I've had a paperback copy for years, bought for me by my mum, so when the Oxford University Press edition of Lark Rise to Candleford complete with ribbon bookmark and original wood-engravings arrived, I had a quick look, stroked it lovingly for a while and put it on the shelf to await its moment. I'm sure plenty of you have read it.
But did anyone get engrossed in the BBC series?
I'll admit I started with great gusto because I think we were getting a dose of Mrs Gaskell's Cranford at about the same time, but sadly my enthusiasm quickly waned. Something seemed to go seriously awry along with some very distracting casting. Anyway for reasons which even I can't explain I picked the book up again a while ago, and had a very interesting read of Phillip Mallet's introduction.
For example I hadn't realised this 'lightly fictionalized memoir' of Flora Thompson's childhood in 1880's Oxfordshire, Lark Rise, was first published in 1939, nor that her son Peter was lost at sea when his ship was torpedoed in 1941. And for the benefit of the Tinker who will want this detail, the ship was the Jedmoor, part of a convoy NW of St Kilda and sunk by a German U boat. (your starter for ten Tinker). By this time Flora Thompson had volume two, Over to Candleford ready, swiftly followed by Candleford Green in 1943, and the compilation volume as we know it today Lark Rise to Candleford appeared in 1945.
So a book that I had somehow imagined to have been a contemporaneous account written in the late nineteenth century, was in fact a product of the Second World War, and perhaps a welcome echo of the traditions and camaraderie of a bygone age for a country whose sovereignity was under threat.
And lawks-a-mussy, there was some ambiguity about whether Lark Rise...
'the spot God made with the left-overs, when He'd finished creating the rest of the earth '...
was an autobiography or fiction, and it then emerged that it was a sort of retrospective compilation of place and experience, not entirely accurate, but one that paid homage to the myth of rural England as a nostalgic homeland and which
'harks back to a time when men and women were happier, and perhaps better.'
Phillip Mallet explores all aspects of the debate in his introduction which was enough to give me some solid background as I dipped into a few chapters, and I'll admit I approached it in the light of these previously unknown factors thinking well this is all a bit of a swizz.
Except that all vanished as I started to read and I found myself surprisingly involved.
Is it the way that Flora Thompson, though writing in the third person and as an adult, has somehow managed to distill the essence of childhood whilst capturing the cultural and social customs of the times??
That all-seeing yet often incomplete vision of the inquisitive young observer overlaid with the day to day life of the community
Each chapter stands alone really, a book that can be dipped into almost at leisure rather than read chronologically, and it was the one entitled The Box that initially fascinated me. I was reminded of all those conversations we had on here last year about the Threads of Feeling exhibition I had visited at the Foundling Museum in London, and us all trying to identify the baby clothes and sort our biggins and our barrows from our mantles, clouts and pilches. The exhibition now has a website of its own...so now you can all visit, don't miss it, the fabrics are such an archival treasure, and freighted with so much emotion.
Flora Thompson's 'box' in question is a small oak chest of clothes, 'a popular institution' containing six of everything that a woman would need on the birth of her baby,
'tiny shirts, swathes, long flannel barrows, nighties and napkins, made, kept in repair, and lent for every confinement by the clergyman's daughter.'
In addition the box contained gifts of tea and sugar and a tin of patent groats for making gruel.
The entire village would know that a birth had taken place (the box never allowed to go until it had) when a young girl from the family would be seen wheeling the heavy box precariously balanced on a perambulator through the watching village.
And then there's Queenie, sitting by her beehives tossing the bead-spangled bobbins hither and thither and lace-making...I mean just imagine it. Having tried lace-making I can't imagine attempting it whilst sitting outside being plagued by bees. This incidentally is not mine, it's some I felt very sorry for and rescued from the market...
and nor is this some I made earlier either, instead a recent and very exquisite exhibit at The Devon Guild of Craftsmen...
But Queenie was on the lookout for a swarm which would have meant a huge financial loss. And it is the bees Queenie tells of news of her husband's death '...or they'd all've died, poor craturs.'...all bee-keepers tell their bees the news of a death and it's a reference I keep coming across in the oddest places now.
And so it goes on, the daily round in Lark Rise, and so it goes on for me too. More perfect Middlemarch atmosphere (though of course Middlemarch is set considerably earlier in the nineteenth century) and Lark Rise to Candleford a book that has been, and I think will continue to be, a really lovely surprise after all these years.