HISTORIANS are as snobbish as the next person, and they have tended to treat social history as something that belongs on the wrong side of the tracks. But there is something beguiling, stirring, and, yes, instructive about the accounts of how ordinary men and women have lived their lives that defies this rigid and close-minded approach.
In recent years, this snobbishness has weakened somewhat, and scholarly works have been written about such diverse subjects as Albigensian shepherds, the mob in the French Revolution, and the lives of pioneer women. ''Lark Rise to Candleford'' is a less ambitious undertaking, but offers, in journal form, a vivid and satisfying evocation of a way of life now past.
This abridged one-volume edition of a book which appeared in three volumes in the 1940s gives a new generation of readers a chance to visit the small English hamlet of Lark Rise and the village of Candleford, just before they turned into gentrified housing estates.
Author Flora Thompson grew up in north Oxfordshire in the last two decades of the 19th century. To the people of the hamlet, the city of Oxford, though only 19 miles a-way, was as remote as some foreign city. The author herself witnessed the last years of an agricultural tradition rooted in feudal times. By the beginning of the 20th century, mechanization, extended education, and then such modern intrusions as cars, radios, and movies ended an era which had seemed an unchanging part of their local heritage.
The children that followed her own generation would look for more sophisticated pleasures than the playing of such games as London Bridge, Here Come Three Tinkers, and the graceful Read the Tailor's Needle. Their fathers, who worked as laborers on the neighboring farms, would be replaced by machines. But none of them saw the portents.
''With no idea that they were at the end of a long tradition, they still kept up the old country custom of choosing as their leader the tallest and most highly skilled man among them, who was then called King of the Mowers,'' Thompson writes.
The families in the hamlet lived in two-room cottages, one room up and one room down. The weekly wages were supplemented with vegetables and fruit from the gardens, gleanings from the harvested fields, and the family pig, ''ev-erybody's pride and everybody's business.'' Fresh meat was a rarity; so the families depended on the pigs they raised for lard and bacon.
The water came from wells and had to be fetched in buckets. Clothes were simple, frequently hand-me-downs or employers' castoffs, and shoes, particularly in a large and growing family, were a dreaded expense.
Amusements were few - a carefully nursed half pint on a Friday night, talk of politics and work in their vegetable gardens for the men; gossip and a shared pot of tea with a friend for the women; and games and berry pickings for the children.
In the small school, a mile or so from the hamlet, reading, writing, arithmetic, and scripture were taught, along with needlework each afternoon for the girls. Children could leave school at the age of 11, and most of them did.
A less intelligent and less honest writer might have been content to give a mournful summary of all that had been lost, while noting the robustness of the inhabitants and their delight in simple pleasures, but Flora Thompson never romanticizes the past.
As another book on this subject, ''Aken-field,'' showed, the agricultural workers of England led lives as hard, if not harder, than their industrial counterparts. Not only were they paid low wages but they were less independent. Unskilled, tied to the demands of the land, leasing their cottages, often from their employers, they were never in a position to advance or organize to improve conditions. They were treated as cheap labor, and when the opportunity to economize occurred, they were often dismissed.
What emerges is an admirable people who enjoyed what they had, who regarded endurance as the supreme virtue. By our standards, they made do with very little , and without much complaint. In recalling this past, Thompson has given us an admirable perspective. Scrupulous about facts, fair in her judgments, she also writes with clear-eyed affection. With illustrations in co-lor from the period, the book is as much a delight to page through as to read.