By absolute values, a true writer can never be other than what he is. But in our imperfect world his living light will only shine among men if it appears at precisely the right time. If it does so appear, it is not merely good luck, because the truth should also possess a super-sensitive probe (like the woodcock’s bill) for testing the subsoil of what it works on. This is something very different from what is called ‘appealing to the popular imagination’. Flora Thompson possesses the attributes both of sympathetic presentation and literary power to such a degree of quality and beauty that her claims upon posterity can hardly be questioned. Her lovers guessed it when her three memorial volumes, Lark Rise, Over to Candleford, and Candleford Green, were published separately; now that they form a trilogy, each part illuminating and reflecting the others in a delicate interplay, the time of speculation is over. This wholeness, they will say, is a triune achievement: a triumph of evocation in the resurrecting of an age that, being transitional, was the most difficult to catch as it flew; another in diversity of rural portraiture engagingly blended with autobiography; and the last in the overtones and implications of a set of values which is the author’s ‘message’.
Nor will these lovers be deceived by the limitations of her range, her personal simplicity and humility of spirit and the excellent lowness of her voice as the narrator of these quiet annals, into withholding from her the full measure of what is her due. Is that range so restricted? The trilogy enables us to appreciate for the first time what she has done both for literature and social history. By the playing of these soft pipes the hamlet, the village, and the small market town are reawakened at the very moment when the rich, glowing life and culture of an immemorial design for living was passing from them, at the precise point of meeting when the beginnings of what was to be touched the last lingering evidences of what was departing. Of late years memorial books, I might almost say by the score, have strained to overhear the few fading syllables of that country civilization of which the younger generation of today knows and can know nothing. A few of these have been of high distinction. I have only to mention the names of George Bourne, Adrian Bell, Walter Rose, W. R. Mottram, and the author of How Green was My Valley. But none of these authors singly achieved the triple revelation of the hamlet, the village, and the market town; none, with the possible exception of the last, has, like Flora Thompson, chronicled the individual life as an integral part of the group life and as the more of an individual one for it.
Again, by these three books being subdued into sections of one whole, Laura now emerges into her full selfhood and as the chorus of the complete drama. Now for the first time Flora Thompson’s master work in portrait-painting is seen to be herself. But we keep on forgetting that Laura is her own self, so subtly has our author’s spiritual humility contributed to the fineness of the self-portrait. She has lost her life to another and so exquisitely regained it that the personal quality of Laura, which is the key to the whole and diffuses over it a tranquil radiance, is never mistaken as other than that of a separate person. As remote from the present day as Uncle Tom, Queenie, or Dorcas Lane, she is yet more living even than they. At the same time, she is something else than the Cranfordian Miss, ‘quaint and old-fashioned’, as another character calls her, something else than the lover of Nature and of books, the questing contemplative, the solitary in the Wordsworthian, quite unCranfordian sense. She is the recorder of hamlet, village, and country town who was of them but detached from them, and whose observation of their inmates by intimacy by no means clouded precision of insight and an objective capacity to grasp in a few sentences the essentials of character. One of the very best things Laura ever did was to become assistant post-mistress at Candleford Green. The post-office magnetized the whole village.
When George Bourne described Bettesworth and the craftsmen of his wheelwright’s shop, he made them the vehicle of an immensely valuable inquiry into social conditions now made obsolete by urban invasion. Flora Thompson’s method is entirely different. But the result is the same in both writers. It is the revelation of a local self-acting society living by a fixed pattern of behaviour and with its roots warmly bedded in the soil. The pattern was disintegrating and the roots were loosening, but enough remained for sure inferences to be drawn from it. Flora Thompson does not reconstruct the shattered fabric like a historian nor illustrate and analyse it like a sociologist: she reanimates it.
In this tripartite book we distinguish three strata of social and economic period, cross-hatched by differences of social degree. In terms of geological time, the lowest stratum is the old order of rural England surviving rare but intact from a preindustrial and preEnclosure past almost timeless in its continuity. The middle stratum, particularly represented in Lark Rise, discloses the old order impoverished, reduced in status, dispropertied but still clinging to the old values, loyalties, and domestic stabilities. The top stratum, symbolized in the row of new villas that began to link up Candleford Green with Candleford Town, is modern suburbia. This wholly novel class in itself had shed the older differentiations and possessed no rural background other than the accident of place. It was the vanguard of the city black-coats and proletariat, governed by the mass-mind.
Nor is the stratification a simple one. The two lower layers are not only hierarchical in many grades between squire and labourer, but the upper one of the pair is dyed a different colour from that of the natural deposit. This is the sombre tint of Victorian moralism, quite different from the social ethics of the old order to which it was alien. Puritanism in rural England was never a home-brew; it was always imported from the town. The topmost layer of the three had and has no fixed principles; its aim was quantitative imitation and to ‘keep up appearances’. Mr. Green of Candleford Green, who read Nat Gould and Marie Corelli because everybody did, considered the expert craftsman as inferior in status to himself, sitting on a stool and adding up figures.
It is clear, then, that Flora Thompson’s simple-seeming chronicles of life in hamlet, village, and market town are, when regarded as an index to social change, of great complexity and heavy with revolutionary meaning. But this you do not notice until you look below the surface. The surface is the family lives and characters of Laura and her neighbours at Lark Rise, inhabited by expeasants, and the two Candlefords, where society is more mixed and occupation more varied. But the surface is transparent, and there are threatening depths of dislocation and frustration below it. Flora Thompson’s method of revealing them is a literary one, as was George Eliot’s; that is to say, by the selective representation of domestic interiors in which living personages pass their daily lives. The social document is a by-product of people’s normal activities and intercourse intensely localized, just as beauty is a by-product of the craftsman’s utility-work for his neighbours.
Thus, the commonest occurrences, the lightest of words, the very ordinariness of the home-task are pregnant with a dual meaning. This is the reverse of a photographic method like that of the fashionable ‘mass-observation’ because it looks inward to human character and outward to changes in environment affecting the whole structure of society and modifying, even distorting, the way people think and act. Her art is in fact universalized by its very particularity, its very confinement to small places and the people Laura knew. It all seems a placid water-colour of the English school, delicately and reticently painted in and charmed by the character of Laura herself. But it is not. What Flora Thompson depicts is the utter ruin of a closely knit organic society with a richly interwoven and traditional culture that had defied every change, every aggression, except the one that established the modern world. It is notable that, though husbandry itself plays little part in the trilogy, it is the story of the irreparable calamity of the English fields. In the shell of her concealed art we hear the thunder of an ocean of change, a change tragic indeed, since nothing has taken and nothing can take the place of what has gone.
On the bottom layer once rested all England. In the perfect economy of a few deft and happy strokes, Lark Rise reveals it as surviving principally in two households, those of Queenie, the lace-maker and bee-mistress, and ‘Old Sally’, whose grandfather, the eggler, had by his rheumatism to ‘give up giving’. The old open fields community of cooperative self-help destroyed by the Enclosures is caught in the words. Old Sally is so closely identified with her house and furniture, its two-feet-thick walls making a snuggery for the gate-legged table, the dresser with its pewter and willow-pattern ware and the grandfather’s clock, that they can no more be prised apart than the snail from its shell. In remembering the Rise when it was common land, Sally was carrying in her mind the England of small properties based on the land, the England whose native land belonged to its own people, not to a State masquerading as such, not even to the manorial lords who exacted services, but not from a landless proletariat. Still less to big business whose latifundia are the modern plan. Sally is self-supporting peasant England, the bedrock of all, solid as her furniture, enduring as her walls, the last of the longest of all lines.
Moving on to Candleford, we find in Uncle Tom, the cobbler with his apprentices, the representative of the master-craftsman who did quite literally build England, the England that Laura at Candleford Green saw in articulo mortis. Uncle Tom is a townsman, but his spiritual brother of the fields was the yeoman. Farm and workshop both were husbanded as a responsible stewardship and according to inalienable first principles. For both, yeoman and master-craftsman, the holding of property was the guarantee of economic freedom and a dutiful right. Home, as the centre alike of the family and of industry and the nucleus of neighbourliness, was the ruling concept for them both. Over to Candleford devotes special pains to the portraiture of Uncle Tom and his household. The interaction between his social value to the life of the little town and his personal integrity, his pride in his work and virile personality are described with the intent of revealing good living and the good life as an historical unity of the older England. In a line, Laura looking back and seeing herself, the other Laura, reading to Uncle Tom in his workshop-cum-home, sums up his end, both as a symbol and a living-figure. If he were alive now, she says, he would be the manager of a chain-store.
In Candleford Green, the same parable of the past is spoken, with a difference. Dorcas Lane, the post-mistress, and her household-workshop with Matthew the foreman of the farriery, the smithy and the wheelwright’s shop and the journeymen sitting below the salt at Miss Lane’s table, other symbols of ‘an age-old discipline’, these have an obvious affinity with Uncle Tom and his little commonwealth. She too has her willow-pattern plate and other bygones. But this household seems embalmed, a show-piece, and we feel it would be a blunder to speak of Old Sally’s and Uncle Tom’s possessions as ‘bygones’. Dorcas’s ‘modernism’, her sceptical outlook and partiality for reading Darwin lends point to the sense of preservation, not use.
In Candleford Green, again, Mr. Coulsdon, the Vicar, and Sir Timothy, the Squire, are held momentarily in the light before they too pass into limbo. But both of them cast a shadow, however soft the illumination of Laura’s lamp. They are Victorianized, and it was Victoria’s reign that, partly through their agency, but mainly by the growth of the industrial town and the industrial mentality, ended the self-sufficient England of peasant and craftsman. The supreme value of Flora Thompson’s presentation is that she makes us see the passing of this England, not as a milestone along the road of inevitable progress, but as the attempted murder of something timeless in and quintessential to the spirit of man. A design for living has become unravelled, and there can be no substitute, because, however imperfect the pattern, it was part of the essential constitution of human nature. The fatal flaw of the modern theory of progress is that it is untrue to historical reality. The frustrations and convulsions of our own time are the effect of aiming this mortal blow at the core of man’s integral nature, which can be perverted, but not destroyed.
In Lark Rise especially, we receive an unforgettable impression of the transitional state between the old stable, work-pleasure England and the modern world. World because non-differentiation is the mark of it, and all modern industrial States have a common likeness such as that of Manchester to Stalingrad, Paris to Buenos Aires. The society of Lark Rise is one of landlabourers’ families — only they are now all landless. They have lost that which made them what they are in Part I of the trilogy; and the whole point of it is that the reader is given a picture of a peasant class which is still a peasantry in everything but the one thing that makes it so — the holding of land and stock. Here, the labourers are dispropertied, though they still have gardens; here, they are wage-earners only, keeping their families on ten shillings a week, though in 1540 their forefathers in another village not a score of miles from Lark Rise, and exactly the same class as that from which they were descended, paid the lord of the manor £46,000 as copyholders to be free of all dues and services to him. Lark Rise in the ‘eighties of last century, admittedly but a hamlet, could certainly not have collected 46,000 farthings.
Though pauperized, they were still craftsmanly men: the day of an emptied country-side harvested by machines and chemicals and of mass, mobile, skill-less labour in the towns serving the combine at the assembly line was yet to come. It is significant that Lark Rise still called the older generation ‘master’ not ‘mister’. Though landless, they still kept the cottage pig, which served a social no less than a material need. The women still went leazing in the stubble fields and fed their families the winter through on whole-grain bread baked by themselves, not yet bleached and a broken reed instead of the staff of life. The hedgerows were still utilized for wines and jellies, the gardens for fresh vegetables and herbs. They even made mead and ‘yarb (yarrow) beer’. Of Candleford Green our author writes:
‘The community was largely self-supporting. Every household grew its own vegetables, produced its new-laid eggs and cured its own bacon. Jams and jellies, wines and pickles, were made at home as a matter of course. Most gardens had a row of beehives. In the houses of the well-to-do there was an abundance of such foods, and even the poor enjoyed a rough plenty.’
The last words are true of the hamlet of Lark Rise. Because they were still an organic community, subsisting on the food, however scanty and monotonous, they raised themselves, they enjoyed good health and so, in spite of grinding poverty, no money to spend on amusements and hardly any for necessities, happiness. They still sang out-of-doors and kept May Day and Harvest Home. The songs were travesties of the traditional ones, but their blurred echoes and the remnants of the old salty country speech had not yet died and left the fields to their modern silence. The songs came from their own lips, not out of a box.
Charity (in the old sense) survived, and what Laura’s mother called the ‘seemliness’ of a too industrious life. Yet the tradition of the old order was crumbling fast. What suffered most visibly was the inborn aesthetic faculty, once a common possession of all countrymen. Almanacs for samplers, the ‘Present from Brighton’ for willow-pattern, novelettes for the Bible, Richardson and travel books, coarse, machined embroidery for point-lace, cheap shoddy for oak and mahogany. The instalment system was beginning. The manor and the rectory ever since the Enclosures were felt to be against the people. The more amenable of these were now regarded as ‘the deserving poor’ and Cobbett’s ‘the commons of England’ had become ‘the lower orders’. When Laura’s mother was outraged at Edmund, her son, wanting to go on the land, the end was in sight. The end of what? Of a self-sufficient country England living by the land, cultivating it by husbandry and associating liberty with the small property. It was not poverty that broke it — that was a secondary cause. It was not even imported cheap and foodless foods. It was that the Industrial Revolution and the Enclosures between them demolished the structure and the pattern of country life. Their traces long lingered like those of old ploughed fields on grassland in the rays of the setting sun. But they have been all but effaced today, and now we plough and sow and reap an empty land: One thing only can ever repeople it-the restoration of the peasantry. But that industrialism does not understand. Catastrophe alone can teach it to understand.
It has been Flora Thompson’s mission to represent this great tragic epic obliquely, and by the medium of humdrum but highly individualized country people living their ordinary lives in their own homes. As I said at the opening of this Introduction, she has conveyed it at just the right time — namely, when the triumphs of industrial progress are beginning to be seen for what they are. Or, as a recent correspondent to The Times expressed it, ‘peace and beauty must inevitably give way to progress’. She has conveyed this profound tragedy through so delicate a mastery, with so beguiling an air and by so tender an elegy, that what she has to tell is ‘felt along the heart’ rather than as a spectacular eclipse. I regard this as an achievement in literature that will outlive her own life. Or, as the gipsy said who told Laura’s fortune at Candleford Green —‘You are going to be loved by people you’ve never seen and never will see.’
H. J. MASSINGHAM
Reddings, Long Crendon, Bucks.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00