Do you ever have those days when you just want to get away? When the car is making noises and you know it’s going to cost a fortune or when life is just getting you down or, like 9/11, when the world has gotten to be just too frightening?
Chocolate works sometimes–or mashed potatoes, but when I need help that is going to last longer than five minutes I go for a visit to Fairacre or Thrush Green — the wonderful villages in the world created by Miss Read.
I’ve tried to explain why these books work so well as mood enhancers for me and what I like about them with varying degrees of success. Usually someone who has read some of them understands, but from those who haven’t I frequently get puzzled looks and polite nods (sort of the reaction I got when I gave my most recent talk when a woman came up to me and complimented me on the fact that I speak clearly — she heard every single word. Yikes.) I’ve given this a lot of thought and decided that I have to give it one more try.
For me, reading these novels is akin to visiting old friends from back home and it’s the back home part that’s important. It’s back home the way you remember it, the way you always want it to stay. I turn to Miss Read for the same reason that I might call my sister or nephew or an old friend — just to immerse myself, for a little while, in the details of ordinary life so I can escape whatever ugliness has imposed itself. I don’t need to dwell on what’s wrong; I need to be reminded that life goes on in all of its ordinary, sometimes wacky details and that it will continue to go on in spite of what seems to be overwhelming me at the moment.
These are books set in small villages in Britain in the 1950s and forward (a bit). You may never have been to England or met anyone who is British, but you will recognize the types — especially if you have ever spent any amount of time in a small town. There are the town grumps; the gossipy, elderly, spinster sisters; the salt of the earth, handyman types; the eccentric, genteel poor; and all manner of rogues and troubled folks. In Fairacre their stories are told by Miss Read, a spinster teacher who is the headmistress of the small village school. The Thrush Green series is written from the third person point of view (unlike Fairacre where we hear directly from Miss Read), but there is still a village school at the center of things.
Life is not always easy–bad things happen. People are poor, folks die, children are neglected, wives are mistreated, there is thievery and feuding–but these are the kinds of things that can happen anywhere to anyone and frequently do. Miss Read writes about them in a down-to-earth, reasoned way that reminds me of listening to my favorite great aunt. She’s a great storyteller and you never know what nuggets of wisdom she’ll share (and how worldy wise she is even though you wouldn’t necessarily think so).
Miss Read is actually the pseudonym of Dora Saint. She was born in London, but moved to a small village when she was a child and fell in love with the country, nature, and village life. She wanted to be a journalist, but that sort of thing was frowned on for women. She ended up teaching, marrying a fellow teacher, and being a stay at home mom for years. She tried her hand at writing stories and was finally asked to write something of more length. Her first book, Village School, was published in 1955. She wrote for twenty years under the name Miss Read before her true identity was known. She is still living, but she has retired from writing, having ended both series. Her books are still in print.
According to an article in Wikipedia, she is most directly influenced by Jane Austen, and to a lesser extent by Barbara Pym and other comedies of manners written in the 1920s and 1930s. She herself has influenced, most famously, Jan Karon.
Under lesser known factoids, the musician Enya has a track on the Watermark album named after the book Miss Clare Remembersand another on the Shepherd Moons album named for No Holly for Miss Quinn.
I hope you’ll give Miss Read a try if you haven’t already — or revisit her if you haven’t read any of her things in awhile. With any luck, you’ll find them as enchanting as I do. If you are already a dyed in the wool fan and you’re looking for someone else similar to read, try E.F. Benson. R.F. Delderfield, Paul Gallico, Elizabeth Gaskell, James Herriott, Debbie Macomber, Rosamunde Pilcher, Ann Purse, Barbara Pym, D.E. Stevenson, or Angela Thirkell.
Did I forget anyone? Please let us all know if you’ve discovered someone else who reminds you of Miss Read. Meanwhile, have fun clicking on the above links to find out more information about Miss Read.