The reader knows from the outset of Miss Read’s 30th anachronistic novel of village gossip that the “affairs” at Thrush Green are not of the illicit variety. This latest amble into the not-so-lively lives of the middle-aged people last encountered in Read’s Gossip Prom Thrush Green (1981) presents a world dominated by old-fashioned simplicity and innocence. In a world drawn with the aid of lilac-colored glasses, where crankiness and pettiness are the major foibles, many of the characters in the novel suggest the life and originality of the gift-book illustrations that decorate its pages. But granting the book these mostly intentional and traditionally comic limitations, her fans will encounter delightfully familiar characters whose uneventful lives are sketched with enough wit and insight to leave them breathless for the latest gossip.
The book’s moral center is the humble and kindly Reverend Charles Henstock and his wife Dimity, who have recently replaced the Anthony Bulls as stewards of the four neighboring parishes that include Thrush Green. The preoccupations and predicaments of Charles’s parishioners are various. Ella Bembridge, former housemate of Dimity Henstock, devotes herself to cigarette-rolling and local gossip. The school marms, Misses Fogerty and Watson, dream of a beach retirement but are frustrated by their indispensability to the school. The rich and bossy widow, Mrs. Thurgood, fights with Charles over the repairing of the church’s worn kneelers (the book’s major crisis). Kit Armitage, a recently retired military man and former village heartthrob, returns to rekindle an old flame and spark a new one. And Albert Piggott, the crotchety sexton, so spends himself in complaints that he drives his wife Nellie to another man. The lives of several minor characters are also illumined through harmless town gossip or are helped by Charles in one way or another to regain their humanity, humility, or faith. For the most part, all of these characters are predictable types who say very little that is unexpected. Their epiphanies are based on cliches and their “development” by Read stumbles along a thin line between a genuine warmth and a slightly tattered sentimentality.
What preserves the book’s measure of genuine warmth is its often unexpected subtlety, evident in both its understated prose and sly wit. On one occasion, during a conversation with Mrs. Thurgood and her daughter, the oldfashioned Henstock has a run-in with women’s liberation:
“I don’t intend to discuss the matter now in this holy place,” Charles pointed out, “but if you and Miss Thurgood—”
“Mizz,” broke in Janet. “I prefer to be known as Mizz, spelled M and S.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Capital M, small S,” explained Janet.
“Oh!” said the rector, now enlightened, “like ‘manuscript‘.”
“Not in the least like ‘manuscript‘,” exclaimed Mrs. Thurgood. “But to get back to the point.”
Read’s subtlety allows her to sum up a minor crisis in a few well-chosen details, such as the number of times a nervous caller lets the phone ring.
The reader might be tempted to compare small-town life at Thrush Green to that at Grover’s Corners. Like Wilder, Read presents the everyday events and conversation that make up an average life. Unlike Wilder, Read is unable or unwilling to give these experiences a meaning beyond themselves. Lacking a Wilder’s aesthetic distance, Read’s authorial voice seems too close to the characters she creates, too sympathetic to a point of view perhaps better experienced at the tea table than in a novel.
[Affairs at Thrush Green, by Miss Read; Houghton Mifflin; Boston]