But she read Freud

Alice Spawls

  • Dreams of the Good Life: The Life of Flora Thompson and the Creation of ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’ by Richard Mabey
    Allen Lane, 208 pp, £9.99, March 2015, ISBN 978 0 14 104481 1

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.’

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