Inspiring Older Readers
The archaeology of working class writing : part seven Flora Thompson
The first half a dozen articles in the series have focussed largely on writers that have virtually no public profile – an anonymity foisted on them by a middle class publishing establishment. However, for reasons I still haven’t been able to work out, the occasional working class writer manages to break through this literary glass ceiling and become both a best seller and such a public favourite that television adaptations follow.
Such was the fate awaiting Flora Thompson. Born Flora Timms in 1876, she was the oldest of six surviving children (six others died) born to Albert and Emma Timms who lived in rural Oxfordshire. Albert was a stonemason and Emma a housekeeper and from all accounts they lived very typical and largely unremarkable working class existence. Flora left school, as most children did, at the age of 14 and became a counter clerk in the Post Office – a job she did for many years in different locations.
She married John Thompson, another Post Office worker, in 1903, moved to Bournemouth and had three children of her own. She died in 1947. This seemingly mundane story of an ordinary life gives us very few hints that there was something pretty extraordinary going on in Flora Thompson’s life. It turns out that she had a talent for writing that was demanding an audience.
Although she had no formal training in writing and her education had been cursory, by 1911 she had written an essay on Jane Austen that won a competition in the Ladies Companion. Other pieces followed to a variety of newspapers and magazines but it was in 1938 that she submitted to the Oxford University the first part of what would become her classic work of autobiography – Lark Rise. She followed this with two more instalments, Over To Candleford and Candleford Green. In 1945 these were republished together in one volume under the title most people are now familiar with, Lark Rise To Candleford.
The recounting of her rural Oxfordshire childhood could easily have become sentimental but it never does, she is a skilled technician by instinct and she knows not to romanticise circumstances that were far from romantic. Many critics refer to her fantastic attention to detail – this isn’t a trilogy about big dramas but the smaller, no less important pulses of everyday life.
The famous naturalist Richard Mabey writing in The Guardian in 2008 makes the important observation that Thompson’s almost forensic capacity for detail comes from her sense of detachment, a point of view enhanced by her own journey from poverty to relative social stability. Mabey says:
Her sense of dislocation, of drifting away from her roots to become an onlooker, helped give her the perspective to create what is perhaps the most intimate and persuasive account of the old rural order just before its transformation by modernism. Lark Rise is remarkable because of this point of view. Other writers have given us sympathetic descriptions of traditional rural life - George Bourne in Change in the Village (1912), for example, Mary Russell Mitford's Our Village (1824-32) and, in fiction, Elizabeth Gaskell (the bookish Laura dotes on Cranford). But these were all witnesses from a background of relative gentility, not possessed of "the indigenous eye". Thompson was exceptional in being a child of the rural working class. As Margaret Lane has written, "She was able to write the annals of the poor because she was one of them."
In this series of short articles about working class writers I have always emphasised the way in which they inhabit an often closed world that doesn’t get the light of public attention and certainly falls outside the parameters of what the middle class dominated publishing industry think is valuable or interesting. Flora Thompson bucks that trend and helps to highlight just what the working class writer is capable of.