While browsing through the selection of British television shows on HuluPlus, I came across a period costume drama called “Lark Rise to Candleford”, which was suggested to me because I enjoyed watching “Cranford” and “Downton Abbey”.
From the very first episode, I knew I would love this series and its country charms. It reminded me pleasantly of my childhood spent watching the Canadian Sullivan Entertainment production “Avonlea”, a continuing story of the village where Anne of Green Gables lived, which aired on The Disney Channel for seven seasons.
The setting of Lark Rise is a small hamlet in Oxfordshire, England, in the 1880’s. The story highlights the rural lives of farm workers and their families, contrasted with the gentry ensconced away in their manor homes, and also with the tradesmen who live in nearby villages.
The television show, which is highly addictive, lasted for four seasons (2008-2011), and focuses on the relationships between people. Social class plays a major role in these relationships, as do personal romantic feelings, and the ambitions of those who recognized that the Industrial Revolution would soon change the quiet country landscape.
Without a doubt, my favorite character was Dorcus Lane, Candleford’s postmistress, who was brilliantly portrayed by Julia Sawalha… although the entire cast was stellar, even down to the guest stars.
I just fell in love with Dorcus, although I couldn’t help but consider her as an all-grown-up Lydia Bennet. (Julia’s role in the 1995 Pride & Prejudice mini-series, starring Colin Firth).
She even had the same mischievous twinkle in her eye and saucy smile. :)
I devoured the entire series online, watching 2-3 episodes nightly, rather than going to bed at a reasonable hour. ;)
I’ve watched many costume dramas and read many 19th century novels, but where London poverty and country estates have often been recounted, I knew little about hamlet life until “Lark Rise”.
The television show, however, only gives a shallow glimpse into the much deeper well of these rural hamlets, and the poverty of agricultural workers. We know the characters are poor and struggling, but little is really known about their daily lives because the show centers on their relationships.
When I finished the 4th season, and suffered a minor withdrawal from lack of Lark Rise… it was my first instinct to find the finctionalized autobiographical novels by Flora Thompson on which the mini-series was based.
I was much too impatient to wait, so I found an eBook version of the trilogy “Lark Rise, Over to Candleford, and Candleford Green” and purchased it for the Kindle app I had downloaded eons ago and never used.
(I’ve never purchased an eBook before on principle, so it was definitely worth noting that I succumbed to instant gratification over the pride of adding another paperback to my library.)
Flora had herself lived in a small hamlet in Oxfordshire, called Juniper Hill, and was raised in a stonemason’s family… her life paralleling the fictional character of Laura Timmons. Flora became an apprentice to a postmistress in a neighboring village, and continued working in various post offices until she married and took up writing.
Within the first two chapters, I realized this book vaguely resembled the television show, with less focus on specific characters, and more detailed attention paid to chronicling the lives of poor hamlet dwellers.
It makes sense as Flora originally wrote “Lark Rise” as a series of essays, and each chapter reads as an independent account of their limitations and struggles.
Some readers might be disappointed by this, but I relish learning more about the social history of English peasants.
Each man of the hamlet, unless trained in some craft (like Flora’s father, the stonemason) was required to work in the fields belonging to a local farmer. They plowed, planted, tended to, and harvested the farmer’s wheat field (and were allowed to gather what remained behind the plow for their own winter harvest, a process called “gleaning”).
The weekly wage for every man working the field was 10 shillings. Regardless how young or old, or how many children they had to feed, they each received 10 shillings per week. The wife was responsible for paying bills and tending to the household needs with this money.
The cottages were not owned by the inhabitants, rather they paid 1-2 shillings per week to a landlord. Heating coal was another shilling, and also one needed a pint of paraffin for lighting. Men received a shilling of “pocket money” allowance to spend on beer and tobacco.
I was surprised to learn that hamlet dwellers did NOT raise livestock, such as sheep, goats, cows, etc.
Although each family did keep one pig, which was butchered at the end of the season, and its meat cured into bacon which they rationed out one square per day at the “hot meal” (i.e. suppertime).
Each member of the family received one small cut… from ONE SLICE of bacon!
Eggs, milk, butter, meat, sugar, and so forth all had to be purchased from the farmer and miller. Milk was sold at a penny per pint, and eggs were sold 20 per shilling when plentiful. The wheat flour came from the harvest “gleanings” which the hamlet folk sent away to the miller for grinding, and he took his payment from the flour before shipping it back in bushels.
They could rarely afford meat, aside from their bacon slice, so they ate bread for lunch, buttered or spread with jam… or “sop bread” which was steeped in boiling water, strained, and sugared. And the jam roly-poly, a sweet concoction which was usually served first at dinner to take the edge off the appetite.
You know how parents insist that “eating dessert first will spoil your dinner”… well, when dinner consisted of a few vegetables and a small taste of bacon, the appetite needed a little spoiling! ;)
Each home had a small piece of land attached, which the landlord allowed them to till, so every family had a garden plot. They grew all of their vegetables ~ potatoes, wheat, barley, celery, peas, beans, cauliflowers, and currant and gooseberry bushes. They ate whichever vegetables were growing in season.
The most expensive necessities were cloth and boots. Clothing was passed down among the family members, but tended to wear out from heavy use. Sometimes women would receive handed-down clothing from female relatives in service as housekeepers and governesses.
Many women paid into a “boot club”, putting aside a few pennies when they could with the merchant, which were matched by charitable donations, until such time as needed to buy boots.
If the women complained about the strains on their expenses, the men would say:
“You must learn to cut your coat accordin’ to your cloth, my gal.”
The coats not only needed expert cutting, but should have been made of elastic.
Another thing I did not realize from watching the television show was that only a few cottages had access to well water. I just assumed everyone had their own well.
Only three out of thirty homes had a well. Everyone else had to visit the farmer’s well half a mile down the road. They also collected water from the brook a quarter mile away to tend to their little gardens.
“It’s no good stintin’ the land. If you wants anything out you’ve got to put summat in, if ’tis only elbow grease.”
Each little cottage kept a rain bucket to collect the water from the roof when it rained. They would use rainwater to bathe themselves and wash laundry.
I mulled over these things while I tossed clothes into my electric washing machine, and went downstairs to heat water for coffee. My husband greeted me with a rant about the electric bill, and ways we should conserve energy.
In my sarcastic manner, I suggested we move to a hamlet and live on 10 shillings a week. He just looked at me as if I’d lost my senses. But he is used to my humor. ;)
Flora noted that the hamlet folk always sang while they worked.
While writing “Lark Rise” in 1939, she pointed out…
“People were poorer and had not the comforts, amusements, or knowledge, we have today; but they were happier. Which seems to suggest that happiness depends more upon the state of mind and body, perhaps than upon circumstances and events.”
She compares the situations of her childhood with the “modern” conveniences of World War I era Britain. Flora never dreamed that we would find such amusements and knowledge in the form of the internet, smart phones, and computers. She would not have known that her own comfortable environment would seem nearly as antiquated to her readers as her ruminations of Juniper Hill.
However many comforts and conveniences we have gained, we have not become happier people. This is something to especially think about during the time of year when we frantically rush about to amass gifts and spend more money than some people could earn in a lifetime.
People lived on 10 shillings per week, ate tiny slices of bacon with vegetables, and bathed in rainwater…. and they were still happy people who kicked up their heels and danced and sang.
Perhaps we should be seeking to find happiness, instead of giving ourselves things that replace our joy.