An outsider by birth as well as by disposition, Flora Thompson took solitary pleasure in observing her fellow villagers. She stored away characters and scenes from an early age – the naughty children who pulled her hair, Queenie who spoke to bees, the annual pig killing, May Day, the harvest – but published nothing until she was in her thirties, and nothing on her childhood until her early sixties. Lark Rise to Candleford, the collected trilogy, came out in 1945; she died two years later. Even decades after leaving the village it seemed she could recall a life long left behind, the geraniums on the windowsill, the cottage smell of ‘apple and onion and dried thyme and sage … a dash of soapsuds’, even the way the pig-sticker fastened a piece of the animal’s fat over its foreleg as it hung to drain, ‘in the manner in which ladies of that day sometimes carried a white lacy shawl’.
Thompson wrote quickly, and within a year of beginning the project sent 15 chapters to Oxford University Press. Lark Rise, the first volume, came out in 1939, followed by Over to Candleford in 1941 and Candleford Green in 1943. She wanted them to be published as fiction, which OUP didn’t do; her editor labelled them ‘autobiography’ instead. This proved frustrating for historians – it turned out that some of her facts were invented and characters conflated – and wasn’t much better for readers, who found the autobiographical story continually interrupted by textbook descriptions of country life. Lark Rise considers each aspect in turn: houses, childhood (school and games), men in the fields, women’s lives, the village pub, churchgoing, harvest. It records the rituals around lending and giving, the formal and spontaneous instances of mutual aid that brought the villagers together, but softens the darker realities that drove them apart. Death (half of Thompson’s siblings died before adulthood), drinking, destitution, violence: all are treated lightly, if at all. One village story, a fable for downtrodden wives, tells how Queenie took revenge on her husband, Twister, after he beat her with his belt, by cooking it in his pie the next evening. He never ‘so much as laid a finger on her again,’ Thompson writes. If Thompson was guilty of disingenuousness – the most common criticism levelled at her – subsequent editions and interpretations (especially the cakes-and-ale BBC adaptation) have done little to right this, portraying her Oxfordshire village as the last bastion of a harmonious way of life threatened by modernisation from without, rather than by poverty and cruelty within.
The books were bestsellers for OUP, though their success brought Thompson little pleasure. ‘Twenty years ago I should have been beside myself with joy,’ she wrote, ‘but I am now too old to care much for the bubble reputation.’ Perhaps it was the nature of the success that disappointed her. She thought of herself as a fiction writer and on her deathbed was still working on a novel about a retired teacher called Charity Finch (OUP declined to publish it). Her short stories, featuring book-loving rural heroines saved from their dreadful lot by sensitive men, weren’t very good either. Thompson escaped rural life only to find her new lot wasn’t much better and it irked her that success, coming so late, was determined by her childhood recollections rather than her ‘proper’ fiction.
What she dreamed of escaping to is hard to say. One of the problems faced by Richard Mabey in his biography of Thompson, Dreams of the Good Life, is that Lark Rise to Candleford and its sequel, Heatherley, which wasn’t published until 1979, are almost the only sources we have. By the time she came to write them, the intervening years had made the life she’d left behind in Juniper Hill (Lark Rise in the books, after the name of a nearby field) more attractive. Her intelligence drew her away from her origins, but her ambitions weren’t grand. She wrote from an early age – ‘I cannot remember the time when I did not wish and mean to write. My brother and I used to make up verse and write stories and diaries from our earliest years’ – but didn’t go so far as to dream of being a writer: ‘No one saw them; there was no one likely to be interested.’ As a young woman she flirted with new ideas but remained cautious; she began a career but left it for marriage. She was settled with two children, a hundred miles from Juniper Hill, before her first attempt at publication.
The books follow Laura (Flora) from her hamlet childhood to her first job, aged 14, at the nearby post office in Candleford Green. Thompson doesn’t conceal her early disappointments, the lack of interest in her, the lack of friends, her sensitivity and feelings of cowardice. She wasn’t attractive or amusing as a girl and her studiousness was a puzzle to her very motherly mother, who hoped she might be a nursemaid but eventually despaired: ‘I’ve been watching you for the last ten minutes with that little innocent on your lap and your head stuck in that nasty old book and not so much as one look at his pretty ways.’ The villagers called her a moll heron, ‘all legs and wings’. Later, having read Freud and Henry James, she hinted at a ‘restricted’ upbringing, but she found refuge in her surroundings as well as her books. Lark Rise has some excellent descriptions of the Oxfordshire countryside, interrupted from time to time by the voice of young Laura: ‘birds’-nesting was a cruel sport … “Oh dear! What must the poor bird have felt” was Laura’s cry. But the boys only laughed and pushed her aside.’ In the later books she scorns her youthful sentiments; her retrospective admiration for, even defence of, the toughness and staunch inflexibility of rural life, the villagers’ way of making more of it than mere survival, dents her compassion for her younger self. ‘Nervous troubles,’ she writes, ‘had yet to be invented.’
Thompson was born in 1876, the eldest child of Albert Timms, originally of Buckingham. In his youth he’d trained as a stone carver and taken part in the restoration of Bath Abbey, but his artistic aspirations were thwarted and after marriage he spent the next 35 years as a building labourer, travelling back and forth to repair walls and put up cottages. His early sculptures – a stone lion, a spray of lilies, a child’s head – were dusty and disregarded by the time his daughter was old enough to notice them. Resentment made him an outsider, and his outspoken views, socialist and agnostic, didn’t help. Other than the publican he was the only man in the village who wasn’t a farm labourer and he preserved the distinction by clinging to the belief that his family had once been ‘better’ (Thompson remembered faded daguerreotypes of ladies in crinolines). And he drank, which didn’t improve their circumstances – or relations with their neighbours. Thompson only hints at his drinking in the Lark Rise books but it worsened with age and ruined her visits home as an adult. In Heatherley she writes that Laura ‘had not her former longing to go home’ because ‘her home was no longer what it had been.’ Her father’s ‘weakness for drink’ had grown and ‘the old happy family atmosphere had gone.’
Thompson inherited her father’s pride and sense of difference, but she also benefited from her mother’s encyclopedic knowledge of folk songs and country traditions. Emma Timms made up stories for her children and encouraged them to do the same; unlike most of their peers they could read before they started school. Village education was limited but thorough. Poetry was learned by heart and maps studied; there was daily arithmetic, history and scripture, as well as needlework for girls. If her classmates didn’t care much for their lessons it was because they knew that school wouldn’t last long or count for much: village children went to work in the fields or in service before their 12th birthday. It was only thirty years since the Agricultural Gangs Act had forbidden the employment of children under eight, and the Elementary Education Act of 1880 made school attendance (and provision) compulsory only for those under ten. Thompson escaped the domestic drudgery that awaited other girls: when she was 14 she started work as a post office assistant in nearby Fringford. Fringford was bigger and wealthier than Juniper Hill, with a dress shop, a fishmonger and a baker’s with three-tiered wedding cakes in the window. Kezia Whitton, Emma Timms’s post office-owning cousin, introduced her charge to a far more lavish lifestyle than she’d known at home. The books describe Laura’s excitement over the luxury of two eggs for tea and daily ‘canary dip’ baths laced with eau de cologne (the shallow saucer-shaped baths were filled with a few inches of warm water). And of course there were books. Kezia instructed her in Darwin and Shakespeare, and she read Don Juan in secret under the bedcovers. The nearby Mechanics’ Institute library provided Dickens, Trollope and Austen, and when she took on the local post round Thompson realised that her love of solitary exploration was not only to be a childish pursuit:
Candleford Green was but a small village and there were fields and meadows and woods all around it … 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.
Thompson’s Fringford years are recorded in the third Lark Rise volume, Candleford Green. Working at the post office allowed her to observe the new society that was emerging in Fringford, made up of journalists, army pensioners, Nonconformists, progressive aristocrats and middle-class families living in the newly built villas. But with limited imagination for the inner lives of others, and little patience with her own, Thompson’s account of Laura’s adolescence is brief and not entirely kind:
She fell into hero-worship of an elderly nobleman and thought it was love. If he noticed her at all, he must have thought her most attentive and obliging over his post office business … she learned to ride a bicycle, took an interest in dress, formed her own taste in reading, and wrote a good deal of bad verse which she called ‘poetry’.
Kezia had no children, and if Thompson had stayed the post office would have been hers. She didn’t want to wait. Candleford Green is nostalgic for what might have been: ‘In after years Laura sometimes looked rather wistfully back … it would have been pleasant to have lived all her days in comparative ease and security among the people she knew and understood.’ Instead, when she was 22, ‘what appeared to be an opportunity was offered and, driven on by well-meant advice from without and from within by the restless longing of her youth to see and experience the whole of life, she disappeared from the country scene.’
The opportunity that seemed to offer ‘the whole of life’ was the position of post office assistant at Grayshott in Hampshire, where she stayed for the next five years. It was in Hampshire, while researching his book on Gilbert White, that Richard Mabey first came across her, included among the subjects of the Selborne Circle of Rural Writers reading group alongside White, William Cobbett, W.H. Hudson and George Sturt. Unfortunately for Mabey, who hoped to find in Thompson an undiscovered nature writer, she was no White (some of the best bits of Mabey’s book are about him) and the Grayshott literary scene made her even less sure of own ambitions.
Grayshott was home, or home away from home, to the Hilltop set, a group that included Conan Doyle, Shaw, Tennyson and Christina Rossetti. The town was modern, fashionably suburban and connected by a new railway line to London, just close enough for something of fashion and suggestions of sex. Richard Le Gallienne, one of Aubrey Beardsley’s friends, ‘raced about the parish at all hours on his bicycle with his halo of long, fair hair uncovered and his almost feminine slightness and grace set off by a white silk shirt, big artist’s bow and velvet knickerbockers’. Grant Allen’s free-love novel, The Woman Who Did, was feverishly passed around, while Shaw extolled temperance and vegetarianism in his ‘healthy for the rest of your life’ Jaeger woollen suit.
What did Thompson make of it all? In Heatherley, which records her years in Grayshott, the Hilltoppers often congregate in the post office to toss around ‘quick, clever remarks … like coloured glass balls’. She ‘would sometimes wish that one of those remarks … could have come her way, for in her youthful vanity she persuaded herself that she could have caught and returned it more neatly than someone to whom it was addressed’. But she confided her ambitions to no one and ‘destroyed her own scraps of writing’, telling herself ‘that was the end of a foolish idea’. She went to local readings, and talks on spiritualism, the Boer War and the Women Problem, but doesn’t say what she made of them. Mabey hopes she was radical; she did have some Fin-de-Siècle girlfriends, though ‘only in the sense of having been born towards the end of the century’. And while he’s very good on the Hampshire history – John Tyndall, Tennyson, Allen’s radical fiction – it doesn’t tell us much about Thompson. The fact that Austen’s Chawton was ‘just twenty miles away’ hardly seems impressive – it’s unlikely Thompson thought that was a short distance; she certainly never visited.
Mabey is closer to the mark when he writes that she lacked the ‘skills of empathy and character development and plot construction necessary for a sustained work of fiction’. Lark Rise succeeds in part because it has no real plot; her best writing was recounting. Her powers of observation, so finely attuned to the natural world, couldn’t get beyond the surface of the people around her. In Heatherley she describes the murder of her Grayshott landlady, Mrs Chapman. Mr Chapman was odd and volatile – more than once he came into Thompson’s room at night – and not long after she’d left them he attacked his wife, stabbing her 21 times. Thompson is less interested in the psychology of the drama, however, than in picturing the scene. She doesn’t describe the murder but the aftermath, her gaze drifting to something more reassuring:
Women [were] running into their houses and locking their doors when they heard a madman was at large … then the arrival of the closed carriage … and the dazed culprit ushered into it, arm in arm with doctor and policeman, while all the time, but a few yards away, the sun shone on the heather, pine-tops swayed in the breeze, birds sang and bees gathered honey, as on any ordinary summer morning.
In 1903, she married John Thompson, a fellow postal worker. He was neat and proper and ‘dull as an unstamped envelope’, according to Hugh Casson, the architect and critic, in his 1979 introduction to Lark Rise. Mabey takes issue with the common characterisation of John as ‘oppressive and cruel’, blaming Margaret Lane’s biographical essay of 1957. Lane, who as well as being a novelist, biographer and countess was president of the Jane Austen Society (along with the Johnson Society, Brontë Society and Dickens Fellowship), claimed that Thompson, like Austen (and perhaps equally falsely), had to write in secret because of family disapproval. Ronald Blythe, reviewing Lark Rise to Candleford in the TLS in 1979, accused John of being ‘crushing in his attitude towards her’ and ‘embarrassed by her writing’. John is a disappointment to biographers. He wasn’t literary, cultured or sensitive – even Mabey admits he was ‘stolid and defiantly unbohemian’ – and Thompson’s life, which could have been one of independence, became that of an itinerant mother and housewife, moving for her husband’s work first to Twickenham, then Bournemouth, Liphook and Dartmouth. Confirmation seems to come from Heatherley, where Laura imagines a story called ‘The Dodder’. Like the parasite of the same name, the ‘dodder’ husband fattens and prospers while his ‘fine, sensitive’ wife is withered by his ‘strong, coarse and encroaching’ nature.
Shortly after marrying the couple moved to Bournemouth and their first child, Winifred, was born. Although she didn’t write for some years, motherhood gave Thompson time to catch up on her missed education, which she approached with schoolgirl diligence: ‘I went right back to the beginning, read the Greeks and Romans in translations; read the English Poets; the English Novelists; the English Critics; nibbled at translations of the French writers … Ibsen, Shaw, Yeats and all the Celts.’ In 1911, with her two children at school, she won a competition in the Lady’s Companion for a 300-word essay on Jane Austen. The magazine was determinedly middlebrow, intent on the gentle improvement of its readers, and Thompson had just the right combination of earnestness and circumspection.
After this first success, she began to contribute regularly, submitting essays on Emily Brontë, Katharine of Aragon, Thackeray and Shakespeare’s Juliet. In 1912 her first story, ‘The Toft Cup’, was published. The same year she won a competition in Literary Monthly to respond to Ronald Macfie’s poem on the sinking of the Titanic – and earned herself a mentor. Macfie wasn’t much of a writer (‘O, ribbed and riveted with iron and steel/ Cuirassed and byrnied, breathing smoke and flame/Cleaving the billows with her monstrous keel/A Titan challenging the gods she came!’), but he was published and respected, a Liberal MP. Most important, he liked causes, which is just what Thompson was. He helped to get her poems published (Bog-Myrtle and Peat), for which we need not be especially grateful, and encouraged her to keep writing; his advice wasn’t always very sound but it widened her ambitions. Their correspondence lasted until his death, but sadly for Thompson scholars her letters haven’t survived. After Macfie’s death Margaret Sackville, the first president of the Poetry Society, ‘saw no point in keeping such rubbish’ and burned them.
Heatherley ends with its protagonist still working at the post office, pre-marriage, pre-children. Without letters or diaries, her thoughts about her life from then on can be gleaned only by guesswork. Edwin, her younger brother, died at the front in 1916. Mabey wonders if that’s why John took a job at Liphook in Hampshire – to comfort his wife with the landscape of her Grayshott days, or if her ‘surprising’ pregnancy eight months later was the result of her ‘grasping for something to fill the gap he had left in her heart’. Maybe, maybe not. Edwin had long left Juniper Hill behind; he emigrated to Canada in 1909. The best evidence is what her writing from this period fails to tell us about her life. In 1921 she began a column for the Catholic Fireside called ‘Out of Doors’ – purportedly nature notes in the tradition of White. Thompson portrayed herself as an unmarried middle-class woman living alone in a country cottage among her ‘books and pictures, the old writing table at which my father wrote out his prescriptions, my grandmother’s blue and white china, and the samplers of my great aunts’. The ‘good life’ that she created in the column was not that of a famous writer, or of a housewife or rural villager, but of a comfortable single woman who wrote in order to live as she pleased. After a few years the column was renamed the ‘Peverel Papers’ and readers were told that she was moving to the New Forest, to a cottage ‘at the foot of the Peverel Downs’ to live with ‘my dog and my books and for company, my garden to supply my frugal table, and my pen to provide my simple luxuries’. In reality she was still living in a terraced house in Liphook, escaping for walks of up to twenty miles a day through the pinewood and heathland landscape. The walks provided material for her column, but twenty miles a day suggests more than writerly diligence. Mabey doesn’t speculate about the wish to get away implied by Thompson’s writing – and walking – beyond attributing it to a ‘nagging sense of unfulfilment’ but she was clearly turning back to her childhood: she submitted pieces about May Day and Queenie; one neighbour remembers her imploring him ‘not to disturb or rob the birds’ nests’.
Her final pieces for the Catholic Fireside were published in 1927. Thompson wrote little in the following years, until she decided to build on the essays that had gained the warmest reception – those that touched on her past. ‘The feature most liked in the articles,’ she recalled, ‘were my sketches of old country life and characters, remembered from my childhood.’ She was partly prompted by ambivalence about her own situation and her mixed feelings about the new suburban lower middle class, who, like her, had ‘left village life and all it stood for behind them’. They had made a choice, she now realised, between ‘merging themselves in the mass standardisation of a new civilisation’ and ‘adapting the best of the new to their own needs while still retaining those qualities and customs which have given country life its distinctive character’. The distinctive character had largely lost out.
Thompson’s timing was perfect. The Second World War was looming and Englishness was being redefined in the face of modernity. The idea of the countryside grew in the 1920s and 1930s even as its reality diminished. Baldwin’s ‘What England means to me’ speech evoked ‘the last load at night of hay being drawn down a lane as the twilight comes on, and … that wood smoke that our ancestors, tens of thousands of years ago, must have caught on the air when they were still nomads’. Stella Gibbons lampooned Mary Webb’s Shropshire romances only to entrench their comic rural stereotypes for posterity. Forster wrote a pageant in praise of the Surrey village of Abinger; Ravilious, Nash and Piper created iconic images of cornfields, cliffs, country houses, hay bales and ploughs. H.V. Morton’s record of his journey around the countryside in a Bullnose Morris, In Search of England, was a bestseller (thirty editions in less than six years). He wasn’t alone in being more concerned with the country as metaphor than as fact: the facts were depressing. The repeal of the Agricultural Act in 1921 removed guaranteed minimum wages and prices leading to reductions in pay of up to 40 per cent within the year. Agricultural prices fell throughout the next two decades; by 20 per cent between 1929 and 1931, another 16 per cent by 1933. The lowest ever level of arable land was recorded just before the Second World War (it rose by over 50 per cent during the war). Unsurprisingly, farm workers abandoned the land in their hundreds of thousands and, as Raphael Samuel wrote in Village Life and Labour, ‘the village labourer of the 19th century’ became ‘a curiously anonymous figure’; a statistic in parish records, a name on birth, death and marriage certificates, an occupation on the census, but not a life.
Thompson must have recognised that the interest in her Juniper Hill tales was largely nostalgic, but she also wrote to redress the huge public ignorance about the lives of the rural poor – a way of living that she had run away from only to look back and see had all but disappeared. She had little time for people who walked past country cottages and were astonished that ‘they brought up ten children there! Where on earth did they sleep?’ The answer, she wrote, is ‘that they did not all sleep there at the same time. Obviously they could not.’ But Lark Rise to Candleford never quite transcends its author’s conflicts. It strengthens the collective dream of country life while attempting to correct it; its existence is testament to progress but also to its cost, to dreams that proved disappointing. One early reviewer praised the books for conveying ‘the separation that lies between the state of happiness and what is known as progress’.