Review: Fresh from the Country by Miss Read

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I’ve been trying to read the new Hilary Mantel, but at the moment my mind just can’t stay focused on anything for very long, and The Mirror and the Light is the sort of novel that requires full concentration. I read a few sentences, find my mind wandering, then I read a few more, then I get to the end of the page and realise I’ve taken nothing in whatsoever. So I’ve given up for now. Everything is so strange at the moment, isn’t it? There is the constant worry and sorrow about coronavirus nagging away at the back of my mind, the compulsion to be constantly checking the news even though I don’t want to know any more statistics of misery, the fact that my life has been utterly transformed overnight and I have no idea when it will go back to something resembling the old normality…I know you all know exactly how I feel. However, I am comforted by the fact that communities are pulling together, and people are caring for others in a way they would never have done before. I am comforted by the fact that pollution is reducing, air is becoming cleaner and healthier to breathe, and the Earth has a chance to start doing some healing. I am comforted by the thought that hopefully, amidst the stress and worry and financial difficulty, we are getting the chance to take life at a slower pace for a while. I am comforted by the hope that these positive changes will last; that people will see that they can do without constant consumption, that working environments will permanently become more flexible, that people will take more time to check on their neighbours and friends, that community groups formed to support those who are isolated will remain active, and reduce the chronic loneliness so many people feel.  And another comfort this week has been reading a book that wraps you up in a blanket of cosiness, where no difficulty is insurmountable, everyone gets their happy ever after, and the world is all as it should be. This is exactly what Fresh from the Country is, and I relished every minute. The story of newly-qualified primary school teacher Anna Lacey’s first year teaching in the rawly built, rough-edged Essex suburb of Elm Hill, it is a lovely insight into the world of teaching, as well as a thoughtful commentary on the quality of life in post-war suburbia, and a witty and heartwarming exploration of the challenges of young adulthood.

Anna Lacey is the product of a hearty, happy farming home in the Essex countryside, but her first teaching job on leaving training college is in the depressing, half-built suburb of Elm Hill, where she lodges with the parsimonious Mrs Flynn in her flimsy new-build semi. Everything about Elm Hill is depressing; the constant rumble of bulldozers, the lack of trees and flowers, and the sad looking straggles of raw-brick new build houses scattered around the remnants of an earlier village. However, the primary school where Anna is working is brand new and state of the art, is presided over by an admirable headmistress, and is staffed with a motley crew of entertaining teachers. As such, Anna finds her work enjoyable enough to keep her in the sullen surroundings of Elm Hill, despite the fact that managing a class of over 40 students in a room designed for half that number is an uphill struggle. Amidst the day-to-day triumphs and tribulations of learning to teach, over the school year Anna grows in confidence and understanding of herself and others, makes new friends, discovers what really matters to her, and even begins to fall in love. It’s an absolutely charming tale of a young woman’s journey of self-discovery as she learns to strike out on her own, and though elements of it are rather dated, it’s still a lovely and perfectly recognisable depiction of the first heady and confusing days of newly-adult independence.

This is unusual for a Miss Read in that it’s a stand alone book, so if you haven’t tried her yet, you might want to start here. The Dean Street Press, which republishes middlebrow novelists (check out their blog, Furrowed Middlebrow), has thankfully just republished it in paperback and kindle editions, so it’s very easy to get hold of. I enjoyed it mostly for the description of teaching life; it made me incredibly grateful that it is no longer acceptable or legal to have a class size larger than around 33 (and even that is far too many really) and that I have technology to use in the classroom these days rather than having to do everything by hand. But so much of teaching hasn’t changed: the excitement of September and meeting your new children, the fun of planning interesting and engaging lessons (and the disappointment when they go terribly wrong!), the joy of watching children grow and develop over the school year, and the pride you take in their achievements. There’s also the horrific accidents they manage to have when you turn your back for one moment, as poor Anna discovers during a PE lesson from hell!, and the hideous moments when everything descends into chaos the moment your headteacher/Ofsted inspector enters the classroom…but the less said about that, the better! Overall, if you want a light, heartwarming and thoroughly enjoyable read to distract you from everything…this will be an excellent option. Enjoy!

18 comments

  1. On my third Miss Read right now, she is such a comfort in these sad times. I’ve been reading her books for about thirty five years now and always turn to them for comfort reading.

    1. Miss Read is always like a cup of hot tea on a dreary day, and they are an added comfort to me as they were introduced to me by my long departed mom. I have read all the Thrush Green and Fairacre series and will look forward to this when our Massachusetts libraries reopen.

      1. That’s such a perfect analogy, Ruth! I hope the libraries reopen for you soon. I’m looking forward to trying the Fairacre series next – I’ve read Village School but not got any further yet!

    2. I’m so glad you’ve found comfort in her too, Dawn. I don’t know how she does it, but each book manages to weave such a magical sense of calm and peace, doesn’t it?

  2. I have that copy. Reading DE Stevenson now but will get that one out for next. Have had same experience trying to read other things and unable to concentrate but I have found in the second week of self isolation I am able to read a bit more
    take good care

    1. It’s a lovely cover, isn’t it? I managed to get a cheap copy on ebay. I wish you well and happy reading – I didn’t love D E Stevenson when I first tried her, but maybe I need to try again.

  3. Glad to see that I am not the only one who struggled with The Mirror and the Light. Raced through the first two but have decided to leave the third for calmer times!

  4. Your first paragraph was so beautifully written and spoke from my heart. Sometimes I think mankind is too stupid to learn anything – I thought coming to a stop with screeching tires means really a complete pause from anything, mainly: consumerism, but people seem to shop online like mad? Instead of going inward and thinking about what really matters? Sometimes I still have hope. I loved your phrase that our planet might have a chance to heal a bit. There are so many ways to use this unexpected sabbath for something meaningful, and of course reading is on top of my list also (thanks for the lovely review! I want to get this book! (see, consumerism…))
    How about schools in the UK, are they closed now? Our’s have been for two weeks now, three more to come, and I transitioned to teaching my piano students via the good old phone. It works so well, and I’m moved how thankful the kids are for continuity and music in their lives right now.
    Speaking of, how’s your beautiful piano doing?! I loved seeing it on your virtual house tour and the prominent place you gave it. And it really is a beauty!
    Take care and stay safe, dear Rachel!

    1. Thank you so much Martina – I quite agree, on every front! Yes, I’m on my third week of teaching from home now – it’s becoming the new normal. I’m so glad you’re keeping up with your piano students – it is so important to have some sense of usual life carrying on, and something to work towards. I think my piano teacher will do skype lessons after Easter, and I’ll really look forward to that. My piano is just as lovely as ever, thank you for asking! I love playing it, and having a beautiful piano to play motivates me to practice more! It also has the most lovely sound. I’m staying at my sister’s at the moment and she has a piano for me to practice on, but it’s quite tinny…needs a tune, really. I miss mine! Take care too – hope you are staying safe and well!

  5. I read this one a few months back (my first encounter with Miss Read) and can only imagine how comforting and perfect it would be for our current times. It’s not a book I expect I’ll remember much of a year from now but not everything needs to be. What I will probably remember were the charming illustrations.

  6. Rachel, Your UK-based readers may find this title reminding them of a daytime TV show in which people seek to “Escape to the Country” by purchasing a property away from the towns and cities. Except, of course, the direction of travel is reversed. Thanks for the recommendation.

    Try not to feel compelled “to be constantly checking the news”. Advice from the World Health Organisation about dealing with stress caused by the pandemic includes lessening the time spent taking in media content that you perceive as distressing. Search “postive.news” for a different perspective.

    The main thing we need to know is what the latest guidance is. Acting on such guidance is the only way most of us can do anything about the situation. It seems likely that people who read lots of fiction have a lot of empathy and, consequently, may feel under some kind of obligation to follow the developing story of what we are going through. Don’t feel guilty if or when you are unable to do so, and certainly don’t feel guilty about not currently being able to read “The Mirror and the Light”, it will still be there in those “calmer times” that Lesley mentions.

  7. It‘s the same with me. I had to put my long-awaited new book by Hilary Mantel aside . At the moment I am reading ‚A House in Flanders‘ by Michael Jenkins, which I find recommendable – interesting, atmospheric and soothing.There is a very good summary at Slighly Foxed. – I have just loaded Miss Reads ‚Fresh from the Country’ on my kindle.
    Thank you Rachel for your continued posts. I think they have an uplifting effect on many of us here!

  8. I turned to Miss Read’s books for comfort after my mother died, in 1997. I have never read Fresh from the Country, but I’m adding it to my list.

  9. Thank you again for this recommendation. I finished reading it last night and as I’m always feeling rather flat when I get up these mornings I decided to reread your post. It has lifted me immediately – I can now start the day with enthusiasm.

  10. I read a number of Miss Read’s books many years ago during a difficult time in my life. I have never read Fresh from the Country but will see if I can find it in a used book store. I loved her books and they certainly were comforting during that dark time. There was another British series that takes place during and after World War II – and maybe it starts before the war. Will try and identify the author. You have inspired me.

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