Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Lark Rise to Candleford

In 1993 I rashly invited Jacqueline Schwab - a pianist I knew only through her gorgeous recordings of romantic English country music - to make a cd with me, and she agreed, so I went up to Cambridge to practice with her.

One night at bedtime she lent me Flora Thompson's trilogy, Lark Rise to Candleford, a book about the very world we were trying to re-create in our music. (Here's our title cut: Sedgefield Fair.)

Thompson was born in 1876 to Albert Timms, an alcoholic stone mason, and his wife Emma. Even as a very young girl Flora was preternaturally [heh] observant of her surroundings in the tiny rural community called Juniper Hill.

Most of the families around her were virtually indigent, the dads wage laborers for a local farmer. Only a few very old people had some small material comfort and security in their lives: those who had somehow managed to hang on to something as the era of the commons was brutally ended. (Here and halfway down this page you'll find more.)

Of the rural England of her childhood, Flora retained uncanny and loving memories overflowing with sounds, scents, and sights; she wrote them down with simplicity and grace. Transmitting the reminiscences of people who were very old when she was very young, Flora was a link to the 18th century.

I've been thinking of sharing pieces of her story with you from time to time. So, here's the very beginning of her book.
Poor People's Houses

The hamlet stood on a gentle rise in the flat, wheat-growing north-east 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 every twelve. Spring brought a flush of green wheat and there were violets under the hedges, and pussy-willows out beside the brook at the bottom of the "Hundred Acres;" but only for a few weeks in 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.

To a child it seemed that it must always have been so; but the ploughing and sowing and reaping were recent innovations. Old men could remember when the Rise, covered with juniper bushes, stood in the midst of a furzy heath - common land, which had come under the plough after the passing of the Enclosure Acts. Some of the ancients still occupied cottages on land which had been ceded to their fathers as "squatters' rights," and probably all the small plots upon which the houses stood had originally been so ceded.

In the eighteen-eighties the hamlet consisted of about thirty cottages and an inn, not built in rows, but dotted down anywhere within a more or less circular group. A deeply rutted cart track surrounded the whole, and separate houses or groups of houses were connected by a network of pathways. Going from one part of the hamlet to another was called "going round the Rise," and the plural of "house" was not "houses," but "housen." The only shop was a small general one kept in the back kitchen of the inn. The church and school were in the mother village, a mile and a half away.

A road flattened the circle at one point. It had been cut when the heath was enclosed, for the convenience in fieldwork and to connect the main Oxford road with the mother village and a series of villages beyond. From the hamlet it led on the one hand to church and school, and on the other to the main road, or the turnpike, as it was still called, and so to the market town where the Saturday shopping was done. It brought little traffic past the hamlet. An occasional farm wagon, piled with sacks or square-cut bundles of hay; a farmer on horseback or in his gig; the baker's little old white-tiled van; a string of blanketed hunters with grooms, exercising in the early morning; and only one of the old penny-farthing high bicycles at rare intervals. People still rushed to their cottage doors to see one of the latter come past.

A few of the houses had thatched roofs, whitewashed outer walls and diamond-paned windows, but the majority were just stone or brick boxes with blue-slated roofs. The older houses were relics of pre-enclosure days and were still occupied by descendants of the original squatters, themselves at that time elderly people.

One old couple owned a donkey and cart, which they used to carry their vegetables, eggs, and honey to the market town and sometimes hired out ar sixpence a day to their neighbours. One house was occupied by a retired farm bailiff, who was reported to have "well feathered his own nest" during his years of stewardship. Another aged man owned and worked upon an acre of land. These, the innkeeper, and one other man, a stonemason who walked the three miles to and from his work in the town every day, were the only ones not employed as agricultural labourers.
Thompson's papers (drafts, letters, etc.) are housed at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (UT Austin), whence this:
At age 14, she left home to become a post office clerk in a nearby village where she continued her education through reading, writing, and observing the surrounding countryside in her off time. She worked in several post offices before meeting and marrying John Thompson, a fellow clerk, in 1903.

She continued to write while raising her children ... and in 1920 began publishing short stories ... She published her first novel, a fictionalized autobiography titled Lark Rise, in 1939. She continued the biographical theme in her next two works Over to Candleford (1941) and Candleford Green (1943). These three novels received great critical praise as historical accounts of the economic, social, and cultural life of pre-industrial rural Oxfordshire and were published under one cover in 1945 as Lark Rise to Candleford.

I found the pictures at a website devoted to Flora.

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