English life but not as we know it

the book:

Village School by Miss Read

published 1955   chapter 8

[The needlework inspector has turned up at the village primary school: Miss Read is showing her the children’s work from the needlework cupboard]

‘The bigger ones are making aprons with cross-over straps. That brings in button-holes,’ I enlarged, pulling one or two specimens into view, ‘and the small girls are making bibs or hankies.’

I left her to look at them while I broke up a quiet but vicious fight which had started in a corner… ‘Oh dear!’ said Miss Pitt, scrutinizing an apron. ‘Oh dear! I’m afraid this is very out-of-date.’

‘Out-of-date?’ I repeated, bewildered. ‘But children can always do with pinafores!’

Miss Pitt passed a fawn hand across her brow, as one suffering fools, but not gladly.

‘We just don’t’ she began wearily, as though addressing a very backward child, ‘we just don’t expect young children like this to do such fine, close work. Pure Victoriana this!’ she went on, tossing Anne’s apron dangerously near an inkwell. ‘All this HEMMING and OVERSEWING and BUTTONHOLING – it just isn’t done these days. Plenty of thick bright wool, crewel needles, not too small, and coarse crash, or better still, hessian to work on, and THE VERY SIMPLEST stitches! As for these poor babies with their hankies - !’ she gave a high, affected laugh. ‘Canvas mats, or a simple pochette is the sort of thing they should be attempting…’


It’s difficult to keep this straight: Miss Read writes the books, and they are fiction, but Miss Read narrates them and they are apparently about her (and is her first name actually ‘Miss’?) and her village school. And then it turns out that ‘Miss Read’ is a pseudonym. Well. Dora Saint, aka Miss Read, died this week at the age of 98, having written around 40 books of English rural life. They have an intricate time scheme, in that time passes and modern life is reflected there to a degree, but actually mostly they are stuck in the 1950s – 1960s at best – and most of the characters stay on, never getting very much older. They are a lovely picture of a different time – of course it is only the girls who do sewing here, but it is hard to imagine any English children doing anything so elaborate in primary school (ie 11 years old and under) these days. Someone once said ‘the popularity of the Miss Read books prompts this question – how terrified is the British public of real life if this is what they like to read?’

Links up with: Flora Poste (expensively educated) does fancy sewing in
this blog entry.

Special 5-star link (of which Clothes in Books is extremely proud): Village School has a strange and unlikely connection with Rings of Saturn, a book by the German author W G Sebald, one of the finest writers of the 20th century. All will be revealed in tomorrow’s blog entry.

The photo is of a display of junior needlework at a county fair, and comes from the
Cornell University Library via Flickr.