Friday, April 13, 2012

Obituary of Miss Read

My blogging friend, Peggy Ann let me know this morning that one of my most beloved authors has died, Miss Read. She was within days of turning 99 years old. A good, long life. Just now I happen to be re-reading News From Thrush Green, the third book in her Thrush Green series. I discovered Miss Read on my library's shelf when my kids were young. I read every book there and then got the rest through Inter Library Loan. She was the first chronicler of English village life I had ever read, and this genre, this setting became my very favorite type of book. Her two series, Fairacre and Thrush Green are so real to me that I'm sure those characters are in their little villages walking to the shops and talking over the fence to one another.

In an obituary from the Huffington Post, it says Dora Saint believed that
"happiness is the result of an attitude of mind."

"I believe you can build it out of small things, out of hearing someone calling across a garden, a robin in a hedge, a cat in the woodshed," she once said. "When I hear depressing news on the radio, I can switch off and drift into what is, I suppose, a dream world. I think all people like to look back, not because everything was better in the past, but because often they were happy then."

Her obituary from The Guardian follows.

Miss Read obituary
Bestselling author whose tales of a rural idyll were based on her own life

Dennis Barker
guardian.co.uk Thursday 12 April 2012 11.06 EDT

Dora Saint, better known as Miss Read, was wonderfully gifted at describing the joys of the countryside. Photograph: Orion


Miss Read was the bestselling author who made real the idea of the English village school as a sane and safe haven for those growing up after the second world war. The books were written under a pen name by Dora Saint, who has died aged 98. She took her pseudonym from her mother's maiden name.

The fictional accounts, based on Saint's own life as a village school teacher, appeared almost annually for four decades from the mid-1950s. She was wonderfully gifted at describing, with apparent simplicity, the joys of the countryside, from discovering a robin's nest inside a hollow damson tree to smelling a field full of sage. Her stories of classroom life were similarly wholesome. They were translated into Japanese and Russian as well as German and Dutch, and were very popular in the US.

Dora started life in the city, the daughter of a London insurance agent, Arthur Shafe, whose wife, Grace, carried on his business while he was in France with the Royal Horse Artillery during the first world war. It was only when Grace had to undergo surgery and was advised to leave the smoke of the capital that the family moved to the country.

Encouraged by her parents, the young Dora was able to read before she went to the village school in Chelsfield, near Orpington in Kent, at the age of four. She knew all the Beatrix Potter stories and was immediately sent into a higher grade. Though she was poor at arithmetic, she shone at essays. Later she followed her elder sister to Bromley county school, and her love of language was stimulated by regular visits to the Aldwych farces, musicals and Shakespeare.

However, school remained her ideal world, her memories from Chelsfield being possibly rose-tinted but endearingly appreciative. She made her two fictional villages, Fairacre and Thrush Green, more real than reality, allowing scope for a degree of wry humour.


Village School, originally published in 1955, was the first of Miss Read's Fairacre novels. Photograph: Orion


Her father turned to teaching, and so did she. Once she had completed her training at Homerton College, Cambridge, she taught in Middlesex from 1933 until 1940, the year of her marriage to Douglas Saint. After the war, she did occasional work as a supply teacher, and started writing on school and country matters for a variety of magazines including Punch and the Times Educational Supplement. She also wrote scripts for the BBC schools service.

The first of the Fairacre novels, Village School, appeared in 1955; Thrush Green, the first of the new series, in 1959; and the last Fairacre, A Peaceful Retirement, in 1996. In two books of autobiography, Time Remembered and A Fortunate Grandchild, the main themes were a happy home and a happy school. They were brought together as Early Days (1995), which has since become one of a number of reprints by Orion. Saint also produced some books for children, as well as Miss Read's Country Cooking (1969).

In 1998 Saint was appointed MBE. She and Douglas lived in Berkshire – in a small village, naturally. He died in 2004. She is survived by their daughter, Jill.

Jenny Dereham writes: When the publisher Michael Joseph's autumn books began to appear – Miss Read's were always published on the first Thursday in September, and stayed in the Sunday Times bestseller list for five or six weeks – I came to appreciate what a following she had. As Anthea Joseph's editorial assistant, I found that very little needed to be done to any of her typescripts. After all, Dora had been an English teacher.

After Anthea's death in 1981, I had the honour of becoming Miss Read's publisher, and graduated from a somewhat gauche copy-editor to friend. But I nearly blew it. To fit in with the company accountants' plan, I wrote to Dora suggesting that she write alternate Fairacre and Thrush Green books for the next five years, and please could we have the typescript as early in the year as possible. Dora sent me such a nice letter saying that she didn't really write to order and, actually, she thought she might write a short autobiographical work next – and so she did.

Miss Read was an uncomplicated person. She wrote wonderfully about the things she held dear; good friendships, the countryside through the seasons and a bit of harmless tittle-tattle on the green. She did not shirk from speaking about the downs as well as the ups of village life. She wove the threat of school closure into her books with true feeling, and the unwelcome encroachment of new houses and incomers – but good always prevailed.

One of her Thrush Green characters, Ella Bembridge, "was a great admirer of Anthony Trollope, partly because she was impressed with the industry and perseverance of the man". Ella also prized loyalty and doggedness: these were all qualities displayed by the writer.

Although nearly blind for the last years of her life, Dora was always fully alert to the weather. The pace of life might have changed in her fictional villages as the years passed, but the joy of a hint of warmth early in the year, as in Winter in Thrush Green (1961), never alters: "It was one of those clear, mild days which come occasionally in mid-winter and lift the spirits with their hint of coming springtime. Catkins were already fluttering on the nut hedge behind Albert's house and the sky was a pale translucent blue, as tender as a thrush's egg-shell."

Miss Read (Dora Jessie Saint), author, born 17 April 1913; died 7 April 2012

You may read online tributes, and leave one of your own, if desired here.

49 comments:

  1. I have often thought of Miss Read these past years wishing her happiness and joy in her retirement because she brought so much of these two things to me. Today I feel quietly full of gratitude.

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  2. What a wonderful obituary. It's a sad day but perhaps we shouldn't feel too sad because look what at the legacy this wonderful woman has left behind. Not many people can say their life's work made the world a better place.

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    1. Isn't that the truth! She certainly made my life and my world better. She cheers me like no other writer (well, other than Mr. Wodehouse, of course!).

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  3. What a lovely piece, Nan, about a gifted author. I know you have urged me to read some of these books for years, but alas, I have not. Perhaps 2012 is the year. I loved the little story about "not writing to order". LOL

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    1. I love it that it acknowledged that she didn't 'shirk from speaking about the downs as well as the ups of village life.' I have tried to mention this in my Miss Read book reports because I think that all too often we think that because a book is kindly it cannot be realistic as well. I think she had a gift that few others possess.

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    2. Yes, Dora Saint took in everything, the bad with the good, and still loved life. Not always an easy thing to do.

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    3. Wonderful woman, wonderful writer.

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  4. I read her obituary last night and was very taken with the line you've quoted, Nan, about happiness being the result of an attitude of mind. I have only one of Miss Read's books (read a long time ago) but I'm inclined to re-read it now and discover the rest.

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    1. In real life, as in her books, she had that attitude. Really just so wonderful. I love what Cath wrote above about her work making the 'world a better place.' It is absolutely true.

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  5. "Good always prevailed", sounds like my kind of writer. Thanks for a lovely post, a very nice tribute to a very nice lady.

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    1. Oh, if you have never read her, what a treat you have in store. I'm quite sure you'll love the two series of books. Happily there are many of them. I've read some more than twice and am never bored, always delighted.

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  6. It was a lovely piece Nan. I don't remember ever reading Miss Thrush, but you - and various other people - have written such warm obituaries, and made her books sound so enticing that I want to read them.

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    1. I've written a few book reports here. If you'd like to read them to get a sense of her work, you could click on the authors tab and scroll down to her name.

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  7. Sad to see this, Miss Read was my mum's favourite author and I enjoyed her books too. I'm so in agreement with her 'happiness is the result of an attitude of mind'.

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    1. Think of that. Gosh, I love to think of someone that age loving Miss Read, as well as my age.

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  8. I loved her gentle quiet books and though I can't honestly say I remember the details of any of them, I know they were balm to the soul

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    1. They meld together - mostly the same people going about their lives. 'balm to the soul' is exactly right.

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    1. Thanks, and thank you for letting me know.

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  10. She looks like such a lovely, kind person. What you've mentioned of her here reminds me a bit of Willa Cather. I read Cather's Shadows on The Rock (a historical novel of Quebec which was excellent!), and now I want to pick up something by Miss Read whom I've not yet read.

    99 years, wow. I'm not sure I'd even want to live that long myself...

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    1. I don't think she is much like Willa C.
      If you want to read more about my thoughts on Miss Read, you could go to the authors tab, click it, and scroll down to her name. I think I've written five book reports.
      I'd like to live longer even - if my kids were fine, and if Tom and I were healthy.

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  11. Oh, Nan, what sad news indeed. A gentle soul who spread kindness through her brilliant Miss Read stories.

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  12. A reader mentioned Miss Read's passing and I was so saddened to hear of it, Nan, and now find your words and this obituary here. Such a gracious writer who leaves such a fine legacy in her words. This is a lovely tribute.

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  13. Many years ago, I came across one of her books ("At Home in Thrush Green") at the library where I worked. I liked it, but then never sought out her books again or thought of them until, maybe two years ago, my mother-in-law sent me "Village School", "Village Diary" and "Storm in the Village" in a birthday parcel. I love those books (my copy of Village School shows a different cover, by the way), and I was surprised to see something about Miss Read appear on my blogger dashboard today - to be honest, I didn't know she was still alive...
    I guess her books are also available on Kindle.

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    1. Your mother-in-law is so wonderful - I love how she sends you all these books!

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  14. A beautiful obituary. What a wonderful body of work she left. I've enjoyed each book tremendously and have re-read them all several times.

    Thank you so much, Nan, for passing this along on your blog, as I hadn't heard this news.
    Have a wonderful weekend,
    Niki

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    1. I am so grateful for her writing. It quite literally changed my reading (and maybe even my real) life.

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  15. awww. I have never read her books but they sound charming. I'm sorry for her passing. maybe it will draw some attention to her work and bring some new appreciating readers to the fold.

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  16. So sad to hear about her passing, but you have been such an ambassador for her works! I just requested the first book in the Thrush Green series from my library and will be heading over there today to pick it up!

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    1. I love that you call me an 'ambassador!' Thanks.

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  17. I hadn't heard of her passing. I've stopped buying a paper so am grateful to you for alerting me and writing this fine tribute. I turn to Miss Read when I am in a certain frame of mind or unwell ( as I was recently) and find her books comforting. A sad loss.

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    1. I so love being in one of her villages through the pages of a book. Magic.

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  18. How very sad to learn that Miss Read has died. I feel as I did when I first learned that Gladys Taber had passed away -- as if I'd lost a close personal friend. I can think of no finer tribute to make to either of these wonderful perceptive clear-eyed, yet never unkind, writers.

    Thanks for posting this, Nan. Take care and God bless.

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    1. I love that 'clear-eyed, yet never unkind.' That is exactly it for each of them.

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  19. Your tribute is lovely; thank you.

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  20. I've never read anything by Miss Read, but the cover of Village School and all that info, along with your comments, has me thinking I need to dash over to stick one of her books on my wish list. Thanks!

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    1. Well, I sure love them! The cover is so great I'm tempted to buy it even though I already own a copy of the book. :<)

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  21. Thank you Nan. I had not heard about Miss Read's death. I too read as many of her books as our Library had when my kids were little. (I don't think anyone in our little community had ever heard of inter-library loans...and I couldn't afford to buy books then.) I am going to check the Library here and try to fill in -- I wonder if I will remember which ones I have read -- it has been a lot of years since I even thought of her, but I know her books were in my subconscious and a part of what made me want to visit England.

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  22. Even if you've read them, I think you'll still get great pleasure. I've read some of them three or more times, loving them each time. There's a list of the books in order here:

    http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/r/miss-read/

    Although it certainly isn't imperative to read them in order, there are changes in both series as the books go on. People get married, die, move into the villages.

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  23. What sad news! I knew she was still alive and suffering from blindness, but I had not heard of her death. Thank you for posting this. I believe her "Christmas at Thrush Green" novel which was published a few years ago was dictated to her editor, but it just wasn't the same. It's a toss-up as to which series was my favorite -- Fairacre or Thrush Green. I diligently collected her books several years ago and am fortunate to say I have all of them -- with dust jackets. I received many of them from England and one even from New Zealand! Abe Books (abebooks.com) is a wonderful resource for those wanting to collect Miss Read's books.

    Sad as her death is, she leaves a wonderful legacy behind.

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    1. I wonder if the Christmas book was a compilation of Christmasy passages from the older books?? Just an idea.
      I so envy you owning all of them. With the dust jackets! Perfect.

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  24. Sadly, I just learned today that Miss Read has died. Having discovered Miss Read when I was a child, I have been reading and re-reading her tales, which bring me such great comfort and joy. Fortunately, her work remains as a testament to this wonderful lady, who brought so much contentment to so many readers.

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    1. How nice of you to stop by and leave a note about this post. I am also a big fan, and she does indeed bring 'contentment' to me.

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  25. I wish I had written her, as I'm sure many did, just how much she enriched my life, how much enjoyment she provided. I really do not want to reread Fairwell to Fairacre although I reread all of her other books many times because naively I want the villages to be there! I wait each year for her books as I waited for Maeve Binchey. Two authors who were such "story tellers" that you wanted to turn the page no matter what the subject. People try to post "read a likes" but I haven't found one yet.

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