Obituary - Miss Read 1913-2012

Adi Bloom

Over 40 years, prolific author Miss Read created a cosy idyll of thatched cottages, spinster teachers and two-room village schoolhouses. Hers was a world of gentle ups and downs, touched, but never altered, by modernity.

Dora Jessie Shafe was born in April 1913. After the First World War, Mr and Mrs Shafe and their three daughters moved to a smallholding in Kent. Eight-year-old Dora took to village life immediately. For her, its centre was always the school, with its old-fashioned desks, strict discipline and rote learning.

At Bromley County School for Girls, she dreamed of becoming a journalist. But her father had strict views about suitable professions for women, so she instead spent two years training to be a teacher at Homerton College, Cambridge.

Between 1933 and 1940, she taught in a small school in Middlesex. Here, she met fellow teacher Douglas Saint; they married in 1940. The new Mrs Saint left teaching to have a daughter, Jill. But she returned to the village classroom six years later, this time as a supply teacher.

Still harbouring journalistic ambitions, Mrs Saint began to write short stories for Punch magazine, drawing on her experiences of teaching classes of 40 pupils. In School Dinner for 40, a teacher admonishes "silly pupils" for leaving fat on the sides of their plates. "They won't grow big and strong if they don't eat every bit of it," the teacher chides.

Mrs Saint also began writing articles for TES. It was one of these that attracted the attention of a publisher, who persuaded her to write a book. Never having written anything longer than 1,000 words, Mrs Saint flinched at the idea of a 70,000-word novel. So she resolved to write a less-terrifying 24,000 words per school term. She wrote in exercise books: the end of each book marked two completed chapters.

Village School, the first of her novels set in the fictional village of Fairacre, appeared in 1955. Her publisher persuaded her to present it as the autobiographical account of a spinster schoolmistress, and so she took the nom de plume "Miss Read", her mother's maiden name. It stuck.

Over the ensuing 40 years, she published roughly one book a year, still drafting them in school exercise books. Though never best-sellers, her Fairacre and Thrush Green series were notable for their depiction of the simple pleasures of village life: the appearance of the first catkins of spring, the smell of a field of sage.

Until 2001, Miss Read featured regularly on libraries' lists of top 100 borrowed authors. Her books were translated into languages including Russian and Japanese. And her cast of spinster teachers and eccentric vicars won a large audience in the US.

Her final book, in 1996, was A Peaceful Retirement. Two years later, Mrs Saint received an MBE. She and Douglas lived out their final years in a small village in Berkshire.

Dora Saint died on 7 April, aged 98.

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Adi Bloom

Adi Bloom is Tes comment editor

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