Thompson, Flora (1876–1947)
Thompson, Flora (1876–1947)
English writer, unrecognized for much of her career, whose autobiographical trilogy about rural peasant life in the late 19th century is now treasured as a literary classic. Born Flora Jane Timms on December 5, 1876, at Juniper Hill, near Brackley, in the northeast corner of Oxfordshire, England; died at Brixham, England, on May 21, 1947; daughter of Albert Timms (a stonemason) and Emma (Lapper) Timms (a nursemaid prior to her marriage); attended a village school at Cottisford, Oxfordshire; married John Thompson (a post-office clerk); children: Basil, Winifred, and Peter.
Born at Juniper Hill, a hamlet on the boundary between Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire; educated at the school in the neighboring village of Cottisford; at age 14, left home to work as assistant to the post-office clerk in nearby Fringford; later worked in the post office at Grayshott in Hampshire; lived in Bournemouth (1903–16), where her two oldest children, Basil and Winifred, were born; began writing for magazines when her children grew beyond infancy; moved to Liphook (1916), where her son Peter was born; published Bog Myrtle and Peat, a volume of verse (1921); moved to Dartmouth (1928); began to write sketches of her childhood (1937) that became the trilogy of rural life in the 1880s and 1890s, Lark Rise to Candleford (published 1945), which established her reputation as a writer.
Bog Myrtle and Peat (1921); Lark Rise (1939), Over to Candleford (1941), and Candleford Green (1943) were also published as the trilogy Lark Rise to Candleford (1945); Still Glides the Stream (1948).
Flora Thompson's late blossoming as a writer is one of the most astonishing and unusual stories in English literature. It is also one of the least well-documented stories of a writer who lived in the 20th century. Although she later wrote, according to Margaret Lane , that she could not "remember the time when [she] did not wish and mean to write," and although she earned small sums as a professional writer most of her married life, she did not gain a reputation as a serious and established writer until she was in her 60s. Her slow development and emergence as a writer occurred against almost overwhelming odds: a background of rural poverty; scant formal education; lack of encouragement from her family; and the absence of a community of sympathetic readers and writers from whom she could draw inspiration, confidence, and support. Despite these disadvantages, she always regarded writing as central to her life and personal identity: "My brother and I used to make up verses and write stories and diaries from our earliest years, and I never left off writing essays for the pleasure of writing. No one saw them; there was no one likely to be interested."
By the time Flora Thompson had achieved a degree of fame and critical acclaim in her late 60s, she said that she was "too old to care much for the bubble reputation." Both she and her family were surprised by the late success that she had few years to enjoy. Since childhood she had lived on the fringes rather than at the center of the life around her, and her habit of solitude intensified as she grew older. She had always cherished what little privacy and leisure she could reserve from her obligations to her family and work to read voraciously, to take long walks through fields, heaths, and forests, and to retreat to the inner life she lived so intensely—an inner life nourished by memory, imagination, and an acute love of nature.
Flora's father Albert Timms was a stonemason, the son of a master builder from Oxford whose drinking and gambling led to the decline of fortune through which he became first a publican and later a builder's laborer. Albert was a skilled mason, proud of his stone-carving and hopeful of becoming a sculptor before drink and discontent took their toll on his early ambitions. In his 20s, he settled in Juniper Hill, a hamlet of about 30 cottages populated almost entirely by farm laborers, and for the next 35 years he walked three miles back and forth every day to work for a builder in Brackley. He resented the poverty he and his family endured throughout their lives, but seems to have done little to improve their lot. According to Lane, Flora remembered him as "a terrible spendthrift…. he never seemed to grasp the fact that he was responsible for our upbringing …. He had all of the bad qualities of genius and a few of the good ones."
Flora's mother, born Emma Lapper, from the nearby village of Ardley, was the daughter of an "eggler," an entrepreneurial intermediary of the period who collected eggs in his cart from farms and villages to sell at the nearby market town. Like most girls of the area, Emma went "into service" at age ten and had been nursemaid at Fewcott Rectory before she married Timms. She gave birth to ten children between 1875 and 1898, six of whom lived beyond three years of age. Emma Timms was a great storyteller, and her memory was a storehouse of traditional songs, games, and stories, with which she delighted her children.
Her mother's talent for evoking another world through story, and her father's youthful ambition to refine his talent for stone-carving beyond the workaday world of his trade, account for the introspective, poetic temperament of the cottage child whose future was assumed to lie "in service." The distinctive quality of Flora Thompson's talent, however, was nurtured by the unlikely environment of Juniper Hill, the hamlet she describes in the first part of her trilogy, Lark Rise: "All around, from every quarter, the stiff, clayey soil of the arable fields crept up: bare, brown and windswept for eight months out of the twelve…. only for a few weeks in later summer had the landscape real beauty." In the 1880s, this community of poor farm laborers, who earned a standard wage of ten shillings a week that hardly provided for their basic needs, was barely touched by the Industrial Revolution that was transforming both the landscape of England and the lives of its people. In Lark Rise, Thompson records that in Juniper Hill the women still "went to the well in all weathers, drawing up the buckets with a windlass and carting them home suspended from their shoulders by a yoke," and people rushed to their cottage doors to see "one of the old pennyfarthing high bicycles" that passed through the hamlet at rare intervals.
Most of what is known about Flora Thompson's early years is recorded as thinly disguised autobiography in Lark Rise through the fictionalized third person of Laura. Like Flora, Laura is the oldest child of a stonemason and his wife Emma. Flora's brother and closest companion, Edwin, a year and a half younger than she, appears as Edmund in the book. Flora/Laura knew and was known to the inhabitants of every cottage in the hamlet, and she grew up with intimate knowledge of the natural world—the fields, ditches, ponds, and hedgerows, the flowers and wild herbs, the birds and animals that she passed daily on her mile-and-a-half walk to the National School in the "mother village" of Cottisford, called Fordlow in the book.
Like the other children in the hamlet, Flora went to school from the age of five until twelve, when most girls went into service to earn their own living, as well as to make room in the cottage for the younger children. Her mother, expecting her to become a nursemaid, was disappointed to find her daughter more interested in reading and writing than in infants and wondered what would become of her quiet, reflective child. It appears that Flora, like Laura in Over to Candleford, found herself after leaving school "growing up … into a world that had no use for her." Then an old friend of her mother's, the postmistress of Fringford, a village eight miles from Juniper Hill, agreed to take Flora as an assistant, and she left home at 14 with a store of vivid memories that she would record some 50 years later.
When she went to work at the post office at Fringford in 1890, her responsibilities included selling stamps, sorting letters, and working the new telegraph machine. She lived with the postmistress, and soon read every book in the cottage, including Shakespeare and the forbidden copy of Byron's Don Juan. She then took out a library ticket at the Mechanics Institute in a neighboring town and read the novels of Austen, Scott, Dickens, and Trollope. Though she never again suffered from the scarcity of books she felt at Juniper Hill, Thompson tells in Candleford Green how the young woman missed most in her new life "her old freedom of the fields…; she longed to go alone far into the fields and hear the birds singing, the brooks tinkling, and the wind rustling through the corn, as she had when a child." This need was answered when she became a letter-carrier, a new responsibility that gave her the opportunity to walk each morning through the fields and woods she loved, delivering mail to outlying homes before returning to the daily routine at the post office.
For about five years, Flora Thompson remained in her job, until once again, as it had when she left school, the uncertainty of the future loomed before her. The world beyond Fringford beckoned, and she tried holiday-relief work at several other post offices before taking a position as postmaster's assistant in Grayshott, Hampshire. At Grayshott, she had access to libraries and second-hand bookstores through which she continued her self-education. Besides her reading, she occupied her spare time writing
stories and verses and keeping her diary, as she had since childhood. For the first time, she came in contact with living writers, for among those who came to the post office at Grayshott were Arthur Conan Doyle and George Bernard Shaw; they apparently did not notice the shy young postal assistant who closely but discreetly observed them as they came to post their mail. Thompson continued her habit of solitude, roaming the heaths and forests of the region and developing her naturalist's eye. She lived independently for the first time when she moved from lodgings with the Grayshott postmaster's family to her own bedsitting room in 1901.
At 24, she married John Thompson, a post-office clerk from Aldershott, recently transferred to the main post office in Bournemouth, where she began her married life. She soon learned that her husband's family, influenced by the new middle-class suburban mass culture emerging in the early years of the 20th century, looked down upon her "cottage" origins and regarded her compulsion to read and write as an oddity and a waste of time. Her husband, too, disapproved of her writing, and since she soon had two children, Basil and Winifred , to care for, she had little leisure to pursue this pleasure. Nonetheless, Flora used the free library at Bournemouth to continue her reading, and when her children had grown beyond infancy began her writing again secretly.
She was surprised when an essay on Jane Austen she had submitted for a competition in a women's newspaper won a prize. When she sent the paper another article and a short story which were accepted and for which she was paid, her husband had a change of heart about her writing. As long as it paid and did not interfere with her home duties, her writing was tolerated, if not valued and encouraged. Her writing, at this stage, assumed two different directions: she found she could easily write and sell what she called "small, sugared love stories" to earn enough to give her children a good education; and she wrote verse to please herself, for her secret ambition was to become a poet.
During this time, she made the one literary friendship of her life. For a contest, she submitted a critical essay on an ode published in The Literary Monthly about the Titanic disaster by Ronald Campbell Macfie, a Scottish physician and poet, who was so impressed with her winning entry that he wrote to her. A correspondence developed between them, and he encouraged her to continue her writing. Flora Thompson's friendship with Macfie continued until his death 20 years later. She remembered him as the only person who had given her encouragement and confidence to pursue her ambition to become a poet.
To be born in poverty is a terrible handicap to a writer. I often say to myself that it has taken one lifetime for me to prepare to make a start. If human life lasted two hundred years I might hope to accomplish something.
The years of the First World War brought many changes to Thompson's life. In 1916, John Thompson was promoted to a subpostmastership at Liphook, in Hampshire, and the family moved. There, Flora helped the war effort by sorting extra mail and filling in at the post office for a clerk who had been drafted. She was devastated by grief when her brother Edwin, who played so large a part in her memories of childhood, was killed in action. Then, at 41, she gave birth to her last child, Peter. She had been unable to write since Edwin's death, but when the war was over and her older children were at good day schools as a result of her earnings, she began to write again. With Macfie's encouragement, she collected her verses and sent them to a publisher. The collection, Bog Myrtle and Peat, was dedicated to Dr. Macfie and published in 1921. Although the book was favorably reviewed, it failed to sell, and Flora Thompson remained relatively unknown as a poet.
She was more successful with her prose: she sent several nature essays to The Catholic Fireside, which were so well received by readers that she continued the series for eight years; many of these pieces have been collected by Margaret Lane and published as A Country Calendar. Thompson also wrote occasional essays for The Daily News and various women's magazines. In 1924, she founded the Peveral Society, a roundrobin postal club through which writers could find something of the kind of literary community she missed so much in her own life. Members circulated their work and wrote critiques of one another's efforts. She felt so strongly the importance of the Society in encouraging aspiring writers that she worked for it assiduously for the next 18 years.
In 1928, John Thompson was once again transferred, this time to Dartmouth, where Flora was to spend the next 12 years of her life in relative seclusion, her contacts with the outside world limited to members of the Peveral Society. She began to write several novels, but none satisfied her. One of them, "Heatherly," based on her years at Grayshott before her marriage, tells the story of Laura's young adulthood, but Thompson later decided not to offer it to her publishers. It is still unpublished. Then in the '30s, she began to write sketches of her childhood. "Old Queenie: A Memory" was published in Lady in 1937, and "An Oxfordshire Hamlet in the 'Eighties" and "May Day in the 'Eighties" were published in the National Review in 1937 and 1938. She was encouraged to send these and similar pieces to the Oxford University Press, where Sir Humphrey Milford urged her to expand the pieces to make a book.
Thompson worked steadily on what was to become Lark Rise. Her purpose, explained in an unpublished letter, was to give a "true picture of the people and time … to describe things exactly as they were, without sentimentalizing or dramatizing." A book that blurs the distinctions between fiction, autobiography, the personal essay, and social history, it presents what modern anthropologists would call "thick description" of a culture and way of life that had vanished by the time Thompson recorded it. Through her gift for portraiture, Thompson painted unforgettable characters like Old Sally and Dick, survivors of hard times through their labor and frugality, and Old Queenie, the lacemaker and beekeeper. These characters represent the last generation of the self-sufficient English peasantry, which suffered heavily but endured into the 19th century, after the Enclosure Acts had denied them use of "common" land for farming and grazing; as a class, they did not survive the Industrial Revolution. Thompson also describes the cottage interiors of the hamlet, inventories the belongings of the typical farm laborer's household, and recounts the activities in the ordinary day of the laborer and his family. She recalls childhood games and songs, and records in detail traditional folk celebrations such as May Day and Harvest Home, as well as new celebrations such as Queen Victoria 's Jubilee. When Lark Rise was published in 1939, it received universal praise in important reviews. At 63, Flora Thompson had realized her dream of being recognized as a writer.
She immediately began work on Over to Candleford, the second book in what was to become a trilogy, which places life at Juniper Hill in the context of a larger outside world and chronicles Laura's development as she moves beyond the hamlet to visit and spend summer holidays with relatives in the small market town of Candleford, where there are shops, pavements, and a railway station. As Lark Rise memorializes the vanishing peasantry, so Over to Candleford depicts another class on the verge of extinction, the artisans who make and sell their own products in small town shops. Laura's Uncle Tom, modeled on Flora's uncle Recab Holland, was a cobbler or "snob" in Buckingham, who liked to have his bookworm niece read to him from Elizabeth Gaskell 's Cranford as he cut and stitched away at the boots he made in his shop for the local gentry. Over to Candleford was published in 1941 and warmly received by the growing audience established by the popularity of Lark Rise.
In 1940, John Thompson retired, and the Thompsons moved to a cottage at Brixham. Their children were grown; Basil had left England to farm in Australia and Winifred was a nurse in Bristol. Flora was to suffer for a second time the numbing grief she felt after her brother Edwin was killed in World War I: her son Peter, who had joined the Merchant Navy, was killed in 1941 when his convoy ship was torpedoed in the Atlantic. She never fully recovered from this tragedy, but she forced herself to return to work and finished the last book of the trilogy, Candleford Green, published in 1943, which recounts Laura's life as assistant to the village postmistress from age 14 to about 20. In 1945, the three books based on her childhood and early youth were published in a single volume, the form in which they are usually read today.
With the publication of Lark Rise, Flora Thompson gained a small but enthusiastic and devoted readership. By the time her audience became curious enough to wish to know about the life of this "new" writer, Flora Thompson had died, at age 70, having had little opportunity to savor the literary achievement she had spent virtually her whole life preparing for, and apparently having little wish to share the details of the life she had lived for the last 50 years. Her last book, Still Glides the Stream, which she completed only weeks before her death, was published in 1948, a year after she died alone in her room at Brixton in May 1947. Since her death, Lark Rise to Candleford (in various editions) has been continuously in print, and appreciation of Flora Thompson's unique talent and achievement has grown. Her book has been used in England as a school text for both historical and literary classes, and in 1978, a study guide to Lark Rise to Candleford was published for students preparing for curriculum examinations in English schools. When the Illustrated Lark Rise to Candleford was published in 1983, it was on the Times bestseller list for 31 weeks. Flora Thompson's book, 60 years in the making, has remained both a popular success and a classic literary and historical work.
English, Barbara. "Lark Rise and Juniper Hill: A Victorian Community in Literature and History," in Victorian Studies. Vol. 29. Autumn 1985, pp. 7–34.
Lane, Margaret. "Introduction" to Flora Thompson: A Country Calendar and Other Writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Massingham, H.J. "Introduction" to Lark Rise to Candleford: A Trilogy by Flora Thompson. Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1973.
Lindsay, Gillian. Flora Thompson: The Story of the Lark Rise Writer. Robert Hale, 1990.
Thompson, Flora. A Country Calendar and Other Writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.
——. Lark Rise to Candleford. Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1973.
Dewhurst, Keith, and the Albion Band. "Lark Rise to Candleford: A Country Tapestry" (Charisma Records, 1979).
Dewhurst, Keith. Lark Rise to Candleford (play script). London: Hutchinson, 1980.
Lane, Margaret. "Flora Thompson," radio script published in the Periodical. Vol. 31, 1956, pp. 209–214.
Patricia B. Heaman , Professor of English, Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania