If someone writes few letters, has few friends and likes nothing better than being alone, death can wipe away the story of a life with alarming completeness. This can be true even if they happen to have written a wonderful book. No archive, no anecdotes, no one with personal memories – it would be rash to attempt a biography of such a person. I suspect that Richard Mabey may have felt this before he reached the end of his biography of Flora Thompson, born Flora Timms, author of Lark Rise to Candleford, a woman as reserved and private as it is possible to be this side of sanity.
Initially published in three separate volumes and then released together, shortly afterwards in 1945, as a trilogy, Lark Rise to Candleford is generally taken to be Thompson’s account of her own childhood in a tiny Oxfordshire village before the First World War. She called it a novel, as we learn from this book. She submitted the script of Lark Rise, the first volume, to Oxford University Press, a surprising choice of publisher (true to form she left no explanation for this). Although they recognised its quality at once, they did not publish fiction, so they decided to classify it as autobiography, and autobiography the books have remained – as indeed they are essentially, in spite of Thompson’s admission that she occasionally tinkered