Village Christmas – Miss Read

By profession Dora Saint was a school teacher but is best known for her portrayals of English village life under the pen name of Miss Read and the work on her numerous novels and short stories largely took over her working life after WWII. Miss Read is not only the author of the books but in a lot of them she is also a character as a schoolmistress in the fictional village of Fairacre. Although this story is set in Fairacre Miss Read herself does not actually appear instead we are concerned with the ageing spinster sisters Margaret and Mary Waters and the family that had moved in over the road a few months earlier in September.

Initially the Waters sisters were somewhat wary of the new family as they lived a very quiet life and suddenly having three small children and a mother clearly pregnant with a fourth moving in so close was disconcerting. Mrs Emery’s personality was a bit too outgoing for their taste but also to the sisters eyes she was also rather badly dressed so they were unsure what to make of her, the children however were unfailingly polite so there was clearly something being done right in the new household. The story leaps on over the three months to Christmas morning when the sisters are interrupted at breakfast by one of the Emery girls coming for help as their mother is having the baby early and their father had been called away as a relative had had a stroke. Now two spinsters are not ideal midwives and the nurse or doctor couldn’t be contacted so we are taken through their rising panic as they realise that very little preparation had been done as Mrs Emery had clearly not expected to give birth on Christmas day.

One goes over to help Mrs Emery, who is easily the least concerned of everyone, whilst the other sister takes the children back over to her house to keep them entertained and fed and most importantly out of the way whilst trying to contact the nurse and also Mr Emery to let him know what is happening and get him back to Fairacre. It’s a delightful story of how the Waters sisters had a very different Christmas to the one they expected and this was the first time I had read any of Miss Read’s works. I think I’ll definitely tackle another somewhat longer book for my next go at her books, after all there are a lot to have a go at with twenty books set in Fairacre, thirteen novels set in the nearby village of Thrush Green, ten children’s books and a few other titles not set in the two main villages or of a factual nature rather than fiction.

Village Christmas was first published in 1966 although my copy of the book was published in 1995 as part of the Penguin Books 60th anniversary celebrations and it is also available with the two other Christmas tales Miss Read wrote as a single volume, these being Christmas Mouse (1973) and No Holly for Miss Quinn (1976). Confusingly this combination book appears to also be called Village Christmas.

Little Tales of Misogyny – Patricia Highsmith

After a huge book last week, Dune at 556 pages, it’s time for something a lot shorter and amazingly seventeen of Patricia Highsmith’s short stories fit into this little book of just 90 pages. Although aware of her name I have to admit that I’d never read anything by her before picking up this volume printed as part of the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of Penguin Books in 1995.

Well for such a short book the death rate was incredibly high, the main question you face when you start each short story is who is going to die and how? That Highsmith manages to keep this to herself until usually the last few lines is a tribute to her storytelling ability and the variety of the situations she places her characters in. What I must point out is that the title is somewhat misleading as both men and women come out badly throughout the book and you wouldn’t want to spend any social time with any of them. The first story has this as it’s opening line

A young man asked a father for his daughter’s hand and received it, in a box – her left hand.

The Hand by Patricia Highsmith

Having had that idea a lesser writer would have made the arrival of the hand the punchline to the tale, but no, Highsmith opens with it and then tells the story of what happened next. The book is full of twists, you can rarely guess how a story will turn out, the longest one, at ten pages, is a case in point. ‘The Breeder’ starts out as a simple tale of a newly married young couple who want children but are having problems conceiving; that it turns into a darkly comic tale and a descent into madness could not be anticipated from the homely beginning. Indeed some form of madness or at least a compulsive mania is the basis to several of the plots and Highsmith is clearly a master of the short story genre and some of these are very short. ‘The Hand’ is just two and a half pages long as is ‘The Coquette’ but both manage to tell a full story, you don’t even notice how short they are, there is just so much going on.

This taster of Highsmith has made me want to read more. Along with numerous short stories she wrote twenty two novels, the first of which, Strangers on a Train, was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1951 film although the adaptation strays significantly from the book. She also wrote the much better known novel ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ and its four sequels which continue to follow the exploits of serial killer Tom Ripley, the first three of which have also been made into films.