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.

Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

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Young Mary Preston has been invited to spend the summer at the sprawling country estate of  Rushwater, belonging to Lady Emily Leslie. ‘Wild Strawberries’ is the story of that very idyllic time, Mary Preston’s romantic entanglements and the summertime activities of the landed country gentry.

Rather than being made to feel like the poor relation, down and out on her luck, Mary is welcomed by her Aunt Agnes (Aunt by marriage) and Aunt Agnes’ mother- the very vague but likable character of Lady Emily. Aunt Agnes and Lady Emily have secret plans to forge a match between Mary and the widowed second son of Lady Emily- John Leslie. Despite John cutting a very tragic figure, there are more Mr Leslies’ for Mary to contend with. There’s the youngest son- David Leslie, charming but rather unreliable. Will Mary be able to follow the true callings of her heart during this glorious summer at Rushwater?

‘Wild Strawberries’ was a beautiful, bucolic summer read.  What really endeared this book to me were its host of rather wonderful characters: the vague Lady Emily forever looking for something, the doting young mother Agnes, always making excuses for her children’s behaviour and flitting about without a care in the world, the charming self-centred playboy David Leslie and the mature, thoughtful mannered widower John Leslie.

Throw in the French neighbours, the pompous figure of Mr Holt, a few midnight balls, summer walks and shopping trips down to London and you have the makings of yet another stellar read from the very funny Angela Thirkell.

As with other Thirkell novels, the beauty of the novels don’t lie in the weak plots but in the rather full bodied, lovable characters. They have mannerisms and flaws in their characters but they are always very believable. Thirkell imparts to them such well timed, comedic humour that these books are a joy to read.

Title: Wild Strawberries

Author: Angela Thirkell

Published: 1934

Setting: Rushwater Estate, Barsetshire, England

Characters: Mary Preston, Aunt Agnes, Lady Emily, John Leslie, David Leslie, Madame Boulle, Joan Stevenson, Gudgeon.

Summer Half by Angela Thirkell

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‘Summer Half’ by Angela Thirkell was my second foray into the Thirkell novels set in the fictional, rural English province of Barsetshire (derivatised from Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire of the Barchester Chronicles series).

I feel that one must be prepared mentally before embarking upon a Thirkell novel. While she lacks the sharp wit of Barbara Pym, the superior plot of Stella Gibbons, the excellent writing of Nancy Mitford, there is a soft sleepy British humour in her novels that makes them irresistible to me. Therefore, I feel that one should not start reading the novel with a lofty sense of literary expectation.

The books have a weak plot but are filled with a cast of unmistakably middle-class British characters who belong to a bygone era. Some of them are perturbed with the state of political affairs in pre World War 2 Europe, but for the most part, they are engaged in playing tennis, reading literature and enjoying summer picnics.

There are a few characters who share the same names as Trollope’s Barsetshire characters. A favourite of mine-Old Bunce appears in the new avatar of a boatman in ‘Summer Half’- a fact that I derived particular pleasure from.

The characters in ‘Summer Half’ are people who have epicurean qualities and so the book is liberally scattered with references to meals that will make your mouth water.

The tea in Colin’s room looked perfectly delightful. There were mustard and cress sandwiches, cucumber sandwiches, jam sandwiches, bloater paste sandwiches, cakes with pink icing, chocolate cake. a coffee cake and two plates of biscuits. Colin,  poking about in the village, had found a grocer who kept these joys of his early childhood, animal biscuits and alphabet biscuits and had bought a pound of each. There was also a huge bowl of strawberries, a large jug of cream and on the dressing-table beer and sherry for the late comers.

There were two specific points about the plot that drew me to this novel. The first was the school setting of the book (I adore school stories!). The second was the fact that it was set in the summer- and I felt like a month of light summer reading this month, after finishing Bleak House in June.

The story deals with the decision made by young and brilliant Colin Keith, a recent graduate of Oxford and destined for a career in law, to sacrifice his calling in life to take up a teaching job at the local Southbridge School, during the summer term. What he sees as a sacrifice, trying to earn a living instead of studying for the law, his parents see as a temporary summer diversion. Colin packs his bags and takes up a room in Southbridge School and is immediately charged with the difficult task of teaching the classics to the boys of the Mixed Fifth.

We are introduced to a bevy of school characters: the Headmaster Mr Birkett, his beautiful but shallow daughter Rose who is perpetually engaged, this time to another schoolteacher Mr Phillips, Mr Everard Carter- another schoolteacher and three boys from the Mixed Fifth- Tony Morland, Eric Swan and scholarly but absent minded ‘Hacker’.

Not only do we gain admittance to the  goings-on at Southbridge School via Colin Keith, we also get to know of his middle-class, respected family: Mr Keith (lawyer), matriarch Mrs Keith (placid and ever welcoming of guests), elder brother and lawyer Robert Keith and his family. sweet-tempered sister Kate and younger schoolgirl sister Lydia-loudvoiced, opinionated and on more than one occasion described as an ‘Amazon’.

When a number of unmarried young men and women meet frequently during summer picnics, school Sport’s Days, house parties during long Bank Holidays, this is most certainly a recipe for romance and matchmaking.

Read if you will, about this perfect snapshot of bucolic provincial life. There will be plenty of talk of sunshine and tennis matches, of the midnight mishaps of errant schoolboys, of scrumptious food where ‘hasty lunches’ consist of ‘salmon mayonnaise, roast beef, potatoes, peas, French beans, salad, chocolate soufflé,charlotte russe, cream cheese, Bath Oliver biscuits and raspberries and cream. ‘Summer Half’, published in 1937 is that perfect escapist novel that I am sure every Britain would have wanted to get lost in, at a time when a nation was poised precariously on the brink of war.