Reviewed by Harriet
Jane woke slowly. For a long minute she lay drowsing with her eyes shut, wondering why the bed felt so different. She loved her own little bed at home and during her long illness she had got to know it very well; but the bed in which she was now snuggling was more like a nest, for she seemed to sink into its warm softness and could hardly feel a mattress under her. And this was not surprising, for her new bed was a feather bed!
The best opening paragraphs catch the reader’s interest immediately and hint at themes that will be important in the book that follows. In Jane’s Country Year, published in 1946 and aimed at young readers, those requirements are certainly met. There are mysteries: why is Jane not in her own bed, and what happened in her long illness? The bed feels like a nest, and nests will come to be important to Jane in the coming months. Above all, Jane is experiencing warmth, comfort and security, which will be the characteristics of the new life she is about to experience. Now, as she wakes up, she remembers where she is and why she is there. She has indeed gone through a long period of illness (nature unspecified), in and out of hospital, and emerged thin and weak. So, on the advice of her doctor, she has been sent away from her London home to stay with her Uncle William and Aunt Kate, who live on a farm in the country. She’s very much a town girl, and the sights and sounds of the countryside are new and often perplexing. But during the course of the year she spends there, she will learn about country life and the natural world as it changes and develops month by month.
If Malcolm Saville is remembered at all these days, it’s probably because of his Lone Pine adventure stories – I have a vague memory of reading one of them myself. But among his more than 90 books there are a number that are specifically aimed at introducing children to the English countryside. All but one of these are non-fiction: ‘Country Scrapbooks’, quizzes, ‘Wonder Why’ books and more. The exception is obviously Jane’s Country Year, which manages superbly to combine teaching its young readers to recognise the various elements of the natural world from insects to animals to flowers and trees with an engrossing story of a young girl’s daily life, her friendships and her adventures.
Jane is ten when the story begins in January, and eleven when it ends in December. The book is structured month by month, usually told in the third person but interspersed with chapters consisting of her ‘Moor End’ diary letters to her parents. Her relations and friends are both her supporters and her teachers. Uncle William is an important instructor when it comes to the changing year as it’s lived on the farm, explaining the various activities on the fields and among the animals. Also on the farm is Old George, who Jane takes for a tramp when she first sees him, though as Aunt Kate explains, he lives and works on the farm. She calls him ‘a lazy old rascal’, but in his gruff and grumpy way he’s also a source of useful information for Jane. But another important person in her life this year is Richard Herrick, the son of the local rector. Richard, a year or two older than Jane, becomes her constant companion, and in his company she learns about birds and their nests and explores the woodlands and hillsides, finding secret dells and hidden streams. Together they visit an old woman who Richard thinks is a witch, but who turns out to be an ordinary, kindhearted countrywoman.
Then there are Jane’s parents, Mummy and Daddy. During the year she sees then only three times, twice when they come down on the train to visit her, and finally to take her home. Their longest visit is in August, and before they arrive Jane imagines how her mother would feel if she saw her running barefoot through a dewy field: ‘She laughed to herself as she thought how shocked Mummy would be that she ran about without shoes and stockings and never caught a cold’. It soon becomes clear that Mummy is unable to fully accept her daughter’s newly healthy and free lifestyle. She fusses over whether she’s fit enough to join in the races on the village green, and is horrified by learning that Jane sometimes wears dungarees: ‘My Jane in dungarees like a…like a…workman!’. Daddy, thankfully, is more accepting and rejoices in seeing how happy and well Jane has become. It’s never clear which of her parents is relation to either Uncle William or Aunt Kate, but I imagine that Daddy, with his relaxed attitude to country ways, must be brother to one of them. As the year starts to draw to an end, Jane is increasingly aware that she will be going back to her old life in London after Christmas, and this brings decidedly mixed feelings. Seeing some budding primroses in December she’s painfully conscious that she won’t see them in bloom, and admits to Richard that ‘I know its awful of me but I don’t want to go home. I want to see them come out’. She confesses this later to her father: ‘I want to come with you but it’s difficult to go’. As a grown-up, modern day reader I became increasingly anxious about Jane’s future, and part of me really wanted her to be able to stay in an environment where she had blossomed and learned so much. I was also aware of how much this situation would have mirrored the very recent experiences of all the city children who were evacuated to the countryside in wartime. There must have been many among them who experienced true freedom and happiness for the first time in their lives and who dreaded returning to the dark grim conditions of their original homes. Jane is hopefully going to be luckier than some, as her parents appear to have a pleasant home and good jobs, but there’s a rather worrying moment when Mummy says ‘I’m never going to let you go away again, Jane’. As for her uncle and aunt, a childless couple, they are obviously going to miss her terribly.
This delightful and engrossing book is a most welcome reprint from Handheld Press, who have a habit of making great discoveries and reprinting them for the pleasure of today’s readers. This one has the added bonus of the glorious colour illustrations of Bernard Bowerman, reproduced from the first edition. There’s an introduction by Hazel Sheeky Bird and some explanatory notes at the back. I’m very happy to have read it.
Harriet is co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and much prefers the country to the city.
Malcolm Saville, Jane’s Country Year (Handheld Press, 2022). 978-1912766543, 238pp., paperback original.
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