A thatcher at work in Botley, Oxfordshire in 1933, the county in which the Lark Rise books are set. (Photo: Getty)
Show Hide image

Flora and fauna: Dreams of the Good Life by Richard Mabey

The story of Flora Thompson’s semi-autobiographical novels set in the Oxfordshire hamlet of Lark Rise.

Dreams of the Good Life
Richard Mabey
Allen Lane, 240pp, £16.99

This is the story of the evolution of Flora Thompson’s semi-autobiographical novels Lark Rise (1939), Over to Candleford (1941) and Candleford Green (1943), first published together as Lark Rise to Candleford in 1945. I hope the editor at Oxford University Press who came up with the title was duly rewarded. Lark Rise to Candleford brilliantly captures the poetic appeal of these three books.

Through the persona of the young Laura, Thompson looks back on her Victorian childhood in Lark Rise, an impoverished rural hamlet in Oxfordshire, and to her first job at the post office in the neighbouring Candleford. The rhythm of the world she recalls is cyclical: the rising of the sun is always followed by candlelight. Yet against the predictability of nature can be felt the march of progress: by the time Thompson, in her early sixties, wrote her quiet masterpieces, a different dawn had broken and the lights had gone out all over Europe.

Like Thompson, Richard Mabey is more interested in places than in people. He excels as a writer in embedding characters in their surroundings and describing the effects of displacement. Thompson left the safe “fort” of Lark Rise when she was a child but she was out of place in other ways, too. She was producing romantic rural tales long after the birth of modernism; Freud’s contemporary, she had no perspective on inner landscapes.

Thompson admitted that she had little self-knowledge and even Mabey confesses – beyond that she was self-taught, ambitious, solitary and a lover of high fashion: he finds her unknowable. Yet by plotting the progress of her writing, from village post mistress to chronicler of lost England, he tells us a good deal about her rise as a woman of letters. Critics like to see rural writers as instinctive producers of prose, naive woodlanders who lack the art of their urban contemporaries. Mabey successfully shows how, rather than writing her books as a bird might sing, Thompson achieved something more complex, particularly in her narrative voice.

There is much to admire in Dreams of the Good Life, particularly in Mabey’s descriptions of the natural world, but while it has the wings to fly, it does not take off as his other books have done. It stays rooted on the earth. 

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

BBC
Show Hide image

Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit