Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise has always felt like home. A romantic notion, perhaps, from someone brought up in the 1970s and ’80s, rather than a century ago, as Flora was. I first read it when I was 13, then again in my twenties, and once more recently, this time as a mother, looking back on my own childhood but also on that of my children, as the oldest two began to make their way into the world, away from the rural hamlet and tenanted ex-farmworker’s cottage they’ve grown up in. With the passing of time that feeling of homecoming has only grown stronger.
It is, of course, very unusual that a rural, working-class woman, born the eldest of a large family in 1876 and growing up poor and largely self-educated, should have had anything published, let alone such a lyrical, yet unsentimental account of country life. But its unlikely origins make it all the more illuminating and genuine. Part lightly disguised memoir, part nature writing, Lark Rise is an honest, pragmatic, joyful and, at times, political record of Flora’s childhood in the 1880s, and it still has resonance today.
Though Flora, whom she calls Laura in the book, was very much of her community (the tiny hamlet of Juniper Hill, in north-east Oxfordshire), she was set apart from it too, much like the rural poet John Clare. Her father, initially a stonemason, had ambitions for his craft and family and held radical socialist views in a community of farmworkers amongst whom he did not intend to remain. Their rented ‘end house’ had its back to the other cottages, looking outwards across the fields. But Flora’s father remained a bricklayer, a ‘lost and thwarted man’, and the growing family stayed poor.
Formerly a rectory nursemaid, Flora’s mother loved storytelling, but reading for pleasure was considered an idle indulgence, and above the station of those in the hamlet. An early and then voracious reader, Flora herself was seldom seen without a book. Though she was mocked by her peers, Flora loved to read and to wander the fields and woods alone – and that was something I identified with. At each of the five village primary schools I went to, I was accused of thinking myself ‘posh’ for reading. And even now, as a librarian in a rural secondary school, I find reading is viewed in much the same way by some parents, who feel their children should be helping at home, and by some children, who’d rather be out in the fields.
Flora developed a forensic, reverent and delighted naturalist’s eye that she applied to both the domestic particulars of daily life – cooking, washdays and housework – and to the work that went on in the fields around the hamlet. That eye served her well as a writer. She revels in the local dialect, playing on the ‘grinsard’ or greensward of the grass verges and knowing all the flowers and ‘craturs’ living there, and while she is sometimes wistful in noting the passing of time, she is neither sentimental nor nostalgic. She records how home life, characters, entertainment and employment were all driven by the seasons and by the farming year, and she writes of pleasure, hard work, conflict and resolve.
While what Laurie Lee called ‘a thousand years’ of rural life was coming to an end, communities like Lark Rise were still struggling with the repercussions of enclosure, where common land (and the age-old opportunity for self-sufficiency) was fenced off and denied them. Some of the hamlet’s houses, like Old Sally’s, had been built ‘before the open heath had been cut up into fenced fields and the newer houses had been built to accommodate the labourers who came to work in them’. Flora remembers Old Sally’s fondly. Well into the next century, a whiff of any combination of drying herbs, apples, onions, malt, hops or a ‘dash of soapsuds’ took her straight back to her childhood. And she notes that ‘Country people had not been so poor when Sally was a girl, or their prospects so hopeless.’ Flora’s parents, on the other hand, were the ‘besieged generation . . . and the hamlet’s chief assailant was Want’.
Flora does not romanticize or ennoble the poverty of Lark Rise but simply records it. ‘Men afield’, still hungry after a breakfast of bread and lard, might pare and gnaw a turnip pulled from the fields or ‘even try a bit of the cattle’s oilcake’. When I was a child, we used to pass close by Juniper Hill on our way to see my Northamptonshire nan. The daughter of an itinerant agricultural labourer, she told me how home and income could so easily be lost then. Her father was followed home one day after pulling a mangold (grown as sheep’s fodder) from the ground to supplement a meagre pot at Dropshort Cottage. Confronted at the door by the farmer, her father grew angry and threw the mangold (a substantial root vegetable) at his retreating employer and landlord’s head. It connected, and both cottage and job were lost in an instant (if satisfyingly so).
Flora recalls too the strength afforded by community cohesion: ‘The women wished above all things to be on good terms with their neighbours.’ She details a fascinating system of respectful borrowing (a spoonful of tea or the heel of a loaf to tide a household over until pay day, when it would be repaid) and the appearance of ‘The Box’, containing a baby’s layette that was shared around after each new birth. Most families in the hamlet kept a pig, snug against their outer cottage walls, and they were generous around the time of each pig-killing. Bread was a ‘heavy item’ on the purse, so spilled grains of corn were ‘leazed’ at harvest time for flour, and the community had its ‘knowledge of herbs’, made jams, jellies and wine from the hedge rows, cured bacon and ham, brewed beer and grew vegetables in their small allotments and gardens.
They also knew, Flora notes, ‘the now lost secret of being happy on little’. Rude health and stoicism were a source of pride, and all repeated the mantra ‘I didn’t flinch’, whether facing a hard day’s work on an empty stomach or the arrival of another baby. Along with the division of labour, the women had their tea hour and gossip, the men their pub, politics and singing. Flora records the games, gaiety and celebrations of May Day, Harvest Home and Christmas, and the last echoes of country songs, ballads and game rhymes.
The gradual creep of mechanization, industrialization, universal suffrage, compulsory schooling, better transport and communications and, eventually, the First World War, all conspired to alter country life forever, for good and bad. In Lark Rise there was both a resistance to and wariness of change (might things become worse, as they had before?) and an embracing of it, in the hope of a more comfortable life in the future. This largely self-governing community wasn’t closed to the changes gathering pace outside, and this was poignantly illustrated by the women’s attempts to be fashionable on slender means and cast-offs. For, as they said, ‘You don’t want to be poor and look poor, too.’
In 1884, 2 million agricultural labourers were given the vote and Laura observes the rise of differing politics in the hamlet. Life still felt feudal, but the desire to rent a cottage, and not be tied to one through work ‘at Master’s bidding’, was a bid for a tenanted freedom that even now I recognize, having myself moved from tied to tenanted accommodation on big country estates.
Sympathies and intolerances swung about, before settling on a kind of acceptance with the shrugged words, ‘but ’tis natur’. In a time of great social reform, some of the prejudices held by an isolated community were showing signs of shifting, though anybody living more than five miles away was still regarded as a ‘furriner’, and the younger married men began to share some of the home labour or ‘’ooman’s work’. Then too, though the dreaded new school inspectors didn’t hide their contempt for the ‘slow wits’ of country children, Flora saw their intelligence, and recorded how a new teacher ‘taught them for the future, not the past . . . poor people’s souls were as good, and as capable of cultivation and greatness’.
Flora began writing Lark Rise more than half a lifetime later and it was published in 1939, on the eve of the Second World War. It was an instant success, perhaps because it appealed to readers hankering after simpler times, when the countryside and its traditions had not yet been ravaged by change, when resilience and self-reliance brought people through hardship.
She was encouraged to write more, and two sequels, Over to Candleford and Candleford Green, followed in 1941 and 1943. They chart her move from hamlet to village to small market town, via a career as an assistant post mistress, and mirror the changes taking place in the rural working life she was leaving behind. Yet in her mind Flora never left Lark Rise entirely – and nor have I. We seem always to be walking away, distracted by the wayside flowers, but casting lingering last looks over our shoulders even as we move inexorably forwards.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 73 © Nicola Chester 2022
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 58: Lark Rise
About the contributor
Nicola Chester is the granddaughter of agricultural labourers and a Romany Gypsy. She grew up in the countryside and has spent her adult life in small rural communities, living in tied and tenanted farmworkers’ cottages on country estates, where the rural past never seems far away. Her memoir, On Gallows Down, was published in 2021.