Sunday, January 18, 2009

Speech friends

This review of the much-loved 'Miss Read' books reminded me that I had a copy of A Peaceful Retirement languishing in my TBR pile since my own retirement from teaching almost three years ago. I immediately rescued it and it has been my book at bedtime at the end of the last few exhausting days of sorting, packing and disposing of many hundreds of books.

As Nan pointed out in her review of Village School, these books are usually classed as 'gentle reads' but that is a misleading description; they are not accounts of a cosy life in rural England in the 1950s but accurate depictions of the sometimes harsh realities of that life. 'Miss Read' is a close observer of people and their behaviour and she brings the villages of Fairacre and Thrush Green to life in the same way that Elizabeth Gaskell and Flora Thompson capture the essence of life in Cranford and Lark Rise.

While her friends bemoan the fact that Miss Read has entered retirement as a spinster, she is far from being in need of pity. She treasures her independence, leads a full and interesting life and has a suitor or two in the background should she ever tire of the single state. The peaceful retirement she envisaged is, in fact, so busy that she would have great difficulty in fitting a husband into it. Like most of us, she had certain expectations of life in retirement only to find the reality to be quite different and 'peaceful' might not be the most appropriate adjective to use.

One of the intentions that Miss Read doesn't manage to fulfil is that of keeping a diary. She has always been a keen reader of great English diarists such as Kilvert, Pepys, Evelyn and Woodforde and recognises the importance of preserving the observations of ordinary people for future generations. She also sees that keeping a diary or journal has another function, fulfilling a need in the writer:

Over the years I have had so much pleasure from other people's diaries and I was interested to read recently that some psychiatrists recommend the activity. The theory, so I gathered, was that everyone needed a 'speech friend'.....
..... I recalled Virginis Woolf's comment on Parson Woodforde's diary-keeping: "Perhaps it was the desire for intimacy. When James Woodforde opened one of his neat manuscript books he entered into conversation with a second James Woodforde. The two friends said much that all the world might hear, but they had a few secrets which they shared with each other only."

Miss Read might have failed as a diarist but she would have been an ideal blogger. I think we bloggers use this medium in the way that Parson Woodforde used his manuscript book, not only recording observations and opinions but also perhaps as a way of conversing with our inner self. I think that I can recognise a 'speech friend' in my monix persona and our secrets are safe!


  1. I certainly enjoy reading your entries even if I don't manage to comment as often as I wish!
    Thank you for sharing

  2. That is very kind of you, Val. I'm a regular visitor to several blogs, including yours; I love to call in but don't always have anything to say.

  3. Oh, yes! She would have been a fabulous blogger. I would visit every day. :)

  4. Kilvert and Woodforde, eh? We Americans are not familiar with them. Must look them up.

  5. Wonderful, wonderful review. This is the Miss Read I've read most recently (before Village School), and I feel much affection toward it. Thank you!
    My word verification word is 'comas' :<)

  6. Hello Harry, nice to see you. I wonder what you will make of these old English parsons?

  7. Nan, I have you to thank for reminding me to read it.

  8. Some of them were remarkable men. The willingness of a large quantity of the socially most favored men in the population to rusticate themselves contrasts strangely with the passion of other socially favored men to go out and create an empire. Very puzzling to an American.

    The only (and fictional) comparison I can think of is Ma Pettingill in Harry Leon Wilson's stories.

    I see there was no room for marriage in Kilvert's life. Rather ironic.

    I am surprised Gilbert White wasn't on your list. I liked his diary better than 'A Natural History of Selborne.'

  9. Harry:
    I don't know how much freedom of choice there was for those men. In general, the eldest son inherited the land, the second son entered the church and subsequent ones could choose the army or adventure. But I agree that there were many remarkable men and perhaps a few lesser-known women.

    I believe Kilvert did marry but died at the end of his honeymoon - make of that what you will.

    I saw lots of exhibitions of Gilbert White's work on natural history when we lived in Hampshire but I haven't read his journals. I shall have to look them up.


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