Lorna Hill’s Vicarage Children Trilogy

Lorna Hill’s Vicarage Children trilogy

I spent the best part of the month of May reading Lorna Hill’s ‘Vicarage Children’ trilogy and it was the best way to spend my birthday month, enjoying the simple beauty of these books.

This trilogy was written towards the end of Lorna Hill’s writing career, and sadly never extended beyond the three books. From the way the children in the story, barely age throughout the course of the three books and the way that the story remains incomplete, to my mind at least, one feels that Hill, perhaps meant this to be a long-drawn saga, which never materialised. I’m a little sad. I wanted to stay with these characters for so much longer.

The order of reading the trilogy, reissued by Girls Gone By Publishers, is ‘The Vicarage Children’, ‘More About Mandy’ and ‘The Vicarage Children in Skye’. I’ve had my eye on this series, mostly due to the latter title. I love books that convey a strong sense of place and the book set in Skye, does indeed, read as a wonderful travelogue.

‘The Vicarage Children’ is about a family of six, the Kings, who live in an ancient, tumbledown Vicarage, Staneshaw Vicarage, in rural Northumberland, very near the remains of Hadrian’s Wall. The Vicarage is in fact made from old Roman stones that formed the ancient Roman fort of Agricolanium.

The four children in the story are sixteen year old Ally, Mandy – 13, 12 year old Michael and Christopher who is 1 and a half and nick-named Binny, due to his tendency to eat everything up, much like a dustbin.

“Proper little dust-bin, that baby!” said Mrs. Golightly.

The story is told from Mandy’s perspective and we learn of the straitened circumstances of the family living at the Vicarage, how they rely on church funding to sponsor the children’s education – especially Ally’s schooling at an elite boarding school. Mandy and Michael go to a day school in Newcastle – a school which supports children of poor clergy at reduced fees. Going to school involves a lengthy bus journey everyday. Sometimes, in winter, when it snows for days on end, the children are housebound and can’t attend school for long stretches. It is a down to earth and simple life, but there is the beauty of the surrounding countryside at the children’s doorstep and this beauty seeps through the pages.

According to Mandy, Ally is the beautiful one in the family, a ‘fairy-tale princess’, who resembles the childrens’ mother, Michael and Mandy take after their father. Mandy thinks of herself as plain and Binny is the adorable, chubby little baby with dimples and fair curls, lisping all the time. The children’s individual personalities form a key part of the books. We learn that Ally is rather self-centred and only cares about her looks and her clothes with little consideration for their family’s financial difficulties. Mandy is the considerate, caring one, who looks after her baby brother and wants to become a writer. Michael is mad about archaeology and often spends weekends digging away with fellow enthusiasts.

The first two books deal with the children’s life in the Vicarage, their school life and Ally’s struggles with growing up. There’s also Ben, the squire’s son, who is in love with Ally, although Ally has eyes only for another well-to-do rich boy, who is the brother of a school friend. Ben’s relationship with the two sisters is an interesting plot point. We see the transformation in Ben’s understanding about the personality of the two sisters – his slow appreciation for Mandy’s selflessness. Some of my favourite books deal with the topic of coming of age, and this trilogy is certainly a lovely example of this type of writing.

The first two books cover the course of two consecutive years in the life of the family and the first book has seasonal chapters devoted to the Easter Holidays, a Garden Fete, Christmas and Ally’s First Ball on Bonfire Night. The second book sees Ally studying at a Commercial School and finding her first job and then living on her own in Newcastle, with considerable hurdles due to her inexperience. Not an awful lot happens in the books, the characters are busy leading quite an ordinary life, just like normal people but Lorna Hill’s gift lies in her ability to make us care for her characters. I was never bored of reading about the children.

The third book, ‘The Vicarage Children in Skye’ is a departure from the previous two books in style, because it reads quite like a travelogue. I enjoyed this book immensely and especially the details of the car journey, winding it’s slow course from Newcastle to Glasgow via Gretna Green, and thereon through the Highlands and by ferry to Skye. I tracked all the places mentioned on Google Maps and often looked at picturesque locations described by Hill. It almost felt like taking a holiday! The stark beauty of the Cuillin Hills, the deep lochs and heady views, the simplicity and friendly nature of the locals, all contributed to what I thought was an endearing book. I’d definitely recommend it to readers who enjoy books with a strong sense of place.

The books abruptly finish with this particular instalment. One can’t help but wonder wistfully about Mandy’s future, because she is most certainly the heart and soul of these books. Why do book series with promise have to abruptly end? Nevertheless, have I tempted you to find the Vicarage Children trilogy?

‘Lark Rise’ by Flora Thompson

‘Lark Rise’ by Flora Thompson

‘Lark Rise’ is Flora Thompson’s personal account of growing up in a small rural community in Oxfordshire in the late Victorian period.

Flora is ‘Laura’ in the retelling and with a keen eye for observing nature and beauty, Flora Thompson renders an exacting yet not too sentimental picture of what life was like for the rural poor. Struggling to make ends meet, yet happy in enjoying the simple pleasures of life, ‘Lark Rise’ is an intimate and detailed social history of life in those times.

The exact time of the retelling is the 1880’s and most of the stories are related to that particular decade, coinciding with the first formative years of Laura and her younger brother Edmund’s life. Seen through child Laura’s keen lense, yet told with adult sensibilities ‘Lark Rise’ paints an astonishing plethora of pictures of village life, bridging the gap from childbirth to death, inclusive of high days and holidays, religion, schooling, social life, care of the elderly and so much more. There are even descriptions of the lavish care of the family pig – an exceedingly important figure in village life.

Historically, one of the most important aspects of this story is the fact that the story is told during a time which was going through immense change in the shape of industrial and technological development. This would not only affect the methods of farming but have a great impact on food production, favouring shop bought over home made and home grown. Railways had shrunk the size of the country. People from places a mere 5 miles away were no longer thought of as ‘furriners’. Despite the developments, there is almost a feeling of sadness as the storyteller closes the curtain on an era long gone and not to be recovered.

Two chapters of the book are dedicated to describing songs sung by the village folk and games favoured by their children. ‘Country Playtime’ describes time honoured games like ‘Oranges and Lemons’, ‘London Bridge’, ‘Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush’ and also lesser known ones that adopted a fair share of storytelling and role playing like ‘Here Come Three Tinkers’. There were supposedly so many known games and rhymes to be played, all passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, that children could play for hours on end without fear of repetition.

As a bibliophile the fact that Laura takes so much pleasure from reading is very enjoyable. I took careful note of some of the books that graced Laura’s bookshelves. Apart from her Mother’s Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress they included Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Gulliver’s Travels, The Daisy Chain and Mrs Molesworth’s Cuckoo Clock and Carrots.

One of my favourite chapters was the one dedicated to May Day celebrations. Since I read this chapter at the beginning of May, the reading felt very seasonal and greatly added to my enjoyment. The chapter started out with the statement that the celebrations surrounding May Day were the most cherished by the village children. Curious to learn why May Day celebrations superseded Christmas in enjoyment, I read on … What followed was a description of a most beautiful and flower filled day of merriment, where a large May garland of flowers, prepared mostly by the children and encrusted with gathered violets, cowslips, wallflowers, oxlips, sweetbriar and more, was carried ceremoniously accompanied by a flower bedecked May Queen, replete with a regal daisy crown. The procession along with a whole bevy of beribboned and pinafored girls in light coloured frocks and boys in bright ribbons and sashes would travel from the Rectory, to the Squire’s house, and thereon to the farmhouses and cottages dotted across the local parish. There would be May songs rejoicing in the beauty of Spring and the tinkling of coins in the money box at the end of each recital was customary.

Another major celebration surrounded Harvest Time. After the last sheaf of corn was collected, the farm workers would be invited to a glorious harvest home dinner at the farmer’s house. Hams were boiled, plum puddings stacked, eighteen gallon casks were tapped, and plum loaves baked in a truly Dickensian feast. In retrospect, it seems fitting that the most celebrated festivals for Lark Rise villagers, were those related to that of the land and its bounty.

Of course I am just skimming the surface in this review. Flora Thompson’s ‘Lark Rise’ is wonderfully descriptive and one might say, illuminating. A carefully scripted paragraph inserted here and there amidst the pages can astonish the reader with nature descriptions of searing beauty.

“Against the billowing gold of the fields the hedges stood dark, solid and dew-sleeked; dewdrops beaded the gossamer webs, and the children’s feet left long, dark trails on the dewy turf. There were night scents of wheat-straw and flowers and moist earth on the air and the sky fleeced with pink clouds.”

If you have wondered what it must have been like to live a few centuries ago, then this is a good book to pick up. It is a beautiful place to be transported to and though the last page of the book brought tears to my eyes, I will leave it to you, to find out why.

I received a review copy of ‘Lark Rise’ by Flora Thompson from Slightly Foxed but all opinions are my own.