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Living the dream

I haven't read Lark Rise To Candleford, nor seen the BBC adaptation.

I couldn't have told you that Flora Thompson wrote a trilogy of rural novels, or that they were fictionalised autobiographies. I have read Richard Mabey's articles and essays and heard him on the radio, but don't know his books. If you are already a fan of either Thompson or Mabey, you have a treat in store; if, like me, you are a newcomer, the treat is all the more surprising and delicious.

Flora Thompson was born in Oxfordshire in 1876. The hamlet she grew up in and fictionalised as Lark Rise was in reality just as poetically called Juniper Hill. But she did not begin to see the attraction in writing about her home town for nearly half a century. Her journey as a writer is both inspiring and alarming. Unschooled, growing up in a house without books among people who knew little about literature and cared less, Flora, in that time-honoured tradition of rustic scribblers, listened to the chitchat and memories of her elders, rummaged around for any form of the written word and began to tell her own stories.

Ideally for an aspiring writer she got herself a job delivering letters in the parish, eventually becoming postmistress - an achievement itself for a woman from her background - some years and many miles away from her beloved Juniper Hill. Mabey's account of Thompson's life - her career, marriage, children and many homes - is a fascinating social document of an England adapting from the 19th to the 20th century.

She tutored herself by reading everything she could get her hands on, developing a particular taste for the romantic poets, Robert Burns and the Celtic Twilight. During her stay in Grayshott, Surrey, she found herself on the edge of the bohemian world of the Hilltop writers and artists, chatting in the post office with George Bernard Shaw, delivering letters to George Meredith and eminent Pre-Raphaelites. She did not declare herself to them but remained firmly in the closet as a writer.

For decades, generally under a pseudonym, she wrote articles, stories and poems of varying quality for The Woman's Own magazine and The Catholic Fireside. With the latter she founded arguably the world's first book group. She became something of an expert on her beloved Jane Austen. But, painfully slowly, her own voice and her concerns began to take shape. She had discovered Gilbert White, the "parson-naturalist", in her youth and continued to study his meticulous writings on how flora and fauna interact with human life in an 18th-century English village.

She was in her late forties before she finally had the tools she needed to create something of her own.

Yet still, struggling with finances, children (including a son who died in the Great War) and a decent if not very imaginative husband insensitive to her ambitions, it took Flora another decade to hone her skills and mark out her territory. She was in her 60s when she finally presented her great work to the public: a series of books that, on the surface, were exercises in nostalgia, albeit with a finely tuned ear and photographic memory.

But, according to Mabey, they're more than that: the Lark Rise novels are ground-breaking. Laura, the heroine is, when it suits her creator, Thompson herself and not when it doesn't. Her idealised Oxfordshire contains bits of all the other English parishes Thompson had lived in - Buckinghamshire, Surrey, Hampshire, Dorset - melding them into a dream of a disappearing England. Her work therefore becomes simultaneously precise and true and ingeniously imaginative. Mabey drives this point home by doing something as cleverly manipulative himself: Flora and Laura are combined when it suits his intention, divided when it doesn't. The overall effect is another exercise in fictional biography, not only of Thompson but of her England too.

Richard Mabey's prose is delicate and deft. The facts are hard and the research exact, but the writing breathes feeling into Flora's story and her world. He does here for the south of England what our own Andrew Greig does for Scotland - finding meaning and possibility in stones and structures and ecology. I'm now looking forward to reading Lark Rise To Candleford, Gilbert White's Selborne and a wheen of other titles Mabey mentions, all with a view to re-reading this in a new light. Dream Of The Good Life is a gem of a book, small, perfectly formed, informative and, as his title suggests, dreamy.

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