It’s no secret that I’m a big Miss Read fan. Her Fairacre books are amongst my favourite and I even named our first flock of ex-battery hens after characters from her novels. Sadly, Dora Saint (who wrote as ‘Miss Read’) died last year – just a few days before her 99th birthday. And the 17th April 2013 marks 100 years since her birth.
I recently had the very great privilege of meeting and interviewing Dora Saint’s daughter, Jill, and she let me ask her some questions about her mother and her writing.
Growing up as the daughter of Miss Read, were you aware of the popularity of your mother’s books?
Yes, because the first one – Village School – made quite an impact. It got a lot of publicity. I don’t think it’s what you would call a bestseller these days but it did make an immediate impact and, later on, it was set for CSE exams.
Can you tell us a little bit about how your mother wrote her books? I believe she wrote longhand in exercise books? And did she have a favourite place to write or a set timetable?
Yes, she did. As soon as my father had gone off to work, and I to school in the earlier days, she would settle down to write for most of the morning. I think, in those days, there was probably a midday post so she would go and catch that if necessary and then she would finish at teatime when we came home. She did less in the school holidays but she might have to do a bit because she was doing things other than books, of course, so some of them had deadlines.
She was still teaching at this time, I believe?
She was, yes. She taught at Peasemore School only for about a term, I think, perhaps two, but it was a one-teacher school in those days – that must have been in the early 50s and I think that was a big influence on the general topography of Fairacre School.
Do you have a favourite book of your mother’s?
I think Winter in Thrush Green is really my favourite – I’m not sure why – the cover with the vicar battling his way across the green in the wind.
And did your mother have a favourite book or character?
I don’t think so. I did once say to her, ‘Did you ever have a character that got away from you?’ and she said, ‘Yes, Mrs Pringle.’ That was the only one and she did, of course, write a book just about her.
Today, authors are expected to Tweet and be on Facebook and interact with readers. What was your mother’s experience of publicity? Did she enjoy book signings and meeting readers? Was she expected to do a lot of publicity?
She did quite a lot of book signings, yes. She didn’t ever do anything big like tours to America or anything but she did go pretty much all over the country if it was in easy reach. She did quite a lot of joint signings with Dick Francis because they had the same publisher and they got on very well. I used to call them ‘The Dick and Dora Show’. I don’t think she particularly enjoyed it but she was always very grateful to her readers, naturally, and we made some very good friends who have stayed in touch.
In Village Diary the dedication reads “To Jill – the first reader” – did you get to read all your mother’s manuscripts before they went to the publisher and did you ever make suggestions?
Yes, I read them all. That’s what that refers to – because I read Village School in manuscript – and the rest. If I saw anything obvious, I would ask her but I don’t think I made any actual suggestions – just in one of them she’d called the boy hero two different names and I said, ‘Is this child Stephen or Simon?’ And she said, ‘I don’t know – what have I called him?’ And I said, ‘Both,’ and she said, ‘Oh, let’s have Stephen. Go through and cross out Simon, would you?’ But no actual suggestions, really, just an odd typo I might have seen.
I adore the JS Goodall illustrations for the books. What did your mother think of them and did she get to meet the artist?
He was actually her suggestion. The publishers asked her if she had any ideas for illustrators and there was somebody she’d seen who just signed ‘JSG’ and Bob Lusty who had commissioned her originally, laughed and said, ‘That’s exactly who we had in mind.’ So they got him. They worked well together too. They were both punctual people. They got their work done on time. It must have been a publisher’s dream actually because they mostly delivered early and, yes, we did meet him several times. He lived not all that far from my parents in Wiltshire.
When your mother retired from writing, did she miss it? Did she secretly scribble ideas down?
No, she said not and, as her sight got worse, I said, ‘If you have any good ideas and you want to dictate them to me, I’ll happily type them up or do whatever you want with them,’ and she said, ‘Thanks, yes I will, but I can’t think of anything at the moment.’ So I honestly don’t think she really did miss it by that time. I think she’d had enough and she’d brought it to a nice conclusion with Miss Read retiring.
Yes – the final Fairacre book was called A Peaceful Retirement and that was a clear message to the public, wasn’t it?
Yes, it was indeed. She’d planned it, I think, and she’d had enough. She was in her early eighties by that time.
As well as fiction, your mother also wrote a cook book. Was she passionate about food and did she like entertaining guests?
Yes, but in quite a small way. My parents didn’t do formal dinner parties or anything but they often had their own close friends round to a meal. I think she was what was known in the old days as a good plain cook. She baked well but nothing very elaborate but she was good. In fact, when the cook book was suggested – I can’t remember whether by her or the publisher – Anthea Joseph said, ‘Are you greedy enough to write a cook book?’ Turned out she was!
She also wrote children’s books and 2 volumes of autobiography. What was she happiest writing?
What she really liked doing – which is out of fashion at the moment – and what she was very good at – was the light essay. She wrote for Punch and The Lady and one or two journals of that sort and they’re very good. But I think fiction, probably. She had the idea for the autobiographies and went ahead with them.
Which authors did your mother admire and enjoy reading?
Jane Austen, Trollope, a lot of the lighter ones – I’ve gone completely blank having said that…
She’s often compared to Barbara Pym.
Oh, yes, she did like her and right towards the end of her life when she was only really having audio books – her sight had gone – she used to listen to Barbara Pym again. The one thing she said she would have died happy had she written it was The Importance of Being Earnest. She thought that was a superb piece of writing. Had she written that, she would have been quite happy to have written nothing else.
It’s well known that the fictional Thrush Green was based on Wood Green but was there ever a real Fairacre?
No. It was a combination of various south country village schools – her own in Chelsfield in Kent, Chieveley and Peasmore in Berkshire and other places she’d gone on supply teaching. It was a real mishmash of any south country village, really. It was downland country – nowhere in particular.
In the Fairacre books, Miss Read is a keen gardener. Did your mother enjoy gardening? And did she ever grow Miss Read’s dreaded marrows?
Yes, she did garden. She wasn’t a passionate gardener but my parents both kept the garden up and chose things and planted them and dealt with it themselves until they got much older. Can’t remember marrows. I dare say we did.
I wonder where the marrow story came from in the Fairacre books! I love the idea of a single woman being inundated with these huge vegetables! It really tickled me.
It probably happened! Chieveley was a bit like that. Everybody knew everybody and would hand over surplus produce.
Another thing I adore is the nature walks that the children go on in the Fairacre books. Was your mother a great walker?
Yes, she was. I don’t mean they’d get dressed up and go out all day along the Ridgeway but they would walk most days around the village.
The Miss Read books are often portrayed as gentle and comforting reads but they often dealt with serious issues like rural poverty, domestic violence and education. Do you think your mother’s work got the credit it deserved?
I think it has more recently – people thinking of it more as social history. A lot of people who go on the Denman courses – where people are perhaps taking them more seriously than the average reader – point out that the novels aren’t just escapism.
Your mother writes so well about village communities. How important was it for her to be a part of a small community and would she ever have considered living in a town or city?
It was very important to her, and the second autobiography, Time Remembered, really sums up her feelings about moving to the country – that she belonged there. There’s a very moving passage where she first arrives at the village – that’s very poignant and very much sums it up, I think. She started teaching in London – she was a Londoner by birth and upbringing, and her first teaching jobs were in London but she always was a countrywoman at heart.