Dora Saint, who wrote English village novels as ‘Miss Read,’ dies at 98

April 14, 2012

Dora Saint, who wrote dozens of popular novels under the pen name of Miss Read depicting the joys and charms of life in quaint English villages, died April 7 in Shefford Woodlands, a village in the English county of Berkshire. She was 98.

Her daughter and only survivor, Jill Saint, confirmed the death to British news sources but did not disclose a cause.

Early in her life, Mrs. Saint had attended school in a small village and later was a teacher in rural England. When a publisher asked her to write a novel in the guise of a memoir of a teacher, Mrs. Saint borrowed her mother’s maiden name to create the nom de plume of Miss Read.

The first Miss Read novel, “Village School,” appeared in 1955 and led to a publishing phenomenon that endured — and endeared — for four decades. Millions of copies of her books have been sold worldwide, all of them set in timeless thatch-roof villages of the English countryside, populated by bemused vicars, nosy matrons, taciturn farmers and scrappy schoolchildren.

Miss Read appeared as a character — the schoolteacher — in one series of novels set in the fictional village of Fairacre. A second series took place in another rural community, Thrush Green. Wherever the novels were set, Mrs. Saint depicted her characters and their surroundings with whimsy, humor and an abiding affection.

She “records English village life delightfully and with charm,” critic Walter Harding wrote in the Chicago Tribune. “But one of the real virtues of her . . . work was that she never stepped over the line into sentimentality.”

Her books were often compared with those of E.F. Benson, R.F. Delderfield, Barbara Pym and Angela Thirkell, although Mrs. Saint seldom dipped her pen in the acid ink of satire.

“There are plenty of people writing to shock, but I don’t know enough to shock anybody,” she told London’s Sunday Mail newspaper in 1993. “People like something to remind them that there is a happier side to life.”

In her books, feuds sometimes flare up between neighbors, and problems often arise at the vicarage or in planning community flower shows, but in Mrs. Saint’s fictional universe, common sense and cool heads always prevail in the end.

In a passage from the second Fairacre novel, “Village Diary” (1957), the local vicar appears at Miss Read’s school, imparting a morality lesson after a boy offered to sneak onto a neighbor’s land and steal pussy willow branches for the Easter festival.

“The vicar drew in a sad breath, and very kindly and patiently gave an extra little homily about the sanctity of other people’s property, and the promptings of one’s own conscience, and the eye of the Almighty which is upon us all, even those who are but six years old and are wriggling on their stomachs through the long Fairacre grass.”

Dora Jessie Shafe was born April 17, 1913, in London. When she was 7, her family moved to Chelsfield, a village in Kent that served as a model for the towns she wrote about later in life.

Her father, an insurance agent who later became a teacher, discouraged her early ambitions of becoming a journalist, so she went to Homerton College (now part of the University of Cambridge) before teaching in the English county of Middlesex from 1933 to 1940. She was married to Douglas Saint, a history teacher, from 1940 until his death in 2004.

Mrs. Saint was a scriptwriter for the BBC and wrote occasional sketches of school and country life for Punch and other British periodicals in the 1940s and ’50s. Her stories drew the notice of a publisher, who invited her to try her hand at fiction.

She went on to publish more than 30 novels set in Fairacre or Thrush Green, as well as several children’s books and two memoirs. She kept writing her cozy fiction — and Miss Read kept teaching in Fairacre — until “A Peaceful Retirement” brought an end to the franchise in 1996.

In “Village Diary,” Mrs. Saint described a moment of internal doubt after Miss Read wrote an article about village life for a local paper and began to notice a certain chilliness from her fellow townsfolk:

“I decided suddenly that literary fame had gone to my head, that the obscurer motives behind artistic impulses were beyond my comprehension, that a glass of hot milk would be a really good thing, and bed the best place for a bemused teacher.”

In the world of Miss Read, almost no problem was so great that it couldn’t be solved by a glass of milk, a good cup of tea and the passage of time.

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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