Monday, January 12, 2009

Village School by Miss Read



2. Village School - first in the Fairacre series
by Miss Read
fiction, 1955
paperback, 229 pages
second reading
finished, 1/12/09





I think Miss Read has a reputation which is not quite accurate. Her books are most always listed in the 'gentle reads' category; and while they are gentle, in that there is no horrific abuse or crime, still they are not bland - oh what a beautiful day and life I'm having sort of book. Fairacre is a lovely little English village, and we may look back at the 1950s with longing for the simplicity, but there is still trouble and sadness among its people. Poor little Joseph Coggs who wants nothing more from his school experience but the wonderful lunch which is served, is denied this because his father says, what's good enough for him (the father) is good enough for Joseph. That 'good enough' is "thick slabs of bread smeared with margarine and an unappetizing hunk of dry cheese." At school that first wondrous day, he ate "cold meat, mashed potatoes, salad, plums, and custard" with third helpings of the last two. As soon as his mother gets a job, the first thing she does is give her son the money for lunch at school. Not a team, these parents. And it gets worse. We learn that the father is a terrible drunk who beats his wife and children. This isn't expounded on in any great detail, but it is spoken in words, not whispers. These things did go on in those days. Joseph explains why he is late to school:

Me dad overdone it, and we was all up late.

It doesn't take much reading between the lines to realize the hell that was within those walls that night.

And then there are the two women - one a newcomer in town, with money and a nice house, and the other a substitute teacher - who share a dream.

'What I should like better than anything,' confessed Mrs Moffet, 'would be to have a dress shop!'
'Me, too!' rejoined Mrs Finch-Edwards, and they looked at each other with a wild surmise. There was a vibrating moment as their thoughts hovered over this mutual ambition.
'If it weren't for the family, and the house, and that,' finished Mrs Moffat, her eyes returning sadly to her seam.
'If it weren't for hubby,' echoed Mrs Finch-Edwards, gazing glumly at a gusset. They sewed in silence.

These two situations are indicative of the times, just as much as a quieter, simpler life. The truth is that all times have their goods and bads. There are no 'good old days' just old days, with their measure of pain and joy, the same as the days we inhabit.

I don't mean to imply that this sort of trouble or discontent is the crux of the book because it certainly isn't. The episodes are mentioned in passing, as another component of the several characters' lives. The book centers around the school life and calendar, which itself follows the church calendar because this is a parish school, attached to the local Anglican church. It is a rich life with harvest festivals, where the children bring fruits and vegetables to decorate the church, and Christmas programs which are attended by the whole community. I found myself thinking, what if a Jewish or Muslim child came to the village? What if a couple adopted a child from South Korea? How would they have been accepted and acclimated into this very safe, yet very closed community.

People often compare the Miss Read books with Jan Karon's Mitford series, and indeed Jan Karon is a fan of Miss Read's work. Their books share that small town life, with its ups and downs, and Jan Karon doesn't gloss over the troubles of life either.

Village School is a lovely, lovely story, introducing us to the town of Fairacre and its inhabitants. But it could also serve history very well as a report, a testimonial to post-War England in the rural towns. There isn't running water in the school. It is heated by a big coal stove which must be tended. There isn't a proper playground. Food is not taken for granted. The teacher lives in a house next to the school, and when she takes a bath:

I switched on the electric copper ready for my bath-water, when I returned. ... The kitchen was comfortably steamy when I put the zinc bath on the floor and pour in buckets of rainwater from the pump. As I lay in the silky brown water...

Good old days, ha!

And yet, there is great happiness. The teacher takes the children on outdoor excursions - not field trips for which permission must be granted and bus rides taken - but honest to goodness walks out into nature. The children learn about things I think are important - flowers, trees, food crops - things I'm quite certain many kids don't know about today.

I think that present day elementary school teachers in particular would so enjoy this book. They would see the many changes which have occurred in the fifty-nine years since it was written, but I think they would also feel at home in the village school. One note that made me smile, as the wife of a teacher:

Jim Bryant had brought the precious envelope containing our cheques; fantastically large ones this time, as they covered both July and August. Such wealth seemed limitless, but I knew from sad experience, how slowly September would drag its penniless length, before the next cheque came again!

There is a chapter called Perplexed Thoughts on Rural Education which voiced concerns still spoken of today such as rural schools closing and becoming consolidated into large regional ones. Miss Read writes of this with much fairness and understands both points of view. She also examines the private/public school issue in the same manner.

There is another chapter which tells of the log books these rural schools have kept since they first began:

The log books thus form a most interesting account of a school's adventures; the early ones are particularly fascinating and should, I sometimes feel, be handed over to the local archivist who would find them a valuable contribution to the affairs of the district.

This is just how I feel about this book. It truly is an historic record of a time and place of a school, told with fictional characters and events, yet very accurate in its portrayal.

Oh, and those women I spoke of above - Miss Read tells us in an unusual little fast forward that they did have their dress-designing business with a team of dressmakers.

I first read the Miss Read books when my kids were little. I had an exercise bike upstairs with a book holder, and I rode many a mile while my head and heart were in the English countryside. They were my 'adult' reading, while the rest of my reading time was spent within the pages of picture books and chapter books. I loved them then and love them today.

16 comments:

  1. I have read and re-read all of the Fairacre and Thrush Green books for about 40 years. As you say, they are far more than just gentle reads, showing some of the harsh realities of life in a small village. I have always thought of 'Miss Read' as a twentieth century Jane Austen.

    Your post has reminded me that I have a copy of A Peaceful Retirement on my shelf. I was given it on my retirement from teaching three years ago and I forgot about it until now. I'm off to rescue it.

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  2. Monix, I think that is one of my favorites. I have in my quote book a great one from that book, and I should use it soon. Thank you for your words. I don't think I knew you had been a teacher. What grade? For how many years? And though I probably should whisper this, I really like Miss Read much better than Jane A. :<)

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  3. I've never heard of these books but I must tell you that after your very well-written review I'm going over to Goodreads and adding this book to my must-reads for 2009. I have all of Jan Karon's books, haven't read one of them!! I'm a loser :)

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  4. ahhhh...kindred spirits...I too have loved Miss Read for more than 30 years. I've read them all, many times. You described them well Nan, gentle but real, a little bit of an edge here and there, a great sense of humor....
    I love them all
    blessings, Niki

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  5. This sounds like a great read. Now I want to read this and make aebleskivers! I don't think I can really justify the purchase of an aebleskiver pan...I can't think of anything else that would work quite right though.

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  6. Oh, I love Miss Read - I'm so glad you do too. I first read her books when my son was little and I borrowed them from the library, so haven't got any of my own. I read all of her books that were in the library but there must be many more I haven't read. 'Outsiders' to the village would certainly have set the tongues wagging and it would be interesting to see the reaction. I have a feeling it would be mixed with some people showing prejudice and dismay, others being polite and yet others welcoming children from other cultures into the village.

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  7. Count me in as a Miss Read fan. I've read every one I could get my hands on!! Now, which one had Dotty Harmer and her collywobbles?
    I found a copy of A Peaceful Retirement at the Goodwill the other day! It's on my table waiting to be read. :)
    I think everyone needs to visit Thrush Green and Fairacre and thanks to you, Nan, maybe they will.

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  8. Oh Nan! I just love Miss Read books. I think there is no better way to go to England on vacation than to simply get comfortable in a chair with a cup of English breakfast tea (a little milk please) and a Miss Read book. It is as thought when you open the first page you are opening a door. You are there in the village. You are there in the sweet gardens. You are there having tea by the fire. *Sigh*

    Hugs ~
    Heidi

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  9. Nan, I started (back in the '60s!) as a primary school teacher but then trained to be a teacher of the deaf. I taught in a special school, then ran my own unit attached to a mainstream primary school before starting the final phase of my career as a County Advisor for Deaf Children and their Families - that's a grand title for doing what I always did but without a base!

    I took a ten year break when my children were born but carried on doing voluntary work with families with deaf children so, altogether 40 years. Say it quickly and it doesn't sound too bad!

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  10. Your wonderful notes show me why I love the blogging world! I'll bet I don't know one person, other than the local librarian, who has even heard of Miss Read. And here you all are, loving her books. It pleases me beyond words.
    You aren't a 'loser' Staci! That's what tbr books are, right?!
    Niki, and Dreamybee, thank you for coming by. I've just made a quick visit to your blogs and will be back! Thank you for your words. I'm always thrilled when someone new comes by. And Dreamybee, the price of the pan is well worth it!
    Monix, what a great job to have. I'll bet you saw some of those little village schools in your travels.
    Margaret, Karin, and Heidi, I loved reading your comments. It's so much fun to find out people I know care about a writer I love so much! Margaret, there were two racial slurs in this book, which were so the norm in those days. They made me cringe but I'd rather they be there as a truthful show of what people really said than to be edited out. Heidi, I'm missing the tea gene. :<) I can drink it if pressed, but never, ever with milk. shudder. :<) Karin, Dotty is in the Thrush Green series, and what a riot she is. I love her spirit of independence. I have the first two on my shelves and may reread them again soon. I really like the TG series better than the Fairacre one. I like the setting, the characters, and the situations so much.

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  11. Well, this is an interesting little novel, especially for that time period. Since I've never heard of "Miss Read" I'm going to have to search out some of her books.

    Your blog is so wonderfully cozy and fun. I'll be adding you to bloglines and my sidebar. You'll be seeing much more of me!

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  12. Thank you chartroose for your kind words!!

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  13. Sounds like another book my mother (retired teacher) would love. I'll see if I can find it here.
    Margaretha

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  14. I'll bet she would like it, Em. It would be fun for her to compare and contrast with her own experience, as well as read a wonderful book.

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  15. I feel like I have just found a commmunity of true sisters!
    I too love Miss Read.
    Do you recommend any particular readings of Miss Read's books on CD's? I am losing my sight and would like to begin collecting a listening library.

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  16. Marmee, thank you so much for your note. I love your name! I went back to see what I've listened to and only came up with At Home in Thrush Green read by Gwen Watford, an audio partners edition. I think if you go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble, you will find some unabridged audios of her work. I've also listened to a couple of Elizabeth Cadell's books on audio and I'm quite sure you would like them since you like Miss Read. The Green Empress read by Jane Jermyn; and The Empty Nest read by Ciaran Madden. Do you like Jan Karon's Mitford books? They are all on unabridged audio from Recorded Books read by the wonderful John McDonough.

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Now that I am a grandmother, it seems that I am often late in replying to your most-appreciated comments. But I read them as soon as they come in, and I will write as soon as I can. Please do come back and check. I love these blogging conversations. A little addendum - I've just spent quite a long time catching up with dear notes you left me months ago!! I do hope you can get back to read them. And I'm trying to be much more prompt now!

Also, you may comment on any post, no matter how old, and I will see it.