‘Miss Read’, 37 novels set in 3 fictional Cotswold villages (Fairacre, Thrush Green, and Caxley). Titles include Storm in the Village (1958), The Market Square (1966), and Return to Thrush Green (1978). Also Time Remembered (1986).
One of my followers has recently suggested that I post more frequently to this blog, and since I aim to please, I’ve moved this one forward.
‘Miss Read’ is the pen name of Dora Saint (1913-2012), who took up writing after a brief tenure as village schoolmistress in the 1930s. The influence of Jane Austen, whom she quotes in an epigraph: “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on” (News from Thrush Green, 1970) is obvious, as is that of Barbara Pym. But reading Time Remembered, Miss Read’s brief memoir of the few years she spent in a small village in Kent, makes even clearer the influence of her own childhood on her writing. At the age of 8, her family moved from London to a quiet village, where young Dora thrived. Her love of nature began during these years, and she describes the setting as “blissful,” where her “physical well-being … flourished.”
Descriptions in her novels of natural life abound, with dawns and sunsets, winter storms and summer droughts, birds and animals in hedgerows, fields and gardens. I often found myself searching online for photos of trees, birds, flowers and plants, such as toothwort and silverweed.
At the center of each novel is a problem the villagers must solve: Who is this new “distinguished bachelor” who has moved into the corner house on the green that has been empty for so long? How will the school teacher deal with pressures to modernize instructional practice? Whom should the recently widowed rector marry? What should be planned for the village fête? And will the stubbornly proud architect who designed housing for the elderly accept the error in his plan and make the entry steps safer for the residents?
I’ve read nearly all the novels set in Thrush Green, set in years that range from the late 1940s into the early 1980s. Miss Read makes a few references to national and cultural events, such as post-war rationing, loud rock ‘n roll and drugs, and the decimalization of the British pound in the early 1970s, but for the most part her villagers’ lives are insulated from the world at large. War in the Falklands? Of no importance compared to how Ella Bembridge will cope when Dimity Dean, her long-time companion, gets married. New Prime Minister taking on the IRA? Can’t worry about that, with the manse burnt to a pile of ashes and the rector needing a new home.
After reading nearly 20 of Miss Read’s novels, I’m still unsure of how I feel about them. There are village regulars — the rector and his wife, the school mistress and her assistant, that distinguished bachelor, the architect and his family, the writer and her husband (who is also her publisher) — who appear in every novel. Miss Read’s plots are idyllic escapism, paeans to life set in the lovely albeit unsteady Eden of a small town. Friends may argue, love may suffer indignities, the aged may grow more feeble and confused, but there’s always that comforting cup of tea with a few biscuits by the fire in the evening (or sometimes it’s a glass of sherry with some friends) that seems to heal all wounds. She peppers the stage with curmudgeonly men and women (Ella Bembridge suffers no fools, and the “gloomy sexton” Mr. Piggott is never happy unless he has something to complain about). These grouches often fire the flames of dissent — yet all ends happily, even for the crankiest sorts. There are a couple of robberies, but the worst crime any villager commits is running over a dog (who survives).
I must point out: in Miss Read’s villages live no people of color, and only one novel features an unmarried protagonist who remains happily that way to the end of the tale (she has to fend off suitors to do so). Two sets of women live together, but they are only “best of friends”. Please! We’ll have no lesbian couples (nor gay men, for that matter). After finishing several of these books, I found myself wanting to take over the writing: “Wouldn’t it be great if a UFO landed at this point and, thinking it an alien weapon, dematerialized the ridiculous statue on the village green?” or “If I were writing this, I’d add a serial murderer who targets old ladies.” or “What if that distinguished bachelor fell in love with Mr. Piggot?”
And yet, if you handed me a new Miss Read book, I’d happily devour it. Go figure.
We all need a bit of comfort reading in our lives in the face of the terrible news we read about and see daily. And while there’s no likelihood of life imitating this kind of fiction it does function as a corrective to blatant injustice, gross wickedness and corporate greed. I remember the popularity of Miss Read when I spent a year or so working in libraries but was never myself tempted; now, I’m not so sure… 😁
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I was able to finish a book a day, so I quickly got through the 18 that I have — like binge watching several seasons of a TV series. If you’re tempted, go for Village School or Storm in the Village, set in Fairacre. These are told in the voice of ‘Miss Read’, the village school mistress (Thrush Green books are told in 3rd person omniscient). My mom says Miss Read made this stylistic switch because she found the 1st person voice too limiting.
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