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An Understanding Heart

I can’t remember when I first read the magical trilogy that came to be known as Lark Rise to Candleford but, turning to it for comfort during the days of the 2020 lockdowns, I was struck afresh by the wonderful clarity and assurance of the writing. Most memoirs at the time Flora Thompson was writing were by comfortably educated, middle-class people, while she grew up as the daughter of a poor bricklayer in a small Oxfordshire village. Yet from the first sentence you feel the authenticity of her voice and know you are in the hands of an accom­plished writer. As her biographer Margaret Lane put it, ‘She was able to write the annals of the poor because she was one of them.’

The first volume in the trilogy, Lark Rise (SFE no. 58), recreates in lightly fictionalized form Flora’s childhood in the Oxfordshire hamlet of Juniper Hill (Lark Rise of the title) during the last years of the nineteenth century. It is an extraordinary feat of memory, for it was written almost fifty years after the events it describes. The hamlet is recalled in minute and exquisite detail, a close-up, child’s-eye view of a small, self-sufficient world bounded by cornfields and peopled by familiar characters.

In its sequel, Over to Candleford, life begins to open out for Flora – or Laura as she calls her childhood self – as she leaves Lark Rise on a visit to her father’s relations in Candleford, the local market town. For the children it’s a long-anticipated adventure.

Very early one Sunday morning, while the rest of the hamlet was still asleep and the sky was still pink and the garden flowers and currant bushes were still greyish-rough with dew, they heard the sound of wheels drawing up at their gate and knew that the innkeeper’s old pony had come with the spring cart to take them.

In Candleford Flora is introduced to the households of her two uncles – James, a prosperous builder and pillar of the Temperance movement, and Tom, a liberal thinker and respected craftsman whose workshop produces ladies’ made-to-measure shoes and hunting boots.

Both have done well for themselves, but there the likeness ends, for in the first family Flora feels overwhelmed by the grand house and rich food, and patronized by her more sophisticated – not to say pretentious – cousins, while in the second all is generosity, warmth and welcome, and over time and successive visits she forms a special bond with her Uncle Tom, for they both love reading and he intro­duces her to books and to unusual people – known to the family as Tom’s ‘queer fish’ – whom she would never have met in Lark Rise.

The close of this second book finds teenage Laura at home once more, unhappy and undecided about her future. Fortunately the decision is made for her by a letter from an old friend of her mother’s, who runs the Post Office in a village a few miles from Candleford and is looking for an assistant. This is the setting for Candleford Green, an enchanting portrait of a village community and of Dorcas Lane, Laura’s redoubtable new employer, with her well-ordered household, high standards and firm traditional views. ‘She’s a clever one, that Miss Lane, as sharp as vinegar but not bad in her way,’ people in the village would say to Laura.

Miss Lane is certainly in control of her small empire, including the village smithy next door to the Post Office, a family business which, unusually for a woman, she has inherited and continues to run. She keeps a close but discreet eye on village life from her vantage point on the village green, and is on excellent terms with such local notables as Sir Timothy, the local landowner and Justice of the Peace, a benign figure who gives off an aura of ‘jollity, good sense and good nature, together with the smell of tobacco, stables and country tweeds’, when he swears Laura in to her new employment On Her Majesty’s Service. And when, twice a year, Mr Rushton, the head postmaster from Candleford, appears on what is supposed to be a surprise visit, he always personally phones ahead to tell Miss Lane he is coming. This saves trouble all round and leaves plenty of time for sociability and a generous tea.

For Laura, life with Miss Lane introduces her to a world of plen­tiful food and comfortable living that she has never experienced before. Eating and sleeping under Miss Lane’s roof, in addition to Laura, are old Zillah the somewhat grumpy maid, three shy but friendly young apprentice blacksmiths and their foreman Matthew, a small, bent, elderly man who keeps a tame thrush whose wing he has mended, and who is more at ease with animals than people. This is a kind of liberation for Laura. For the first time she is the youngest person in a household of adults, whereas at home she had been a little mother to her younger brothers and sisters. ‘Her thin figure filled out, a brighter col-our appeared in her cheeks, and such an inrush of energy and high spirits took hold of her that she would dance, rather than walk, about the house and garden, and felt she could never tire.’

When for the first time she is entrusted with the job of delivering the post to the great house on an icy winter morning the freedom she feels is intoxicating.

Laura never forgot that morning’s walk. Fifty years later she could recall it in detail. Snow had fallen a few days earlier, then had frozen, and on the hard crust yet more snow had fallen and lay like soft, feathery down, fleecing the surface of the level open spaces of the park and softening the outlines of hillocks and fences. Against it the dark branches and twigs of the trees stood out lacelike. The sky was low and grey and soft-looking as a feather-bed.

This new life is Laura’s first real step out into the world, and an ideal situation for a budding writer, for the whole colourful society of Candleford Green passes daily through the Post Office. Flora’s ability to catch the telling detail brings them vividly alive: Old Mr Stokes, the church organist and cabinet-maker who had actually built the church organ and still worked at his trade ‘with his long lean form swathed in a white apron and his long white beard tucked into his waistcoat’; mysterious Mrs Macey the postwoman, who ‘instead of plodding or sauntering country fashion, walked firmly and quickly, as if with a destination in view’. And Flora saw into the hearts of those around her, observing of Mrs Macey that though some villagers called her sour-looking, ‘anyone with more penetration would have known that she was not sour but sad’.

Yet despite the excitement of these new experiences, including a brief meeting with a sympathetic, bookish young reporter for the Candleford News, which gives her a glimpse of what it is to share a real interest with someone of her own age, there is always a part of Flora that yearns for the countryside of her childhood and the sim­ple warmth of the family she has left behind. Some of her most poignant and evocative writing describes her joy at coming home for a weekend, walking through the fields from Candleford, then the mixed emotions of saying goodbye to her mother early on a Monday morning.

Her mother put on her thick cape and walked to the turn of the hamlet road with her. It was a raw grey winter morning with stars paling in a veil of cottage chimney smoke . . . although not frosty, the air was cold and the two snuggled closely together, Laura’s arm in her mother’s under the cape. She had grown so much that she had to lean down to her mother, and they laughed at that and recalled the time when she, a tiny mite, had said: ‘Some day, when I’m grown up, I’ll be the mother and you’ll be my little girl.’ At the turn of the road they halted and, after a close embrace, her mother said goodbye in the old country words: ‘Goodbye. God bless you!’

Flora wrote these two final books of the trilogy in the dark days of the Second World War, and perhaps it was partly this that made her happy memories of this period in her life shine so brightly. Soon Candleford Green would become a mere suburb and the old self-sufficient life of the hamlet would disappear, but for us they are still there as they were during those last decades of the nineteenth century, captured for ever by Flora’s understanding heart and the beautiful economy of her writing.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 74 © Hazel Wood 2022
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 59: Over to Candleford & Candleford Green

About the contributor

Hazel Wood is a city-dweller who, like Flora Thompson, feels the pull of the countryside in which she grew up.

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