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Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Passing of Miss Read

Dora Saint (Miss Read) herself.
If you've followed this blog for long, you'll know that Miss Read is a steadfast favorite.  Before Jan Karon had her Mitford, Miss Read had Fairacre and Thrush Green.

While it's been well over a decade since a new Miss Read novel has appeared, her books are always within my reach, ready to soothe and delight and to give one a place to go when things are a little bleak.  Whether you're in a fabulous mood and longing for a trip to the English countryside, or feeling low and need to experience a gentler, more pleasant way of life, Miss Read's books fit the bill ideally.

Sadly, Miss Read, Dora Saint in real life, passed away in early April.  Just ten days short of her 99th birthday the redoubtable Mrs. Saint spent her last moments at home in Oxfordshire.

Long a lover of country life, Dora Saint was able to combine a unique understanding of people with a genuine affection and knowledge of nature.  Her books were charming, witty, cozy and understanding, but they were never saccharine or sentimental.  Even the best of her characters had problems, albeit normal ones that most of us face, and could, at times, be less than charitable to one another.  This combination of goodness and reality allowed readers to understand and relate to the many people who peopled the fictitious Fairacre and Thrush Green, and made it terribly fun to see what kinds of problems they'd face and how they'd measure up to them in each successive book.

One of Miss Read's earlier books
in the Fairacre series.

As I sit here now, I can look up and see a long row of Miss Read's lining a shelf all their own.  Each one of these books has been read several times, and there are probably more I haven't yet enjoyed.  For those of you who know the characters yourself, who can't delight in thinking of Thrush Green's Dotty Harmer in her ramshackle cottage in the woods, surrounded by chickens and goats and brewing something on the stove bound to cause a case of "Dotty's Collywobbles".  Or Ella Bembridge and her tin if tobacco which she uses to roll very untidy cigarettes.  There's Miss Read herself, title character of the Fairacre series, and her perennial problems with Mrs. Pringle.  Why, every time we do a really big cleaning, I think of Mrs. Pringle's threat/promise to "bottom out" Miss Read's schoolhouse during one holiday break or another.  Miss Read's friend, Amy, is also a sometimes threat to the schoolmistress' solitary happiness as she tries to find some suitable matrimonial prospect to her uninterested friend's attention.  For some reason, although described otherwise, I imagine Miss Read (the character) as looking like a less elegant Deborah Kerr...

The list beloved characters could go on and on.  But, at the center of the books, I think that there's a real message of kindness, civility and appreciation.  A kindness to others - easily exemplified by Miss Clare and her gift of her beautifully kept thatched cottage to Miss Read; civility - demonstrated by the many inhabitants of the villages and their ability to deal with such ne-er-do-wells as Albert and Nelly Piggott or the Coggs family; and appreciation - for one another, for the joys of village life and the loveliness of nature that surrounds them.

An illustration by John Goodall,
Miss Read's constant partner in the
Fairacre and Thrush Green books.

Many years ago, in the late eighties and early nineties, I had an occasional correspondence with Dora Saint.  She always replied to my letters and questions in a kind and rather sturdy tone.  She was really quite as delightful on the blue airmail letter/envelopes she'd write on as she was in the pages of her books.

If you've never read a Miss Read book, more's the pity for you.  Nothing beats them.  Even the much-beloved Mitford series was influenced by Jan Karon's love of Miss Read, who was, in her time, influenced by the work of Jane Austen.  And, it's true...  All three authors seem to share a love of the details of domestic life.  The small things that make people's relationships successful or, on occasion, more of a challenge.

As for me, I am going to sweep aside the books I'm currently reading for a fit of indulgence in the Miss Reads.  I can't think of any nicer tribute to an author that I've loved for so many years.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Jake,
    I'm so glad you came by to visit my blog so that I could find my way here. You've written a lovely tribute to Miss Saint and how delightful that you had a correspondence with her (however occasional!). What treasures those letters must be.

    I am looking forward to getting to know you and Dreamy better and will be sure to visit again soon.

    With warm wishes,