Ask about Flora Thompson in Dartmouth or Brixham and the reply you are likely to receive is a shake of the head and a "No, I can't remember her." This is remarkable, because the writer of the delightful book Lark Rise to Candleford spent the last 19 years of her life in this part of Devon.
I do not think Flora Thompson would have minded being forgotten; a very private woman, she preferred observing the creatures of the countryside to gossiping with neighbours, and walking in woods to strolling along Victoria Road or Bolton Street.
Flora put off the upheaval of moving for as long as she could, but finally she had to make the long journey to Devon [to Dartmouth from Liphook, Hampshire in Autumn 1928]. When she arrived, however, she was agreeably surprised. Their house The Outlook was in the narrow road above the town called, appropriately, Above Town. From there she had glorious views of the Dart estuary, the river and the surrounding hills.
She had now almost unlimited scope for her solitary walks, with river, coastline and lush Devon countryside all at hand. The wooded slopes of Dyers Hill were less than five minutes from her own gate. She had more time too, for, of her children, only young Peter was still at home, and he and his father spent much of their free time in the motor boat that they kept at Lidstone's Boatyard.
Flora continued with the Peverel Society, and still wrote short pieces. She even tried novels but they were discarded. Only after the death of Ronald Macfie [in 1931], which affected her deeply, did she begin her greatest work. Her thoughts turned to her childhood, and a sketch she wrote about Old Queenie, a character in Juniper Hill, was accepted by the magazine The Lady [April 1937]. A second similar article on May Day was so enthusiastically received that she wrote more and more and sent them to Oxford University Press. There they caught the eye of Sir Humphrey Milford who at once urged her to expand them into a book.
When Flora set to work she thinly disguised true settings and people; Juniper Hill became Lark Rise; the central character, a girl so like herself, was called Laura. Here and there she fictionalised a little, but always she portrayed the life of a poor rural community with love and honesty. The book Lark Rise was published in 1939, and its modest success was enough for the publishers to want more. Over to Candleford, village life as seen by a young post office assistant, appeared in 1940.
1940 was also the year when John Thompson retired [others say he retired in 1935], and the family moved four miles across the river to Brixham, to a house on New Road called Lauriston. It was a move that strangely echoed their early days at Liphook. Again the country was at war, and again tragedy struck, the worst that could happen. Peter, the youngest child so adored by both parents, had joined the Merchant Navy and was killed at sea. Stricken with sorrow, Flora became ill with pneumonia, and though she did try to resume something like normal life again, she never recovered either her health or her happiness.
In spite of this she managed to complete another book Candleford Green, which was published in 1943. She was less pleased with her two Candleford books than with Lark Rise but her publishers did not agree. In 1945 they put all three books into a single volume under the title Lark Rise to Candleford, which was very well received much to Flora's surprise. [She had not submitted her fourth book Heatherley to them].
Other people had seen what she had failed to recognise in her own work, that she had produced a unique picture of a way of life that was irretrievably lost. Her longed-for literary success had come at last, but for Flora it was too late to give her any real pleasure. She wrote one more book at Brixham, Still Glides the Stream, which was more fictional than her others, but still drawn from her Oxfordshire days. She found its writing a terrible effort and a few weeks after its completion she died at Lauriston in May 1947.
She was buried in Longcross Cemetery, Dartmouth, after a funeral service held at St Barnabas Church (now disused) the church that stood so near her old home in Above Town. Her tombstone is in the shape of a book, and along with her name is that of her son Peter.
John Thompson is remembered in Dartmouth as a pleasant, stout man fond of taking his motor boat further out to sea than was wise. Peter is described as a lively boy, always laughing, and with a passion for engines. "But I don't recall the wife," was the response I got in my search for anyone who had known Flora Thompson during her life in Devon. A solitary, independent woman, perhaps she would have preferred it that way. Instead we have her books, and they will certainly ensure that Flora Thompson is never forgotten.