10 Books Set in the English Countryside

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Give me a story set in an English village, inundated with curious characters and gentle descriptions of nature and musings about life- and you have me sold. Here in no particular order are some of my most favorite books set in rural idylls. I go to them, for comfort…

1) One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

This is the story of a day in the life of a woman, set in the small coastal English village of Wealding. In the aftermath of the Second World War the English middle class are struggling to come to terms with their new life, less dependent on domestic help and trying to let go of the grandeur of the old days. This is a quiet contemplative novel which captures the beauty of the location. Despite not having much plot the story conveys a sense of longing and melancholy hard to capture in words.

 

2) Fairacre Festival by Miss Read

Dora Jessie Saint who wrote under the pen name of Miss Read captured the bucolic beauty of Cotswold villages and penned wonderfully human, simple stories that conveyed a sense of calm and goodwill. Tinged with a wry wit and the most wonderful characters, Miss Read’s ‘Fairacre‘ and ‘Thrush Green’ series are the height of comfort reading.

 

3) Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

Tolstoy freely admitted that one of the influences in his writing were the novels of Victorian author Anthony Trollope. One of Trollope’s most famous series are the Barchester Chronicles– a set of six books set in the fictional rural county of Barsetshire. Apart from writing about nature and characters set in small towns and villages, Trollope wrote remarkably about money, social prejudice, politics and women with the most humane touch.

 

4) If Only They Could Talk by James Herriot

James Alfred Wight wrote semi-autobiographical novels under the name of James Herriot. A veterinary surgeon, he wrote about his work and personal life in the rolling hills and dales of Yorkshire. Though the work was often back breaking and hard, Herriot’s love for the location and the Yorkshire people freely emanate from each page. His books are a sheer delight.

 

5) Portrait of Elmbury by John Moore

Portrait of Elmbury published by Slightly Foxed is the first book in the rural trilogy, recounting the history of a small market town in England, named Elmbury. In this first book, the author John Moore describes his childhood and youth in the market village. How the village was hit by the aftermath of war, the poverty and declining conditions of the Depression era. The rural descriptions are particularly evocative of time and place.

 

6) Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

Freely borrowing from Trollope’s fictional county of Barsetshire, nearly a century later Angela Thirkell wrote a long series of loosely linked novels that mapped the social history of a generation destabilized by the Second World War. Thirkell’s books are light and frothy but they capture a slice of history that is interesting to witness as a reader.

 

7) Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Though some of Gaskell’s works are set in the city and beautifully depict the Industrial Revolution of Victorian times, Cranford is set in a rural location. The small country town of Cranford supposedly corresponds to Knutsford in Cheshire. Small country customs and the portrayal of wonderful human characters cover the scope of this novel.

 

8)Miss Buncle’s Book by DE Stevenson

Miss Buncle’s Book is delightful not only due to the unique plot but also the brilliant cast of characters set in a small country village. 30 something unmarried Barbara Buncle resorts to novel writing as a source of income. As she has no imagination whatsoever her book draws heavily upon the characters and incidents occurring in her village. And when the villagers discover the book and their own unmistakable, unflattering portrayal they are determined to hunt down the secret author.

 

9)A Month in the Country by JL Carr

In this story a young war veteran seeks occupation in the form of the restoration of a church mural in a sleepy, English village. Recovering from shell shock, the restoration of the religious mural is accompanied by the artist’s own reparation of spirit and sense of well being.

10) Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

Sailing holidays in the English Lake District, hunting for stolen treasure and camping on deserted islands- Ransome’s books abound with the charm of a time that was much safer and secure. The descriptions of the lake country will simply mesmerize you.

Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth Von Arnim, Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge, Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons receive honourable mentions. Before I finish it would be remiss of me to omit the works of Thomas Hardy- the ultimate guru of pastoral literature.

Books that I intend to add to this list are George Eliot’s Middlemarch and the novels of Tolstoy. Let me know of your favourite books set in rural locations. I’d love to hear about them.

Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham

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‘Earth and High Heaven’ is the love story of Marc Reiser and Erica Drake, set against the social and political backdrop of a segregated Montreal, in the midst of the turmoil of the Second World War.

The social milieu of Montreal is very important in the context of the story. Montreal, at the time, consisted of a majority of English Canadians and a minority of French Canadians and Canadian Jews.

The English and French Canadians were collectively referred to as the ‘Gentiles’ – forming the upper crust of Quebec society, although intermarrying within these communities was still frowned upon. The Canadian Jews formed a more isolated corner of society- exempt from holding select jobs of privilege, disallowed from occupying certain hostelries, eating at various restaurants- generally treated abjectly.

It is in this social context that Erica Drake- an English Canadian from one of the best Montreal families meets Marc Reiser- a Canadian Jewish lawyer, at a house party held at the Drake residence. Erica and Marc fall helplessly  in love at first sight. Outwardly he is perfect in every regard for Erica- except for the racial tag that he is associated with.

Erica’s father, Charles Drake, president of the once flourishing Drake Importing Company refuses to acknowledge Marc at his own house party due to his Jewish background, much to the ire and embarrassment of his daughter.

Many weeks later Erica and Marc, meet by chance on a railway platform and both of them realize that they have much more in common than the sum of their differences.

Their love affair grows in intensity, and when Erica announces her relationship to her father she is met with a wall of prejudice. Determined to change Erica’s mind, her parents treat her with indifference in the hope that her ‘infatuation’ will disappear. For the first time in their lives father and daughter reach an impasse. Charles refuses to acknowledge Marc, refuses him entry to their house, and Erica resorts to meeting him in restaurants and street corners – all the while hoping that her father’s prejudice will dissolve in time.

With Marc having enlisted for the war, Erica knows her days are numbered with him. She realizes that Marc may or may not return from the War, and that even if he does, there is no guarantee that they will stay together for the rest of their lives. For Marc is reluctant to indoctrinate Erica in the Jewish way of life and to have social prejudice be heaped on her shoulders as well. And even though Erica is willing to sacrifice everything, her family, her religion, her social status for Marc, it may not be enough to convince Marc that she is making a decision that they she will not regret later in life.

‘Earth and High Heaven’ is a very elaborate social commentary on racial prejudice. It shows how people born into a fixed social pattern can overcome centuries of difference, in an overwhelming desire to embrace the most unifying emotion of all- love.

There were many moments that made me well up with emotion while reading the book. The issues that the book explores are relevant today and have been relevant during every stage of human history. ‘Earth and High Heaven’ is also a book about soul-searching decisions. The decisions one makes for oneself- in opposition to societal demands and familial expectations.

 

The Fairacre Festival by Miss Read

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On a stormy night in October, calamity strikes the placid, Cotswold village of Fairacre. High winds fell some ancient elm trees, which in turn damage the roof of St. Patrick’s Church.

The entire village, especially the vicar Mr Partridge, witness the damage done to their beloved church in the aftermath of the storm. Estimates to repair the roof and restore the church to its former glory, come in at the huge sum of two thousand pounds.

Even the most optimistic villager can foresee that innumerable jumble sales, weekly raffles and whist drives will not be able to meet that amount.

An emergency meeting of the Parochial Church Council is called, at which Mr Willett, the church sexton, comes up with the marvellous idea of hosting a Fairacre Festival in the summer- a sort of Edinburgh Festival on a smaller scale.

A number of smaller events like a fête, a jumble sale, whist drives, bingo and dances are planned around the main event- a Son et Lumiére with St. Patrick’s as the backdrop. A famous opera singer, Jean Cole’s performance is added to the roster of events, but will these collected efforts be enough to raise the entire sum of money or will the village’s Queen Anne’s reign silver chalice have to be sold to save the roof?

As usual, this is a slow, quiet, amusing book that has some lovely moments. The stories though very simple have an underlying message. This book emphasizes the importance of community and the strength of collective endeavour to achieve a single purpose.

The more I read of Miss Read, the greater appreciation I develop for her knack of appreciating the small things in life and imparting wit to small everyday instances.

The Fulfillment of a Literary Dream- Helene Hanff’s ‘Duchess of Bloomsbury Street’

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If you’ve read 84 Charing Cross Road, you’ll appreciate that Helene Hanff’s trip to London, the city of her literary dreams is the realization of a life-long ambition. Brought on by the success of the book describing her long-distance relationship with antiquarian bookseller Frank Doel, this journey is more than a literary pilgrimage, it is a homage to the quiet, bookish man who sparked the inspiration for the book itself. 

‘The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street’ starts in the summer of 1971, with author Helene Hanff preparing to fly the Atlantic Ocean, in order to visit London, the city of her literary dreams.

The realization of this dream has been a long time in the making. It all started out with a correspondence between Hanff in New York and Frank Doel, an antiquarian bookseller in London. The correspondence spanned a number of decades and has been beautifully documented in Hanff’s memorable book ’84 Charing Cross Road’, the address of Doel’s bookshop.

The untimely death of Frank Doel resulted in Hanff’s personal tribute to the quiet but learned, kind, compassionate man with the publication of ’84 Charing Cross Road’.

In the ‘Duchess of Bloomsbury Street’, we find Hanff travelling to London to mark the launch of the British edition of ’84 Charing Cross Road’. It had always been her dream to visit literary London, but had previously been impossible due to financial constraints (in 84 CCR we learn that dental bills were partially responsible for this!).

This second book is the diary that Hanff kept during her wonderful weeks in London. If you love books and you love London, you will delight in the literary tour-de-force that Hanff takes you on, from Dickens to Donne.

This book is more than a literary tour however and does not completely project a rosy image.

It is a chance to meet with the widow of Frank Doel and this meeting is not completely free of pathos and poignancy.

The book is also peppered with Hanff’s acute observations of British life and manners. There are frequent aspersions to class distinction and snobbery.

You look at the faces in the Hilton dining room and first you want to smack them and then you just feel sorry for them, not a soul in the room looked happy

There is another isolated incident of a lady walking her poodle in Hyde Park. Hanff greets the poodle but is deterred by the sharp rebuke from the lady.

” Please don’t do that!” she said to me sharply. “I’m trying to teach him good manners.”

I thought, ” A pity he can’t do the same for you”.

Despite these observations, Hanff, intelligent and highly observant, realizes that of course, there is more to London than the ‘reek of money’.

Around every corner, there is the “hallowed hush of privilege … stories of the fairy-tale splendour of monarchy, the regal pomp of England’s Kings and Queens”.

And as Hanff so acutely observes, history is alive and flourishing in London.

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Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson

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Lady Rose leads a life of great privilege but it is largely bereft of love. Her parents neglect her, her first husband marries her for her money and title. So when she meets the love of her life in a commoner, on a park bench in Edinburgh, she has a momentous decision to make. Should she follow the dictates of social etiquette or shun society, follow her heart and thus lose all she holds dear?

 

One afternoon, a party of three people leave Edinburgh and journey along the coast of Fife, until they happen upon a huge estate with twenty feet high wrought-iron gates, bearing faded coats of arms. The party consists of Mr Dacre, an English lawyer, his wife Helen and their American friend Van Elsen and the grand estate they have stumbled upon is that of Keepsfield, estate of Lady Rose Targenet, Countess of Lochlule.

The party are shown over the house by a silver-haired, quiet housekeeper called Mrs Memmary. Filled with insatiable curiosity, Helen tries to unearth Lady Rose’s past, while observing the house, it’s rooms and the personal effects of the owner.

The past is slowly but surely revealed to the reader through the reminiscences of Mrs Memmary, stray letters and whispers from the past.

We learn of Lady Rose’s childhood, her distant parents and her loneliness at an English boarding-school. We revisit Lady Rose’s presentation at court and her decision to marry well, into a neighbouring family to thus combine their estates. Her husband is Sir Hector Galowrie and Lady Rose marries him with little knowledge of their compatibility but with a binding sense of duty to ‘marry well’.

When they marry, Lady Rose’s father suddenly dies and she is bequeathed the title of Countess of Lochlule by Queen Victoria. Lady Rose and her husband are required to reside at Keepsfield but Sir Hector deeply resents Lady Rose’s position and wealth. The marriage is loveless and unhappy but Lady Rose finds solace in her children.

Sir Hector suddenly dies in a shooting accident on the estate and though there is a jarring note in the incident, the reader realizes that this is a means of escape for Lady Rose.

Lady Rose travels to Edinburgh to speak to her lawyers and once there, happens to meet a wonderful man in Princes Street Gardens.

He is a commoner, a clerk by the name of Andrew Moray Montmary. They fall in love and decide to marry to the consternation of the entire aristocracy of England and Scotland.

Lady Rose and Moray are forced to flee to Europe, to escape society and Lady Rose is also barred from taking her children with her. The couple live a life in exile for many decades.

The story although a sweet fairytale on the surface, speaks of many deep-rooted societal issues, class snobbery being one of them. It also raises the question whether it is worthwhile shunning home and hearth, life and one’s family for the sake of true love.

As with all good books, Ruby Ferguson leaves this point as an open-ended question for the reader to ponder over.

Adult life is full of such momentous decisions and we are often faced with the repercussions of the choices we make, for better or for worse.

Filled with beautiful descriptive writing, Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary is a sweet love letter to Scotland and so much more. The story aims to address prejudice regarding class consciousness and certainly reaffirms the belief that marrying for love is of paramount importance.

Title: Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary
Author: Ruby Ferguson
Year Published: 1937
Setting: Fife, Scotland.
Characters: Lady Rose (Countess of Lochlule), Mrs Memmary, Helen Dacre, Sir Hector Galowrie, Andrew Moray Montmary.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

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‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ by Muriel Spark tells of the rise and fall of an unconventional Edinburgh schoolteacher, Miss Jean Brodie and the strange love triangle she shares with two fellow schoolteachers.

The story is told by an omniscient narrator, in the present and in flash-forwards and hence, the pieces of the story are revealed in fragments. The mode of storytelling and the tension fraught in its format, makes it quick and compelling reading.

At various intervals in her career, Miss Jean Brodie handpicks a a select group of girls from her elite Edinburgh school, whom she trains in private. She educates them in her own particular modes of wisdom and she calls them the ‘créme de la créme’. Jean Brodie’s  specialised curriculum consists of information including but not limited to the Buchmanites and Mussolini, the  Italian Renaissance painters, the advantages of cleansing cream and witch hazel over soap, the meaning of the word ‘menarche’ and the interior decoration of the London house of the author A.A. Milne.

The six selected girls are famous for different things. Monica Douglas for mathematics, Rose Stanley for sex (or I suppose her suspected potential), Eunice Gardiner for gymnastics, Sandy Stranger for her enunciation, Jenny Gray for her grace, and Mary Macgregor for her silence.

Jean Brodie’s unconventional teaching methods are frowned upon by the school authorities, who are continually searching for reasons to dismiss her. It is only the Brodie set that are close enough to Jean Brodie, to be able to acquire incriminating evidence against her and thus betray her. There is one person among the set who betrays Jean Brodie, and the latter  spends her entire life brooding upon the identity of this betrayer. It is beyond her comprehension that someone out of the group of girls-  a group that she has given up the best years of her life and even sacrificed her love life for, should thus stab her in the back.

While the girls are being trained, they were also privy to the emotional and personal life of Jean Brody- a lady in her prime ( a term that is repeated and reinstated in the novel several times) and embroiled in a complex relationship with two scoolmasters – the singing teacher Gordon Lowther and the handsome, one-armed war veteran Teddy Lloyd.

The betrayer of Jean Brodie is someone who also gets involved in this love triangle, thus proving that often jealousy arising from love can overwhelm loyal and decent relationships.

The book is full of such unusual and challenging relationship dynamics. It is also a book about morals and ethics and politics. Jean Brodie in her ‘prime’ forsakes morals and chooses to sleep with the singing teacher, while all the time nurturing a deep, obsessive passion for the art teacher.

There is a displacement of love in the story, such that physical love is only shown to occur between individuals who do not care for one another. A cycle of retribution seems to occur so that Jean Brodie is ultimately punished for her seemingly unrelated action of sleeping with the singing teacher.

The humour in ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ is very dark and best described as black comedy. It’s hard for me to exactly pinpoint what the essence of the novel is about. To me it feels like a commentary on the rejection of all things conventional and a lesson on the havoc it may create.

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier for the #1951BookClub

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This book review of ‘My Cousin Rachel’ by Daphne du Maurier is in conjunction with the 1951 Book Club of Simon David Thomas Stuck in a Book and Karen Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

 

‘My Cousin Rachel’ is the story of a man’s curiosity surrounding the sinister conditions of his beloved cousin’s death, his suspicions regarding his cousin’s widow’s involvement in the death, her motives and character and most importantly his all-consuming love for her…

 

Phillip Ashley, orphaned at a very young age, had been brought up rather unconventionally by his uncle, Ambrose Ashley, owner of a large estate in Cornwall. The bond between the two men is naturally quite strong. Not only does young Phillip strongly resemble his uncle, they share similar temperaments and character traits. The pair shun society, particularly that of women, and lead a rough and tumble existence, ignoring social etiquette and depending on the services of a band of loyal servants to keep the household running.

Phillip had been reared and trained to follow in his uncle’s footsteps and is in every way, the heir to Ambrose Ashley’s personal estate and fortune.

Due to reasons of ill health, Ambrose Ashley is advised to avoid the damp English winters and to spend this time, building his health in warmer climes.

Ambrose reluctantly leaves his estate in the hands of his young cousin, freshly returned from college and travels to Florence, Italy. There he meets and falls in love with a widowed countess, the half-English half-Italian Rachel.

Phillip upon hearing the news of his cousin’s marriage is shocked and secretly jealous. Ambrose had always been misogynistic in his attitudes and this had rubbed off on his impressionable young cousin.

Ambrose, wracked with headaches, writes less frequently to his cousin in England but on occasion sends troubled notes, expressing his concerns regarding the character, motives and spending habits of his wife Rachel.

The suspicions turn morbid, which are revealed in scattered excerpts of letters, revealed here and there. The symptoms concur with that of a lethal brain tumour that Ambrose is suspected to be afflicted with.

When Ambrose’s last letters send out a frantic plea for help and rescue from his wife’s clutches, Phillip travels hurriedly to Florence, only to learn of Ambrose’s sudden demise upon arrival.

When Phillip returns heartbroken to Cornwall, to pick up the reigns of the family estate, he finds the entire property and Ambrose’s wealth has been bequeathed to him, with nothing going to his widow.

Phillip, convinced that Rachel is responsible for his cousin’s death, steels his mind against his widowed cousin, when she suddenly decides to visit Cornwall and Ambrose’s estate. But slowly and surely, Rachel infiltrates Phillip’s life and converts his doubts and anger regarding her to infatuation.

From time to time though, through fragments of letters that are retrieved from the past, or from the gossip of acquaintances who knew Rachel, or from Rachel’s actions and abrupt and often mercenary behaviour, the all- pervading nagging doubt resurfaces – is Cousin Rachel all that she seems?

What struck me the most when reading this novel was how compelling the storytelling was. From the very outset the book was an absolute page turner.

du Maurier employs the usage of an unreliable narrator, a man who is clearly swayed by emotion, as a wonderful plot device to inject tremendous psychological tension in a taut, highly strung story.

We are kept continually guessing whether Rachel is the scheming, conniving temptress- a figment of a misogynistic mind, or a sweet tempered considerate woman with a tendency to overspend.

I was reminded of Hitchcock’s film ‘Suspicion’ when reading this book. Both the book and the movie deal with similar themes and are wrought with the same psychological manipulation of the human mind.

With Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel, du Maurier, to my mind, reaches the pinnacle of her storytelling powers. She has a genius for creating such fleshed out, memorable characters who participate in well constructed, gripping plots. With these two books, du Maurier exhibits consummate literary skill that far exceeds the romantic entanglements and wild plots that we tend to associate her with. She is a highly underrated author who deserves to be in the limelight.

 

 

Title: My Cousin Rachel

Author: Daphne du Maurier

Published: 1951

Setting: Cornwall, England

Characters: Phillip Ashley, Ambrose Ashley, Rachel Ashley, Signor Rainaldi, Nicholas Kendall.

 

 

 

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To read more reviews of books published in 1951 please visit here and Karen’s blog.