The enchanting follow-up to Village School, Miss Read's beloved first novel, Village Diary once again transports us to the picturesque English village of Fairacre. Each chapter describes a month in the life of the village school’s headmistress, Miss Read. As the villagers prepare for their country pageant, Fairacre welcomes many newcomers, such as the headstrong Amy, Mr. Mawne (whom the villagers would like to see the reluctant Miss Read marry), and the earnest new infants' teacher, Miss Jackson.
About the Author
Miss Read (1913-2012) was the pseudonym of Mrs. Dora Saint, a former schoolteacher beloved for her novels of English rural life, especially those set in the fictional villages of Thrush Green and Fairacre. The first of these, Village School, was published in 1955, and Miss Read continued to write until her retirement in 1996. In the 1998, she was awarded an MBE, or Member of the Order of the British Empire, for her services to literature.
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AS I have been given a large and magnificent diary for Christmas — seven by ten and nearly two inches thick — I intend to fill it in as long as my ardour lasts. Further than that I will not go. There are quite enough jobs that a schoolmistress just must do without making this one a burden.
Unfortunately, the thing is so colossal that I shan't be able to carry it with me, as the adorable Miss Gwendolen Fairfax did hers, so that she 'always had something sensational to read in the train.'
It was a most surprising present for Amy to have given me. When we first taught together in London, many years ago, we exchanged two hankies each, I remember; and since she cropped up again in my life a year or so ago, it has been bath salts on her side ('To make you realize, dear, that even if you are a school teacher there is no need to let yourself go completely') and two-hankies-as-before on mine.
When Amy handed me this present she remarked earnestly, 'Try to use it, dear. Self-Expression is such a wonderful thing, and so vital for a woman whose life is — well, not exactly abnormal, but restricted!' This smacked of Amy's latest psychiatrist to me, but after the first reaction of speechless fury, I agreed civilly and have had over a week savouring this bon mot with increasing joy.
Mrs Pringle, the school cleaner, told me yesterday that Miss Parr's old house at the end of the village has now been turned into three flats. The workmen have been there now for months; they arrived soon after her death, but I hadn't realized that that was what they were doing. A nephew of Miss Parr's now owns it, and has the ground floor. A retired couple from Caxley evidently move into the top floor this week, and a widower, I understand, has the middle flat.
'A very nice man too,' Mrs Pringle boomed menacingly at me. 'Been a schoolmaster at a real posh school where the boys have to pay fees and get the cane for nothing. Not in his prime, of course, but as Mrs Willet said to me at choir practice, there's many would jump at him.' Mrs Pringle eyed me speculatively, and I can see that the village is already visualizing a decorous wooing, culminating in a quiet wedding at Fairacre Church, with my pupils forming a guard of honour from the south door, with the aged couple hobbling down the path between them.
I said that I hoped that now that the poor man had retired, he would be allowed to rest in peace, and went out to clean the car. This is my latest and most extravagant acquisition — a small second-hand Austin, in which I hope to be able to have wonderful touring holidays, as well as driving to Caxley on any day of the week, instead of relying on the local bus on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays as heretofore. So far I have not been out on my own as I am still having lessons from an imperturbable instructor in Caxley, who thrives on clashing gears, stalling engines and a beginner's unfortunate confusion of brake and accelerator. Miss Clare, that noble woman, who taught the infants at Fairacre for many years, says that she will come out with me 'at any time, dear, whether you feel confident or not. I am quite sure that you can master anything.' Am touched, but also alarmed, at such faith in my powers, and can only hope that she never meets my driving instructor.
Miss Clare spent the evening with me recently and our conversation turned, as it so often does, to life in Fairacre in the early years of this century, when Miss Clare was a young and inexperienced pupil-teacher at this village school. I love to hear her reminiscing, for she has a tolerant and dispassionate outlook on life, born of inner wisdom and years of close contact with the people here. For Miss Clare, 'To know is to forgive,' and I have never yet heard of her acting in anger or in fear, or meting out to a child any punishment that was hastily or maliciously devised.
Her attitude to those who were in authority over her is as wide and kindly as it always was to the small charges that she taught for forty years.
We were talking of Miss Parr, who had died recently. She had been a manager of Fairacre School since the reign of King Edward the Seventh, and was a stickler for etiquette. It appears that one day she met Mrs Willet, now our caretaker's wife, but then a child of six, in the lane, and was shocked to find the little girl omitted to curtsy to her. At once she took the child to its mother, and demanded instant punishment.
'But surely —' I began to protest. Miss Clare looked calmly at me.
'My dear,' she said gently, 'it was quite understandable. It was customary then for our children to curtsy to the gentry, and Miss Parr was doing her duty, as she understood it, by correcting the child. No one then questioned her action. "Other days, other ways" you know. It's only that now, sometimes, looking back — I wonder — —' She put down a green pullover she was knitting and stared meditatively at the fire.
'When you say that no one questioned the actions of his superiors, do you mean that they were automatically considered right or that verbal protestations were never made, or what?' I asked her.
'We recognized injustice, dear,' answered Miss Clare equably, 'as clearly as you do. But we bore more in silence, for we had so much more to lose by rebellion. Jobs were hard to come by, in those days, and no work meant no food. It was as simple as that.
'A sharp retort might mean instant dismissal, and perhaps no reference, which might mean months, or even years, without a suitable post. No wonder that my poor mother's favourite maxim was "Civility costs nothing." She knew, only too well, that civility meant more than that to people like us. It was a vital necessity to a wage-earner when we were young.'
'Was she ever bitter?'
'I don't think so. She was a happy, even-tempered woman, and believed that if we did our best in that station of life to which we had been called, then we should do well. After all, we all knew our place then. It made for security. And here, in Fairacre, the gentry on the whole were kindly and generous to those they employed. You might call it a benevolent despotism, my dear — and, you know, there are far worse forms of government than that!'
Miss Clare's eyes twinkled as she resumed her work and the room was filled again with the measured clicking of her knitting needles.
Tuesday was a beast of a day; foggy and cold, with the elm trees dripping into the playground. Two workmen arrived from Caxley to see to the school skylight over my desk: it must be the tenth time, at least, that it has received attention since I came here just over six years ago. Usually, it is Mr Rogers, from the forge, who has the job of clambering over the roof, but the managers decided to try the Caxley firm this time, hoping, I imagine, that it might be better done by them. The village, of course, is up in arms at this invasion of foreigners, and Mr Rogers wears a martyred expression when he stands at the door of his smithy. I am confident that he will soon be in a position to smile again, as the skylight has defied all comers for seventy-odd years — so the school log- books say — and I doubt whether any workmen, even if hailing from the great Caxley itself, will vanquish it.
One man, in Mrs Pringle's hearing, said loudly that 'it was a proper bodged-up job,' so that, of course, will inflame passions further. Mrs Pringle, who was scrubbing out the school dustbins at the time, drew in her breath for so long, and with such violence, that I thought she would burst; but only her corsets creaked under the strain.
Tea, at Miss Clare's, was the bright spot of the day. We had a lardy cake which was wonderfully hot and indigestible, and conversation which was soothing, until I was putting on my coat when Miss Clare shattered me by asking if I had yet met a very nice man, a retired schoolmaster, who had come to live in Miss Parr's old house.
I am beginning to feel very, very sorry for this unfortunate man, and have half a mind to ring him up anonymously, advising his early removal from Fairacre if he wishes to have an undisturbed retirement.
The last day of the holidays has arrived, and, as usual, half the jobs I intended doing have been left undone. No marmalade made, no paint washed down, only the most urgent mending done, and school starts tomorrow.
It all looks unbelievably clean over there. I staggered back with the fish tank and Roman hyacinths, all of which have sheltered under my school-house roof for the past fortnight. Miss Gray — Mrs Annett, I mean — will have a smaller class this term, only sixteen on roll, while mine will be twenty-three strong.
The stoves are miracles of jetty brilliance. Mrs Pringle must have used pounds of blacklead and enough energy to move a mountain to have produced such lustre. Woe betide any careless tipper-on of coke for the next few days!
Term has begun. Everyone is back with the exception of Eileen Burton, who has, according to the note brought by a neighbouring child, 'a sore throat and a hard, tight chest.' Can only hope these afflictions are not infectious.
The workmen have found it necessary to remove the whole frame of the skylight, so that, having had a clear two weeks to do the job undisturbed, they now tell me that we must endure a flapping and smelly tarpaulin over the hole in the roof, while a new window-frame is made in Caxley. Straight speaking, though giving me some relief, dints their armour not at all as blame attaches, as usual, to other members of the firm 'higher-up and back in Caxley, Miss,' so that I can see a very comfortable few days ahead.
The children appeared to have forgotten the very elements of education. Five-times table eluded them altogether, and my request to write 'January' on their own, met with tearful mystification. Having walked round the class and seen such efforts as 'Jamwy,' 'Ganeree' and 'Jennery' I wrote it on the blackboard with dreadful threats of no-play-for-a-week for those who did not master its intricacies immediately.
The vicar called, just before we went home, in his habitual winter garb of cloak, biretta and leopard-skin gloves. Surely they can't stand another winter? I only wish I had such a serene outlook as Mr Partridge's. He greeted us all as though he loved every hair of our heads, as truly I believe he does. I see that he has 'Jesu, Lover of my Soul' on the hymn list this week, but haven't the heart to tell him that I think it painfully lugubrious and quite unsuitable for the children to learn.
I invited him over to the school-house to tea and ushered him into the dining-room, where the clothes-horse stood round the fire bearing various intimate articles of apparel and a row of dingy polishing rags which added the final touch of squalor. Not that he, dear man, would have worried, even had he noticed the things — but that clothes- horse was whisked neatly into the kitchen in record time!
I have just returned from a day out with Amy. She rang me up last night to say that there was a wonderful film on, which I must see. It would broaden me. It was about Real Life. I said that I'd looked through the Caxley Chronicle this week, but I thought that both cinemas were showing Westerns.
'Caxley?' screamed Amy down the wire. Did I think of nothing but Caxley and Fairacre? When she thought of what promise I had shown as a girl, it quite upset her to see how I'd gone off! No, the film she had in mind was to be shown in a London suburb — the cinema specialized in revivals, and this was a quite wonderful chance to see this unique masterpiece. She would pick me up at 10.30, give me lunch, and bring me back to the wilds again.
I mentally pulled my forelock and said that that would be lovely.
Amy's car is magnificent and has a fluid fly-wheel, which as a gear- crashing learner, filled me with horrid envy. We soared up the hills, passing everything in sight, while Amy told me that life, even for a happily married woman, was not always rosy. James, although utterly devoted of course, was at a dangerous age. Not that he was inattentive; only last week he gave her these gloves — she raised a gargantuan fur-clad paw; and the week before that these ear-rings — I bent forward to admire a cluster of turquoises — and this brooch was his Christmas present, and was fantastically expensive — but she found she was beginning to suspect the reason for so many costly presents, especially when he had been away from home, on business, so frequently lately.
I said: 'Why don't you ask him if there is anyone else?' Amy said that was so like me — it wasn't surprising that I had stayed single when I was so — well, so unwomanly and unsubtle. No, she could handle this thing quite skilfully, she thought, and in any case it was her duty to stick by dear James through thick and thin. Unworthy thought crossed my mind as to whether she'd stick so nobly if James suddenly became penniless.
We arrived in the West End; Amy had no difficulty in finding a car park with an obsequious attendant who directed our footsteps to the hotel where Amy had booked a table. I was much impressed by the opulence of this establishment and said so. Amy shrugged nonchalantly: 'Not a bad little dump,' then, scanning the menu, 'James brings me here when he wants to be quick. The food is just eatable.'
We ordered ham and tongue, with salad, which Amy insisted on having mixed at our table, supervising the rubbing of the bowl with garlic (which I detest, but could see I must endure) the exact number of drops of oil, etc. and expressing horror that the whole was not being turned with wooden implements.
I would much rather have had my salad fresh and been allowed to ask for Heinz mayonnaise, in constant use at home, but realized that Amy was enjoying every minute of this worldly-woman-taking-out-country- mouse act, and would not have spoiled it for her for worlds.
Over lunch, Amy continued to tell me about James's generosity, and disclosed the monthly allowance which he gives her. This, she said, she just manages on. As the sum exceeds easily my own modest monthly cheque as a headmistress, I felt inclined to remind her of our early days together, teaching in a large junior school not many miles from this very hotel, when we thrived cheerfully on a salary of just over thirteen pounds a month, and visited the theatre, the cinema, went skating and dancing, dressed attractively and, best of all, were as merry as grigs all the time. As Amy's guest, however, I was bound to keep these memories to myself. As I watched her picking over her salad discontentedly I remembered vividly a meal we had had together in those far-off days. It must have been towards the end of the month for I know we spent a long and hilarious time working out from the menu which would fill us up more for eightpence — baked beans and two sausages, or spaghetti on toast.
The cinema was rather hard to find, in an obscure cul-de-sac, and the film which Amy had particularly come to see had just begun. It was so old, that it seemed to be raining all the time, and even the bedroom scenes — which were far too frequent for my peace of mind — were seen through a downpour. The women's hair styles were unbelievable, and quite succeeded in destructive my grasshopper mind from the plot; either puffed-out at the sides, like the chorus in The Mikado, or cut in a thick fringe just across the eyebrows, giving the most brutish aspect to the ladies of the cast. Waist lines were low and busts incredibly high evidently when this film first saw the light.
The supporting film was of later vintage, but, if anything, heavier going. Played by Irish actors, in Irish countryside in Irish weather, and spoken in such a clotted hotchpotch of Irish idiom as to be barely intelligible, it dealt with the flight of a young man from the cruel English. Bogs, mist, mountains, girls with shawls over their heads and bare feet splashing through puddles, open coffins surrounded with candles and keening, wrinkled old women, all flickered before us for an hour and a half — and then the poor dear was shot in the end!
We emerged into the grey London twilight with our eyes swollen. Drawn together by our emotional afternoon we had tea in a much more relaxed mood than lunch, and drove back in a pleasantly nostalgic atmosphere of ancient memories shared.
It was good of Amy to take me out. A day away from Fairacre in the middle of January is a real tonic. But I was sorry to see her so unhappy. I hope that I am not so wrong-headed as to blame Amy's recent affluence for her present malaise. As anyone of sense knows, money is a blessing and I dearly wish I had more — a lot more. I should have flowers in the classroom, and my house, all the year round, buy a hundred or so books, which have been on my list for years, and spend every school holiday travelling abroad — just for a start. I think the truth of the matter is that Amy feels useless, and has too little to do.
Excerpted from "Village Diary"
Copyright © 1985 Miss Read.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I love this series but this is the worst digitization I have ever seen. All words containing a double l have the l's replaced with a d, for example will is written wid. Doesn't anyone check this??? Don't buy this volume in this format.
Beware, poor scanning,as usual, will leave you distracted - read the paper edition - Miss Read was the best writer of this genre ever!
Miss Read's journal of her days in an English country school, develops the stories of the villagers, with the author's gift for clear and humorous description and characterization. It is a look at English life back to the 1950s with the changes in the school system reflecting change in the larger society. I fell in love with the characters and did not want the story to end.
A delightful read, although not as good as the Jan Karon Mitford Series.
If you enjoy that kind of story, you will enjoy it.