Lark Rise to Candleford, by Flora Thompson


Penny Reading

In those days, when young or progressive inhabitants of Candleford Green complained of the dullness of village life, the more staid would say, ‘It may be dull in some villages; but not here. Why, there’s always something going on!’ which the dissatisfied could not deny, for, although there was none of the amusement they desired, amusements of a kind were plentiful.

No films, of course, for twenty years had yet to pass before Candleford town had its Happidrome, and no dancing for the ordinary villager except dancing on the green at holiday times in summer. But there were in winter the Church Social, with light refreshments and indoor games, and monthly Penny Readings, and a yearly concert in the schoolroom. Between these highlights of the social year, there were sewing parties which met at each of the members’ houses in turn, when one of the members read aloud while the others sewed garments for the heathen or for the poor in cities, and tea was provided by the hostess of the occasion. The work parties were for the better-to-do. The cottagers had their Mothers’ Meetings, which were very similar, except that there the members sewed for themselves and their families materials provided at under cost price by the ladies of the Committee, and there was no tea.

The reading aloud must have made slow progress, judging by the amount of talking done at both types of sewing party. The repetition of every spicy item of village gossip was prefaced by: ‘Mrs. So-and-So was saying at the working party ——’ Or: ‘I heard somebody say at the Mothers’ Meeting ——’ The fact was that both were clearing-houses for gossip, but that did not make them less enjoyable.

In summer there were ‘the outings’. That of the Mothers’ Meeting, after weeks of discussion of more or less desirable seaside resorts, always decided for London and the Zoo. The Choir Outing left in the small hours of the morning for Bournemouth or Weston-super-Mare; and the Children’s School Treat Outing went, waving flags and singing, in a horse wagonette to the vicarage paddock in a neighbouring village, where tea and buns were partaken of at a long trestle table under some trees. After tea they ran races and played games, and returned home, tired and grubby, but still noisy, to find even a larger crowd than had seen them off waiting on the green to welcome them and join in their ‘Hip-hip-hooray!’

The Penny Reading was a form of entertainment already out of date in most places; but at Candleford Green it was still going strong in the ‘nineties. For it the schoolroom was lent, free of charge, ‘By kind permission of the Managers’, as stated upon the handbills, and the pennies taken at the door paid for heating and light. It was a popular as well as an inexpensive entertainment. Everybody went; whole families together, and all agreed that the excitement of going out after dark, carrying lanterns, and sitting in a warm room with rows and rows of other people, was well worth the sum of one penny, apart from the entertainment provided.

The star turn was given by an old gentleman from a neighbouring village, who, in his youth, had heard Dickens read his own works in public and aimed at reproducing in his own rendering the expression and mannerisms of the master.

Old Mr. Greenwood put a tremendous amount of nervous energy into his reading. His features expressed as much as his voice, and his free hand was never still, and if the falsetto of his female characters sometimes rose to a screech, his facetious young men were almost too slyly humorous, and some of his listeners felt embarrassed when the deep, low voice he kept for pathetic passages broke and he had to pause to wipe away real tears, his rendering still had an authentic ring which to Dickens lovers was, as the villagers said about other items, ‘well worth listening to’.

The bulk of his audience did not criticize; it enjoyed. The comic passages, featuring Pickwick, Dick Swiveller, or Sairy Gamp, were punctuated with bursts of laughter. Oliver Twist asking for more and the deathbed of Little Nell drew tears from the women and throat-clearings from the men. The reader was so regularly encored that he had been obliged to cut down his items on the programme to two; which, in effect, was four, and, when he had finished his last reading and, with his hand on his heart, had bowed himself from the platform, people would sigh and say to each other: ‘Whatever comes next’ll sound dull after that!’

They showed so much interest that one would naturally have expected them to get Dickens’s books, of which there were several in the Parish Library, to read for themselves. But, with a very few exceptions, they did not, for, although they liked to listen, they were not readers. They were waiting, a public ready-made, for the wireless and the cinema.

Another penny reader whose items Laura enjoyed was a Mrs. Cox, who lived in the Dower House on one of the neighbouring estates and was said to be an American by birth. She was middle-aged, dressed unconventionally in loose, collarless frocks, usually green, and had short iron-grey hair which hung loose in curls, like a modern bob. She always read from Uncle Remus, and her rendering of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox and the tar-baby may have owed something to some old black mammy of her childhood. The rich huskiness of her tone, her plantation dialect, and her flashing smile when delivering some side-thrust of wit were charming.

For the rest, some of the readings were well chosen, some ill chosen. A few poems were interspersed between the prose passages, but these seldom rose higher than ‘Excelsior’, or ‘The Village Blacksmith’, or ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’. Once Laura had the honour of choosing two passages for the father of one of her friends, who had been invited to read and could not, as he said, think of anything likely, not if his life depended upon it. She chose the scene from The Heart of Midlothian in which Jeanie Deans is granted an audience by Queen Caroline and the chapter about the Battle of Waterloo from Vanity Fair which ends: ‘Darkness came down on the field and city; and Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart.’ The man who read them said he thought they went down very well with the audience, but Laura did not notice any marked interest.

For the homely Penny Reading, second-best wear was considered sufficient; that being the last outfit before the newest, which, sponged and pressed and smartened up by the addition of a new ribbon bow and lace collar, had to serve another term for better wear before being taken into everyday use. At the annual concert the audience appeared in churchgoing Sunday best. The young ladies contributing to the programme wore white or pale-coloured frocks with a modest ‘v’ neck and elbow sleeves, and the village girls who appeared on the platform their last summer’s frock with a flower in their hair, or an ivy wreath, or a bright ribbon bow. For the Church Social, summer frocks were worn by the girls — last year’s in most cases, but, in a few, next year’s made in advance and worn with the collar tucked in to give it an evening-dress appearance. The older women wore black silk, if they had it; if not, the stiffest and richest fabric they possessed or could afford to buy for the occasion.

The fashion in dress was by that time more simple than it had been. The bustle had long passed away, and with it had gone panniers, waterfall backs, and other drapings on skirts. The new plain skirt was long and full and slightly stiffened at the hem to make it stand out well round the ankles, and, with it went a blouse or bodice, as the upper part of a frock was still called, with balloon sleeves and a full, loose front, often of a contrasting colour. Small waists were still fashionable, but the standard of smallness had changed. Women no longer aimed at an eighteen — or twenty-inch span, but were satisfied with one of twenty-two, three, or four inches, and that had to be attained by moderate compression; the old savage tight-lacing was a thing of the past.

In hairdressing, the Royal, or Alexandra, fringe was the rage. For this the hair was cut above the forehead and curled, or, rather, frizzed, to reach back almost to the crown. Considering that this style of hairdressing was introduced by the then Princess of Wales, whose beauty and goodness and taste as a leader of fashion were unchallenged, it is strange that it should have been condemned by many as ‘fast’. As in the case of bobbing during the last war, men and older women objected extravagantly to the fringe; but they had to get used to it, for, like the bob, it was a becoming fashion and it had come to stay. Fringes were worn all through the ‘nineties.

Laura, dressing for the Church Social in the cream nun’s veiling frock in which she had been confirmed and in which her cousins Molly and Nellie had been confirmed before her, wondered if she might venture to cut and curl a few locks on her own forehead. If Miss Lane or her mother noticed them and objected, she could say they were little loose ends she had curled up to make them tidier, or, if they passed unnoticed, she could cut and curl more, and so get a fringe by instalments. The stem of a new clay pipe borrowed from Matthew’s bedroom served her as a substitute for curling-tongs when heated in the flame of her candle, and she pushed her hat low down on her brow before going downstairs. There were comments and some criticism afterwards. Her brother told her she looked like a young prize bull, and her mother said, ‘It suits you, of course, but you’re too young to go thinking of fashions.’ But, by degrees, she got her fringe, and a troublesome job it was to keep it in curl in wet weather.

The Church Social was strictly a villagers’ affair. No one came from the great houses and the clergyman only looked in once during the evening. The presence of the curate and Sunday–School teachers guaranteed propriety. When the mothers had assisted with clearing away the tea and the long trestle tables had been removed, they seated themselves around the walls to watch the games. After ‘Postman’s Knock’ and ‘Musical Chairs’ and ‘Here we go round the Mulberry Bush’, a large ring was formed for ‘Dropping the Handkerchief’ and the fun of the evening began. ‘I wrote a letter to my love and on the way I dropped it. One of you has picked it up and put it in your pocket,’ chanted the odd man or girl out as they circled the ring, handkerchief in hand, until they came to the back of the person they wished to choose and placed the handkerchief on his or her shoulder. The chase which followed took so long, round and round the ring and always eventually out of one of the several doors, that two separate handkerchiefs kept two couples going in the Church Social version of the game. There was supposed to be no kissing, as it was a Church function, but when the pursuer caught the pursued somewhere beyond the door with a smudged roller towel upon it, who could say what happened. Perhaps the youth sketched a stage kiss. Perhaps not.

As the evening went on, the women and girls and young men and boys in the ring whirled hand in hand, faster and faster, the girls’ blue and pink and green skirts standing out like bells and the young men’s faces getting redder, until some one called out, ‘Time for “Auld Lang Syne”!’ and hands were crossed and the old song was sung and people went home, in families or couples, according to age. Dancing would have been better perhaps, but ‘Dropping the Handkerchief’ served much the same purpose in that unsophisticated day.

From such festivities some of the older girls were seen home by young men. The engaged, of course, were already provided with an escort, and for that office to certain unattached pretty and popular girls there was keen rivalry. The young and not in any way outstanding girls, such as Laura, had to find their way home through the darkness alone, or join up with some family or group of friends which happened to be going their way.

One year and one year only at the Church Social, after the singing of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, a young man approached Laura and said, bowing gravely as was the custom, ‘May I have the pleasure of seeing you home?’ This caused quite a sensation among those immediately surrounding the pair, for the young man was the reporter for the local newspaper and so looked upon as an outsider at such gatherings. His predecessor had sat about with a bored air, between his dashes out to the ‘Golden Lion’, and once, when invited to join hands in the final singing, had refused and stood aloof in a corner scribbling in his note-book. But he was a middle-aged man and inclined to give himself airs. This new reporter, who had appeared for the first time at Candleford Green that evening, was only a year or two older than Laura, and he had joined in the games and laughed and shouted as loudly as anybody. He had nice blue eyes and an infectious laugh, and, of course, the note-book in which he scribbled shorthand notes was also attractive to Laura. So, when he asked her if he might see her home, she was delighted to murmur the conventional ‘That would be very kind of you’.

As they circled the green in the mild, damp air of the winter night, he told Laura about himself. He had only left school a few months before and was being given a month’s trial by the Editor of the Candleford News. The month of trial was almost over and he would be leaving Candleford in a day or two, not because he had proved unsatisfactory — at least he hoped not — but because a much better opening had now been found for him by his parents on a newspaper in his home town, far up in the midlands. ‘After that, Fleet Street, I suppose?’ suggested Laura, and they both laughed at that as an excellent joke and agreed that they both felt they must have met before at some time, somewhere. Then they had to discuss the party they had come from and to laugh at some of the oddities there. Which was wrong of Laura, who had been carefully trained never to make fun of the absent. The only excuse that can be found for her is that it was the first time she met any one from the outside world near her own age and upon anything like equal terms, and that may have gone to her head a little.

They laughed and chattered until they came to the Post Office door; then stood talking in hushed voices until their feet grew cold and her companion suggested that they should take another turn round the green to restore their circulation. They took several turns, for they began talking about books and forgot how late it was growing, and they might, indeed, have continued walking and talking all night had not a light appeared at the Post Office door, when Laura, after a hasty ‘Good night’, hurried there to find Miss Lane looking out for her.

Laura never saw Godfrey Parrish again, but for some years they wrote to each other. His were amusing letters, written on the best editorial notepaper, thick and good, with a black embossed heading. As his letters often ran to seven or eight pages, his editor must sometimes have marvelled at the rapidity with which his private stock of notepaper became depleted. In return, Laura told him of any amusing little incident which occurred and what books she was reading, until, at last, the correspondence languished, then ceased, in the usual manner of such pen-friendships.

Beyond having a friend or relative to stay with her occasionally, Miss Lane did little entertaining. She said she saw as much of her neighbours as she desired at the Post Office counter. But once a year she gave what she called her ‘hay-home supper’, and that to those of her household was a great occasion.

She had two small paddocks beyond her garden in one or other of which Peggy, the old chestnut mare, took her ease when her services were not required to draw the smiths with their tools in the spring-cart to the hunting stables. Every spring one of the paddocks was shut up for hay. Its yield was one small haystack, a quantity quite out of proportion to the bustle and excitement of the hay-home supper, but the making of hay for the pony’s winter fodder and the supper for all those who had worked for her in any capacity during the year was part of the traditional business and domestic economy handed down to Miss Lane by her parents and grandparents. Excepting Laura, the younger smiths, and Miss Lane herself, who was ageless, all at the hay-home supper were elderly or old. There were grey and white heads all around the table and the custom itself was so hoary that that must have been one of its last manifestations.

For the haymaking a queer old couple named Beer were engaged, not for the day, week, or season, but permanently. On some fine summer morning, without previous notice, Beer would come with his scythe to the back door and say: ‘Tell Mis’is that grass be in fine fettle now an’ th’ weather don’t look too unkid, like; and with her permission I be now about to begin on’t.’ When he had the grass lying in swathes, his wife appeared, and together they raked and turned and tossed and tedded, refreshed at short intervals by jugs of beer or tea provided by Miss Lane and carried to them by Zillah.

Beer was a typical old countryman, ruddy and wizened, with very bright eyes; shrivelled and thin of figure and sagging at the knees, but still sprightly. His wife was also ruddy of face, but her figure was as round as a barrel. Instead of the usual sunbonnet, she wore for the haymaking a white muslin frilled cap tied under the chin, and over it a broad-brimmed black straw hat, which made her look like an old-fashioned Welshwoman. She was a merry old soul with a fat, chuckling laugh, and when she laughed her face wrinkled up until her eyes disappeared. She was much in request as a midwife.

When the hay was dried and in cocks, Beer came to the door again: ‘Ma’am, ma’am!’ he would call. ‘We be ready.’ That was the signal for the smiths to turn out and build the hayrick, with Peggy herself and her spring-cart to do the carrying. All that day there was much running to and fro and shouting and merriment. Indoors, the kitchen table was laid with pies and tarts and custards and, in the place of honour at the head of the table, the dish of the evening, a stuffed collar chine of bacon. When the company assembled, large, foaming jugs of beer would be drawn for the men and for those of the women who preferred it. A jug of home-made lemonade with a sprig of borage floating at the top circulated at the upper end of the table.

For the stuffed chine the largest dish in the house had to be used. It was a great round joint, being the whole neck of a pig, cut and cured specially for the hay-home supper. It was lavishly stuffed with sage and onions and was altogether very rich and highly-flavoured. It would not have suited modern digestion, but most of those present at the hay-home supper ate of it largely and enjoyed it. Old Mr. Beer, in the little speech he made after supper, never forgot to mention the chine. ‘I’ve been a-meakin’ hay in them fields f’r this forty-six ‘ears,’ he would say, ‘in your time, ma’am, an’ y’r feather’s an’ y’r gran’fer’s before yet, an’ th’ stuffed chines I’ve a-eaten at the suppers’ve always bin of the best; but of all the chines I’ve tasted in this kitchen that of which I sees the remains before me — if remains they can be called, f’r you wants to put on y’r spectacles to see ’em-wer’ the finest an’ fattest an’ teastiest of any.’

After Miss Lane had replied to the speech of thanks, home-made wine was brought out, tobacco and snuff handed round, and songs were sung. It was a point of strict etiquette that every guest should contribute something to the programme, irrespective of musical ability. The songs were sung without musical accompaniment and many of them without a recognizable tune, but what they may have lacked in harmony was more than made up for in length.

Every year when Laura was present Mr. Beer obliged with his famous half-song, half-recitation, relating the adventures of an Oxfordshire man on a trip to London. It began:

Last Michaelmas I remember well, when harvest wer’ all over, Our chaps had stacked up all the beans an’ reaked up all th’ clover,

which lull in the year’s work gave one Sam the daring idea of taking a trip to Town:

For Sal went there a year ago, along wi’ Squire Brown, Housemaid or summat, doan’t know what, To live in Lunnon town, An’ they behaved right well to Sal an’ give her cloathes an’ that, An’ Sal ‘aved nation well to them and got quite tall and fat.

So Sam thought, if ‘Measter’ approved, he would pay his sister a visit. ‘If ‘Measter refused permission’, Sam said in quite a modern spirit:

Old Grograin then must give I work, a rum old fellow he! He grumbles when he sets us on, but, dang it! what care we.

But he had still his mother to deal with. She ‘cried aloud to break her heart at parting thus with me’; but cheered up and began to look into ways and means:

Well, since you ‘ull so headstrong be, some rigging we must get, I’ll wash ‘ee out another shirt, an’ sprig ‘ee up a bit,

and gave as her parting advice:

Now, Sam, ‘ave well where you be gwain, Whatever others does to sou, be sure don’t turn again.

To which Sam replied:

Yes, very purty, fancy that now, blow me jacket tight! If they begins their rigs wi’ me, I’ll putty soon show fight,

and cut himself a good stout ash stick before setting out in his ‘holland smock, as good as new’ on foot to ‘Lunnon town’.

To her children’s disgust in after years, Laura’s memory left him, newly arrived, on London Bridge, asking passers-by if they knew ‘our Sal, or mayhap Squire Brown’, but there were stanzas and stanzas after that — that one song, in fact, accounted for a good part of the evening. But no one then present found it too long, for the younger smiths had slipped, one by one, out of the door, and those left, excepting Laura and Miss Lane, were old and loved the old, slow, country manner of rejoicing.

They sat around the table. Mrs. Beer with her arms folded on her comfortable stomach and one ear always open to catch what she called ‘a bidding’, for ‘My dear, ’tis a mortal truth that babbies likes to come arter dark. For why? So’s nobody should see their blessed little spirits come winging’; Beer himself beaming on all and inclined to hiccups towards the end of the evening; the old washerwoman’s worn fingers fingering her muslin cap, only worn on special occasions; Zillah, important and fussy, acting the part of a second hostess; and Matthew, with his old blue eyes shining with gratification at the laughter which greeted his jokes. Miss Lane, very upright at the head of the table in her claret-coloured silk, looked like a visitant from another sphere, well weighted down to earth, though, by her gold chains and watch and brooches and locket; and Laura, in pink print, ran in and out with plates and glasses, because it was Zillah’s evening off. That was the hay-home supper, a survival, though perhaps not more ancient than a couple of hundred years or so — a mere babe of a survival compared to the Village Feast.

The maypole had long been chopped up for firewood, the morris dance was fading out as one after another the old players died, and Plough Monday had become an ordinary working day; but at Candleford Green the Feast was still a general holiday, as it must have been from the day upon which the church was dedicated, far back in the centuries.

Some kind of feast may have been held on the green before that time, some pagan rite, for even in the respectable latter part of the nineteenth century there was more of a pagan than a Christian spirit abroad at the Feast celebrations.

It was essentially a people’s holiday. The clergy and the local gentle-people had no hand in it. They avoided the green on that day. Even the youngest of country house-parties had not yet discovered the delights of hurdy-gurdy music and naphtha flares, of shouting oneself hoarse in swingboats and waving paper streamers while riding mechanical ostriches. With one exception to be mentioned hereafter, only a few of the under-servants from the great houses appeared on the green on Feast Monday.

For those who liked feasts there were booths and stalls and coconut shies and shooting-galleries and swingboats and a merry-go-round and a brass band for dancing. All the fun of the fair, in fact. From early morning people poured in from the neighbouring villages and from Candleford town.

Candleford Green people were proud of this display. It showed how the place had come on, they said, for the largest and most brilliantly painted and lit merry-go-round in the county to find it worth while to attend their Feast. Old men could remember when there had been only one booth with a two-headed calf or a fat-lady, and a few poor stalls selling ginger bread or the pottery images still to be seen in some of their cottages, representing a couple in bed in nightcaps, and the bedroom utensil showing beneath the bed-valance.

In those early days there had been no merry-go-round, but for the children, they said, there was Old Hickman’s whirligig, apparently the parent’ of the modern merry-go-round. It was made entirely of wood, with an outside circle of plain wooden seats which revolved by means of a hand-turned device in the centre. It was a one-man show. When Old Hickman grew tired, a boy bystander was invited to take his place at the handle, the promised reward being a ride for every twenty minutes’ labour. While the old men were still boys, this primitive merry-go-round collapsed and they made a rhyme about it, which ran:

Old Jim Hickman’s whirligig broke down,

Broke and let the wenches down.

If that’d been made of ash or oak,

I’ll be blowed if that’d have broke.

Old Hickman’s whirligig had broken down and gone to the bonfire fifty years before, and only Laura cared to hear about it. That, she was told, was because she was ‘one of the quiet, old-fashioned sort’. But ‘still waters run deep’, they would remind her, and there were plenty of sweethearts to go round and suit all.

There were plenty of sweethearts on the green on Feast Monday, pairs and pairs and pairs of them, the girls in their best summer frocks, with flowers or feathers in their hats, and the young men in their Sunday suits, with pink or blue ties. With arms round each other’s waists, they strolled from one sight to the next, eating sweets or sections of coconut; or took turns on the merry-go-round or in the swingboats. All day the roundabout organ ground out its repertoire of popular tunes, in competition with the brass band playing a different tune at the other end of the green. Swingboats appeared and disappeared over the canvas roofs of the booths, and the occupants, now head upwards, now feet upwards, shrieked with excitement and cheered each other on to go higher and still higher, while, below, on the trampled turf, people of all ages threaded the narrow passages between the shows, laughing and shouting and eating — always eating.

‘What crowds!’ people cried. ‘It’s the best Feast we’ve ever had. If the green could only always look like this! And I do dearly love a bit of good music.’

The noise was deafening. The few quiet people who stayed indoors put cotton-wool in their ears. One year when a poor woman was dying on Feast Monday in a cottage near the green her friends went out and begged that the band would stop playing for an hour. The band, of course, could not stop playing, but the bandsmen offered to muffle the drumsticks, and, for the rest of the afternoon the drum’s dum, dum, dum sounded a memento mori amidst the rejoicings. Very few noticed it, the other noises were too many and too loud, and by teatime its resonance was restored, for the woman had died.

Every year, among the cottagers and show folk and maid-servants and farm-hands at the Feast, there was one aristocratic figure. It was that of a young man, the eldest son of a peer, who for years frequented all the feasts and fairs and club-walkings of the countryside. Laura knew him well by sight, for his ancestral mansion was not far from her own home. From her window at Candleford Green Post Office she once saw him, leaning languidly against the pay-box of a coconut shy, surrounded by a bevy of girls who were having ‘tries’ at the coconuts at his expense. His dress was that of a country gentleman of his time, tweed Norfolk suit and deerstalker cap, and that, and his air of ironic detachment, set him apart from the crowd and helped out his Childe Harold pose.

All day he was surrounded by village girls, waiting to be treated to the different shows, and from these he would select one favourite with whom to dance the evening through. His group was a centre of interest. ‘Have ‘ee seen Lord So-and-So?’ people would ask, just as they might have asked, ‘Have ‘ee seen the fat lady?’ or ‘the peep-show?’ and they openly pointed him out to each other as one of the sights of the Feast.

The heroine of a modern novel would have seized such an opportunity to go out into the throng and learn a little at first-hand about life; but this is a true story, and Laura was not of the stuff of which heroines are made. A born looker-on, she preferred to watch from her window, excepting one year when her brother Edmund came and took her out and knocked off so many coconuts from the ‘shy’ that its proprietor refused his penny for another go, saying in aggrieved tones: ‘I know your sort. You bin practising.’

Early in the evening the merry-go-round packed up and departed. It had only stopped there to put in a day on its way to a larger and more remunerative fair in the locality. After its organ had gone, the strains of the band music could be heard and the number of dancers increased. Shop girls and their swains arrived from Candleford town, farm workers from out-lying villages came, arm in arm with their girls; men — and maidservants from the great houses stole out for an hour, and an occasional passer-by, attracted by the sounds of revelry, came forward and found a partner.

Stalls and booths were taken down and their owners departed; tired family parties trailed home through the dust and unattached men retired to the public-houses, but for many there the fun was only beginning. The music went on and the pale summer frocks of the girl dancers glimmered on in the twilight.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00