Lark Rise to Candleford

Now a 10-Part Miniseries Airing on PBS

Flora Thompson (1876–1947) wrote what may be the quintessential distillation of English country life at the turn of the twentieth century. In 1945, the three books Lark Rise (1939), Over to Candleford (1941), and Candleford Green (1943) were published together in one elegant volume, and this new omnibus Nonpareil edition, complete with charming wood engravings, should be a cause for real rejoicing.

In his introduction, H. J. Massingham observes that Thompson “possesses the attributes both of sympathetic presentation and literary power to such a degree of quality and beauty that her claims upon posterity can hardly be questioned.” He calls the books themselves “a triune achievement: a triumph of evocation in the resurrecting of an age that, being transitional, was the most difficult to catch as it flew; another in diversity of rural portraiture engagingly blended with autobiography; and the last in the overtones and implications of a set of values which is the author’s ‘message’.”

This is the story of three closely-related Oxfordshire communities – a hamlet, a village, and a town – and the memorable cast of characters who people them. Based on her own experiences as a child and young woman, it is keenly observed and beautifully narrated, quiet and evocative. The books have inspired two plays that ran in London, and a new ten-part BBC-TV drama series to be broadcast in the US in 2009.

Our literature has no finer remembrancer . . . no observer so genuinely endearing.
–John Fowles, New Statesman

Flora Thompson’s great memoir of her Oxfordshire girlhood [is] a model of the form. The richness of the language, the lingering over detail and incident creates a haunting classic.
The New York Times

Flora Thompson was born in Juniper Hill in northeast Oxfordshire, the eldest child of Albert Timms and Emma Dipper, a stonemason and nursemaid respectively. Albert and Emma had twelve children, but only six survived childhood. Her favourite brother, Edwin, was killed near Ypres in 1916. Flora was educated at the parish school in Cottisford and was described as ‘altogether her father’s child.’

Flora worked in various post offices in southern England. The first of these was Fringford, a village about 4 miles (6.4 km) northeast of Bicester. Flora started work here in 1891, as assistant to the postmistress, Mrs. Kezia Whitton. Among other post offices where Flora worked was that at Grayshott and Yateley, and she later moved to Bournemouth.

In 1903 she married John William Thompson at Twickenham Parish Church, with whom she had a daughter, Winifred Grace (1903) and two sons, Henry Basil (born 1909) and Peter Redmond (born 1918–lost at sea, 1941).

A self-taught writer and a largely self-educated woman, Flora was thinking, as early as 1922, about writing of her childhood. In 1911, she won an essay competition in The Ladies Companion for a 300-word essay about Jane Austen. She later wrote extensively, publishing short stories and magazine and newspaper articles. She was a keen self-taught naturalist and many of her nature articles were anthologised in 1986.

Her most famous works are the Lark Rise to Candleford trilogy, which she sent as essays to Oxford University Press in 1938 and which were published soon after. She wrote a sequel thereto Heatherley which was published posthumously along with her other novel Still Glides the Stream in 1948. In Heatherly, which describes Flora’s three years in Grayshott at the turn of the 20th century, several of her lifelong interests took shape: the longing for education and culture and to become a writer.

All her books are a fictionalised, if autobiographical, social history of rural English life in the late 19th and early 20th century and are now considered classics. H. J. Massingham said of her in 1944 ‘she possesses the attributes both of sympathetic presentation and literary power to such a degree that her claims can hardly be questioned.’ Thompson’s essays reveal impressive knowledge of English literature and a gift for writing intelligent but accessible prose for a general audience, approaching novel writing as an artistic process, her greatest poetic gift being lyrical descriptions of nature in prose. Her biographer, Gillian Lindsay, concludes ‘this girl whose elementary education was not enough to allow her to take a Civil Service examination, had written a classic book, a piece of enduring literature and Shuckburgh considers it was ‘passion and control’ that made Flora such a good writer.

The death of her son during the Second World War affected her deeply and overshadowed the final years of her life. Flora Thompson died in 1947 of a heart attack in Brixham, Devon and is buried at Longcross Cemetery, Dartmouth, Devon. In 1948, her final work, Still Glides the Stream, was published posthumously.

H. J. Massingham was one of England’s most prolific authors on one of England’s favorite topics: English country life. His work has attracted newfound attention in recent years due to his early promotion of now-accepted topics such as organic farming and Social Credit.