‘You are going to be loved by people you’ve never seen and never will see,’ a gypsy tells Laura, the central character in Flora Thompson’s lightly fictionalised memoir of her childhood in rural Oxfordshire during the last decades of the 19th century. It was a prediction that turned out to be true. Lark Rise – and its sequels Over to Candleford and Candleford Green – must be some of the best loved books ever written. They are unique both for the magical quality of the writing and for the background of their author. While most other countryside writers of the period were comfortably middle-class, this record of a vanishing world came from the daughter of a builder’s labourer.
The first book in the trilogy sees Flora – or Laura as she calls her childhood self – growing up in the Oxfordshire hamlet of Juniper Hill (Lark Rise of the title), in a small grey stone cottage which seemed to be ‘turning its back on its neighbours, as though about to run away into the fields’. Flora’s mother had been a children’s nurse so her own children were well brought-up and well-dressed in made-over clothes from better-off relatives, and the family held itself a little apart from the rest of the village.
Perhaps this is what helped to make Flora such a keen observer. Her picture of life in Lark Rise is rich in practical detail, from the the annual killing of the pig – ‘a noisy, bloody business’ – to the way it was cooked and eaten, the furnishings of the houses and the newspaper cuttings pinned to the walls, the flowers in the cottage gardens, the clothes the villagers wore, and the daily routines and entertainments of a society that rose and slept with the sun. It is a poetic picture too for it evokes a countryside before mechanisation, where men ploughed the fields together, and where in late summer ‘the ripened cornfields rippled up to the doorsteps of the cottages, and the hamlet became an island in a sea of dark gold.’ Flora brings the hamlet’s past alive in the figures of their old neighbours – Queenie the lacemaker and bee woman who still talks to her bees, ‘Old Sally’ with her good quality furniture and her solid house built by her grandfather before the Enclosure Acts impoverished country people by robbing them of their common land.
Flora educated herself by leaving Juniper Hill to work for the Post Office – an experience she recorded in Over to Candleford and Candleford Green – but almost half a century elapsed before she wrote Lark Rise, which was published on the eve of war in 1939, and its sequels in 1941 and 1943. Together they are an enduring masterpiece, poignant but never sentimental, and as comforting now in troubled times as they were when they first appeared.
‘The contents of Lark Rise are a kind of superior gossip, the activity which, in John Berger’s words, gives a village the means to make “a living portrait of itself” . . . Thompson’s exact and childlike vision of the ecstasy of nature, and of a life lived close to it, has never been more relevant.’ Richard Mabey, Guardian