On the Flora Thompson Trail -- Peter Leyland

                                                                     On the Flora Thompson Trail *                

I was walking from my home towards Stowe through the beautiful Buckinghamshire countryside, a journey of about four miles, when it occurred to me that the writer, Flora Thompson, might once have walked this path. ‘And thereby hangs a tale…’ I thought to myself, as I found a turning through a field of wheat, or barley, or oats, in order to complete my journey. When I returned home I ascended to the loft via a pair of stepladders, where at the edge of a cluster of plastic boxes was a green one bearing the sticker "Lark Rise".

I first encountered Flora when I was starting out as a teacher in Tilbury, Essex, well not her of course but rather her writing. I was reading a comprehension passage to a class of 12-year olds about a visit by Her Majesty's Inspector to a village school in rural Oxfordshire in the Nineteenth Century, and I was struck by the beauty of the piece and the wisdom of the writer’s conclusion. After the inspector had questioned a small boy who wasn’t writing, she says he ‘must have known that pen, ink and paper were no good without at least a little thinking’.


This statement became a kind of watchword for me during my years of teaching children, but I had really forgotten with whom it had originated until years later when my wife and I came to live in the  town of Buckingham, not far from the hamlet where Flora was born. And now I have returned to the box retrieved from the loft to sift through all the pages contained there and to tell the story of my next acquaintance with Flora, her books, her life and her legacy.


Candleford, the name of Flora’s town in her trilogy Lark Rise to Candleford, is generally thought to be an amalgam of Buckingham, Bicester, and Banbury, with the former being her main inspiration. Juniper Hill, which is "Lark Rise", is just on the Oxfordshire border and can be visited as I once did with a group of Workers' Educational Association students, although there is very little to see now which would connect it with the book. While I was researching Flora Thompson's life and works to run a WEA course on her famous trilogy in 2008, the BBC co-incidentally decided to produce a series about it. But more on that later. First, a little biography

Flora Thompson’s parents, Emma and Albert Timms rented a cottage in Juniper Hill in 1875. Emma’s first child died in early infancy and her second, Flora, was born in 1876. Flora was a gifted and talented child, able to read before she went to school. Her mother Emma had ten children, only six of whom survived infancy. Her third child Edwin, and Flora, became very close. Flora observed the struggles of her own mother and the hamlet women and realised that, ‘the families depended as much on the women’s ability to make do as they did on the men’s wages’.


‘Candleford was mostly Buckingham with something of Banbury in the picture’, says Gillian Lindsay, and most of my research for the course took its lead from her excellent book, Flora Thompson, The Story of The Lark Rise Writer. Flora, she says, spent much of her childhood with her uncle, Thomas Whiting, a master craftsman and a ‘thinking’ man who was well read and who could converse with others on literature, history and science. Flora's father, Albert Timms, on the other hand, had a fondness for drink which eventually led to his being downgraded from his position as stonemason to that of bricklayer. Flora didn’t want to become a nursemaid, the future for many girls at the time - she preferred reading and writing stories to babies - and when an old friend of her mother offered her a job as assistant post office clerk in Fringford, her parents allowed her to take it. Flora was 14. You can still see the site of the post office on the way down the road to Oxford from Juniper Hill. Flora had a room to herself there and Kesia Whitton, the Fringford postmistress encouraged her reading of Hardy, Eliot and the Brontes. She joined the local library and read through Dickens, Trollope and Austen.


In 1890, the year before Flora began work, the penny post had been in operation for 50 years; before this people had to pay to receive the letters sent to them. After 1897 telegrams could be delivered for free up to ten miles from the telegraph office. The writer uses this significantly in Lark Rise to Candleford where she has now become 'Laura', the lead character in her tale and an early example of what we would now call autofiction.


Flora eventually moved away from Fringford, wanting to see more of the world. She lived in Essex and then Grayshott in Hampshire, where she lodged with the Chapmans. Mr Chapman, the postmaster and her employer, suffered from terrifying rages which were inflicted upon those around him. At the same time her brother, Edwin, who was serving with the British Army in South Africa, was taken prisoner by the Boers, although eventually released. During this period of unhappiness, Flora started to explore the countryside as a way of escape, and this began her love of the natural world which is so apparent in the Lark Rise to Candleford trilogy. She moved from the Chapmans to a room of her own with the Levetts. There, she very much enjoyed being able to read an write in the evenings, and paid the family four shillings out of her weekly wages of a pound for her accommodation. She was still at the Post Office and was now serving writers like Conan Doyle and Bernard Shaw who lived nearby. She was very interested in writing but began to be aware of her educational limitations. Much of this is described in Heatherly, her autobiographical record, which was not published until 1979. 


Flora had left Grayshott when two significant even occurred. The first was that her former landlady, Emily Chapman, was murdered by her mentally unstable husband, the culmination of years of abuse; the second was that she married John Thompson, a postal employee. Little is known about how they met but they were married at St. Mary’s in Twickenham, where the poet, Alexander Pope, is buried, and which our colleague, Griselda Heppel, has written about in a previous AuthorsElectric blog. They lived in Winton and she became a housewife and mother of the time. She began walking in the surrounding countryside which she loved. When she had her first baby this had to stop, but luckily the birth coincided with the beginning of public libraries in towns like Bournemouth. Bournemouth opened its first library in 1893 and was only the second library to have open access to books. Flora was able to educate herself there through  her extensive reading. 


In another 10 years, 1903, Albert and Frances Mansbridge would co-found The Workers' Educational Association, that I worked for, with their house-keeping money, helping to create a generation of 'autodidacts' or self-educated men and women. Albert's father was a carpenter and he and his wife were in the vanguard of a movement that would bring education to working people like Flora Thompson. She herself was ambitious to write. She now had a second child and had begun to take The Ladies Companion which cost a penny, and which ran literary competitions. In 1911 she won a prize for an essay on Jane Austen. It was her first published work.


Flora’s beloved brother, Edwin, was killed in action at the front in March 1916. She was heartbroken but now at the age of forty her life changed. John Thompson applied for a job in Liphook as a sub postmaster and in the August of that year they moved there from Bournemouth. She was pregnant again and, despite the move to a better job for her husband, life became increasingly hard for her. In 1917 rationing had begun and there were shortages of fuel and food. Although Flora was now publishing articles regularly with the encouragement of other writers like her great friend Dr Ronald Campbell McFie, her writing now had to be put on hold. When the war ended, it was followed by thousands being struck down with influenza and the Thompson’s were hit particularly hard. John and two of Flora's children were in bed with it and, while looking after them, she also had to take in her husband’s replacement as a lodger. Nevertheless, in 1921 she did publish Bog, Myrtle and Peat, a collection of poetry based on her naturalist observations, although this did not meet with any success. She was also writing The Peverel Papers, a collection of articles on the natural world, which were published in “The Catholic Fireside” to which she had contributed for many years. It is thought that her model for this work was the naturalist Gibert White.


In The Peverel Papers, Gillian Lindsay says, Laura began developing material which she would later use in Lark Rise. She had also written an unsuccessful novel, containing stories like Queenie’s lacemaking, which would later appear in that book. The Thompson family eventually moved to Devon and while there Laura came to terms with the fact that, although she may not become a poet or a novelist, she was a 'writer'. She was in her late 50s and was beginning to understand what it was that she could write about so well. In 1937 Flora completed an essay on Old Queenie for The Lady and by 1938 with May Day in the Eighties she was starting to adopt ‘the down to earth style’, which she used for Lark Rise. “May Day” became Chapter xiii and she finally found her narrator’s voice in 'Laura'.  


Flora Thompson was 60 when she sent 15 chapters of Lark Rise to OUP. They were unsure whether it was autobiography or fiction but published it as a kind of sociological novel. Nowadays I think we would call it autofiction, referred to earlier. Whatever we call it, I think the eventual trilogy published in 1945 is a masterpiece of writing about rural life. A particular memory of  mine is reading the ritual of a pig killing in the very first chapter where we are told of the family pig's fattening; the common sharing of a pig between two families; and that after the pig had been killed and its carcass singed, the outer coverings of the toes or 'shoes' would be pulled off by 'the pig sticker' and flung among the children, who 'scrambled for, then sucked and gnawed them, straight from the filth of the sty and blackened by fire as they were'.

This biography, that I’ve written up from my notes and the books that I found in the loft, was a little longer than I expected, but I will conclude this post by saying a few words about the series and what happened in my Flora Thompson classes. The two WEA courses I taught in Northamptonshire were a great success. One group I took to Juniper Hill, to Fringford; to Cottisford where Her Majesty’s Inspector made his visit; and to the museum in Buckingham which had an exhibition on Flora Thompson. To the other group I showed extracts from the first episodes of the television series which captured a little of the life then lived around the town in the late Nineteenth Century.


But only a little. Sadly, the producers decided to extend the series with a number of episodes well beyond the confines of the stories in the book. It basically petered out into what I can only call the bowdlerising of a great work and was eventually cancelled because the writer resigned. Recently on AuthorsElectric we have been having discussions of how well Jane Austen’s novels have been filmed or otherwise adapted for the screen. For Lark Rise to Candleford there is no question for me about screen interpretation: "Lark Rise" is not a chocolate box, nor a rural idyll, but in fact quite the opposite. If you want to know what a great writer Flora Thompson was in describing and reflecting upon her world, then you must read the books, and I say that with I hope ‘at least a little thinking’.



Lark Rise to Candleford (1945) by Flora Thompson

Heatherley (1979) part of A Country Calendar and Other Writings selected and edited by Margaret Lane

Flora Thompson, The Story of the Lark Rise Writer (1990) by Gillian Lindsay

Other Writings

The Peverel Papers by Flora Thompson, a full and unabridged version of her nature notes written in Liphook, Hampshire, 1921-1927 (May 2008)

Still Glides the Stream (1948) by Flora Thompson (published posthumously)

*Since I first taught the course in 2008 Richard Mabey has published his probably more definitive biography of Flora Thompson, Dreams of the Good Life (2014), which I am sure that one day I will get round to reading.





sally m said…
Most interesting Peter, thank you. I had no idea she was so old when she first submitted Lark Rise. V informative altogether. I too used to use that schools inspector passage in teaching! And Lark Rise was a great favourite of my mother ( who was also a beneficiary of the WEA which I later taught for too.)
Eden Baylee said…
Thanks for this comprehensive history lesson about Flora Thompson, Peter. I'd not heard of her before. Made for TV series rarely live up to the books upon which they're based. This is especially the case when you see the writing visually and the story doesn't unfold the same way on screen. Good to read your writing here on AE again!
Peter Leyland said…
Thanks both for your comments. Sally, it's nice to hear from an independent blogger about those connections, some remote in time, which we have as educators. (However did we recall the same passage?) Eden, as always it's great to see you on here again, adding your wise words about writing. Lately, I've been thinking about rhizomes and the Twitter network!!

LyzzyBee said…
Very interesting, thank you!
Peter Leyland said…
Thanks Liz, great to see you on this site! I have literally just put my picture on it.
Griselda Heppel said…
What a beautiful post. As ever I am catching up somewhat belatedly and am fascinated by your account of Flora Thompson’s life and her struggles to find her voice. I read the Lark Rise trilogy so long ago that I only remember snatches of it but I loved it. Time for a reread I think. I enjoyed the first BBC series but didn’t watch anymore once it strayed beyond the book. They did that too with Cranford, and again I stopped watching. I can’t see the point of someone(s) pretending to be the original writer and using another writers’ characters to make new stories. It will never ring true and it feels like a cynical audience chaser. I was willing to give Sanditon a go, only because it has at least some Jane Austen in it, but gave up after the dire first episode.
Thank you for the nice mention re Alexander Pope!
sprhoyle said…
This is so interesting! I recently saw a mention of this post in Liz D’s Adventures in Reading [&c], and she kindly directed me here…. I am about to begin a project to read books published in the year of my birth, and I will start with Lark Rise to Candleford, because I was born a few miles from “Lark Rise”, and they were living even closer. My father read it to me when I was about eight, telling me that it was about the place where I was born. By the sound of things, it’s as well I never saw the TV adaptation, and thanks to your account of Thompson’s life, I am even happier with the idea of beginning with her great book, which I haven't read since my early teens. Thank you!
Ruth Leigh said…
That was fascinating! I read her works years ago, but must go back to the them. I suspected the BBC would turn her books into saccharine soft focus drama and it's a shame they did. I will be re-reading them as soon as I get a minute. Thank you Peter for such an interesting piece and for venturing up to the loft for research purposes

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