This book is #87 on my Classics Club list.
A couple of years ago I began watching a hugely enjoyable BBC series. And then, one season in, I discovered that it had in fact been based on a series of books.
As a person who hates watching the movie before reading the book, you can imagine how much this irked me. So although I’d been given a box set of the series for a recent birthday, I resolved not to watch any further until I had read the source material for myself.
Two years later, and I have finally finished Lark Rise to Candleford. It’s taken me a while and one abortive attempt, but I’m pleased to say that I’ve read this trio of novels about the Oxfordshire countryside. Whether it was worth the two-year wait will probably become apparent when I finally finish watching the BBC adaptation next year.
I began reading this at the end of last year, after finding myself suddenly in need of a little Jane Eyre. I was in a Victorian mood, so after polishing off Jane Eyre and North and South one after another, I turned to Flora Thompson’s books. And I got about three chapters into Lark Rise, the first novel in the Lark Rise to Candleford collection, before I gave up. Whether it was the narration, or the loose structure, I have no idea. In any case, the book sat by my bed for several months, until spurred by another burst of Victorian-period reading, I returned for a second valiant attempt.
Lark Rise To Candleford is made up of three ‘novels’: Lark Rise, Over to Candleford, and Candleford Green. Although the names of places and people in the books are fictional, this collection is perhaps better described as a loosely fictionalised memoir. Thompson grew up in the Oxfordshire countryside, and the episodes in the book are inspired by her own childhood.
The stories are very episodic and descriptive. If you’re looking for the usual Victorian plots – orphaned children falling in with thieves; beautiful women being betrayed by black-hearted men; ghostly children; life in the industrial cities – then you will be disappointed. Although set in the English countryside at the end of the 1800s, the books were written in the 1930s and 1940s, and so communicate a sense of distance, of a lost world that has already disappeared. Perhaps this is why I didn’t get into the books the first time I read them; I wanted something which made me feel that I was in the Victorian period, rather than watching it from afar.
Altogether, the books are wistful without being too nostalgic. Thompson has a very practical approach to the realities of life, and there’s little moralising about the changes that have happened over the past forty years in England. She accepts the practicalities of modern advances in technology and medicine. “[W]e cannot have it all ways”, she writes, “and most villagers would agree that the attractions of films and wireless and dances and buses to town, plus more money in the pocket, outweigh the few poor creature comforts of their grandparents” (Chapter XXXIV).
Of course, it’s inevitable that in writing about a mostly vanished world one will become a little romantic; but Thompson does a good job of illustrating both the joys and the struggles of rural life in the 1880s and 1890s. The books never really become true stories; every chapter is more like a discussion of a certain aspect of village or town life. And although the stories follow a young girl called Laura (Thompson’s fictional stand-in, as the similarity between their names makes clear: Flora/Laura), at most they recount short episodes from her life without every giving us a complete picture.
These books have probably often been overlooked, although they are experiencing a revival after the television adaptation. Perhaps it’s something to do with the loose, episodic nature of the text, its uneasy place somewhere between fiction and memoir.
If you’ve ever wondered what life was like for the rural poor in the Victorian period, then this is the book for you. If you’re looking for a really great story to sink your teeth into, this will probably make you feel that you are lacking a certain something. There are certainly several memorable characters (Dorcas Lane is as wonderful on the page as she was when played by Julia Sawalha in the miniseries), but plot is lacking. Still, anyone who wants to feel a little nostalgic, or who wonders about the realities of life in the country before cars and running water, will find this an engaging and delightful read.
Rating: 4 Stars