Hatless to Hindhead

Susannah Clapp

Flora Thompson was born in 1876 in the hamlet of Juniper Hill in Oxfordshire, the daughter of a nursemaid and a stonemason. At the village school she was good at skipping and scripture. She was expected to go into service like most of her schoolfriends, but she was bad at sewing and ineffective with babies; when she was 14 she became a post-office clerk in a nearby village. Ten years later, she married a future postmaster; they had three children – Basil and Winifred and Peter. She published a few stories in magazines, and was sneered at by her husband’s relatives. In her sixties she wrote three books which made her famous as an articulate inhabitant of that strange planet, the countryside.

The books in the trilogy called Lark Rise to Candleford give vigorous accounts of a childhood spent in fields and villages: where hamlet dwellers had a standard supper of bacon and roly-poly pudding, the Squire’s daughter was known as ‘Miss Baby’, and the vicar provided flannel petticoats for old women. They have the encouraging tone of childhood, in which most observations have the status of actions and a day can be an adventure – and to this extent they correspond to people’s view of the countryside as a place where it is always possible to practise diligent delight. But they also have a sturdiness which resists the idea of the country as a setting for idling and idylls: Harvest Home gets short shrift as a compensation for a year’s underpayment; there is little room for lyrical outbursts among the recounting of episodes.

A Country Calendar contains a fragmentary continuation of the Lark Rise trilogy, called ‘Heatherley’, a few poems and a collection of nature essays. Like the rest of Flora Thompson’s books, it comes from its publisher with a rosy jacket which speaks of placid good health. The Penguin edition of Lark Rise to Candleford shows a small bonnetted figure waiting at a cottage gate overhung with sunflowers; on the cover of A Country Calendar a round-limbed family lounges among ferns. Margaret Lane’s introduction talks of ‘small country masterpieces’ and ‘delightful reading’. In Flora Thompson’s case, the less delight, the better the story.

‘Heatherley’ begins with the 20-year-old Flora Thompson arriving at the post office where she was to work, in a beaver hat with two small ostrich tips; it ends with her revisiting the town as a middle-aged woman, with bobbed hair and a ‘scantily cut costume’. The account of her life in the village (whose real name was Grayshott) skims between rhapsodies on the heath and gobbets of information – about Queen Victoria’s death, the telegraph service, the Boer War. It catches some sense of a new ‘germ-conscious generation’, fleeing from their fathers with the help of bicycles, eagerly self-improving, anxiously attempting to improve others. But stronger than this is Flora Thompson’s own sense of separation from what she is viewing. Her position as post-office assistant is similar to that of the governess in a Victorian novel: sober and suspected, set apart both by literacy and dependence. She doesn’t qualify for the gymnasium run by worthy ladies for the steam-laundry girls; when literary notables, drawn to Heatherley by its reputation for health and beauty (postcards called it ‘The English Switzerland’), boom about Kipling calling him ‘The Big Noise’, she, who moons over Meredith, can listen but not talk.

She describes pockets of personalities by none of whom she feels claimed. The village girls, Maud and Fanny and Edna and Isobel, form sentimental friendships: they call each other ‘rosebud’, gossip about breach-of-promise suits (then a regular newspaper feature) and concoct quizzes ovet tea:

Do you prefer Diekens on Thackeray
Tennyson or Browning?
White meat or brown?
Men or women?

They are treated with distant kindness. She forms a more intense association with a brother and sister, visitors from London, who are full of the fin de siècle spirit: together, they cultivate their melancholy, quote Swinburne and pity the poor. Their recklessness is exciting – summed up in a memorable phase in Candleford Green about the thrill of walking ‘hatless to Hindhead’. The friendship has sombrely romantic elements – the sister is delicate, the father dead, the mother slightly mad – and its development is recounted as if doomed to some Mary Webb-like climax. When it ends flatly, with a familiar fading of intensity, it is difficult not to feel cheated of a proper tale by apparently wilful dismissiveness.

The mixture of fact and fiction which makes up her narrative is far less comfortable in ‘Heatherley’ than it is in the earlier books. Lark Rise to Candleford contained fictional elements: names of places and characters were altered (Lark Rise was in fact the name not of a hamlet but of a field); distinguishing features were sometimes elided. But Flora Thompson was for the most part bound to what actually happened or what was obviously the case: it is as if much of her fictionalising were a minor neglecting, of the kind which leads her to feature in the books as ‘Laura’ – a disregarding of some of her self, rather than the creation of a new character. In writing about her young adulthood in ‘Heatherley’, this disregard becomes tantalising. The episodes are not so closely bound to place as those in Lark Rise, where the books are divided by journeys and the plots are to do with plots of land: there is more chronology, and more action in which the narrator is under pressure to declare herself. Her not doing so becomes more of a problem. Occasionally, she announces a personal interest. Her affections seem to have been most fully engaged where they stood most chance of being truncated: the warmest description in ‘Heatherley’ is of her brief friendship with an ancient prospector, who gave her guava jelly and told her of his tight corners in the Transvaal. Occasionally, her concentration on a particular moment is so strong that she is frozen out of the picture: as when she watches her employer grimacing over his wife’s head while he strokes her hair. He later murdered both wife and child. But her position is often fudged: she glides away half-disguised from her accounts, covering her reactions with ‘sometimes’, ‘perhapses’, ‘almosts’, shrinking behind her pseudonym with more and more obtrusiveness.

In her useful introduction to A Country Calendar Margaret Lane sugests that Flora Thompson was ‘secretive about her own life because it afforded little satisfaction’. Her argument may not be perfect – unhappiness doesn’t on the whole guarantee silence – but she does provide grounds for discontent and misery which are not apparent from the steady calmness of much of Flora Thompson’s writing. Her father, who in Lark Rise teaches his children the alphabet from Mavor’s First Reader, and in Over to Candleford walks out of an argument about Irish Home Rule, was a somewhat snobbish malcontent who took to drink, leaving his family short of money and his garden littered with abandoned attempts at sculpture. Her little brother, who quoted Scott and protected his sister, was killed in action in 1916; her youngest son died in the Second World War. Her husband disapproved of her attempts to write, and his relatives despised her cottage origins. Years in Bournemouth, housebound with babies, were perhaps not tragic, but they were dreary and deeply disappointing. They may have been made worse by anxiety about a particular lost opportunity. The few poems included in this book (taken from a collection unpromisingly titled Bog Myrtle and Peat) are poor: full of posies and exclamation marks and flat rhymes. One, however, is of biographical interest. In 1912 readers of the Literary Monthly were invited to submit reviews of an ode by a Scottish physician, Ronald Campbell Macfie, on the sinking of the Titanic. Flora Thompson’s criticism won the prize, and she and Macfie began a 20-year-long friendship, mostly conducted by letter. Macfie encouraged her literary longings when her husband jeered; her feelings are innocently displayed here in a poem dedicated to him:

Yet very well-content I rest
In my obscure, sequestered nest;
For from my cottage garden I
Can see your cloud-peaks pierce the sky!

The collection of essays from which A Country Calendar takes its title were first published shortly after the First World War in a magazine called the Catholic Fireside (though Flora Thompson was not a Catholic). They provide a month-by-month, bud-by-bud account of the Hampshire countryside in which she was then living; they are both fanciful and clogged with fact. These essays have something in common with Edith Holden’s The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady (now available in Japanese and shortly on jigsaw puzzles), which has been on the best-seller list for nearly three years and has sold over a million and a half copies: it has some pretty pictures of cowslips and some less appealing portraits of fat, rather smudgy birds; the author’s round, brown-inked handwriting tells of expeditions to hear a lark or spy a tansy.[*]

Placed in the position of foreign correspondent, the nature-noter (still to be read in the corners of newspapers) is required both to scout for the equivalent of taxi-driver’s gossip (gypsies’ lore) and to deliver source material: to sound as if some old root was giving utterance. Flora Thompson, who could write very well, wrote least well when apparently most conscious of this obligation to make her prose sound authoritatively countrified: to invest it with the weight of poetry as well as information. She can slide from whimsy to stolidity within a sentence: she can be skittish about starlings (travelling has ‘not improved their manners’) and solemn about snowdrops (‘although botanists have surmised its importation by the Romans, there is no proof ...’), gurgle about the ‘floral feast of spring’ or ‘fairy forests of emerald plumes’, and slip into mincing litotes and inversions. And by using the definite article where a plural would do, she can make a tadpole sound like the Taj Mahal.

Many of her observations would have been seized upon by the other Flora, of Stella Gibbons: the lament, for example, that ‘the carving of turnips is a lost art’ – for Cold Comfort Farm could easily have housed a turnip-carving brother alongside Urk and his water-voles. Many of the same observations would appeal to the modern self-sufficient, combining fancy, frugality, and labour quite disproportionate to the final effect: her notes about garnering simples must have set hundreds toiling over lavender-bags and pounding elderflowers into face-potions. But Flora Thompson doesn’t adopt the same positions as those who have currently elected in favour of candles and home-made pickles. She may talk disparagingly of the ‘lowlier sort of charabancers’ who slide through the beechwoods in their patent leather shoes and bring a gramophone to play ‘For ever blowing bubbles’, but she regards them as a nuisance rather than a moral assault. She doesn’t much like the new red-brick houses, but she thinks their sash-windows are better than the old non-opening diamond panes. And, amongst the peeping at primroses and instructions about Norse legends, there are striking details: there is something wonderful about knowing which birds sing through rain.

Flora Thompson was more adept than most country reporters at providing some sense of the daily life in which these observations take place: what she was doing when she saw the crossbills (tracing an 18th-century packhorse road); where she was when she found the stone arrowhead (alone on a beach, with her hair hanging ‘seaweed fashion’). She emerges as a determined, rather dotty old lady; a walker, an encounterer of wayfarers, a friend to children. A photograph in A Country Calendar shows her stiffly pouring flour into an enamel basin; her mouth holds an attitude of wry dutifulness. It is a note which is present in much of her writing, for all the glow of her early books: the cold eye of the country child for whom the back garden is not organic growth but a business. Flora Thompson was rare in being able to express pleasure at this business, but she also kept her head. Some of her injunctions about the state of the country poor art stilted, but, at a time when an adaptatation of Lark Rise to Candleford has been inviting audiences at the National Theatre to revel in the pastoral, it is worth remembering some of her words:

She knew the farm workers and their families among whom she had been born and bred; but they were a race apart ... No one included them when speaking of the depressed classes. No one not directly concerned spoke of them at all, except as an animate part of the country scenery.

[*] Michael Joseph, 1977.