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.
I was brought up on Lark Rise to Candleford. Juniper Hill, the real-life hamlet on which Lark Rise is based, is about 15 miles from where I grew up, and in the same unassuming, un-picturesque intensely agricultural part of the Midlands. A unique literary success, the trilogy was read possibly with more recognition and discrimination in my part of the world than elsewhere. We all read it at school, even though it was not on the exam syllabus – it was that important. I was conscious that I grew up with people who were Flora Thompson’s contemporaries, who had seen and remembered from their childhood what ‘Laura’ had seen in hers, and I saw their earlier lives through her eyes. Literary construct though it is, I felt its reality. There is a quality to it that marks it out from other narratives of the rural idyll. It is no straight documentary – Flora Thompson thought she was writing a novel, but her publisher classified it a memoir (not least for the pragmatic reason that OUP did not have a fiction list at that time). Even with its literary shape, and its fictional narrator who as a young teenaged girl could never have been been witness to what she recorded, it has a quality of clear-eyed and unsentimental truth (or ‘truthiness?’). The Oxfordshire-Northamptonshire border was and is intensely farmed for cereals, and the fields she described are recognisable today. The trilogy chronicles a place and a way of life in transition, not just from a timeless bucolic stasis to a world of modern technology and communications, but always on the move (she chronicles the lives of people whose memory stretches back to before the enclosure of the agricultural land on which they worked). I just love her chapter on the men singing in the pub (which of course a 13-year old girl could never have witnessed), with the young men singing the latest music hall ditties, and the oldest inhabitant still only always singing the eerie, ancient ballad ‘The Outlandish Knight’.
Consequently, my protectiveness of this work may need some corrective, and Richard Mabey’s short critical biography of Flora Thompson is a good place to start. He is a favourite writer of mine too – from his earliest work 40 years ago (Food For Free, which has never gone away), I’ve enjoyed and appreciated his knowledge and perception of rural Britain and its place in the national consciousness. I can think of no better writer to enter into the imagination of Flora Thompson and understand what inspired her to write Lark Rise. He starts very well, in my partial, prejudiced eyes – he stumbles upon the film set for the BBC serial of Lark Rise, in beautiful West Country landscape close to Bath, and points out just how much more alluring this setting is than the real village. Three rousing cheers from me – I did not take to this version. Mabey goes on to chronicle Flora Thompson’s life, its parallels with and differences from the life of ‘Laura’ in the trilogy. He understands the nature of her escape from her community through the Post Office, which signified progress and the transition to a life transformed by communications. Flora’s first step to the nearby village to work in the post office and gain skill with the new telegraph system was her passport to life in another part of the country altogether – Grayshott and later Liphook in Hampshire. This was a landscape of rural idyll – attracting a colony of artists and writers – and a great contrast to the isolation of Juniper Hill. There, she made a home for her family, and took long walks in the Hampshire heathland, honing her observations of nature and landscape. Mabey rescues John Thompson, Flora’s husband, from the stereotype of unimaginative, disapproving head of the family, crushing Flora’s creative impulse. In fact, as a married woman with children, who had to leave her post office work behind because of regulations, Flora showed considerable emancipation in building a life as a writer. Far from discouraging her, John Thompson provided her with the support she needed (during the war even carrying her massive Remington typewriter into their cellar air raid shelter so that she could continue writing).
The fact is that Flora took many years to craft her greatest work. Her writing life story is one of journalism and short fiction, of setbacks and mentors’ advice of varying helpfulness. She was not taken up by the literary establishment, nor did she have an effective network in the literary world, despite her home in the midst of a nest of literary folk; her main early mentor was a writer of patchy reputation himself, a journalist and poet called Ronald Macfie, but she was never taken up by the great and the good that she served in the post office or met in the village. (Given how close she lived to Jane Austen, I was intrigued by the parallels in their careers as writers.) Her work appeared in popular periodicals, most notably The Catholic Fireside. She had minor success with a book of poetry, Bog Myrtle and Peat, but could not translate her facility for short fiction into a novel – until she wrote Lark Rise, which while fiction does not entirely share the characteristics of a tightly constructed novel. That was not to be her vehicle. Mabey’s account of her literary formation and her long life spent in places that were far away from Juniper Hill, but which immersed her in rural England, illuminates her path to finding her voice, sadly, at the very end of her life.
At the end of this book, Mabey has an interesting passage on the reception of Lark Rise that I, with my blazing partisanship, found a useful corrective to my thinking. Not a conventional novel, it has arguably suffered from too accurate a pinpoint elsewhere on the literary spectrum, as autobiography. It is neither. He gives the BBC adaptation of Lark Rise more mature consideration than I ever have done, in my prejudice. How do you adapt it? Not a novel, not a documentary, so what form is left? In the 70s, Keith Dewhurst for the National Theatre devised a musical dramatisation, with hugely influential musical background by the Albion Band, that Mabey characterises as treating it as ‘fable’, likewise Gallagher’s TV adaptation. Fair enough. But the best recommendation I can give is to read the trilogy, and create in your reader’s head your own ‘Lark Rise’ and ‘Candleford’. And for a fascinating account of a unique late-flowering literary life, read Dreams of the Good Life by Richard Mabey.
Richard Mabey: Dreams of the Good Life. The Life of Flora Thompson and the Creation of Lark Rise to Candleford. London: Allen Lane, 2014. 208pp