I don't recall for sure how I came across this lesser-known gem from the author of the Fairacre and Thrush Green books. I have a suspicion that the knowledge came from one of you lovely readers, perhaps in the form of a suggestion that the book belonged on my Grownup School Story List? Whoever it was who put it on my radar, I'm certainly grateful, and now the book, having remained on my TBR shelves for a couple of years, has finally floated its way to the top. (And yes, this one is actually on my shelves, rather than from a dusty library storage facility, and it's a beautiful copy at that. Would that I could remember how I came to possess it...)
And it has now become perhaps my favorite of the Miss Read (real name Dora Saint) books I've read, providing a slightly surprising variation on the author's more famous work.
It's the tale of Anna Lacey, a young schoolteacher from Essex, who takes her first teaching position in an unattractive newly-built suburb. Anna has spent her life on a farm in the open country, and has difficulty adjusting to her cramped, unpleasant lodgings with a skinflint landlady, the overcrowded conditions that reign in her classroom, and the attitudes and eccentricities of some of her colleagues at the school. She also must somewhat adapt the teaching techniques she learned in her training:
She had called the children's names and marked her register with care. Fearful lest uproar should break out again she had kept her voice stern and her face unsmiling. She had mispronounced one or two names and quelled the resulting sniggers with her most daunting glances. This was not how she had envisaged meeting her new charges. She had meant to advance with happiness and confidence, as she had been told to do at college, but she felt neither at the moment, and guilty into the bargain.
Two bustling, self-important little girls had given out paper and pencils to the rest and the class settled itself, with only a minor buzzing, to filling its empty sheets with horses, ballerinas, cowboys and anything else which engaged its attention, leaving Anna free to roam up and down the aisles and to look from the windows upon the windy sunlit wastes of the new suburb which surrounded the school.
I don't often look at Amazon or Goodreads reviews of books I've already read, but in checking Amazon to confirm that this book is indeed out-of-print on both sides of the Atlantic (boo!), I happened to glance at the reviews and was a bit surprised, so I found myself checking Goodreads too. More than one reviewer called Fresh from the Country a "rose-tinted" or idealized view of teaching, which was striking to me because I felt quite the opposite. Approaching it from having read some of the Fairacre and Thrush Green books, I found this novel a bit more realistic, with just a bit of an edge even, and, apart from the fact that Anna is the kind of well-grounded, intelligent, diligent, and basically cheerful type of character one would expect from Miss Read, I didn't see anything particularly rose-tinted about this portrayal. I mean, true enough that none of the children bring drugs or guns to school, and none of them seem to be particularly abused or neglected, but then this is presumably the late 1950s and Anna is teaching young children, so I didn't find this particularly surprising.
The villages from Saint's two series are generally cozy and cheerful in the best kind of way, and the reader always feels that most people are genuinely kind and good and all will come right in the end. Here, however, Anna has some moments of real unhappiness, as well as very real and believable uncertainties about her future and her options, and there are some biting portrayals of the darker sides of human nature. I felt I was getting an honest glimpse of the real problems and frustrations of a new teacher, perhaps inspired by the authors own experiences, and I found it all terribly interesting.
As it happens, one of my favorite humorous passages in Fresh from the Country also demonstrates a bit of the acidity that appears here and there. Anna has been invited to tea with her awful landlady and two of her friends, who apparently enjoy their games of one upsmanship:
'Of course, there are a lot of people,' went on Mrs Porter, 'who criticise him. They say that he is too fond of ritual and he overdoes the incense and the genuflections, but personally I like it. After all, if one doesn't, one can always go to chapel.'
'I go to chapel,' said Mrs Adams, dangerously calm.
'Well, there you are!' said Mrs Porter, in a faintly patronising tone. Anna was instantly aware that Mrs Porter had known this all along, and watched the scene with quickened appreciation. Here was self-aggrandisement in action again.
'And you probably enjoy it very much,' continued Mrs Porter indulgently, nodding the ruched pancake. She spoke, thought Anna, as though religion were a comfortable cup of tea, Indian or China, chosen to taste.
'Naturally,' said Mrs Adams, turning a dusky pink. She took a deep breath as though about to defend her religious principles, but Mrs Flynn with commendable aplomb, proffered the tomato sandwiches and spoke hastily.
'And your little boy, Mrs Adams? Is he well?'
Mrs Adams' breath expired peacefully through smiling lips.
'Very well indeed. He's the liveliest of the three. I really don't know what we'd do without him now the others are away at school.'
'Such a handsome child,' enthused Mrs Flyrm, 'and devoted to you. His little face fairly lights up when he sees you.'
Mrs Adams simpered and looked gratified.
'Well, I must say he almost hero-worships me. It's "Mum this" and "Mum that." I can't do any wrong in that child's eyes.'
Anna, yet again, marvelled at the diversity of opinion on children. Beauty was certainly in the eye of the beholder. She had yet to find any child with the faintest desire to make a hero of herself but this was not the first mother she had heard claiming devoted allegiance so calmly.
'Frankly,' went on Mrs Adams, her voice getting stronger, 'I don't know how people manage without children. It seems so unnatural. I suppose they turn to other things for a substitute. Religion, for instance.' She gave a swift sidelong glance at Mrs Porter who, affecting complete indifference, was studying the tea-leaves at the bottom of her cup.
There is certainly plenty of humor in Miss Read's Thrush Green series, but it seemed to me there was a bit of an edge, of spitefulness, in this scene that rarely appears in the other novels, and the same is true of some of Anna's observations of her fellow teachers.
Some other reviewers—especially loyal fans of the Fairacre and Thrush Green books—found Fresh a bit depressing or slow. I didn't find it that at all, and indeed had trouble tearing myself away from it, but I can see why some Miss Read fans might feel that way. And perhaps that sort of reaction is why she never seems to have written in the same mode again, but oh, I can't help thinking what a pleasure it would have been to have a whole series about Anna and her development as a teacher!
With the above qualification for Miss Read fans, I do very much recommend this book. Fans of grownup school stories more generally, for example, or of stories of young women starting out in their careers, may find this right up their alley. Those who enjoyed Mabel Esther Allan's Here We Go Round, for example, might particularly take note.
I should point out that this novel, like many of the other Miss Read books, is beautifully illustrated by J. S. (John Strickland) Goodall. (I meant to show you some of the illustrations, but my copy is a tightly bound American edition which doesn't lend itself at all to being placed flat on a scanner.)
I'm curious if any of you have already read this book, and if so, what was your reaction?