East, west, home’s best. I didn’t think much of this rhyming aphorism when subjected to it as a child, but like so much other elder-wisdom I once contemned, it has grown on me. We were lucky enough to get a couple of the slightly roomier Economy Plus seats that spare my kneecaps 2 1/2 centimeters of scrunch without bankruptcy, and we were walking out of Newark Airport no more than 20 minutes after touchdown. That was a record.
In England we had good, and for two or three days, even beautiful weather. We started out with an old friend, recently widowed, in a lovely part of Hampshire near Petersfield, a handsome and prosperous old country town that I was visiting for the first time. Then came the two-day Meeting Minds conference in Oxford, accompanied by a visit with more old friends, followed by three days with my in-laws, John and Margaret Newman, in Wye near Canterbury. A delightful overnight with yet more friends in Barnes left us poised for a quick run to Heathrow.
The Meeting Minds program, though perhaps not quite so opulent as last year’s, gave us several stimulating lectures. I probably ought to tell you about one or two of them, but for me the most exciting intellectual event of the trip was the investigation of a book on my brother-in-law’s shelves: Flora Thompson’s "Lark Rise to Candleford".
I should be embarrassed to be discovering it so late given its fame. It was first published about 75 years ago and since was taken up by book clubs, honored with a Folio Society Edition and canonized as a “classic” both by the Oxford University Press and Penguin Books. Yet I had never read it, so perhaps it will be new to some of you as well.
"Lark Rise" is a wonderful work of social history written in the genre of intermittently fictionalized autobiography. The somewhat strange title is an amalgam of the place names that feature in the three sequential memoirs in which Flora Thompson remembers her childhood progress from an agricultural hamlet, to a village, to nearby country towns.
Flora Jane Thompson, née Timms, was born in 1876 in a remote agricultural hamlet called Juniper Hill in a corner of Oxfordshire. It was a pretty miserable place consisting of a few laborers' cottages. It was the kind of place that had neither church nor school, only a public house in which her father spent too much of his time and certainly too much of the family’s meager resources. This man was a skilled stonemason, a potential sculptor really, defeated and embittered by penury and want of opportunity. He could have been a model for Jude the Obscure.
Lark Rise — the title of the first memoir — is the name used instead of Juniper Hill in the account of her early years. It was actually the name of a single wheat field near the family cottage. Many of the farm fields in Britain had been laid out and hedged by the time of Magna Carta. The author describes a moment in the late 19th century British countryside now vanished forever. Despite the tremendous upheavals of the Industrial Revolution, the techniques of wheat farming Flora remembers from her girlhood were still essentially those of Piers Plowman.
I may not have read "Lark Rise" earlier because a friend once told me that it was similar to Annie Dillard’s "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek." I had enjoyed that book, but the author herself really bombed in an appearance at Princeton with which I was involved, which may have put me off. In fact, it’s not even close.
"Lark Rise" is by far the richer work. Flora Thompson has as keen a sensibility for the natural world as any of the great naturalists, but she also knows that human beings live in history no less surely than they live in nature. The unstinting humanity of her book is for me its most remarkable feature.
Some of the best autobiographies are those that conceal the autobiographer for the sake of objectives deemed more valuable, such as other people. As an autobiographer, Thompson held her cards very close to her chest. It is not easy to get at her.
Fortunately I was able to find a fine essay in which a scholar had done the work for me. After brief schooling — though fortunately not too brief to lay the groundwork for her own literary development — Flora had to set off into the world, for her a world strictly enclosed in its class limitations. Her work life mainly involved postal work and trailing about behind her postmaster husband. We learn very little of this man, a most conventional sort and decent enough probably, except for his total inability to enter his wife’s spiritual world or to understand her literary goals.
Like many other fine prose writers, Flora spent too long trying to be a poet. Such results as I have reviewed are pretty lackluster. The history of her times inflicted upon her its distinctive punishments. Her beloved younger brother, the bosom companion of her childhood, died in Belgium in the Great War. Her beloved son serving in the Merchant Marine perished at sea in 1941. She herself died in 1947, as the labour government was doing its best to bury the last remnants of the old Britain she had so brilliantly remembered in her books.