Paperback: 528 pages
Publisher: Folio Socienty
ISBN-10: (The Folio Society doesn't do ISBNs)
Category(ies): Fiction, Social History
I should have read this about 35 years ago - at least, that's when I was being told to read it by the rest of my family. The reason I was being told to read it was at least partly because it is set in the same, small part of England that I come from. And it is a small strip: although occasional mentions may be made of distant places, the actual characters are not seen outside an area less than 10 miles by 5. However, somehow I resisted, and it's taken till now for me to amend this short-sightedness. I should also note that I saw the first two seasons of the derived TV series before I finished reading this, somewhat to my occasional confusion, and I shall mention a few of the places where that TV series is different from the books.
Firstly, this is a trilogy of books in one volume: Lark Rise, Over To Candleford, and Candleford Green. Each shows something different, each concentrating on a different community at the end of the 19th Century, but it's as a whole that the three work best, allowing the reader to compare and contrast the three, and to see how all were changing.
The first, and largest at almost half the total page count, Lark Rise takes place in a small hamlet. Or perhaps, I should say, portrays the life in a small farming hamlet, because it is not concerned with story, more with being a portrait of what life was like then. (Oxford University Press published this book, at a time when they didn't publish fiction, recognising that this is lightly fictionalised memoir.) The young Laura (Flora's point of view, as she retells what it was like from around half a century later) is that of a small child, playing in the fields, and going to that new-fangled institution, the local school in the mother village of Fordlow (not, by the way, a place with which Lark Rise is at odds). It's a pastoral view, with Laura finding childish happiness among grinding rural poverty. A few incidents occur, but it's mostly in and around the hamlet, its fields and its hedgerows. Laura's father goes off to the local town (not Candleford, but rather a here-unnamed Brackley, which is about half the distance) on occasion, but Laura herself doesn't go far.
The second, Over To Candleford, tells of summer trips to the relative metropolis of Candleford, somewhere that has mains gas and railways and is a whole world away from small village life. This is when the twelve year old Laura and her younger brother walk all the way to the big city, or at least, all the way to the biggest town in the region, and spends long languorous holidays with their uncle James Dowland (not a Lark Rise boy made good, but her mother's brother). Here we see the late Victorian urban life, very different from the soon-to-disappear rural version that Laura is used to.
And the third, Candleford Green, tells of Laura's time working in the Post Office in a village not far from Candleford (this is a place where the TV series just conflates three places: the Candleford of the series is basically Candleford Green, with the series completely abandoning any attempt to portray the important town with all its modern features, and the Lark Rise characters are dropping in for the shops, which is what Brackley/'the market town'' was used for in the books). Here is where we finally encounter Dorcas Lane, and many of the various other characters that appear in the series. It's notable how closely Laura's portrait has actually been used, for although the book version of Dorcas is a bit older than Julia Sawalha's one, the similarity is pretty good). There are differences, of course, with there being a number of postmen and women rather than just Thomas. Laura only gets to go a delivering once one of the postwomen has to go off to Dartmoor to retrieve her ill husband from the prison. Candleford Green as a place doesn't have the intensity of Candleford, but it's also a bigger place than Lark Rise, and has such events as country fairs and the like. It's here that Laura grows up, though she is a bit exploited by Dorcas, ending up failing to go back to Lark Rise, or to visit her relatives in nearby Candleford, for months.
It is as description that these books work: they lyricise the particular countryside to the west of Buckingham. There is an extraordinarily strong sense of place (something the series rather fails on, since in an effort to find a place where the 19th Century could be recreated, they have to move far, far away from the Bucks/Oxon/Northants borders with their small scale scenery, ending up with almost downland hills instead), and this is a loving telling of what the period was like, good points and bad. By placing a semi-fictionalised Laura in it, Flora allows her adult voice to give the reader wider information without having a precocious, or knowing, first person point of view. There is little story per se, though some incidents that take maybe half a page end up becoming an entire hour of television.
And on the subject of the TV series: there are many places where it actually contradicts what happens in the books. For instance, in the series, Laura's father needs an extra day to decide whether to move on once his work in the area is down. In the books, he doesn't move on because by then, he's both married and a father. The series is more inspired by the books than actually retelling them, which is the nature of them: without adding actual story, you cannot dramatise them. But there are occasions when I detect a certain unsureness in the writers compared to the original.
I will be rereading this. My sister Dorcas (not to be confused etc.) apparently does so every couple of years.