by Miss Read (1955)
In times of stress, confusion, and disruption of our daily routines, resorting to our favorite foods, familiar places, or people can help to center us, just as a beloved book or author can. The prolific “Miss Read” wrote numerous books over a 40-year period in her two most popular series: Fairacre and Thrush Green. Village School is the first book in her Fairacre series.
“Miss Read” is the clever pen name of Mrs. Dora Jessie Saint. Like her character, she lived and taught school in small English villages. No doubt her years as a schoolmistress provided plenty of anecdotal experience to draw upon for her books and other writing about village life.
In this book, Miss Read tells the story of one school year in the village of Fairacre, which is apparently located somewhere in southern England. She is the headmistress of a 2-room schoolhouse and teaches the older village children aged about 8-11. There is another teacher for the younger children just starting school. She lives in a small house on the same property and tells us much about the flowers and vegetables grown and enjoyed there.
Miss Read takes us through the 3-term school year with its everyday learning and special events and occasions. We meet the children, their families, and the other people who keep the school going. We learn how a replacement teacher for the younger children is chosen and cheer for the new teacher finding love with a local man.
This may sound banal, but I can assure you that the reader is never bored. Miss Read has a lovely way of writing interspersed with occasional sardonic humor, but always makes clear her love of the people about whom she writes. This caring attitude is a major feature that has kept her books popular for over 60 years.
One aspect of being a schoolteacher that caught my attention is the difficulty of teaching the village children to speak in actual sentences. Miss Read explains:
“Because of…the children’s own very understandable desire to help in outside activities in an agricultural area, they do not get accustomed to seeing or hearing thought expressed in plain English. A great number of them have great difficulty in spelling, other than phonetically, for they are not readers by habit and not familiar with the look of words.” [p. 30]
Another surprise that triggered my historian senses is the fact that the logbooks were kept in the desk drawer since the founding of the village school in 1880. These logs recorded student names and attendance records, the usual and unusual events of each day, and even the number of caning strokes given to a badly-behaved student!
The logs also told a very sad story. In 1911, a husband and wife both taught in and ran the school. Their daughter Harriet Hope graduated as the star pupil with a very bright future ahead of her. She died (cause of death not recorded) in 1913. Her mother fell into a lengthy illness, and her father became an alcoholic who was shuffled off to another school in 1919. Among the stories of happiness and success lie those of tragedy.
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of Miss Read’s stories is her characters. Many are quirky in a variety of ways, and many are a type recognizable in our lives today. One of those is Mrs. Pringle, the school cleaner, who is very vocal in her complaints and about exactly what she will and will not do. Whenever she’s asked to perform a task she doesn’t like (e.g., starting the stoves at the onset of cold weather), she displays a noticeable limp along with accompanying complaint. As soon as someone else takes over or does the objectionable task, the limp magically eases or disappears!
Mrs. Pringle and Mrs. Willett “sing” in the church choir, which Miss Read describes:
“Behind me the voices rose and fell, Mrs. Pringle’s concentrated lowing vying with Mrs. Willett’s nasal soprano….Her voice has that penetrating and lugubrious quality found in female singers’ renderings of ‘Abide With Me’ outside public houses on Saturday nights. She has a tendency to over-emphasize the final consonants and draw out the vowels to such excruciating lengths, and all this executed with such devilish shrillness, that every nerve is set jangling.” [pp.47-48]
One final example of Miss Read’s writing prowess that keeps readers returning to her work is the description of the gift she gives her children on the day of the funeral of an elderly school board (as we would call it) member. While mourners stood around the nearby grave, the children in the classroom remembered their earlier playtime outdoors on a lovely day followed by the reading of their beloved “Wind in the Willows.”
“…[H]ere, in the classroom, sitting in a golden trance, our thoughts were of a sun-dappled stream, of willows and whiskers, of water-bubbles and boats…and I venture to think, that of all those impressions which were being made on that spring afternoon, ours, for all their being transmitted, as it were, second-hand, would be more lasting in their fresh glory. Thoughts by a graveside are too dark and deep to be sustained for any length of time. Sooner or later the hurt mind turns to the sun for healing, and this is as it should be, for otherwise, what future could any of us hope for, but madness?” [pp. 139-140]
What better gift to give a young child than the memory of a perfect day?
Over the years, I’ve read a number of Miss Read’s books in both the Fairacre and Thrush Green series. One concern that is a thread through those is the gradual demise of the English village school system. Not only was there a financial burden involved, there was also increasing difficulty finding teachers willing to live in the small villages with a general lack of amenities and an excess of nosy neighbors! During the time Miss Read wrote, consolidation of some village schools with larger schools in nearby larger towns occurred. There was a strong difference of opinion as to which delivers a better education.
I have never read a Miss Read book that disappointed me. In fact, the consistency of her writing and tone, that which captures readers and brings them to her books in the first place, is remarkable in my experience. Her work is the literary equivalent of comfort food, and each book can be enjoyed again and again.