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Lark Rise to Candleford

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…

Thus opens Flora Thompson’s gentle masterpiece of rural life in an England that was just beginning to feel the benefits–and the drawbacks–of the Industrial Revolution. By turns witty and elegiac, this combined collection of three original works (Lark Rise, Over to Candleford and Candleford Green) is a haunting and detailed chronicle of a world that is no more; a world that existed for centuries and which ended abruptly with one generation.

Don’t despise the old because it’s old, or overvalue the new because it’s novel. Don’t sacrifice the verities simply because they are invisible. Lanier Ivester

With an eye as keen as only love could make it, Flora Thompson, by way of her thinly-veiled little fictional counterpart, Laura Timmins, paints a picture of the life she knew among the fields and hedgerows, in her father’s garden and at her mother’s humble but well-stocked table (“there was never enough of anything except food”), in the shades of her beloved woods and in the comparatively elegant streets of the neighboring village of Candleford. Through Laura’s eyes we see the men savoring their meager half-pints at ‘The Wagon and Horses’ after a grueling day in the fields and watch the women over their well-deserved teas at one house or another:

These tea-drinkings were never premeditated. One neighbor would drop in, then another, and another would be beckoned to from the doorway or fetched in to settle some disputed point. Then someone would say, “How about a cup o’ tay?” and they would all run home to fetch a spoonful, with a few leaves over to help make up the spoonful for the pot.

With a sensitivity that is never mere sentiment, Flora Thompson gives us an honest assessment of the life of the poor: the tiny cottages too small for the ever-growing families that occupied them; the privations resultant of “enclosure” acts which kept them in a station of life we would deem below poverty level, the ceaseless occupation of mothers endeavoring to cover the bodies if not the feet of their children as they went out to school or to work in the “larger world.”

But there is a beauty, even in the harshness of reality, and an original truth undergirding the simple rustic lives she portrays. Perhaps water must needs be drawn from a common well on the outskirts of the hamlet (and in times of drought they “just had to get their water where and how they could”), perhaps milk was a rare luxury and “for boots, clothes, illness, holidays, amusements, and household renewals there was no provision whatever.” But in spite of such struggles for existence–or, perhaps, because of them–that existence was in many ways an enviable thing to those of us jaded and dazed by the overwhelming complexities of the current age.

I’d never so much as dare to suggest that their lives were easier than ours, in the purely practical sense of the word; in almost every way they were harder, grittier, leaner. But there was an abundance in all the rustic rituals and dearly-earned pleasures, a fundamental simplicity that, quite frankly, made my heart ache to read of.

Flora Thompson writes with such an honest beauty that the images of Harvest Home suppers and May Day customs long-since abandoned seem to voice their own appeal for the traditions of the past and lure our hearts to any and all of the various roots from which we have sprung. From her descriptions (and oftentimes adorable commentary!) she affords her readers a privileged view of life as it really was, and that in staggering detail. And all without the slightest shade of condescension or petty moralizing that would ruin the confiding tone and reduce its timeless truths to mere curiosities of a vanished era.

As it is, Lark Rise to Candleford is a gift and a gem, and a kind pluck at the sleeve to the modern reader tempted to exchange community for all the things purchased with its price on the world’s market. Though she never says it outright, it seems to breathe in every well-crafted line: Don’t despise the old because it’s old, or overvalue the new because it’s novel. Don’t sacrifice the verities simply because they are invisible.

Don’t forget where you’ve come from.

But, in spite of their poverty and the worry and anxiety attending it, they were not unhappy, and, though poor, there was nothing sordid about their lives. “The nearer the bone the sweeter the meat,” they used to say, and they were getting very near the bone from which their country ancestors had fed. Their children and children’s children would have to depend wholly upon whatever was carved for them from the communal joint, and for their pleasure upon the mass enjoyments of a new era. 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.

Please give yourself the pleasure of this beautiful trilogy. It’s a treasure that would not have come into existence but for a remarkably observant little girl and the remarkably insightful woman that she became.

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