The Diary of a Farmer’s Wife 1796-1797 by Anne Hughes – 20 Books of Summer 2022

Diary of a Farmer's Wife 1796-1797 cover

The Diary of a Farmer’s Wife is a bit of a conundrum, as strictly speaking it’s not what most of us would think a diary would be. Supposedly it was written in 1796-1797 by Anne Hughes who lived in a remote country farmhouse near Chepstow, Monmouthshire. However the existence of the diary seems only to have come about because a young girl who was born in 1884 and was called Jeanne Keyte met an elderly woman who told her about her mother – Anne Hughes who had kept a diary. The old lady read to Jeanne from a thin book containing spidery writing, and also told her lots of stories about her mother Anne Hughes, and Jeanne wrote them all down so that she could put them in a book eventually. Michael Croucher who wrote the Foreword says, Certainly it should not stand as a historical text in the conventional sense, he views the diary as being more like a folk song.

However, it’s a really entertaining read. Anne Hughes led a very busy life as a farmer’s wife and if there was anyone in the neighbourhood in need, she took it upon herself to send them food and blankets, whatever she thought would make them more comfortable. She had to do it under cover though as her husband wasn’t so open-handed. There’s a lot of humour involved as her husband had a hot temper, but she was always able to defuse it by feeding him his favourite food or drink. She described him as being like a great baby – which he was.

There are a lot of hatches, matches and dispatches, scandals and cooking, including recipes if you’re that way inclined. Anne comes across as being a really lovely woman, even hoping that men who might have stolen some sheep won’t be caught as they would be hanged.

In the end it doesn’t really matter if a lot of the book is the result of embroidery by Jeanne, it’s an interesting and comfortable read, one of those books that you could dip into at any time and find something to amuse you.

I read this one for 20 Books of Summer 2022.

Emily Davis by ‘Miss Read’

Emily Davis cover

Emily Davis by ‘Miss Read’ was first published in 1971 and it’s the last in the Fairacre series by the author. There are eight novels in the series.

Dolly Clare and Emily Davis have been life-long friends since early school-days and after World War 1 when they both found themselves bereft of their fiances their friendship became even stronger. They had both become primary school teachers and had taught in and around the village of Caxley. On retirement Emily had moved into Dolly’s little thatched cottage, and there they had lived very happily for over twenty years until the very peaceful death of Emily.

The news of her death travelled fast, even to far-flung places and it’s evident that many of Emily’s ex-pupils had held her close in their memories. She had helped so many of them over the years and each chapter is the story of how Emily had influenced their futures and had even managed to browbeat a bullying father/husband.

This was a charming comfort read with a lot of rural social history thrown in.

The Way Things Are by E.M. Delafield

The Way Things Are by E.M. Delafield was first published in 1927, but my copy of the book is a Virago Modern Classic which was printed in 1988. It has an introduction by Nicola Beauman.

Prior to reading this book I had read the author’s ‘Provincial Lady’ books and really enjoyed them, this one is along the same lines really although I couldn’t help being reminded of the film Brief Encounter.

Laura is a 37 year old wife and mother, lucky enough to be living in a lovely large house (with garden of course.) I suppose she could be described as being upper middle class, and she is also a successful author. On the face of it she has it all, two healthy sons and an unobjectionable if reserved husband Alfred, but like most women of her class she is beset by that perennial problem – servants. Living deep in the countryside it isn’t the perfect location for servants so they tend not to last long there, or maybe it’s the two young boys Edward and Johnnie that people get fed up with. Laura favours her youngest son outrageously, apparently because he has curly hair and is the naughty one!!

Laura is constantly shattered if she has to deal with her own children even for a short time and dreads the inevitable exit of their Nurse. To be fair she does realise that the ‘women in the village’ have to deal with their children on their own and do all their own housework, instead of just having a life of tennis parties and visiting neighbours as she does.

When Laura’s younger sister Christine arrives to stay she has a young man in tow. Laura thinks it must be serious but it soon appears that Marmaduke Aylford is more interested in Laura and of course as a supposedly neglected wife she’s very flattered.

Having been married for seven years Laura thinks she has never really been in love, although she’s very fond of Alfred. She wants some romance in her life. Silly woman!

Anyway, this is funny in parts but not to the same extent as Delafield’s ‘Provincial Lady’ books.

As an acquaintance of mine once said, “Romance goes out the window as soon as you start washing their socks and pants.” Which was a bit shocking really as she had persuaded a man to leave his wife and three sons for her! Stick to fictional romance – it’s safer.

Everyman’s Castle by Philippa Lewis

Everyman’s Castle by Philippa Lewis was first published in 2014, and it’s subtitled The Story of our cottages, country houses, terraces, flats, semis and bungalows.

This is such an interesting and informative read, but it references quite a lot of other books, mainly novels which of course I’ve taken a note of – it has bumped up my book list considerably! It also has plenty of lovely illustrations, and obviously there’s quite a lot of social history involved too.

I had always wondered why a great-uncle of Jack’s had insisted that his house was NOT a bungalow. They were the kind of house popular in colonial India amongst the Anglo Indians or ‘ex-pats’. But the early UK versions were often little more than wooden shacks, often built by soldiers after the end of WW1 when decent housing was difficult to find. Then after WW2 the prefabricated bungalows erected to try to alleviate the housing shortage tended to be despised, although they were loved by the people who actually lived in them.

I was surprised to discover that people in England were really reluctant to live in flats, so they were difficult to sell or let when builders first offered them. Eventually service flats became popular among the wealthy in London, it must have seemed like living in an hotel as meals could be sent up from the kitchen or you could go down to the restaurant, but there would have been more privacy than in an hotel. But flats have always been very popular in Scotland’s cities, they tend to be roomier than the narrow terraced housing on offer in England, but even those tiny houses ended up being split up into bed sitting rooms with kitchens being shared as the housing difficulties got worse.

It’s not all about grim housing problems though, having said that the ‘nobs’ who lived in country estates had problems of their own as new death duties took effect, and some were just abandoned and demolished but others such as Longleat took on the challenge and made a successful business out of the estate. It’s the suburban villas and semis section that I enjoyed most, and it was interesting to read that people in privately owned homes were building walls to separate themselves from newly built social (council) housing nearby.

This book has all sorts of interesting bits and pieces in it about old places such as Edinburgh and Bath as well as information about the ‘garden cities’ that became popular.

So this was a really good read, and I love the cover too. I really like those 1930s art deco homes – Crittall curved windows and all.

Glitter of Mica by Jessie Kesson

Glitter of Mica cover

Glitter of Mica by the Scottish author Jessie Kesson was first published in 1963. Previously I’ve read Another Time Another Place and The White Bird Passes and I enjoyed those ones but I didn’t like this one nearly as much.

The setting is rural Aberdeenshire in the north-east of Scotland, the parish of Caldwell and the book begins in the 1930s. Hugh Riddell is a farm worker who is never kept on after his year of contracted work is up, which means that every year he has to find a new job in the area at a different farm. His wife is sick fed up with the constant moving, she can’t even plant a garden as she would be working for whoever would take over the tied house that goes with the farm work. They had a son, also Hugh and it’s his family that this book is mainly involved with.

The marriage of Hugh and his wife Isa isn’t any more successful than that of his parents, Hugh despises Isa and she seems afraid of him, they did manage to produce a daughter though, Helen does well at school and goes to university, but her mother is disappointed that she is only doing a diploma in social sciences and won’t come back with the MA that past ‘scholars’ have attained.

Helen gets work as a youth worker and unknown to her father starts a relationship with Charlie Anson, someone else that Hugh despises. As you can imagine it all ends in tears.

There are some flashes of humour in this book such as ….for she was a tight woman and had she been a ghost she would have grudged giving you a fright.

The characters in this book remind me, if I ever needed to be reminded of why I am ‘pining for the west’ as they are almost all miserable and mean spirited and are their own worst enemies. Love doesn’t seem to enter into anyone’s life, people get married because they have to marry someone and quickly go right off them it seems. There’s only one character who seems to have any human warmth – and she’s the talk of the place – being a wee bit too friendly with some of the local men. But the women have to admit that she always hangs out a ‘bonnie white washing.’ High praise indeed among the women.

This is supposedly Jessie Kesson’s best book but I just found it too depressing, I have no doubts that it is a very true portrait of the area and the times. Some readers wallow in misery, but it’s not for me

You can read what Jack thought of the book here.

The Pursuit of Paradise by Jane Brown

The Pursuit of Paradise cover

I think it must be a few years since I bought The Pursuit of Paradise – A Social History of Gardens and Gardening by Jane Brown. I wasn’t really too sure what to expect of it. Sometimes gardening books are a bit like ‘teaching granny to suck eggs’, not that I think I know everything about the subject, but as I’ve been gardening since I was a wee girl, over fifty years!! – it’s inevitable that you pick up a lot of information one way and another.

But this book was informative, it has eleven chapters:
1. The Purest of Human Pleasure
2. The Secret Garden
3. The Military Garden
4. Emancipated Gardeners
5. The Rise of the Small Garden
6. Acquiring Eden
7. Science Lends a Hand
8. It’s Clever, but is it Art?
9. Labour of Love
10. The Formative Garden
11. Future Gardens

I found The Military Garden most interesting as it hadn’t dawned on me that so many gardening terms come from the arts of warfare – cordon, earthing-up, trench, bastion, palisade, covered way and more. It seems that when generals were at a loose end after wars were won, they went home and started to plan gardens where they could keep everything under control, just as they had commanded their men. All that topiary stood in for regiments of men!

This one is definitely worth reading if you enjoy social history and gardening.