Most of us, especially those of us who are literary, have a cozy image of a typical English village in our minds. Mine has definitely been imparted through reading, but has only been strengthened over the time I’ve lived in England. Uneven rows of thatched roof cottages, wide expanses of farmland, the rectory, and maybe even the manor house on the hill – it depends what historical period your mind works best in. Our ideal of the English village is more myth than any kind of reality, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still love them, and that is the contradiction that Wainwright explores in The English Village.
It’s clear from the start that Wainwright loves the ideal of England as much as the rest of us do. The book is broken down into chapters concerning different aspects of the village, from those cottages I mentioned to the festivals that the villagers used to celebrate. The book concludes with a chapter on the potential future of the English village and the changes that have happened recently, namely a revival in village life and a determination to conserve the bits we have left for the future. Each chapter also contains black and white drawings of, usually, buildings mentioned in the text to give us a good idea of what we’re reading about.
At the core this was really a delightful book. I loved the way that Wainwright pulled history into the idyllic vision that so many of us cherish – not to remove the dream, but to add a layer of realism to it. One of my favorite parts was when he mentioned that some cottages which are now valued at over one million pounds used to be houses for the poor. It’s this dichotomy which sums up that contradiction; the now pretty villages had an underside which has mostly moved to the cities, leaving much of the countryside for the wealthy.
The English Village naturally also covers the history of the village and how it has evolved through time, starting with the Norman Conquest and ending with the people who are keeping the dream alive, either through pubs or restoration. The industrial revolution effectively ended the need to live in cottages scattered across the countryside, but that way of life was common throughout our history until that point. The shift was monumental, although also incremental, and given that I am always a person who is fascinated with those fundamental changes, I was hooked by this in particular.
For anyone who has ever imagined having a little house in the countryside – perhaps a timber-framed, plastered house with a thatch roof, as I’ve wished – The English Village is truly the perfect read. And it would make a great Christmas gift, too; if you’re in poking around the shops this weekend looking for last minute presents, look no further.
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