SUMMER AT FAIRACRE by Miss Read; illustrated by J. S. Goodall (Houghton Mifflin: $14.95). For the past 30 years, at the rate of one a year, a British schoolteacher named Dora Saint has been writing novels about English village life under the pen name “Miss Read.” These stories, often featuring the character/narrator of a schoolteacher called Miss Read, set in the little world of Fairacre, Thrush Green, and Caxley, not only have a loyal following on both sides of the Atlantic, but have also been translated into German, Dutch, Japanese and Russian. What can it be about life in an English country village that so captivates readers the world over? Is it really that interesting to learn how Miss Read will cope with a difficult cleaning woman (one of the chief problems to confront her in this latest novel)?
But of course it is the very quietness of village life that accounts for its attraction. The more turbulent the real world, the more charming we may find the stability of this tiny fictional world. (During World War II, the British reading public turned to the Victorian comfort of Anthony Trollope’s novels.)
Miss Read’s world is less eventful than Barbara Pym’s. The pace is as unhurried as a leisurely walk in the countryside, with plenty of time to watch the changing of the seasons. She writes gracefully and is an amusing storyteller, but she is less concerned with telling a tale or exploring a theme than with evoking a way of life. Her own favorite bedside reading, she tells us in “Summer at Fairacre,” is the diary of James Woodforde, a kindly, charitable 18th-Century parson whose chief interest in life seems to have been what he would have for dinner. Miss Read is a kind of 20th-Century Woodforde, only subtler, with a hint of gentle mischief. Attending a party where she is asked what she thinks of a local author of historical romance novels, Miss Read wryly notes that his readers always know “it’s all going to be the mixture as before, and very nice too.” Her readers can always be just as confident.