Thursday, July 8, 2010

Lark Rise

We’ve been watching on DVD the delightful BBC series, Lark Rise to Candleford. It’s a nostalgic look at 19th century rustic life, based upon the writings of Flora Thompson’s trilogy. ‘Lark Rise’, ‘Over to Candleford’ and ‘Candleford Green’.

The description of three closely intertwined rural English communities, a hamlet, a village and a nearby market town is hailed as a masterpiece. Rightly so. It’s based on the author’s experiences growing up in the area in the 1880s and 1890s. It’s that territory traversed by my beloved Hardy but he wrote novels, her work is autobiographical - a slice of social history – though she did give fictitious names to her characters to prevent identification. Flora is called Laura, a device which allows the writer to distance her comments about conditions and change.

Flora Thompson was born in Juniper Hill in 1876. In her lifetime she saw a complete transformation of the way of life of her siblings and peers. Her elders could recall the commons, the rural poor had some land for their own use and usually some stock. By Thompson’s time the hamlet’s goose flock had gone. Ploughing, sowing and reaping which seemed long traditional were in fact ‘recent innovations’.

On of my joys is my library. I’ve picked off the shelf ‘Lark Rise’ the first book of the trilogy. It's been unread for ages. Too long. So many books to read. So many worlds to explore. It begins ‘The hamlet stood on a gentle rise in the flat, wheat-growing northeast corner of Oxfordshire. We will call it Lark Rise because of the great number of skylarks which made the surrounding fields their springboard and nested on the bare earth between the rows of green corn.’

‘All around, from every quarter, the stiff, clayey soil of the arable fields crept up; bare, brown and windswept for eight months out of the twelve. Spring brought a flush of green wheat and there were violets under the hedges and pussy willows out beside the brook … but for only a few weeks of later summer had the landscape real beauty. Then the ripened cornfields rippled up to the doorsteps of the cottages and the hamlet became an island in a sea of dark gold.’

What Thompson does best is convey the sense of community that existed in the hamlet. There was poverty and hardship, But the inhabitants were tough and stoic. And they helped one another. The ‘baby box’ springs to mind. The clergyman’s daughter had custody of it. It was given to expectant mothers when the baby was due. It contained clothing for the new infant and other necessities. After about a month of the baby’s delivery the box was returned and prepared for the next confinement.

Thompson doesn’t shirk in the book at acknowledging transition, ‘But side by side with these changes the old country civilisation lingered. 'Traditions and customs, which had lasted for centuries, did not die out in a minute. State-educated children still played the old country rhyme games; women still went [gleaning] although the field had been cut by a mechanical reaper; and men and boys still sang the old country ballads and songs. … At the ‘Wagon and Horses’, [the inn], the [songs were] apt to be a curious mixture of old and new. … The singers were rude and untaught and poor beyond the modern imagining, but they deserve to be remembered, for they knew the now lost secret of being happy on little.’

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