The first volume of Flora Thompson’s much-loved trilogy, Lark Rise (SFE No. 58), recreates in lightly fictionalized form her childhood in the Oxfordshire hamlet of Juniper Hill (Lark Rise of the title). Though it was written almost half a century after the events it describes, the hamlet is recalled in minute and magical 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 for the first time to visit her father’s family in Candleford, the local market town. Here she 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. This 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 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’.
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.
‘Thompson must have recognised that the interest in her Juniper Hill tales was largely nostalgic, but she also wrote to redress the huge public ignorance about the lives of the rural poor – a way of living that she had run away from only to look back and see had all but disappeared . . . [The Lark Rise to Candleford trilogy] strengthens the collective dream of country life while attempting to correct it; its existence is testament to progress but also to its cost, to dreams that proved disappointing.’ Alice Spawls, London Review of Books