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

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"Samphire": a poem by Alison Brackenbury

"Yet how it waved, in coast’s late light. . . ."

My grandmother could cook it, for
she grew up by that dangerous shore
where the sea skulked without a wall

where I have seen it, tough as grass,
where silent men with rods trooped past
its salty ranks, without a glance.

Lear’s gatherer hangs perilously.
Why? So much is closed to me.
Did Shakespeare ever hear the sea?

Once, said my father, far inland,
from friend or stall, one clutch was found,
steamed, in my grandmother’s great pan.

Once, a smooth leaflet from a shop
claimed they could “source it”, but they stocked
bunched, peppered cress – Another gap.

Yet how it waved, in coast’s late light,
stalks I will never taste, could make
tenderly dark, my coast’s sly snake,
salt on my tongue, before I wake.

Alison Brackenbury is an award-winning poet. Her ninth collection, Skies, will be published by Carcanet in March

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle