I came rather late to The Year in Books, hosted by Laura at Circle of Pines. So my January book, "Miss Pettigrew lives for a Day", was reviewed in February. This time I am running to catch up and hope to sneak my February book in just under the wire on the last day of the month.
There are all sorts of contenders for the book of the month this time. I have read Louise Doughty's "Apple Tree Yard" for my new book club choice and "The Language of Flowers"by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. I have also reread two books by Mary Stewart, "Airs above the Ground" and "This Rough Magic". None of this is heavy stuff and I have enjoyed all of it, particularly coming back after many years to Mary Stewart's thrillers written in the 1950s and 60s and just bristling with intelligent, period charm. Thanks so much to Chris of Home Thoughts Weekly for reminding me of these. They are just exactly what you need for a burst of pacy, well written and intelligently plotted escapism.
I have plumped in the end though for another form of escapism, "Summer at Fairacre" by Miss Read. I used to see the Miss Read books on my mother's bookshelves and to be honest I was always a bit snooty about them. I imagined they were soft centred, sentimental light reading, a Hallmark card in book form. I should have known better. Mum could not abide sentimentality and she was a great one for getting rid of things. If a book was on her shelf it must have earned its place. So a few months ago I picked the first one up, mainly because I was looking for something easy, Ovaltine for the brain. Wrong. While no-one could say they are heavy weight literature and they certainly do offer an escape into a simpler world, pap they are not.
The Miss Read books were written by Dora Saint and purport to be the diaries of a middle aged spinster school teacher who lives and works in a small, two teacher school in the village of Fairacre, somewhere high on the Downs in the South of England. Miss Read is clearsighted, acerbic, compassionate and self sufficient. She loves her single life and the children she teaches. She is a sharp observer of human nature with a fine line in gentle wit. She is also a lover of the natural world and her descriptions of her village in its changing seasons are superb. There is nostalgia in these books no doubt, partly simply the reader's nostalgia for a simpler life and our own schooldays. Many of the books were written in the 1960s about a life which even then was beginning to disappear as village schools closed, village life changed and villages became dormitories for those who worked in towns and cities. Miss Read herself does not look at life in the countryside through rose tinted glasses. She sees hardship and poverty in the cottages with roses around the door. But she also sees kindness, decency, a quiet devotion to the welfare of others and a readiness to find ways of getting along with one's neighbours.
The strongest impression one takes from these books is of the importance of community, the tight knit life of a small village where everyone knows everyone's business. To live it might perhaps be claustrophobic but to read it chronicled by the wry, sympathetic pen of Miss Read is comforting, amusing and therapeutic somehow. The annual story, determined both by the seasons and by the rhythm of the school year, rolls around. Nothing much happens and everything happens, much like most people's lives. Dora Saint is a little like Barbara Pym in her eye for pomposity or hypocrisy but the overriding feeling that reading these books generates is of a quiet joy in a life well lived in a place well loved. Reading them helps your fur to lie smooth again when it has been rubbed the wrong way by 21st Century life.
If you decide to read them it is a good idea to start with "Village School", the first of quite a long series. They remind you that you can read for all sorts of reasons. These won't excite you or educate you or turn you inside out or make your stomach turn at what man can do to man, but they will make you nod in smiling recognition and look a bit more closely at the world around you .