It is unusual to find a book written about life in the countryside, here or elsewhere, now or in the past, that is both objective and sympathetic, by which I mean that the book is unswervingly honest at the same time that the writer shows he or she understands and cares about what he sees. Too often, countryside books are falsified by sentimentality, or else ignorance spoils it all. I have an excellent book in mind that I think my readers would find enjoyable and illuminating. Lark Rise to Candleford is well known -- there's a Penguin Modern Classics edition -- but mainly by those interested in the history of the English countryside. In fact, it has a much wider appeal.
The book comprises a trilogy -- Lark Rise (1939), Over to Candleford (1941), and Candleford Green (1943) -- written by Flora Thompson (1876-1947) about her childhood and adolescence. It gives a close account of working class life in a hamlet, and later a village, from 1880 to 1900, with shadowy glimpses of a past reaching back to the early 1800s, with hints of further changes already at work there. Its great value derives from the author's character as an observer; when she came to write about that life she understood its significance, that it represented an immemorial way of living and thinking that would soon vanish. One of the finest qualities of the book is that while the author is present as a character (called Laura), she is not thrust forward, she does not obscure what she sees. That is very rare.
The hamlet (Lark Rise) in which she is born is only a few scattered humble cottages, plus an inn, in the midst of plowed fields, but it has a history traceable in a few of the cottages and oldest inhabitants. At the beginning of the 19th century those fields were an unplowed commons where the country people had commoner's rights to graze animals and use various wild products. Laura becomes friends with Sally, an 80-year-old who can just recall the commons and whose present circumstances, a bit more prosperous than her neighbors', are ultimately due to that former life because her parents had been able, thanks to their use of the commons, to keep a cow, geese, poultry, pigs, and a donkey cart to carry produce to the market town. Sally and her husband raised all their own food, just as the other cottagers did, but the difference was the money earned and saved by her parents. Laura's friendships create a context for the present, showing the evolution of country life: a semi-independent peasantry has become a dependent working class.
Her description of Lark Rise is thorough, exact, lively, and fascinating even to one who, like myself, has known that kind of life. Inevitably, there's much discussion of food. Tea, the one hot meal of the day, consisted of a bit of bacon from their own pig, garden vegetables, and a roly-poly pudding made from flour ground from gleanings of the manor farm's wheat fields, as in Biblical times (cf. The Book of Ruth). Other meals were usually bread spread with lard and any greens from the garden (in summer) or homemade jam. After a couple of pages about poverty in the hamlet and how they struggled to make ends meet, she ends the chapter:
But for that generation there was still a small picking left to supplement the weekly wage. They had their home-cured bacon, their "bit o' leazings," their small wheat or barley patch on the allotment; their knowledge of herbs for their homely simples, and the wild fruits and berries of the countryside for jam, jellies, and wine, and round about them as part of their lives were the last relics of country customs and the last echoes of country songs, ballads, and game rhymes. This last picking, though meagre, was sweet.
The first chapters of the next volume, Over to Candleford, quickly go back over the earlier ground, but with a different emphasis, paying more attention to her parents. The scene soon shifts to Candleford, a small town where Laura has two uncles and aunts and several cousins. Her favorite, the one she spends some weeks with in the following summers, is Uncle Tom, a shoemaker, an independent craftsman whose life is described as a "halfway house between the gorgeous establishment of their other uncle and their own humble home." Laura loves to read, and Tom engages her to read to him while he works in his shop, an enlightening experience in itself, but there she also meets his eccentric friends. The interesting thing about these details is that she merely records them, sympathetically as always, but she does not push herself forward, explaining the effect of these people on herself, which is one of the reasons we trust her.
She has this very telling observation about the difference between the hamlet and Candleford:
What impressed Laura most about Candleford, on that first holiday there, was that, every day, there was something new to see or do or find out and new people to see and talk to and new places to visit, and this gave a colour and richness to life to which she was unaccustomed.
Candleford is a country town, but there is a village a couple of miles away called Candleford Green, and the postmistress there, a friend of Laura's mother, hires her as a sort of apprentice, and there she goes at the age of fourteen. Laura's descriptive powers bring to vivid life the quiet country post office, the house and its inmates, and the village, which she neatly differentiates from Lark Rise:
In the hamlet there lived only one class of people; all did similar work, all were poor and all equal. The population of Candleford Green was more varied. It had a clergyman of its own and doctor and independent gentlewomen who lived in superior cottages with stabling attached, and artisans and labourers who lived in smaller and poorer ones, though none so small and poor as those of the hamlet. Then there were shopkeepers and the schoolmaster and a master builder and the villa people who lived on the new building estate outside the village, most of whom worked in Candleford town, a couple of miles away. The village was a little world in itself; the hamlet was but a settlement.
The rest of the book is her description of this "little world" until she leaves it a few years later.
Although the book's reputation is chiefly due to the observations of English country life at that time and place, its greatest virtue is the character of the author herself, implicit in what and how she sees. Every book, no matter its subject, is a picture of its author. I have mentioned her unusual combination of objectivity and sympathy. Read this:
Every day throughout the summer, she sat there "watching the bees." She was combining duty and pleasure, for, if they swarmed, she was making sure of not losing the swarm; and if they did not, it was still, as she said, "a trate" to sit there, feeling the warmth of the sun, smelling the flowers, and watching "the craturs" go in and out of the hives.
That's a true picture, certainly, but notice how the quotes -- "trate," "the craturs" -- give it not only color but feeling, conveying the warmth and simplicity of the woman. Here's another description of the same woman on the day her husband dies:
On the evening of the day he died, Edmund was round at the back of the end house banking up his rabbit-hutches with straw for the night, when he saw Queenie come out of her door and go towards her beehives. For some reason or other, Edmund followed her. She tapped on the roof of each hive in turn, like knocking at a door, and said, "Bees, bees, your master's dead, an' now you must work for your missis." Then, seeing the little boy, she explained: "I 'ad to tell 'em, you know or they'd all've died, poor craturs." So Edmund really heard bees seriously told of a death.
This is an ancient practice, whose present rarity is emphasized by the wording of the last sentence, and again, it is the deliberate quotation of Queenie's remarks, especially the one to Edmund, that gives the description its feeling for the woman.
In these remarks about herself:
After that well-merited reproof, Laura tried to be more sociable with the neighbours, but she was young and foolish, and for several years she held herself aloof from all but a few loved old friends when visiting her home. It took time and sorrow and experience of the world to teach her the true worth of the old homely virtues.
We see her judge herself without affectation or pretensions, and we recognize the qualities of honesty and sincerity that makes this such a superior account. Lark Rise to Candleford is not a great book, but it's a very good one, and I recommend it to cleanse your mind of trivia and to refresh your spirit.
Next issue: "The Incomparable Dickens" *
"When right, I shall often be thought wrong by those whose positions will not command a view of the whole ground." --Thomas Jefferson