Anniversaries often provide happy—and relevant—occasions for celebrations, and the publication of a new edition of Heatherley by Flora Thompson supplies the perfect opportunity to mark the centenary of the writer’s arrival in Hampshire in the year 1898.
Flora Thompson, later to become the author of the captivating trilogy Lark Rise to Candleford, was twenty-one when she, in her own words, "walked without knowing it over the border into Hampshire …", arriving in the village of Grayshott situated on the Surrey/Hampshire border—and the fictitious place name of ‘Heatherley’ was born.
Anyone who knows this Hampshire village which developed out of local heathlands in the 1860s will recognise the location at once. For, although Flora was a past-master at disguising the identities of both people and places in her prose, her descriptions were always accurate and clearly defined—to such an intriguing degree that the publisher of this book has already been sufficiently enthused to write his own journey On the Trail of Flora Thompson (1997) in which he sets out to discover their true identities.
I first became aware of Flora Thompson’s Heatherley almost thirty years ago. And I owe a debt of gratitude to the late eminent biographer, Margaret Lane (1907–1994) for introducing me to this piece of writing—and for providing me with a pleasurable ongoing ‘pursuit with a purpose.’
As Flora’s first biographer—in the form of an original memoir published in the Spring number of The Cornhill Magazine in 1957, ten years after Flora’s death—Margaret Lane’s biographical essay was to open an unexpected literary ‘door’ into the Hampshire world of Flora Thompson. It was a tantalising account of her search into Flora’s somewhat secretive life. Later the essay was included in Purely for Pleasure, a volume of Margaret Lane’s literary and biographical essays. In 1976 it was republished, again by John Murray, to celebrate the centenary of Flora Thompson’s birth.
In 1979 an extended version of the original memoir was published, with John Murray’s approval, by Oxford University Press (OUP) as the Introduction to A Country Calendar and other writings. This was a volume of Flora Thompson’s previously uncollected or unpublished papers which Margaret Lane had selected from material deposited at the University of Texas. And so Heatherley—which was included in the volume—was published … at last!
By then, my own researches into the world of Flora Thompson had been under way for close on ten years.
In the autumn of 1970, after a busy year in Selborne com-memorating the 250th anniversary of the birth of our famous naturalist and writer, Gilbert White, I had decided to take a break from my small, specialist, country bookshop—which I had founded two years previously and where the small companion volumes of White’s Natural History of Selborne and Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford, in the ‘World’s Classics’ edition, had already proved to be two of the most sought after books on my shelves.
Already familiar, of course, with White and his village of Selborne, I had a desire to find out more about the life of the author of Lark Rise, born in the hamlet amid the flat wheatfields of north east Oxfordshire almost a century before, in 1876.
There was no doubt that Juniper Hill was ‘Lark Rise’ of the books, and when I arrived there the larks were still singing above the stubble fields of another harvest gone—and ‘The Fox’ was there too, the village inn described by Flora as the ‘Wagon and Horses’.
Over a sandwich and a sherry in this evocative place (alas, now closed as I write) the landlord, on hearing of my pilgrimage, passed a worn and well-thumbed typescript across the bar—it was Margaret Lane’s biographical essay on Flora Thompson published in The Cornhill in 1957. I sat reading, fascinated—and sufficiently carried away with emotion, and excitement at my discovery of so much previously unknown information, that I ordered "the same again please" and read on.
The word ‘Hampshire’ and the names of Grayshott and Liphook sprang from the pages. Here, indeed, was a key to be turned … and the Hampshire world of Flora Thompson to be discovered.
Early in 1973 I decided to bring Flora Thompson into a special display in my bookshop, and I wrote to Margaret Lane seeking her help with display material and information. "Alas," she wrote, "I have nothing of Flora Thompson’s, not even an envelope. All the material, or nearly all of it, I got from her daughter, who is now dead [she died in 1966]. I have no idea where relics of Flora, if any, went"—and she referred me to a Mr A C Ward (a Reader at OUP) and suggested too that Miss Joan Hassall might just be able to help (Miss Hassall had illustrated Margaret Lane’s essay in The Cornhill, and was herself a Flora Thompson devotee).
Sadly, Mr Ward in his reply had to admit that he too "did not keep the personal letters I had from her in the late 1940s", but mentioned the acquisition of her literary remains by the University of Texas, adding: "These included an unpublished typescript of a novel based largely on her post office experience, but alas! it hadn’t anything of the immortal strain of the Lark Rise trilogy and I had to advise against publication."
However, Mr Ward kindly suggested that I wrote to Geoffrey Cumberlege, "sometime Publisher to the University of Oxford" — and from there on, my luck was in. Over a period of six years, until his death in 1979, Geoffrey Cumberlege encouraged and contributed towards my efforts to establish recognition of Flora Thompson in east Hampshire.
But to return to the story of Heatherley and the course of its journey towards publication. I wrote to Joan Hassall, whose name I knew well as an outstanding wood engraver and illustrator. She kindly replied by return of post, offering me photocopies of one or two of her items—a letter from Flora and extracts from a few letters from Winifred [Flora’s daughter]—then going on to say: "The most interesting thing, if its whereabouts could be traced, would be the typescript which her daughter Winifred allowed me to read, of a fourth book of Laura’s recollections founded on Flora’s life at Grayshott. Vivian Ridler of OUP might know to whom Winifred left her mother’s papers. OUP did not think the fourth book worth adding to the three, but to those who love Flora Thompson’s work it was keenly interesting."
A further admirer of Flora, Miss Gertrude Oppenheimer, was also of the same opinion, and in 1976 she wrote to OUP suggesting an omnibus edition of Flora’s selected unpublished writings.
OUP then wrote to Margaret Lane for her opinion as to "the feasibility, or indeed desirability of putting together such a volume," stating that "as well as the essays and stories there is Heatherley and Bog Myrtle & Peat", and a few days later I had a letter from her enclosing a copy of this and asking me to let her know what I thought. "I don’t myself think," she wrote, "there would be any point in including much of the early unpublished work … but Heatherley and Bog Myrtle, or extracts from them, might be a very good idea. Do you know where the material is at present?"
I replied with encouragement, and the proverbial ball began to roll. Numerous letters then passed between Margaret Lane and myself as I filled her in with the information she required and told her of the increasing interest I encountered in Flora’s life and work. Further correspondence travelled between OUP and Margaret Lane’s home in Beaulieu, and the project was set in motion.
In September 1976, she wrote to me: "We now hope to go ahead with a kind of omnibus-selection volume." The University of Texas provided photocopies of the material, and once again Heatherley crossed the Atlantic, home again for publication, and in the autumn of 1979, A Country Calendar and other writings—including Heatherley—was launched at The Selborne Bookshop.
I look back over the years of my involvement with Flora in east Hampshire: to the celebrations of the centenary of her birth in 1976 with the literary luncheon in Liphook; the unveiling in 1981 of the sculptured bust by Philip Jackson, now in Liphook library; and to the first Grayshott Literary Festival in 1995 when, on the opening evening, I spoke of Flora’s link with the area, and actor David Wynn, well known in the locality, read passages from Heatherley and The Peverel Papers—Grayshott and Liphook in disguise.
Now it is a September again, and we await publication of this new edition of Heatherley, with its charming pen & ink illustrations and this introduction which it has given me much pleasure to record.
May it take its own place in the story of Flora’s immortality—in the world which gave us her unique gifts, where her memory is now commemorated and cared for, and will not be forgotten.
Selborne, September 1998
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