Winton Forum


Flora Thompson

Article in 'The Civilian' dated 14th May 1921

It is our pleasure, herein, to introduce to the notice of our readers one amongst themselves whose essays in the field of literature have recently attracted considerable attention. Mrs Thompson, whose Civil Service labours are associated with the Post Office, has undoubted natural gifts, and the following account of the manner in which they have manifested themselves in spite of a severe initial handicap should prove of encouragement to many. We trust that this article may prove the beginning of a long and happy acquaintance between Civil Servants generally and their gifted colleague.

Flora Thompson left school at 14 with as little to unlearn as Madam Montessori herself could desire; for the small village school which she attended was unbelievably behind the times, even those faded, far-away times the 90's. When she left she could barely read and write, nothing more! Yet there the curriculum had one great advantage; the reading was almost exclusively Bible-reading; day after day and year after year the scholars worked their way steadily through the scriptures; and what could be a better preparation for writing of any kind than drinking so early and so deep at that pure well of English undefiled?

What other knowledge she had was out-of-door knowledge-weather lore; the haunts and habits of birds; the names of flowers and trees-knowledge which stands her in good stead in writing her nature articles now. She had enjoyed a good deal of freedom; on holidays she used to wander off in the company of her brother, spending whole days in the woods and fields; wading brooks, climbing trees, or picking mushrooms or blackberries or fir-cones for the fire. Then, one day, someone gave her a battered copy of Sir Walter Scott … [illegible] … enact the various parts, never quite sure if the next turning in the lane might not reveal a knight in armour or a lady in distress!

School days over, she was sent as a learner to an old lady who kept a village Post Office. When it was found how neglected her education had been, the old lady was horrified. Under her care, however, the pupil set to work to learn arithmetic, geography, and all the uninteresting subjects which, she was assured, she could not hope to "get on in the world" without. In the musty, old-fashioned parlour was a bookcase, with books as well as stuffed birds in it. The books were a legacy from the old lady's son, a Second Division man, who had died on the Gold Coast. All there was to read, from 'Tom Brown's Schooldays' to 'Hamlet,' was eagerly consumed.

A period of six years as assistant in the Post Office ended in marriage and a home at Bournemouth, and not until then, says Mrs Thompson, "did my real education begin. The Public Library there was my Alma Mater. I had no guide, and it was better so. The discovery of each new writer, each set of new ideas, was the opening up of a new world.
"I went right back to the beginning, read the Greeks and Romans in translations; read the English poets; the English novelists; the English critics; nibbled at translations of the French writers; even tried my teeth upon philosophy and mysticism! Read Ibsen, Shaw, Yeats and all the Celts. Became enamoured of the new poetry, at least of the work of those poets who passed as new in pre-war time, before the day of 'wheels' and 'Coterie'!

"Even after, in those years when the cares and anxieties of bringing up a young family, and trying to run a home decently upon the pitiful salary of a S. C. and T. in the Post Office, strained nerves and energy to breaking point, I still found time for a little reading. I never quite gave up my hope of writing either, but for a long time life itself absorbed the whole of me. Then things slackened a little, and one day I saw a competition announced in a woman's paper for an essay on Jane Austen. I posted a modest attempt secretly, and was astonished when in heard the prize had been awarded to me.

"I think number one must be my lucky number, for the first short story, the first newspaper article, and even the first poem I ever attempted were all accepted and paid for; and the first book review I ever did gained for me the inestimable pleasure and advantage of the friendship of the poet to whom my book 'Bog Myrtle and Peat' is dedicated. So I have really had no literary struggles in the ordinary sense of the word, perhaps because I have attempted so little, but leisure, that priceless boon which all my life has been denied me, is necessary before I can attempt great things.

"During the war I wrote nothing. Nothing I had to say was likely to prove acceptable, and my own life saw many changes. My brother, the companion of my childhood, fell in Flanders. My husband was appointed to the Sub Postmastership of Liphook, and we left the life of a busy town for the smallest of country villages. This in itself needed a good deal of adjustment, entailing as it did disappointments and annoyances without end; then, for three years, I worked as Temporary S. C. and T. in the office here, being on duty every morning at 4am. Only now have I ventured to pick up the thread again with 'Bog Myrtle and Peat."

It will be abundantly clear, from the extracts here given from Flora Thompson's little book of poems to which she makes reference above (published by Allan & Co, price 3s 6d), what are the points of excellence and charm of her work. We do not pretend that some of the poems in this book are not reminiscent; and we might well express our regret that in one poem, 'The Earthly Paradise,' the poet should have fallen victim to the present tyrant of the poetic world, vers libre. Nor will those readers who are enamoured of such poetry as expresses in felicitous language complex and transcendent truths find that Flora Thompson is numbered with their favourites. For the … [illegible] … says of her work: "A passion for the open English country, a keen receptiveness to its sights, scents and sounds are the note of the pieces collected, and they are adequately and tastefully expressed."

The most welcome flowers in poetry's garden today are sincerity and melody. And these Flora Thompson certainly possesses. The following extract from 'Shallows' shows how felicitously an emotion, and its more subtle suggestions which must be familiar to us all, can be expressed. She has been speaking of the inconsequential chatter preceding a parting:—

And so the shadows ripple on
Until it's time to part;
And all the while, deep into deep,
My heart cries to your heart.
Cries like a lost and frightened child,
A whole world's breadth apart.

Here is a little poem of definite charm and melodic sweetness:—

I'll shape you rhymes like little paper boats
To sail on fancy's sea, frail, transient things;
And when you tire, I'll pipe you linnet notes;
And if I win the guerdon of your smile,
I'll envy not the bay-crowned bard of kings.
Better your tedious moments to beguile,
Than soar Parnasus' peak on eagle wings.

We incline to believe that the following extract is from the best poem in the book. But we are sure that wherein a book so small as this we have found so much to please us, there must be ample for other tastes to enjoy, and the book, therefore, deserves a wide sale—

The floods are out at Wellingborough;
The house is hushed, the curtain drawn;
The women watch from dawn to dawn.

I search always, but find him not;
Only a drowned forget-me-not
Mimicks the azure of his eyes;
Beyond the mists a curlew cries.
O, tell me, sad bird, where he lies!