Today’s book and garden tour finds us in a tucked away garden in Multnomah Village, with a vintage 1945 copy of Flora Thompson’s memoirs: Lark Rise to Candleford.
The garden is one of my peaceful pleasures in the midst of the city—it sits snugly in the backyard of Jacqueline’s ‘Found and Fabulous’ of Multnomah Village, full of soothing fountains at every turn, romantic statuary, and the most pristine of plantings.
This is one of the best garden destinations in town. Not to be missed is the interior of the house–a charming old 1910 bungalow–a shop that offers a variety of expertly curated goods for home and garden.
Now for the book: Every bit of Flora Thompson’s beautifully voiced memoir of growing up in rural England is a delight to read, but my seasonal choice for this garden tour is the chapter titled ‘Summer Holiday’.
The account places us sometime in the 1890’s, and it is when little Laura and her younger brother, Edmund, are allowed to take their first walk–without an adult–to go visit their cousins at Candleford. They travel a distance of eight exhilarating miles over summer dusty country lanes.
‘They—[Laura and her brother]—knew every slight rise in the fields and the moist lower places where the young wheat grew taller and greener, and the bank where the white violets grew and the speciality of every hedgerow—honeysuckle, crab-apples, misty purple sloes, or long trails of white bryony berries through which the sun shone crimson as it did through the window at church…And they knew the sounds of the different seasons, the skylarks singing high up out of sight over the green corn, the loud, metallic chirring of the mechanical reaper…and the rush of wings as the starlings wheeled in flocks over the stripped stubble.’
What a beautiful world Thompson recalls for us. It is though she has–in memory–the equivalent of perfect pitch. The only other poetic chronicler of youthful days I know of to equal her is Laurie Lee.
Thompson published her first memoir, Lark Rise, in 1939. It faithfully recorded a pre-Great War vanished world—her childhood spent as Flora Timms in Oxfordshire, daughter of Albert Timms, stonemason. Two sequels followed quickly, as the public was hungry to remember What It Had Been Like Then: Over to Candleford (1941) and Candleford Green (1943). (My 1945 London Reprints edition of tiny print and fragile paper has all three bound together.)
Attempts at biography have been many, but the reality was that Flora was an intensely private person. What we know of her, and indeed, what she wanted us to know of her—was chiefly from the luminous accounting of the young girl—‘Laura’. The timing of this memoir is significant, and particularly poignant, as it covers the decades both before and after the Great War. What a difference in worlds!
An interesting distinction is made by the author between an English hamlet, and a village. The hamlet of Lark Rise is where Laura’s gently impoverished family lived, and the nearby village of Candleford is where her cousins lived in slightly better circumstances, and, socially speaking, in a richer, more varied world.
A hamlet, in Laura’s case, consisted of about thirty cottages. Everyone who inhabited these cottages was of the same general income and outlook; poor but proud, simple in habits but clean and well fed from their own gardens and pigsty. Their means of life and brief entertainments revolved around the rhythms of nature.
‘In spite of their poverty,’ she writes, ‘they were not unhappy, though poor, there was nothing sordid about their lives. They had their home-cured bacon, their “bit o’ leanings” their small wheat or barley patch on the allotment; their knowledge of herbs for their homely simples, and the wild fruits and berries of the countryside for jam, jellies, and wine, and round about them as part of their lives were the last relics of country customs and the last echoes of country songs, ballads, and game rhymes. This last picking, though meagre, was sweet’.
This chapter ‘Summer Visits’ is also a favorite because this is the occasion when Laura first discovers books. After they have arrived on their visit to cousins in the village of Candleford, Laura is once left alone in the attic where the children have been playing dress up in the old clothes they found there. Laura, in aged bridal finery, ponders her reflection in ‘the tall, cracked mirror’…
‘But her own reflection did not hold her more than a moment, for she saw in the glass a recess she had not noticed before packed with books. Books on shelves, books in piles on the floor, and still other books in heaps, higgledy-piggledy, as though they had been turned out of sacks…That attic was very quiet for the next quarter of an hour, for Laura, still in her bridal veil, was down on her knees on the bare boards, as happy and busy as a young foal in a field of green corn….’
Oh, does that sound lovely! And rather familiar—although I can’t say ‘me and my olfactory receptors’ could ever be lost in a book while wearing bridal ‘finery’ made up of old, musty nineteenth century lace. Or carry–as did Laura–an ancient feather duster standing in for the bridal bouquet. Fits of sneezing ensure that one doesn’t stay lost behind a stack of books for too long. But that’s twenty-first century reality—what was I thinking? Back to the delights of Candleford:
“Laura’s a bookworm, a bookworm, a bookworm!” Amy sang to her sisters with the air of having made an astonishing discovery, and Laura wondered if a bookworm might not be something unpleasant until she added: “A bookworm, like Father.”
After the heady discovery of Uncle Tom’s books in the attic—who I’m happy to say generously shares his books with the delighted Laura—there are boat outings on the river, taking their tea in the fields, and of course, more reading.
‘It was just as pleasant to take out their tea in the fields (Laura’s first experience of picnics), or to explore the thickets on the river banks, or to sit quietly in the boat and read when all the others were busy. Several times their uncle took them out for a row, right up the stream where it grew narrower and narrower and the banks lower and lower until they seemed to be floating on green fields…They had taken their own lunch, which they ate in the field, but at tea-time they were called in by the farmer’s wife to such a tea as Laura had never dreamed of. There were fried ham and eggs, cakes and scones and stewed plums and cream, jam and jelly and junket, and the table spread in a room as large as their whole house at home, with three windows with window seats in a row, and a cool, stone-flagged floor….’
‘Afterwards they straggled home through the dusk with a corncrake whirring and cockchafers and moths hitting their faces, and saw the lights of the town coming out, one by one, like golden flowers, as they entered.’
Jumping ahead in the book just for a fitting conclusion to our brief tour, we find a slightly older Laura, engaged in thoughtful reflections on many such summers of plenty from Lark Rise to Candleford…(oh, and not-so-surprisingly, there we have gossamer again!)
‘As she went her way, gossamer threads, spun from bush to bush, barricaded her pathway, and as she broke through one after another of these fairy barricades she thought, “They’re trying to bind and keep me.” But the threads which were to bind her to her native country were more enduring than gossamer. They were spun of love and kinship and cherished memories.’
To read memoirs such as these, is to think deeply about what life used to be like, and what life could be like again. Oh if only we, as the human race, would spin enduring threads ‘of love and kinship and cherished memories’.
Can it be done? Yes. It will be done.