‘Over to Candleford’ and ‘Candleford Green’ form the second and third part of the semi-autobiographical account of Flora Thompson’s early experiences in rural Oxfordshire, of which ‘Lark Rise’ is the first. These later installments speak of her childhood and formative years in the rural hamlet of Lark Rise, her first exposure of town life in the neighbouring market town of Candleford and the years spent working as postmistress’s assistant in the small village of Candleford Green.
‘Over to Candleford’, picks up the narrative in the last decade of the glorious Victorian era, a time of great contentment even amongst the hamlet’s poor people, and relative peace, a time when war seemed like a long forgotten thing to be read of, only in history books. It was a time of great change too – a time for new discoveries and inventions and industrial development. New modes of transport were being introduced – the advent of railways and even the penny farthing bicycle. Life in Lark Rise seemed relatively insulated ,however, but that of the nearby market towns were slowly changing and it is towards these places that Flora Thompson directs our gaze in her later books.
‘Over to Candleford’ starts with some degree of restlessness. Curiously enough, we discover that it is this characteristic of mental restlessness that guides the course of Flora Thompson’s future life. In this second book, Flora Thompson through the eyes of Laura, shows us that Laura is no longer a small child, confined to myopically observing the details of the small hamlet in which she spent her early years – a hamlet she described most lovingly and evocatively in her first book – ‘Lark Rise’. The child’s eye moves outwardly, no longer restricted to the fertile, flat farmlands surrounding her cottage home – but more curiously towards the nearby market town. Candleford, was a mere eight miles away but in those days of horses and carts and limited conveyance, a seeming world away from home. In those days a woman might travel six to seven miles, several hours, to purchase small sundry items to add a bit of meaty variety to a Sunday meal, or a small daily necessity like a packet of tea, or reel of cotton.
Over to Candleford’s chapters are devoted to a variety of topics – the social structure of the inhabitants of Lark Rise in the late Victorian period along with lyrical descriptions of its rural beauty. The chapter ‘Once Upon a Time’ describes Laura’s mother’s gift for storytelling. Another chapter is a character study of Mrs Herring – the Timms’ crusty old landlady with a tendency to hoard everything from old clothes, empty picture frames, copper preserving pans and even out-of-fashion steel, crinoline hoops in the secret storage space under the generous eaves of the cottage. But there is definitely a sense of excitement in the chapter where Laura’s father hires a pony and spring cart, one fine Sunday in summer, and takes the whole family to visit relations in Candleford. Here we are introduced to kindly Aunt Ann, bookish Uncle Tom and their children, a family that Laura would grow quite close to. In fact, Uncle Tom owned a large library of books and the moments that he and Laura would spend reading books in the summer holidays, (books like Cranford) whilst he worked in his shoe shop are really quite special. The visit to Candleford would mark the end of Laura’s childhood and soon after Laura was released to a world of school with all its challenges. But the reader can gauge by the vivid descriptions of Candleford, that young Laura was quite dazzled with the toy shops, glittering jewellers, sweet shops and even the grocers with all his wares on display – the whole salmon reposing on beds of green reeds, keeping cool with pieces of ice in the month of August.
At the end of the book, Laura leaves school and has a decision to make regarding her future work and direction in life. Lacking the nurturing instinct, Laura’s mother realises her daughter is not suitable for work in nursing. When a position as postmistress’s assistant comes up in the small village of Candleford Green, on the outskirts of Candleford, Laura’s mother does not hesitate to send her daughter to Postmistress Dorcas Lane’s care – Dorcas consequently being an old family friend.
Laura breaks into the silence of Candleford Green, one sleepy afternoon, when nothing is stirring except for the lone village donkey, grazing on the Green. A flock of geese flounce towards the spring-cart that Laura’s father drives, filled with curiosity. Everyone is either preoccupied with work, further afield, or are in repose. The descriptions of Candleford Green, it’s peacefulness and quietude are about as perfect a description of a Victorian village that I have ever encountered. Candleford Green was a small village, distinct from Candleford but would later merge with the country town, to be reincarnated as its suburb. The village was marked by its central Green, with its wide spreading oak, white painted seats for rest, the lone church spire piercing the leafy trees and its cluster of shops and cottages. The farther, sparser side of the Green was occupied by the Post Office, Dorcas Lane’s long, low white-washed house and the blacksmith’s forge, also under the charge of Miss Lane.
Working hours for Laura at the Post Office consisted of sorting the seven o’clock morning mail and ended at night. There was no half day off and even Sunday was partly working, with a morning delivery of letters and outward mail for Sunday evenings. Though Laura learns a lot about post office work, even mastering the shiny new telegraph instrument with brass trio and white dials, one senses a feeling of longing for the outdoors and country scenery of her home. There is a visit to her home after many weeks and a conversation with her Mother that is filled with a feeling of wistfulness for her family. One gains a feeling that she is being overworked and hence it is not surprising that at the end of the book, Laura seeks work elsewhere.
However, life spent in Miss Lane’s house was not without its comforts and charms. There was a plentiful table, the comfort of a weekly hot bath in Miss Lane’s warm and toasty bath house, previously a brew house. A copper hip bath was filled to the brim with plentiful hot water, boiled over a hot fire, lighted at the end of the day by the smith apprentice and transported by hose pipe to the bath house. Laura was to remember the warmth and comfort of those toasty baths in future, when times were harder.
Candleford Green was in essence a small village and like all small villages, the village people knew about one another and of each other’s affairs intimately. The community consisted of shopkeepers, the doctor and clergy, gentlemen and women of independent, if reduced means, artisans and labourers, the schoolmaster, the squires of the surrounding country houses and their huge army of servants. They all trickled into one community and in a way, the Post Office, was the centre of it all. It was quite natural for the postmistress to know everyone and of their affairs. Laura describes the village doctor, frequently called in the middle of the night on his night bell, having to leap into his horse to visit outlying farms, some even 10 miles distant. Despite his initial annoyance, the doctor had a compelling sense of duty and was much loved and respected in the community. The Vicar, Mr Coulsdon was generous too, and the descriptions of the free soup made twice a week in the huge vicarage coppers sound very appetising.
“…rich and thick with pearl barley and lean beef gobbets and golden carrot rings and fat little dumplings…”
For the bibliophile, Laura’s descriptions of the books she encountered and loved are particularly interesting. Laura describes the joy of taking a library ticket at the Mechanic’s Institute in Candleford and enjoying the works of Dickens, the Waverley novels, Barchester Towers and Pride and Prejudice, sparking a life long love for the books of Trollope and Austen.
Everything is most keenly observed, both the characters, and the descriptions of the pastimes and occupations of the people in Laura’s life. But Flora Thompson’s writing excels in her descriptions of nature and the outdoors, something that is beautifully written about on the walks that Laura took, on the daily postal delivery rounds – a responsibility given to her, after some time at the Post Office.
“Her path as postwoman led over much pastureland and she often returned with her shoes powdered yellow with buttercup pollen. The copses were full of bluebells and there were kingcups and forget-me-nots by the margins of the brooks and cowslips and pale purple milkmaids in the water-meadows. Laura seldom returned from her round without more flowers in her hand then she knew what to do with. Her bedroom looked and smelled like a garden…”
Like all the best memoirs, Flora Thompson’s – Lark Rise to Candleford’ trilogy makes one curious to know more about the author. The twists and turns of their future path. Their life, their loves, the decisions they made, the joy and sadness they felt. And this wonderful trilogy poised at a rather crucial juncture in Laura’s life, when she was very young and the rest of her life was spread before her, leaves the reader’s appetite particularly unwhetted. There is another instalment of Laura’s life I believe, and I will most certainly be reaching out for it in future.
‘Over to Candleford and Candleford Green’ was a kind gift from the publisher, Slightly Foxed, but as always all opinions are my very own.