Village School – Miss Read

28 Nov
One of the most important authors in my life is Miss Read, and hardly anyone I know has heard of her. I am a lifelong anglophile, and Miss Read epitomizes that dreamy, comforting vision I have of England in my head. Miss Read is a pseudonym for Dora Jessie Saint, an English schoolmistress who wrote a series of novels about village life in England around the mid-1950s or so. There’s nothing too exciting in them, nothing scandalous or earth-shattering. They’re simple, quiet, full of quirky characters and domestic affairs. It’s all completely foreign to me: the British school system, tea time, vicars. But it is oh-so-appealing in every way.

I first discovered Miss Read at the San Francisco Library’s annual book sale, which is held in this giant, cavernous building at Fort Mason, an old military fort. I was perusing one of the fiction tables, and this old-fashioned hardcover, beaten up around the edges and with a depiction of idyllic village life on the front cover, peeked out at me. On a whim, I snatched it up and I am thankful to this day.

Village School follows a year in the life of the occupants of Miss Read’s schoolhouse. Told from the point of view of Miss Read, she introduces us to the tiny, lovely, and ever so slightly dysfunctional village of Fairacre. The tone is so fair-minded and filled with obvious, though exasperated, love that you’re immediately sucked in. Much as Miss Read is devoted to the citizens of Fairacre and her role as schoolmistress, she’s not above a dig at the crotchety janitor (janitress?) Mrs. Pringle or getting a little haughty with a mother who doesn’t live up to Miss Read’s exacting standards. There’s a gentleness to Village School that I find incredibly helpful after long days or when I feel the wolves are baying at my door.

With such a large cast of characters, you’d think it would be difficult to get attached, but nope, that’s not the case. One of my favorite relationships is that between Miss Read and Mrs. Pringle. One of Mrs. Pringle’s daily duties is to light the stoves, which in the cool climate of England are pretty important to the children’s comfort. Mrs. Pringle, however, views this as her own cross to bear, and schemes and connives on ways to get out of it.

“Mrs. Pringle’s methods are subtle when I have given firm orders for the stove to be lit. For a day or two she stalls with ‘Ran out of matches,’ or ‘Mr. Willet did say he’d bring up the kindling wood, but he ain’t done it yet,’ but finding that I have lit the fire myself she gives in and continues, most reluctantly, to renew it each day. This does not mean to say that the matter is closed. Far from it; for should she have occasion to enter the room she will fan herself ostentatiously with her hand—often mauve with the cold—and say, ‘Phew! How can you stick this heat, I don’t know! Makes me come over real faint meself!’ Sometimes the attack is on a broader front and the ratepayers are brought in as support.”

Is that not fabulous?

Why is it that reading about a spinster schoolmistress instructing her students on the proper way to create decorations for a harvest festival just sets me to rights? As a reader, comfort is incredibly important to me. Maybe it’s because reading is such a private pursuit anyway, and choosing and reading a book is almost like having a conversation with yourself. It is your imagination, your mind that is bringing up the images, and the subject matter you choose for yourself can be whatever you need it to be at that moment: scary, thrilling, titillating, soothing. For my own personality, reading is frequently a balm, something I do to care for myself. When I need that, it’s to Miss Read I run first.

7 Responses to “Village School – Miss Read”

  1. Mary Jo December 4, 2011 at 10:18 pm #

    I have loved Miss Read since you introduced her to me. I find the people of Fairacre to be characters that I have come to care about. Every small detail is interesting, even comfortable. Fairace is a place I can go away to and feel safe, at home. It can be a refuge from my modern, hectic, sometimes messy, somethimes disappointing days, and can bring the sun to good days.

  2. Mary Jo December 14, 2011 at 8:56 am #

    I’m feeling the need for a dose of Miss Read. Do you have any, or come across any that we haven’t read yet?

    • Amanda December 14, 2011 at 9:18 am #

      Have you read Christmas at Fairacre? It might be my favorite, and of course, now is an appropriate time. I’ve got that one, and I could be persuaded to part with it for a time. 🙂

  3. Rebecca December 14, 2011 at 9:49 pm #

    “[C]hoosing and reading a book is almost like having a conversation with yourself.” I’ve never thought of reading that way, but it’s so true. It’s all about setting the mood for myself. I read Jayne Ann Krentz when I want a comfort read. Her women are always creative, bold, and smart, her men always just as smart, wealthy, and hard around the edges without being hard themselves, as if they’ve simply been waiting to meet the women they find in those pages to fully come into their own. I find the novels soothing for the no-thinking factor, yet still a predictably great story.

    If you’d like another comfort read, I highly recommend Robin D. Owens. There’s something about her world and characters that is almost like daily meditation for me, though that sounds completely unflattering to her work. The stories are highly entertaining and each one different (unlike Krentz). It took me about four or five novels before I realized that my life while I read them seems more in harmony, more at peace with itself and all the parts. It’s a very strange, wonderful side effect of a novel, and I wish I could pinpoint what it is about the books that creates the feeling.

    I’m going to have to check out Miss Read. I adore the soft, easy, laid-back life of the English countryside, a la Austin, so I think these would be equally as appealing.

    • Amanda December 15, 2011 at 8:15 am #

      I will definitely check out Robin D. Owens! Man, I could use a new meditation read. Reading does so much for me, as far as putting me back on an even keel. Something about just letting go of reality and losing yourself in a story…it’s the best.

  4. 35andupcynicismonhold January 27, 2012 at 9:57 am #

    hello, again,

    hey, i’ve read this one and a few more by miss read. i don’t know, she has a certain touch or handle to her stories. it’s like she really knew and lived in the village, ahaha. ^^

    btw, i also read several of e.f. benson’s works. there’s a bit of similarity between their works (errr, the village setting?)although e.f. is a little more sociological and academic, i guess. just my thoughts… :c

    happy weekend! 🙂

    • Amanda January 27, 2012 at 10:05 am #

      Ooh, thanks for the recommendation! I’ve never heard of E.F. Benson – I’ll have to look her (him?) up. I’m always down for anything like Miss Read’s books.

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