A quiet voice of rural life fades away with Miss Read

Mon, Apr 16, 2012, 01:00

WE MUST pay tribute to Miss Read, that gentle voice from the quiet desert of our early teenage years. She died on April 7th, just 10 days short of her 99th birthday.

It is amazing to think that she was born four months before the Dublin Lockout, on April 17th, 1913. Her father fought in the first World War. She married during the second. So perhaps it is excusable that many of her fans had assumed that she had died many years ago. But we were wrong. In keeping with most of the characters admired in her work, Miss Read seems to have soldiered on – probably cheerfully.

Miss Read wrote almost 30 books between the 1950s and the 1990s. They were mostly intelligent slices of rural life set in small English villages. They were delicate, but not sentimental – there were housing estates marching towards the village green. They were sensual appreciations of the countryside or observations of the new towns: her young school teachers sometimes taught in suburban schools.

To really imagine her books you must think of Midsomer Murders without the snobbery and the violence. Miss Read was gentle, but she was smart. Her books contained excellent descriptions of wildlife and of human vanities, but also fleeting pictures of the poorest children in the rural classroom.

There is no sex or swearing in her books, but in other ways they were realistic. They were aimed at an adult audience, but their clear portrait of young women entering the very ordinary working world – Miss Read was a schoolteacher herself, and so was her husband and she was very strong on the rivalries in the staff room – was particularly interesting to teenagers. At a time when the other working role model available at the public library was Shirley Flight, Air Hostess, Miss Read’s good sense was very welcome. Shirley Flight ended up being proposed to by a pipe-smoking pilot – in Shirley Flight: Castaway – to nobody’s great surprise. Miss Read’s heroines tended, if memory serves, to marry pleasant farmers.

It is her one-time popularity in public libraries both here and in Britain that encourages me to remember her here, deeply unfashionable although she now is. In Rathmines public library the young librarian had never heard of her, and could only dig up one book, Christmas with Miss Read, from the catalogue. (There are a total of 19 entries for her on the online catalogue of Dublin City Libraries). In fact it turned out that Christmas with Miss Read was missing from the shelves, and was not even stored in the basement.

Luckily I found an older librarian who remembered the days of Miss Read’s popularity clearly. Books do fall out of fashion, we agreed. And it seems that when they do they are taken out of the library system, given to old people’s homes – I very much look forward to reading Miss Read in my old people’s home – or pulped.

While one sympathises with the library authorities – this column is big on libraries – they could have got it wrong this time. By a strange coincidence, Christmas with Miss Read is to be reissued by her publisher, Orion, this December, with a new cover. Her very first book, Village School (1955), will be reissued this July. Watch it putter gently up the bestseller lists.

Everything Miss Read wrote, as far as I can see, sold solidly, quietly and for long periods. She was a hit in Japan and Germany. The Americans have always been particular fans. Last week Miss Read’s death was noted in the Washington Post, for example, and her life’s work was discussed at some length in the New York Times.

Miss Read was lucky with her names. She was born Dora Shafe, married a man called Douglas Saint, and then adopted her mother’s maiden name to come up with one of the best noms de plume in the business. She started off writing about her experiences as a young rural schoolteacher in Punch magazine. Her low-key comedy was built on a bedrock of accuracy. She had a sharp ear for the ridiculous, and knew how foolish it often is to be the authority figure in the classroom when you have to say things like “now, I’m looking for two trustworthy rabbits”.

She had wanted to be a journalist but her father considered journalism no job for a woman – and who is to say that he was wrong?

She had moved from London to Chelsfield, near Orpington in Kent, when she was four. Her father had bought a small holding with his annuity from the British army, granted after the Great War. She attended a school in the village and it was essentially this community that she celebrated in her books. Her father, with the pragmatism his daughter would later show, continued to commute to his job as an insurance salesman in London.

Miss Read’s books were intelligent escapism, and very modest in their aims. I can still see the orange-and-white cover of Fresh from the Country, its spine broken and Sellotaped after too many readings.

And I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if I saw it in a brand new cover very shortly.