Miss Read is one of my favourite authors & one of my favourite comfort reads. Her stories of village life in the middle of the 20th century give me a warm glow whenever I think of them & an even warmer glow when I’m reading one of her books about the villages of Fairacre or Thrush Green. Miss Read (we never know her first name, like the second Mrs De Winter) is the schoolmistress of Fairacre School. She mostly tells her stories in the first person & we’re obviously meant to think of Miss Read the author & Miss Read the character being one & the same. Although Miss Read is the pseudonym of Dora Saint, I think we’re pretty safe in assuming that the books are based on Mrs Saint’s career as a teacher.
Miss Read is a very contented spinster, a bit slapdash in her housekeeping, but kind, responsible, a little old-fashioned in her teaching methods, but always doing the best she can for her pupils & her friends in the village. She’s also not above a sharp retort when someone tries to take advantage of her good nature, but she thinks a lot more of these than she actually says. She’s a great lover of nature & this is one of the joys of the books. In Storm in the Village, it’s the first day of summer holidays,
Nothing can beat a village, I thought, for living in! A small village, a remote village, a village basking, as smug & snug as a cat, in morning sunlight! I continued my lover’s progress, besotted with my village’s charms. Just look at that weeping willow, plumed like a fountain, that lime tree murmerous with bees, that scarlet pimpernel blazing in a dusty verge, the curve of that hooded porch, that jasmine – in fact, look at every petal, twig, brick, beam, thatch, wall, pond, man, woman & child that make up this enchanting place! My blessing showered upon it all.
Of course, trouble comes to idyllic villages as often as it comes to any other setting. There are plans to build a new village between Fairacre & Beech Green to accommodate workers from the atomic energy plant nearby. The chosen site is the Hundred Acre Field, owned & farmed by the Miller family for over a hundred years. The villagers are divided about the plan. There are those who abhor any change at all, those who foresee trouble when hundreds of town people settle in the countryside, those who are appalled at the desecration of good farmland & those who object because the famous local artist, Dan Crockford, used to paint there. Then there are those in favour of the plan. Water & sewage would be laid on for the nearby villages as well as the new estate, more public transport would be convenient, the newcomers would provide extra business for the village shopkeepers & the nearby town of Caxley. There would be more opportunities of employment for school leavers & the older children would have the opportunity of going to a bigger, more modern school on the estate. Miss Read is worried by the prospect of her village school closing or being turned into an infant’s school.
As well as the upheaval over the new estate, Miss Read has to deal with her young assistant teacher falling in love with a very unsuitable man, & with the declining health of her dear friend, Dolly Clare, who had taught at Fairacre School for over 30 years until her retirement. There’s also a lot of humour in the Fairacre books. Mrs Pringle, the school cleaner, is a prophet of doom who mangles her words &, although too superior to gossip, always knows the latest news on any scandal. She bullies Miss Read unmercifully about her slovenly housekeeping but any retort from Miss Read only leads to Mrs Pringle dragging her bad leg, a sure sign of trouble to come.
The books manage to be nostalgic without sentimentality, in the best tradition of writing about the English countryside. Although the books were written from the 1950s to the 1990s, they seem to be set mostly at that point of change where the centuries old traditions of country life were being challenged by the social & economic changes of the post WWII period. Miss Read is only too aware of the troubled homes of some of her pupils with drunken fathers or feckless mothers to overcome & the children in the books are realistically naughty, not many little angels here.
I’ve read quite a few of the Fairacre books but I’ve only just started on the Thrush Green series so I have lots of enjoyably nostalgic, comforting reading ahead of me. I especially like the lovely US paperbacks published by Houghton Mifflin. Fortunately they kept the original illustrations by J S Goodall which add so much to the charm of these gorgeous books.