Before we start, a shout-out to Sarah, who won last week’s drawing! Sarah, contact me here so I can send you your Nineteenteen fan!
On Nineteenteen we’ve always concentrated on the culture and history around the lives of wealthy and/or aristocratic teens because (1) that’s whom we’ve written about in our books and (2) admit it, it’s fun to learn about in a "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" kind of way.
But then, as now, the percentage of the population who lived the glam life was small. The vast majority of Englishmen were what would come to be called "working class", either living in cities and working in factories and the trades, or in the country and providing the labor for the farms before machinery had been developed to harrow and plow and harvest crops.
The world is extraordinarily fortunate to have the quiet but strong voice of Flora Thompson to tell what life was like for the farm laborers of the 1880s and 1890s in her part of England, not far from Oxford. Flora was the eldest daughter of a stonemason in a small hamlet mostly consisting of farm workers. She was therefore close to their world, but not entirely of it, and could report from the position of both insider and outsider. Her book Lark Rise to Candleford, the story of her childhood and youth, is actually three separate books: Lark Rise, first published in 1939, Over to Candleford, published in 1941, and Candleford Green, published in 1943.
The first book examines life in the hamlet and the rhythm of the seasons that dictated the labor of the men and the lives of their families. Families were large, and children left school at twelve or thirteen to go to work—the boys to join their fathers in the fields, and the girls to service as scullery maids or under-housemaids in the homes of the gentry or wealthy. It’s the wealth of detail that makes this book so fascinating: what was eaten, what was worn, what games and songs the children played and sang, holidays, school, village "characters", and the poverty that everyone dealt with that is almost a character itself…and the author still preserves her insider/outsider status by recollecting what and how she lived, but commenting on it as an adult who has come very far from that world:
"But in spite of their poverty and the worry and anxiety attending it, they were not unhappy, and though poor, there was nothing sordid about their lives. ‘The nearer the bone the sweeter the meat’, they used to say, and they were getting very near the bone from which their country ancestors had fed. Their children and children’s children would have to depend wholly upon whatever was carved for them from the communal joint, and for their pleasures upon the mass enjoyments of a new era. But for that generation there was still a small picking left to supplement the weekly wage. They had their home-cured bacon, their ‘bit o’ leazings’ [gleanings from the wheat fields], their small wheat or barley patch on the allotment; their knowledge of herbs for their homely simples, and the wild fruits and berries of the countryside for jam, jellies, and wine, and round about them as part of their lives were the last relics of country customs and the last echoes of country songs, ballads, and game rhymes. This last picking, though meagre, was sweet."
Over to Candleford and Candleford Green examine life in the nearby town, where Flora’s aunts and uncles lived and worked as tradesmen (her portrait of her cobbler Uncle Tom is particularly appealing) and where Flora herself eventually came to work in the village post office. Again a wealth of detail is presented, in that same rich and quiet voice laced with humor and compassion:
"Sometimes, when the weekly income would not run to a sufficient quantity of fattening food [for the family pig], an arrangement would e made with the baker or miller that he should give credit now, and when the pig was killed receive a portion of the meat in payment. More often than not one-half of the pig meat would be mortgaged in this way, and it was no uncommon thing to hear a woman say, ‘Us be going to kill half a pig, please God, on Friday,’ leaving the uninitiated to conclude that the other half would still run about in the sty."
Highly recommended reading for fellow history geeks, or for those of you curious how "the other half" lived.
P.S. Talk about serendipity! I just found out that this has been turned into a BBC mini-series that is scheduled to be aired in the US in 2009. Anyone run across it yet? I don’t watch any TV (too busy writing!) but might watch this if it’s carried by PBS.