Milk Bottles and Mango Trees

Dear Reader:

507) Affairs at Thrush Green by Miss Read, 1983 (hard copy, library)

Miss Read, the pseudonym for Dorra Jessie Saint (nee Shafe), died at at nearly 99 (!) this year in April.  Her New York Times obituary is here.

She was the author of scores of books about English post-World War II village life.  I’d encountered her in some of my reading about middlebrow inter-war year books although her earliest book was not published until after World War II.  Nonetheless, at least from reading Affairs at Thrush Green, I believe her work has a great deal in common with many of those authors, including its middlebrow basis.

She is said to have been greatly influenced by Jane Austen and has been cited as parallel to Barbara Pym.  I’ve been exposed to Austen primarily through film, but have read a fair amount of Pym.  To me, Pym and Austen are much more acerbic and arguably more comfortable with sex than Miss Read, although adultery does rear its head in this book.  In addition, I’ve yet to read a Pym that focuses on village life – her books, that I’ve read, have been more urban/suburban.  Similarly, my sense of Austen is that she focuses more within the household and between households, not at the village level per se.  Miss Read really does focus us at the village level – hence, the many, many characters.

I’ve talked before about how much, as a product of village life, I love books set in villages – Christie’s Miss Marples and Ray Bradbury’s books set in Green Town are favorites.  However, as I wrote earlier, I was initially less than enthralled with Miss Read’s fictional Thrush Green, about which she wrote many books.  The book seemed too innocent, too tame.

Affairs at Thrush Green appears to be the seventh novel in her 14-book Thrush Green series.  In hind sight, I wish I’d done enough research to start with an earlier book.  I was initially overwhelmed with the thirty or so characters who are briefly introduced – clearly inhabitants of earlier novels.  It helped to write them all down.  And then, of course, I quickly learned their names and sorted them out, no longer conscious of a struggle to keep them straight.

The book concerns itself primarily with two themes: 1) the coupling and uncoupling of a number of marriages and 2) the adjustment of the low church vicar, Charles Henstock, to his parish and them to him.  Miss Read is unafraid to present complex characters – some, like Henstock, are primarily good but have very human flaws, others, like Albert Piggott, have few redeeming features, but are occasionally capable of good.  And she shows how people can change, evolve, adapt, and become happier and more likeable.

This is a gentle book that nonetheless captures the richness of village life and humanity when milk men still delivered and curates struggled to balance high and low church rituals.  I’m reminded of Miss Marple’s frequent remarks about how she see parallel motivations behind heinous crimes, like murder, and tiny ones, like pie stealing.  Miss Read shows us jealousy, rage, despair, exaltation, misery, and contentment, all playing out on a small scale as people live around each other.  By the middle of the book, I’d fallen in love with her characters and setting.  And I look forward to reading more of her work since, happily, my library has plenty.

506)  Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of Childhood in India by Madhur Jaffrey, 2007 (library, hard copy)

I talked earlier about my love of Jaffrey – her acting and her cookbooks.  Her vegetarian Indian and “world” cookbooks are among my favorites out of my very large collection.  I could happily eat only food cooked from them for the rest of my life.

Jaffrey grew up in 1940s and 50s Delhi, India.  She is part of an enormous, upper middle class family, led, during her childhood, but her overbearing grandfather.  He insisted that nearly all of his eight children live in houses in his compound, thus Madhur grew up eating with and living around, her scores of cousins and many aunts and uncles.

If you’ve ever seen her interviewed, you come away with a sense of Jaffrey as irrepressible – she is one of those rare individuals who is visibly full of joie de vivre.  Her spiritedness made it challenging to submit to the oppressiveness of close extended family life, but also brought her great joy at experiencing the many adventures and mishaps of her family.

And throughout, she talks about the food – oh! the food (the book includes recipes at the end).  The servants and mothers would all gather in the main house each day to cook joint, massive meals together.  School children brought tiffins with different types of food, depending upon their religion and home region, to school every day and shared them – Madhur delights in describing all.  She also provides great detail regarding their clothing – saris, shalwar kameezes, etc. are described in every colorful, extravagant, silken aspect (the women in her well-to-do family had many expensive clothes and they were handed down through the generations).

Every year, the huge family made its way to hill country to wait out the sweltering, humid Delhi summers amid retired British colonels and upper class Indians.  They were perched, sometimes precariously, as when the country fell apart during post-colonial Partition, between British and Indian culture.  Their English was better than their Hindi, their tennis and cricket playing exemplary, but their food and dress generally Indian, although Jaffrey remembers receiving her first pedal pushers (seen in the cover photo) with great joy and wore them everywhere she could for a long time.

This autobiography ends as her childhood does, leaving lots of room for future books that she does not appear to have yet written (perhaps writing her 29 cookbooks has gotten in the way).  I hope she is working on them, although it is hard to imagine that her adult life could have been nearly as exotic or enchanting as her childhood.  If you are curious about her cookbooks, I can recommend World Vegetarian and World of the East Vegetarian Cooking.

Happy reading, Ruby

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4 Comments

  1. I’m not sure that this is a day when I can appreciate people living exotically more interesting lives than I am…of course, I suppose the thing is to find the exotic in living in hot, humid Michigan while spending the summer in an office…yes, that is work worthy of some great writer out there! I think it might have to be fiction though. 🙂

    • And the humidity and heat has broken! Supposed to warm up again tomorrow, but probably not quite as high as earlier. Hope things are more comfortable now, Ruby

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