Cider with Rosie contains the boyhood and adolescent recollections of rural author Laurie Lee (1914-1997), who was forty-five when the book was published in 1959. Lee writes from memories of events that occurred some forty years before he took up his pen, during the Great War period and into the late 1920s. His authorial voice is one of fond remembrance in this episodic autobiography, recording the most memorable and significant highlights of life in an isolated Cotswold village.
The title itself is extremely evocative. Cider represents the rural Gloucestershire in which the story is set, a rustic landscape noted for its apple orchards, while the name Rosie suggests apple-cheeked children up to mischief, as well as the red apples from which cider is made. It is a title that hints at the transition from unknowing to knowing, experienced as the slight souring of youth's sweet innocence, like the fermentation of intoxicating cider from apple juice.
The baker's dozen of chapters are unnumbered, but bear headings: First Light, Village School, Grannies in the Wainscot, First Bite at the Apple, etc. Through Lee, we enter the private life of the village in a way that we could not have done had we visited it during his early years. Then the villagers were an insular, protective tribe, suspicious of outsiders until they came to know them. Gloucester, the county town, was an altogether foreign place, and the big annual event was the village day-trip to Weston-super-Mare, which showed the villagers the strange differences between themselves and the Somerset folk, making them feel superior. The Industrial Age does not appear to have reached this part of the world even in the early twentieth century, when technological change would have been in full swing elsewhere for at least seventy years; even the railway bypassed Lee's little settlement. This was not quite a lost valley, although cut off in deepest winter, but it was certainly remote and largely inaccessible. The road was a dirt track, and before the advent of the bus the villagers preferred to walk to the nearest town to shop, rather than pay the carrier for the use of his horse and cart.
Denied much exposure to the wider world, the inward-looking villagers have developed a Pagan-influenced philosophical approach to existence based largely on the cycle of life and the rhythm of an agricultural year punctuated by the two main seasonal extremes, summer and winter. The key natural events—hatching, matching and despatching— are sympathetically treated, as is the mixture of love and hate in human relationships. Death, both that of the young (including some of Lee's siblings and half-siblings) and of the old (his two rival grannies), is depicted as a sad but accepted and integral part of life. Lee captures the key transitions of youth: infancy to boyhood, boyhood to adolescence, and adolescence to early manhood. Women and girls, first seen as objects of derision, later become mysterious and alluring creatures, commanding access to desirable knowledge and experience. These villagers are not foolish yokels, but real people living real lives.
Lee describes a youth which, by today's standards, would be regarded as severely deprived, but it was the common lot. The villagers simply got on with things, making the best of the situation—and it was the best. Humour was ever-present, the main antidote to depression, allowing hardship to be endured with a smile or a laugh in a very English manner. Lee's large family (a combination of two, his absent father being the common parent) was a comfort, providing abundant warmth and affection, but also a curse. The sheer number of them—eight including his mother—meant that feeding and clothing them all was not easily done.
Contrary to some interpretations of Cider, these are not the sentimental ramblings of an older man looking back on his childhood through rose-tinted spectacles. It is true that Lee relates to us, as if we were sitting by his fireside, incidents for which he bears much affection. However, there is ambivalence in his retelling of these events, a superficial simplicity that belies their complexity and paradox. We are not spared the more disturbing aspects of country life as it was then lived. A woman drowns herself in a pond, driven to it, it is suggested, by some earlier violation, but this is left ambiguous. A young man is 'accidentally' murdered when he returns from New Zealand after making his fortune, but the murderers are never prosecuted because the villagers close ranks and refuse to co-operate with the outside authorities. There is violence, incest, drunkenness, and serious illness, as well as abject, imprisoning poverty. The villagers survive by being hardy, stoical and practical, yet at times they do dream.
The penultimate chapter deals with the subject of the book's title. The rest of the book builds up to it with the gentle tension derived from anticipating an answer to the question: what happened when Laurie drank cider with Rosie? Their liaison under the hay wagon apparently took place when both of them were only just into puberty, so it would be illegal by the laws of today, yet at the time it was perfectly natural in their community. There is a powerful religious allegory at work. Laurie is Adam; Rosie is Eve; the cider represents the apple; the hay wagon, the tree of knowledge.
Laurie Lee's very name suggests lyrical alliteration, as if he were born to poetry rather than prose, and the style of the book is consistent with this. He revels in repetition, assonance and emphasis, using the speech and dialect of the local people to often witty and ironic effect. This is vernacular English in a round, mouth-filling form, abounding in metaphor and simile. The imagery is sometimes animistic, giving names to particular locations and places that endow them with personalities. Readers in 2009 might feel that there is almost too much imagery, but it is necessary in order to paint a full picture of this vanished world and evoke its poetry.
One stylistic tic is particularly intriguing. Lee sometimes uses 'one' for either 'I' or 'you,' which is often associated with an upper-class register. This seems at odds with the rustic speech heard mentally by the reader and captured in Lee's recording of passages from the book in his own authentic accent (though this was, of course, no longer that of his childhood). The use of 'one' is all the more surprising given that Cider describes an England divided by the class system—almost, at that time, a caste system. The benevolent, elderly squire was the hub of the villagers' world, the rest of village life the wheel that spun around him. While there were occasional outbreaks of disorder, this was an ordered semi-feudal society in which the villagers were constantly aware of their own station in life. Social mobility was rare, although Lee's mother seems to have been the progeny of a mixed-class marriage.
If Cider is broadly the English counterpart to Wales's Under Milk Wood, Scotland's The House with the Green Shutters and Ireland's The Playboy of the Western World, then it is a relatively favourable reflection on the English character and temperament. Above all, Cider is not about an England set in aspic, but one which inevitably evolves and changes. Parochialism would gradually gave way to an outward-looking attitude, as horses were replaced by motorised vehicles, home-played music by radio broadcasts, chats over the garden fence by conversations on the telephone. Lee does not lament the passing of a way of life that had endured for a thousand years; rather, he records it so that it may not be lost to posterity and future generations may enjoy a glimpse of an important bygone era. Neither wallowing in nostalgia nor motivated by a view of the old world as crudely primitive and therefore inferior, Lee accepts the inevitability of technological and social change, but implicitly asks the question: do we throw the baby out with the bathwater when we allow wholesale change to occur untrammelled?
Though the book is a social document of a rural England that is all but gone, we recognise many of its characters around us today, much as The Canterbury Tales (written over six hundred years ago) depicts enduring human traits. Those who read Cider as a collection of wistful selective memories of Little England miss the essential thrust of the book. The inexorable cycle of life and death is seen at its harshest, unalleviated by the comforts of the modern age, in isolated parts of the English countryside. The reader may seek out such places even today, for some remain still nestling in the secret corners of Albion.--Alexander J. Betts
The distaff counterpart to Cider with Rosie, this vivid, detailed memoir of late-Victorian country life is now thankfully becoming better-known, albeit through a sugary and sentimental television series that does not capture the grittiness of the book. Where Lee's book is selective and poetic, Thompson's narrative is earnest, dogged and completist, characterised by extraordinary sensory recall of her childhood surroundings. Her descriptions of the natural world are sensuous but unmannered, her prose on the whole workmanlike. This may explain why her books have not received quite as much attention as Cider with Rosie, despite capturing life in three distinct types of community: the hamlet (Lark Rise), the town (Over to Candleford), and the village (Candleford Green).
Thompson herself is enormously likeable: shrewd, pragmatic and cheerful, with a kindly but occasionally sly sense of humour. In another time and place her brightness and enquiring mind might have helped her go farther, but in the hamlet the aim was "to keep to the level of the normal." It is wonderful that, given her largely self-taught background, she was able to write as fluent and confident an account of country life as this.
Reading the trilogy, one notes a strange disconnect between authorial intent and the works' popular reception. The nostalgic haze that surrounds these books makes it surprising to find Thompson herself clear-eyed about the negatives as well as the positives of country life. She describes the grinding poverty, which particularly dogged the old until they were freed by Lloyd George's introduction of the Old Age Pensions; children's narrow-minded attitudes to Catholics; and the deep social divisions of the time. Thompson finds social inequality profoundly annoying and generally approves of progress on that front, though she maintains that country people of that time were better at being "happy on little" than her Second World War contemporaries.
Lark Rise demolishes many stereotypical ideas about this particular time and place. Victorian devoutness has clearly been much exaggerated, at least where these hamlet people were concerned. In Lark Rise they hardly ever go to church, and some of them are Methodists or, even more daringly, out-and-out free-thinkers. Hamlet people were not nearly as cut off from contemporary news and political life as is often thought; the Lark Rise inhabitants read newspapers and discuss Jack the Ripper, and, though suspicious of innovation and feudal in their behaviour, they are not Tories but confirmed Liberals, the local men gathering at the inn to debate the latest political issues, such as Gladstone's Three Acres and a Cow campaign. Yet in tandem with this is a strange sense of being out of time, born of isolation: some of the older people still make mead, the Methodists are disparagingly nicknamed "the ranters" (which must be a reference to the Civil War), and mothers threaten their children with "Oliver Crummell.'"
Fascinatingly, Thompson captures the contrast between the pre- and post-enclosure phases of this hamlet. One of many lively character sketches in Lark Rise, Old Sally, a product of the pre-enclosure world, has plenty of everything, in stark contrast to Laura's mother's generation. Another old lady, Queenie, can remember the time when the hamlet had a thriving and profitable cottage lace-making industry, killed by the Industrial Revolution. The last gasp of traditional culture is captured in detailed transcriptions of songs and children's games, and descriptions of Harvest Home and May Day festivities, two particularly strong sections of Lark Rise. While Thompson has her moments throughout Lark Rise, her prose suddenly explodes into stunning pastoral lyricism when she describes the fields of corn just before harvest, and her account of May Day is full of child-like innocence and charm.
What Thompson captures in Lark Rise is, in fact, the economic trough of the 1880s. It is a transitional period between the older country civilisation represented by Sally and Queenie and a changing of attitudes brought by the opening-up of the hamlet through education and travel. When Thompson was a child the hamlet people's formerly rather cruel sense of humour was being softened, people from five miles away were no longer seen as 'furriners,' and universal schooling was beginning to socialise the children away from viciousness to birds, animals and each other. Thompson also detects a growth in spousal equality amongst the younger couples of the hamlet. Throughout, she does justice to the hamlet's virtues as well as its faults, in particular the family affection (however beleaguered by want), touchingly describing the mothers' pain at having to send daughters of eleven or twelve out in the world to earn their keep in service.
Many memoirs have a trauma running through them, and Thompson's is the loss of her brother in the First World War. Somehow this is prefigured by the whole of Lark Rise, though it is only revealed at the end, and the grief of losing him, the more moving for never being explicitly expressed, gives the entire book an elegiac feeling. In fact, war is an important theme in the whole trilogy: not only the First World War, which brought huge changes in hamlet life (most notably, a living wage for the men) but also the Boer War, and the Second World War, which began in the year Lark Rise was published and slithers into Candleford Green in a little reference to "our present menace from the air." Was the trilogy part of the culturally preservationist trend in wartime writing, the recording of a way of life before the Nazis should obliterate it entirely?
The other two books are not quite as compelling as the first. Over to Candleford in fact contains a great deal more about Lark Rise, but the portrait of Candleford itself, the home of Thompson's more upwardly-mobile relations, is very interesting. There are numerous cultural differences between it and the hamlet. Candleford is a place where, in contrast to Lark Rise, boys are taught to respect girls, farmers are "not reigning kings," but "mere men," there is relative prosperity, a more varied diet, and a wider range of occupations, as well as a definite weekly round: in Lark Rise, "things went on day after day in much the same manner." The portrait of Thompson's Uncle Tom, the local shoemaker, is particularly rich and fascinating, depicting the social life surrounding his workshop. Friends routinely drop in for a chat or, more often, some of his wise and tolerant advice.
It is unsurprising that Candleford should be more varied than Lark Rise, but the village of Candleford Green is also more cosmopolitan: "the village was a little world in itself; the hamlet was but a segment." Thompson moves to Candleford Green as a teenager to work at the post office, run by the redoubtable Dorcas Lane, who is also responsible for the smithy. Miss Lane is the mistress of a very well-organised establishment, and, incidentally, a vigorous exception to the Victorian oppression of women. Here again, as in the whole trilogy, Thompson provides tremendous detail on material culture and amusements, with a particularly interesting account of the penny readings in the village hall, and a magical description of the fair. At the post office the young Thompson comes into contact with a wider range of people, including the intimidating gentry, the Irish harvesters, and the local gypsies.
Ending (very obliquely) with Thompson's marriage and move away from her country home, Lark Rise to Candleford is a balanced response to the erosion of country life, combining regret for certain aspects with enthusiasm for particular changes. The memory of the Diamond Jubilee as an eerily perfect day underlines its significance as a watershed. Nothing would ever be quite the same again, as this rural life was integrated with the wider world in many little ways and in one big, traumatic way: World War I. --Isabel Taylor