Depending on who you ask, this is either a three part memoir or a three novel series. I don’t think the issue is one of argument, but of the somewhat ambiguous nature of the books themselves. Written in and published in the 1930s and 1940s, and concerning the years of the 1880s through the 1910s, this series of novels (I looked it up) portrays life in the countryside outside of Oxford and is a kind of cri du coeur of simple, unadorned, and mostly untroubled life.
I can’t say that I know that much about Oxfordshire, except given that this is an audiobook and read in an accent I believe to be native to that part of England, maybe I do? This is The Shire, isn’t it? The reader reads this basically in the voice of Samwise Gamgee, and given JRR Tolkien’s career as a medievalist at Oxford this all makes sense. And the people of the towns in the novels are basically Hobbits. There’s a passage near the end of the first book that explains the recipe for methegln, a honey mead, and well, if you don’t think that Hobbits have strong feelings on whether or not you should be sullying your mead with spices, then I don’t know what to tell you. Did JRR Tolkien steal “Concerning Hobbits” from Flora Thompson? Maybe? Or was he responding to the kind of sentimental bucolic books that were coming out after WWI as an attempt to return to normalcy, at least in part?
The confusion over whether these books are fiction or not is supported by the fact that in the first book, about half the total pages of the three combined has little plot, only a few distinct characters and among other things spends large passages in the novel describing the agriculture, the religions, the politics, and the eating habits of the natives in ways that feel not expository in terms of fiction, but in terms of almost anthropology.
So in terms of plot of the first book, we meet our central family, centered on the experiences of the young daughter and son and their various interactions in the town. It reminds me a lot of other novels of the era like Swann’s Way, but it’s very much tied not to the consciousness of the girl herself, so much as the strong narrative voice, acting as a kind of storyteller, more than narrator — or like a narrator of a film, ie a character, rather than the voice of narration — if I am making myself clear.
In second and third books, we do get a lot more in the way of a plot. Laura, in book two, goes through a series of misadventures as they try out different potential careers for her. She fails miserably at several of them as she’s more interested in say, reading, than paying attention to a baby. She does have a wonderful time reading aloud to her uncle, a shop worker, as he plies his trade, but even that falls through as she grows up. In the end of the second book, we watch as Laura leaves her small town to “go off in the world” and I was horrified when it becomes clearly she’s only 13 at time.
In the third book, there’s a more settling into adulthood (or the years leading into adulthood). Around Laura, we seen the changing world that we all know about as both outsiders with more knowledge, but also as contemporary readers. This book is always in two spaces in time then, the time of the 1940s of the publication, and the time of the setting, at the turn of the century. But we also have the 40 years difference too, and both our experiences as reader and the narrator herself, we know all what has occurred. The story itself is often concerned with the impact, especially emotionally, of what seem like significant changes in the world. And these are changes that are not originated in the small towns of Lark Rise and Candleford Green, so much as foisted upon them from the outside. So there’s nothing to do but cope or not cope with them. Even the change in clothing wreaks some small havoc on various members of the community.
What also stands out as great in this book is that like other books of the time (I am especially thinking of the Australian book My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, we are neither dealing with the lives of the rich, or the sad, empty lives of the middling classes. We are getting an earnest look at lives of dignity and consequences to those living them.