Village School
by Miss Reed
(Dora Saint)

Fairacre series
illustrated by J. S. Goodall

Michael Joseph: London, 1955
238 pages

Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 1956
238 pages

included in —

Review by
Jennifer Monroe Franson
Chronicles of Fairacre April 2009

Fairacre and environs: a pocket portrait

The first book in the Fairacre series, Village School lovingly chronicles the minutiae of daily life in a small English village in the 1950s. As the title implies, the book centers around Miss Read, headmistress of Fairacre's two-room primary school, and much — though not all — of the action is narrated by her.

In some ways, Village School is a descendent of Flora Thompson's fictionalized autobiography, the Lark Rise to Candleford trilogy, also set in rural England; while both are fictional, neither is really a novel. Village School gives us a series of vignettes spaced over the course of the school year. We share choir practice at the village church, skating on a frozen farm pond, a jumble sale, the retirement of a beloved teacher, and a trip to a seaside resort. And we see a pocket portrait of changing British life in the wake of World War II — although many of the children's parents work "up the atomic" plant nearby, the school building lacks running water; outhouses serve for toilets, and drinking water is brought in buckets from Miss Read's house nearby.

Village School exemplifies Jane Austen's "two inches of ivory" approach. Eschewing melodrama, the author focuses squarely on day-to-day village interactions — particularly Miss Read's skirmishes with the redoubtable Mrs. Pringle, her curmudgeonly cleaning lady. Even the book's most earthshaking events are negligible in the larger scale of things: an elderly teacher has a mild heart attack; two little boys steal some eggs; a school outing is disrupted when one of Miss Read's charges tumbles into a fish pond. This lack of sturm und drang is anything but a defect, however. Indeed, the charm of Village School lies in the very ordinariness and hominess of the life it portrays.

We had begun The Wind in the Willows, and I thought, as I waited for the children to settle down after playtime, what a perfect afternoon it was to hear about the adventures of Water Rat and Mole. An exhilarating wind was blowing the rooks about the blue and white sky. Somewhere, in the Vicarage garden, a blackbird whistled, and an early bee, bumbling lazily up and down the window-pane, gave a foretaste of summer joys.
Biblical Bryants & other eccentrics

Especially fascinating are the glimpses we get into the domestic lives of the Waites and Coggs families, neighbors in the run-down block of cottages called Tyler's Row. While the Waiteses are not well-off, their home is well-managed and comfortable; the squalid Coggs clan lives in a perpetual state of dearth and disorder. Ne'er-do-well paterfamilias Arthur Coggs provides one of the book's funniest moments when — having gotten religion and then gotten thoroughly soused — he barges into the home of the respectable Mr. Willet to "save" him and his wife:

"Gird on your armor, Willet," bellowed Arthur, his breath coming in beery waves across the table. He brandished his arms wildly, knocking down a very old fly-paper that fell glutinously across the red serge tablecloth.

"Gird on your sword! Gird on your 'elmet, Willet!" His eye lit upon two stuffed owls that dominated the dresser by the fire-place. Carefully, he lifted the glass cover from them, and, with a glad cry, dropped it over his own head. ...

"You saved?" he bellowed suspiciously ... steaming up the glass as he spoke.

Unfortunately for his family — but somewhat to the relief of his neighbors, who share the Willets' discomfiture at this approach to mission work — Arthur soon relapses into his old habits of "drinking, swearing, wife-and-child beating".

Other quirky denizens of Fairacre and its environs include the semi-literate Mrs. Bryant, whose fondness for Biblical names leads her to christen one of her sons Acts. Although the Vicar persuades her to substitute Amos, "The tale got around ... and Amos was nicknamed 'Acts,' or rather, 'Axe,' from an early age." The Vicar himself has a few harmless eccentricities, foremost among them an intense attachment to his ancient and moth-eaten leopard-skin gloves. These depictions of the "Biblical Bryants" and their neighbors are characteristic of the wry humor and focus on detail that permeate the book.

One problematic point: Dora Saint, the author, uses "Miss Read" as her pseudonym as well as the name of her main character. Since Miss Read is not the only viewpoint character, this can be confusing for the unwary reader, who may well begin Village School assuming it to be an actual or fictionalized autobiography. Still, this is only a tiny flaw in a book that provides a brilliantly drawn look at the small trials and triumphs of village life.


© 2009 Jennifer Monroe Franson

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