Monday, April 06, 2009


Perhaps it is the seasonal shift that is affecting me. We're still in the early days of spring with winds blowing chill, but sunshine warm enough to cause the hyacinth to bloom in the side garden patch. Spring refreshes the spirit after the winter and I see now that pastoral fiction does the same.   

If you've not encountered it elsewhere, Lark Rise to Candleford is the work of Flora Thompson, originally published as three separate books between 1938 and 1943. In 1945, the three titles were combined into a single volume and that combined edition has survived through the decades (more here), having recently been adapted to television with great success for the BBC for two successive seasons and an upcoming third. 

The book tells of the childhood of Laura Timmins in a small rural community 19 miles outside of Oxford. Using that fictional device, Thompson is actually describing her own upbringing in the agricultural hamlet up through her adolescence, leaving school at the age of 13 to work in the village post office. The stories -- in most instances, brief anecdotes -- emphasize the prevalent cultural attitude of the time -- a willingness to accept life as it comes and the virtue of welcoming both the hard work and small pleasures that make up the ordinary day. 

An extract may be helpful here to give the flavor of the writing: Yet even out of these unpromising materials, in a room which was kitchen, living-room, nursery, and wash-house combined, some women would contrive to make a pleasant, attractive-looking home. A well-whitened hearth, a home-made rag rug in bright colours and a few geraniums on the window sill would cost nothing and yet make a great difference to the general effect. Others despised these finishing touches. What was the good of breaking your back pegging rugs for the children to mess up when an old sack thrown down would serve the same purpose, they said. As to flowers in pots, they didn't hold with the nasty, messy things. But they did, at least, believe in cleaning up their houses once a day for public opinion demanded that of them. There were plenty of bare, comfortless homes in the hamlet but there was not one really dirty one. (page 89)

It's a different way of thinking. One might be poor by external social standards and yet one might still preserve a certain dignity, unlike much of the current thinking which would appear to only endow individuals with value if they have a conspicuous level of consumption of material goods.

Flora Thompson offers us a wonderful reading experience, even if one suspects that some of the true dreariness of those lives has been left out of the narrative. There is an unmistakable tone of respect throughout the book for the cultural values of the time, despite our perception of limited opportunity, and I think I enjoyed it particularly for that reason. Just as with the return of spring, Lark Rise to Candleford causes one to throw off the grimness of the modern economic winter and instead feel a re-born sense of pride, energy, and practical renewal. 

The book is published by David Godine in the US (see catalog entry).