was under threat. Faced with a frightening and uncertain future, it was no surprise that people found comfort and reassurance in Flora Thompson’s memories of her rural childhood – and even less of a surprise that all three became runaway bestsellers.
Slightly harder to explain, especially to someone who has never read the books, is the enduring popularity of Thompson’s observations of life in one corner of England at the end of the 19th Century – as evidenced by the OUP’s decision not only to reissue Lark Rise to Candleford but as a truly beautiful hardback, complete with sewn-in silken bookmark and original engravings.
The books started life as a series of essays on rural life written by Thompson long after she had left Oxfordshire. Humphrey Milford – a man with a shrewd eye if ever there was one – spotted the potential of the essays and persuaded Thompson to write a book based on them.
The narrative is third person: Flora Thompson (nee Timms) gazing back at her childhood home from a distance of some 40 years, but viewing it through the eyes of the young Laura Timmins.
Lark Rise (in reality Juniper Hill, on the Oxfordshire/Buckinghamshire border) was a impoverished but close-knit agricultural community still firmly entrenched in the values of the Victorian age; but in the 1890s, when Thompson was growing up there, it was teetering on the brink of change. Mechanization and mass-production were well on their way. Little by little, people were becoming less prepared to accept their lot in life and simply do what their parents and their parents’ parents had done before them. Laura/Flora was a bookworm and a nature lover who loved her home and her parents, but read enough and knew enough to realize that there was a whole other world out there.
When she was old enough to leave home, she went to work in Candleford Green (the real life village of Fringford) – at the sub Post Office-cum-Smithy owned and run by the redoubtable Dorcas Lane.
Through Laura’s eyes we are introduced first to the Lark Rise villagers, then to the inhabitants of the local market town of Candleford (an amalgam of Buckingham and Bicester) and finally to the denizens of Candleford Green. There is no narrative thread as such. Thompson basically takes one subject – May Day, Harvest Home, Country Playtime, Kind Friends and Relations, Penny Reading, At the Post Office – and dedicates a chapter to it. As the chapters build up, so does our understanding of Laura’s personal journey.
Her observations are always fond and never malicious, but they aren’t sugar-coated either. Not for Thompson the ‘picturesque poverty’ pitfall (into which the recent BBC adaptation unfortunately toppled headlong at the earliest available opportunity). We are told unflinchingly – and in some detail – of smelly pigsties and outside privies, and of the formidable lengths to which wives and mothers had to go to keep their families fed and clothed, particularly through the long and bitterly cold winter months.
Although Laura’s family was slightly better off than most of the other inhabitants of Lark Rise, the daily battle just to survive was appalling – and took its toll.
Of all the many characters sketched in Lark Rise to Candleford, one of the most haunting is her father – the stonemason Robert Timmins. An outsider, he arrived as a young man with a firm of builders working on church restoration in the area, laid eyes on Laura’s mother Emma, and stayed forever. Although he was bright, articulate and expert at his trade, life in and around Lark Rise – and the strain of raising a burgeoning family – ground him down. Although we never learn the details, we know he started to drink too much and Laura refers to him as ‘a lost and thwarted man’ who died ‘old and embittered’.
It’s just one of the many unsentimental portraits that Thompson paints of the people she grew up with and who played such a huge and influential part in her life: the wonderful Queenie – ‘telling’ her bees of the death of the simple-minded Twister; Dorcas Lane, a ‘modern’ woman (possibly not heterosexual) ahead of her time but still clinging to fragments of the past and with a tea cosy over the telegraph machine; her own beloved brother Edmund, who died with so many others in the killings fields of Flanders.
Thompson wrote with an economy of style that was unencumbered by florid phrases or literary allusions – and the narrative is the stronger for it. Not strictly autobiographical in that – as Phillip Mallett tells us in his illuminating introduction to the new edition – Thompson shifted time frames, elided events and even made things up entirely, Lark Rise is nevertheless both a valuable record of a world that was dying even as young Laura was growing up in it and, simply, a wonderfully engaging and entertaining read.
I first read Lark Rise to Candleford in my early twenties – when I lived and worked in Oxfordshire myself. There was one small section that really struck a chord then and has stayed with me all through the intervening years. As I re-read the book over 30 years later, I was sub-consciously waiting to rediscover it – but I had to wait until nearly the very end to find the words that had spoken so vividly to me:
She longed to go alone far into the fields and hear the birds singing, the brooks tinkling and the wind rustling through the corn, as she had when a child. To smell things and touch things, warm earth and flowers and grasses, and to stand and gaze where no one could see her, drinking it all in …
It was an odd moment; my middle-aged self looking back at my young self, through the eyes of the middle-aged Flora Thompson looking back at her young self.
Involvement in a book doesn’t get much more complex than that.
Oxford University Press. 2011. ISBN: 978-0-19-960160-8. 556pp.