Flora Timms

 

Flora J. Timms

Juniper, Cottisford, Oxford

Name

Relation to Head of Family

Condition as to Marriage

Age last birthday

Rank, profession or occupation

Where born

Albert Timms

Head

M

26

Stone Mason

Buckingham

Emma Timms

Wife

M

27

?

Ardley, Oxford

Flora J. Timms

Daur

U

4

?

Cottisford, Oxford

Edwin Timms

Son

U

1

?

Cottisford, Oxford

She jabbers to the baby, tells him the tale of the donkey-cart, the names of the flowers and the plants, the trees, oak, ash, alder, the wheat and the barley in the fields, the melting buttercups. He marches unsteadily behind her, as they splash through the mud, or run and stumble, giggling, towards the corn-field where the sky-larks nest. Theirs is the end-house of the row. Flora can remember when it was a black wicker three-wheeler she was running alongside, with Edwin strapped in; that was only six months since. Mother's pride and joy, that carriage, the only one of its kind in the row. Now Edwin is able to chase her. Not that he'll catch her. The road is rarely the province of people; and the only vehicles Flora ever sees are the gig the doctor uses, and the clumsy vans of the local tradesmen and the beer-man. Otherwise, the road hums with insects, is bright with wild spring flowers. White dead-nettle. Sunlight-soaked celandines. Harebells and lady's glove. Eyebright and succory. Down the road, Flora keeps one eye out for the squirrels and rabbits, and another, warier eye for stoats. Once she has seen a fox, blithely sleeping in the ditch. But what frighten her most - a delicious and interesting terror - are the gypsies in the dell, with the faded paint on their caravan, the exhausted old horse, and the tumble of their children. People say that they captured a little child from nearby, and kept it. Mother has told her, laughing, not to worry. There is honeysuckle in her hat. Her long skirt rustles; there are rows of thin brown velvet stitched around it. Haven't they enough children of their own? She thinks of Mother's call, and repeats it to Edwin: "Keep to the grinsard!"

Flora Jane Timms, the unbridled child, is known to us as Flora Thompson, and for her books,Lark Rise, Over To Candleford, and Candleford Green (eventually published as Lark Rise To Candleford). She was born on December 5th 1876, the first child of Emma Dibber and Alfred Timms. Timms was a stone-mason, like his father, and had worked on the restoration of churches (although he himself was not a believer). It was through work like this that he met his wife, and it was creative masonry which he craved. But Timms was a surly and temperamental man, a drinker, a man who believed he had missed out on an inheritance. It wasn't long before his carvings were consigned to the grass behind the end-cottage in which they lived, until he was simply the local builder, and his meagre income was on a par with the others in the tiny hamlet of Juniper. Flora and her brother Edwin (there were to be eight more pregnancies) were inquisitive children who lived in each other's company, at least until the number of children required Flora to become something of an assistant mother. Shy in company - throughout her life she was ill at ease at social occasions - Flora nevertheless had the knack of drawing out yarns and memories from the older locals. They could recall a time when the land was not enclosed, when country traditions - like those recorded by both Lawrence and Hardy - were perpetuated. Flora and Edwin were also highly knowledgeable about the flowers, birds and creatures they encountered on their walks.

Flora was first taught to read by Albert, and thereafter became the butt of local jokes about her obsession with reading. She did well at school, although not in the talents (like embroidery) expected of young girls. Her fiercely independent streak first showed itself when she refused to go into service (the natural expectation for a young country girl, indeed almost the only expectation). At thirteen, she found her niche working for a Mrs. Kesia Whitton, a friend of her mother's. She was offered the chance to work as an assistant at the post office in Fringford, a village a few miles away. Mrs. Whitton, all of eighteen stone, was managing not only the post office but the local forge. This gave Flora the chance to show her organisational skills - and also, during lulls in what was effectively a seven-day week, to read. She had to be up to collect the mail delivered to the post office, and sort it for the local carriers (uniformed postmen and women were not employed for another ten years). This placed her in a position at the centre of a community, and gave her the privilege of knowing the gossip and the secrets. In 1890, she also began to manage the newly-fangled electric telegraph.

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Fringford gave her occasional access to the library at Bicester, and to "penny readings" in the village, in which a series of classics were read to the assembled listeners. Her work also involved, on occasion, writing letters for the less literate, for the Irish road-workers, for the shy, for the gypsies. It was in Fringford that she had her fortune famously told. A gypsy called Cinderella Doe told her she would be "loved by people she had never seen and never would see." In the 1890s, she worked as a letter carrier herself, setting out with flowers wreathed round an old straw hat, and dodging an over-amorous gamekeeper. In 1897, Flora took the bold step of handing in her notice, and moved briefly to Twyford, in neighbouring Berkshire; to Halstead, in Essex (where she saw her first film); and then, more ambitiously, to the village of Grayshott in Hampshire. Here her skills with the telegraph gained her the position of post office clerk. Flora arrived with a jaunty hat which had set her back 10/6. She was now too far from Juniper to see her family (and her brother Edwin, having joined the army, was in South Africa).

Grayshott's postmaster, Walter Chapman, was also a local furniture-maker. But he was a sinister and abusive husband, and Flora had at first (as their lodger) to endure Chapman's constant harassment of Emily, his wife. She also had to live with the stress of being responsible for bringing the news of the war - its progress and its tragedies - to Grayshott, at a time when she feared for Edwin. Nevertheless, Grayshott was an amazing place to have landed. Four prominent writers used the post-office - Grant Allen, the Canadian free-thinker who had scandalised readers by supporting free love, and out-and-out atheism; Richard Le Gallienne, a noted contributor to the aestheticist Yellow Book; Arthur Conan Doyle; and the recently-married George Bernard Shaw. From behind her humble counter, Flora eavesdropped politely on their literary gossip. (She also quietly destroyed her first attempts at writing.)

Still determinedly independent, Flora took long walks when she could in the local countryside, where she met groups of broom-cutters, some of the last of their kind. Her trips were the source of local amazement, bordering on disapproval. She was, she knew, not far from the world of the eighteenth century writer Gilbert White, whose Natural History of Selborne she loved (Selborne was only sixteen miles away). This pleased her more than the vogues for bicycle-riding, and the taking of photographs (she loathed photographs). Working at the Grayshott post office became insupportable because of Chapman, who fired a gun in the middle of the night, and suggested Flora was in league with his enemies. Flora gave in her notice; the paranoid Chapman later stabbed his wife to death. By the time of the trial, she was in Aldershot. Chapman was found guilty, but insane.

It was 1901. During one of her itinerant jobs, filling in for post office assistants, she met John Thompson, a sorting clerk and telegraphist, briefly working in Aldershot. In January 1903, they were married; they moved to his main place of work, Bournemouth. As a married woman, she had to relinquish her work. Her first child, Winifred, was born at the end of the year (Winifred incidentally ditched the name in later life in favour of 'Diana'). She adjusted gradually to Bournemouth, which had a special attraction - it had only the second public library in the country to allow open access to its shelves (in most libraries, browsing was out. You submitted requests for particular books). And she persisted with her country walks.

In 1907, Edwin returned at last, and Flora made her first visit back to Juniper for eleven years in 1909, knowing that Edwin was ready to emigrate to Canada. Flora was pregnant with her second child, Basil; Edwin was tanned and also busy (he was working in the fields for much of the time). It was an emotional reunion; but neither realised it would be their last. Edwin did return to England again in 1914, but Flora was too busy nursing Winifred and Basil through whooping cough. In 1915, three weeks after arrival in France, Edwin became an early casualty of the Western Front.

By now, Flora had discovered a new force in her life. She began subscribing to Ladies Companion, a sentimental monthly magazine with a literary bent. In 1910, having persuaded John that their finances could stretch to a typewriter, she entered a competition (it was to write three hundred words extolling the virtues of Jane Austen). Her entry, a careful, anodyne and pertinent piece, won first prize. By the end of 1911, she was a regular winner, and began tentatively to submit short stories, which were taken. She also won a competition for a commentary on a poem about the loss of the Titanic, written by Ronald Campbell Macfie; Macfie took it upon herself to congratulate her in person, and remained her crucial enthusiast for the rest of her life. Her husband John was less impressed. It was to be many years before he accepted her instinct to write.

Flora and Winifred in 1906

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The war also halted her first literary attempts. Her husband took the post of postmaster at Liphook - only five miles from Grayshott. Flora found herself once again a letter carrier, and once again obliged to deliver bad news as well as good. In 1918, her second son, Peter, was born; her father Albert died in the same year, but there was no possibility of her travelling to the funeral. Money was impossibly tight. It was only when she began to contribute a series of pieces on the nature she observed around Liphook - to the small magazine, The Catholic Fireside - that she began to gain some small kind of financial independence. It was a series so successful that it lasted for several years. It provided her with the knowledge of her ability (as against the publication in 1921 of her fairly inconsequential poems did the opposite). Other magazines and newspapers began to accept her articles, and Flora also found the perfect outlet for her retiring, modest, rather secretive self. She worked as a ghost-writer for a big-game hunter. She also co-founded an association - almost a correspondence course - for would-be writers, called The Peverel Society. This too lasted for almost two decades.

The Liphook idyll came to an end in 1928, when John became the postmaster at Dartmouth, in Devon. It meant leaving the first house they had bought (Flora took a deliberate year to sell it). It meant leaving her beloved Hampshire. All the same, Flora took well enough to her new home, which looked out over the Dart estuary, and which gave her a new world to explore, that of the harbour. Her only set-back in this time was the sudden death of her mentor, Macfie. Quietly she inscribed the words of Iras, Cleopatra's servant in Shakespeare's play, in the flyleaf of a book: "The bright day is done; and we are for the dark." Ironically, the opposite was true of her long-simmering literary career, although the novel she completed dissatisfied her. She never sent it to a publisher.

Her major break-through came with the publication in The Lady, in 1937, of a sketch of "Old Queenie", her next-door neighbour in Juniper. "Old Queenie" was a labourer's wife called Eliza Massey; she made lace; she kept bees. (She had in fact ended her days in Bicester workhouse, experiencing only one triumphant moment, when chaired through the streets on the day of Edward VII's coronation in 1902 - in recognition of the fact that she'd been married on the day of Queen Victoria's coronation in 1837). A second piece, about May Day, was accepted by the Fortnightly Review. Out of these pieces, and her shelved novel, cameLark Rise. Lark Rise, published in 1939, is a fictional account of her childhood in Juniper, conflating events, and sometimes people, but essentially faithful to her childhood life. She hit on the trick of writing about herself in the third person ("Laura" - Edwin is "Edmund"). A memoir; a fiction; a naturalist's notebook - Lark Rise is all of these. It was well-reviewed, and led her to write an immediate sequel, Over To Candleford, during the process of which her husband retired, and she moved to Brixham. All her children had left home - Basil had emigrated to Australia, 'Diana' was working as a nurse in Bristol, and Peter had joined the merchant navy.

The third book in the sequence, Candleford Green- Candleford is an amalgam of Fringford and other villages - was written under another shadow. Her son Peter was killed in the mid-Atlantic in 1940, at the time when she was beginning to write. She fell ill for a year, and never fully recovered. The book itself was completed during nine months in which Dartmouth was repeatedly bombed; it was published in 1943. The three books were collected and republished as Lark Rise To Candleford in 1945. Flora was sixty-eight. The reviews were universally positive, and her husband John joined in the congratulations. It is a paradox that she could never really have written the loving, unsentimental and colourful accounts of Oxfordshire (and Hampshire, since the two are often quietly commingled) until she was sixty, and yet was too old to appreciate in full the force of her achievement when it came. She struggled to complete one last book, before dying of a heart attack, alone in a room, in May 1947, just short of her seventieth birthday. Whether gypsies have second sight will always be disputable, but Cinderella Doe's prophecy was peculiarly prescient.

Notes

Flora Thompson's husband John died fourteen months after her, in 1948. Their daughter Winifred died, unmarried, in 1966: as her mother's literary executor, she had done much to keep her mother's reputation alive. Basil's descendants live in Australia.

Sources

Flora Thompson, by Margaret Lane, Cornhill Magazine, Spring 1957

Flora Thompson, the story of the 'Lark Rise' writer, by Gillian Lindsay, Robert Hale, 1990

"A classic of the countryside", article by Kay Dick, The Times, July 3, 1976

Lark Rise To Candleford, by Flora Thompson, OUP, 1945, introduction by H.J. Massingham

A Country Calendar, ed. Margaret Lane, OUP, 1979 (includes Heatherley, Flora Thompson's unpublished manuscript based on her experiences in Grayshott)

"In The Footsteps Of Flora Thompson", by Simon Appleyard,

This England, Winter 1976

"In search of Flora Thompson" by Betty Tettmar, The Countryman, Autumn 1982

On The Trail Of Flora Thompson, by John Owen Smith, John Owen Smith, 1997

The World Of Flora Thompson, by Christine Bloxham, Robert Dugdale, 1998

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