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20 March 2014

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.

By Frances Wilson

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.

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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.