Lark Rise is the first book in a semi-autobiographical trilogy by Flora Thompson about her childhood in an English hamlet in the later 1800s. She writes some forty years later, looking back on a quiet, pastoral life that was later marked by great changes. Nowadays, the three books (Lark Rise, Over to Candleford, and Candleford Green) are usually published together under the title Lark Rise to Candleford.
This first book has no real overarching plot. It’s more a series of vignettes about life in those times: how the women kept house, traveling visitors from puppeteers to peddlers, how the squire and rector and their families were viewed, harvest traditions and celebrations, how school was conducted, etc. Often one individual or family’s story would be told as an example of the topic being described. Throughout the book we see some scenes or stories though the eyes of Laura, a young girl based on Thompson.
Thompson does not paint the village, the people, or the times as idyllic. The folks were poor but proud, hard-working, and mostly unsentimental. But they had their foibles, individually and collectively.
One aspect that was particularly interesting to me was that most families had several (as many as ten or twelve) children in a two-bedroom house. To ease the food supply and create more space, young girls were sent to “service” in another town as young as eleven. Mrs. Thompson detailed how girls began and then rose through the ranks from the lowest maid, sending home much-needed money and cast-off clothing from their employers (which meant hamlet fashion was just a season or two behind the cities, but the ladies didn’t mind).
One sad story had to do with a older man who was so ill, he could no longer live alone. His neighbors helped as much as possible, sending him food and such. But their houses were full and the coffers empty. The only option was the workhouse infirmary. “But they made one terrible mistake. They were dealing with a man of intelligence and spirit, and they treated him as they might have done one in the extreme of senile decay.” The doctor made arrangements without consulting the man, and came to his house to take him for “a drive.” “As soon as he realized where he was being taken, the old soldier, the independent old bachelor, the kind family friend, collapsed and cried like a child” and died six weeks later.
I enjoyed hearing how some of the women worked to brighten up their poor homes: “A well-whitened hearth, a home-made rag rug in bright colours, and a few geraniums on the window sill would cost nothing, but make a great difference to the general effect.”
The villagers, sadly, didn’t value “book learning” much. What little I’ve found about Thompson says she was largely self-taught. “She [his mother] hoped Edmund would not turn out to be clever. Brains were no good to a working man; they only made him discontented and saucy and lose his jobs.”
This aptly described an acidic postman: “So he went on, always leaving a sting behind, a gloomy, grumpy old man who seemed to resent having to serve such humble people.” Haven’t you known people like that, who always “leave a sting behind”?
This book wasn’t riveting, except for a few of the stories. But overall was a pleasant read. I hope the next two books have more of a plot to them, but I look forward to finding out more about Laura either way. I think the next book takes her to her first employment in a post office. After I read all three, I look forward to viewing the series made for TV based on the books.
I’ve had the trilogy bound together into one hefty volume for some years. But I listened to the audiobook nicely read by Karen Cass and dipped back into the book to look more closely at some of the quotes.
I’m counting this as my Classic with a Place in the Title for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.