This week, I had the great pleasure of meeting up with Jill Saint, daughter of Dora Saint, who wrote as ‘Miss Read’. We met for lunch at The Swan in Minster Lovell in the heart of the Cotswolds.
This is the very pub which Phyllida ‘Phil’ Prior is taken to by Richard in News from Thrush Green but, where Phil and Richard’s trip took place on a day ‘peaceful in its winter emptiness’, ours was on a warm and sunny day stolen from summer.
After lunch, which we ate by what could have been the very fireplace that was lit for Phil and Richard’s visit, we followed in the fictional characters’ footsteps, walking through the pretty village full of thatched cottages and perfect English gardens full of hollyhocks and roses.
The ruin of the 15th-century Minster Lovell Hall was our destination.
‘What had these venerable walls witnessed in their time, Phil wondered? Passion in plenty, bloodshed without doubt; but also piety, perseverance and simple happiness.’
A bonfire had been lit in the neighbouring churchyard, a pungent reminder that autumn was on its way.But, today, the sun dappled its light through the trees along the River Windrush and I noted that the river is given its real name in News from Thrush Green, perhaps because Minster Lovell is a real place. In other Thrush Green books, where Woodgreen becomes Thrush Green and Witney becomes Lulling, the Windrush is called the Pleshey.
We so enjoyed our trip to Minster Lovell. It’s always a magical experience to walk into a scene which has been described so vividly in a favourite book and I hope we can visit again another time – perhaps later in the year – witnessing it as Miss Read’s characters did: ‘The ancient inn drowsed in the winter sunlight, and welcomed them with a great log fire’.
Buy News from Thrush Green here.
Jill kindly agreed to answer a few questions from our Facebook group ‘I Want to Live in Fairacre’.
Interview with Jill Saint
Pauline Downing: What was Dora’s favourite season?
Jill: She almost certainly liked summer best.
Carol Hager: Did Dora have a favorite character?
Jill: I’m not sure if she had a favourite character, though she did once say when asked, that Mrs Pringle was the only one that got away from her, and she did of course write a book of that title.
Teresa O’Hara: What was Dora’s favourite dinner and dessert or cake?
Jill: Dessert: Crème brulée; don’t know about main meal, but she wasn’t an enthusiastic meat eater. Possibly poultry. Shepherd’s pie. Cake: gingerbread and Battenberg, but she was very keen on any cake at afternoon tea-time, right up to the end!
Linda Rachel: Do you know why Miss Read was never given a Christian name in the books? She was only ever “Miss Read”.
Jill: I don’t think Dora ever thought about a Christian name for Miss Read. In the early 50s, most people would have addressed each other as Miss/Mrs Whatever, especially the local schoolmistress. Only once, a journalist or reviewer referred to her as Grace Read, which was in fact Dora’s mother’s name.
Mandy Hobbs: Did she live in a cottage? And what was her favourite flower?
Jill: She lived in a fairly remote cottage not far from Hungerford in Berkshire. Her favourite flowers were roses, cottage pinks and wild flowers.
Tracey Raper: Would your dear mother be pleased that she has a following on Facebook?
Jill: Dora would have been amused and pleased to know about the Facebook following, though it would have taken ages to explain it to her. She didn’t do computers, or even electric typewriters.
Denise Shaw: I would be interested to know if she enjoyed visiting other parts of the country on holiday perhaps or days out? Did she ever travel abroad if so where?
Jill: They visited Malta, Austria, Germany, Portugal, Bruges, Vienna, Paris, and Italy – Lake Como, Venice, Florence, Siena and Rome, and south – Capri, Naples, Sorrento, and Sicily in their earlier days. As they got older and didn’t want to travel so far, they went to UK places, indulging themselves in very good hotels just for a few days at a time. They were fond of the Welsh borders and the New Forest, but travelled all over the UK including Scotland and Ireland, as well as days out in the sort of radius you’d expect. They had a timeshare flat in Torquay which they used for many years, so they saw a lot of south Devon.
Jeanne Gale: I have always wanted to know the impetus that led her, from the essays she wrote to tackling something as big as a book.
Jill: The best description of her move from journalistic writing to the Miss Read books is her own, which you’ll find in Mrs Griffin Sends Her Love. Essentially, she was commissioned to write Village School, and the rest is history.
Jackie Bridgen: Was there a real life inspiration for the dreaded Mrs Pringle – or indeed the very sophisticated Amy?
Jill: Dora was always particularly careful not to base characters on real people who might be offended, but I can see two of our friends in Amy – one a very practical and efficient person who was a wonderful hostess, and another who was always immaculately dressed and groomed. I’ve no idea if Dora had them in mind, or whether it was unconscious – I don’t think I ever asked her, and I wouldn’t think she’d do it deliberately. I’ve no idea about Mrs Pringle – I don’t remember anyone like her!
Margaret AndValdis Juskevics: I would like to ask Jill where exactly did you live in Wood Green? Do you remember wheeling your little dolly pram around Witney?
Jill: We didn’t live on Woodgreen itself, but at 94 High Street, Witney (Lulling in the books) in the top flat of the house. Our landlady became my godmother, and Pam Ayres has a wonderful description of her in her own memoirs. I remember it very well (and the dolls’ pram), and Woodgreen itself. We went back regularly when older friends were still alive, and I go quite frequently now. The Tourist Information Centre does a roaring trade in the Thrush Green leaflets!
Deborah Joynson: I would like to know what happened to her sisters Lil’ and Betty. What did they think of her career, and are they portrayed in any characters?
Jill: I’m not aware that she put Lil and Betty into the books at all, though they both read them. Lil didn’t marry; taught at primary schools in the East End of London (Docklands when it really was) her whole life, and died in her mid-80s in a nursing home in Henley, very much supported by Betty who lived not far away. I got on very well with Betty, who was sadly widowed soon after she and her husband Alan retired. She was a very keen gardener, and we used to egg each other on to buy things at garden centres. She was also extremely funny and good company. She died of cancer a few years ago. I still keep in touch with her son Pete and his wife Debbie; not as often as I should.
Zuzanna Michoń Haslam: I would like to know how Dora celebrated Christmas and does Jill have any special enduring little girl/family memories of that time?
Jill: We didn’t make a great deal of Christmas and birthdays, though my parents always made sure that I had a good time at both. We had the traditional tree, decorations, presents and meal, and often went to the pantomime with another family.
Victoria Connelly: We had a fun discussion on the Facebook group about ‘Morny’ soap after a reference in Summer at Fairacre. Are there brands of cosmetics or food/drink that your mother loved that still survive today?
Jill: Dora used mainly the traditional toiletries like Morny and Bronnley. I can’t think of anything in the food and drink line, except that she liked Pimms.
Sally Oliver: Which writers did Dora Saint enjoy the most?
Jill: Trollope above all; Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen, Barbara Pym, Angela Thirkell, Colin Dexter’s Morse; E M Delafield’s Provincial Lady; Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie; Adrian Bell and Ronald Blythe. She liked detective novels and poetry.
Thank you for the questions and to Jill for taking the time to answer them all. And come and join us on our ‘I Want to Live in Fairacre’ Facebook page.