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a winter away

With thanks to Dean Street Press for the lovely review copy.

I’m sure you all know about the books now being produced by Dean Street Press –who are working with Scott at the wonderful Furrowed Middlebrow blog to bring us works by forgotten writers championed by Scott on his blog. There are a lot of new titles and I have previously only read one of the previous batch; A Chelsea Concerto. Recently I bought Arrest the Bishop (a golden age style mystery) after reading a great review of it – and then I was offered even more by Dean Street Press and I couldn’t resist.

I chose A Winter Away, Fear by Night and Bewildering Cares all of which look great, but it was A Winter Away I decided to pick up first. Elizabeth Fair (lovely name) is a new voice to me. I had to look to Furrowed Middlebrow to provide me with some information about this writer who died in 1997. Dean Street Press are re-issuing all six of Elizabeth Fair’s comedies of domestic life.

Elizabeth Fair appears to be likened to Angela Thirkell – I was a tad worried by that – I don’t dislike Angela Thirkell I enjoy her books when in the right frame of mind – and I think some of the ones I have yet to read are stronger than the few I have read. However, having finished A Winter Away I think I like the voice of Elizabeth Fair much more – she isn’t quite so silly, there is a lightness of touch, the humour is not over-done.

A Winter Away takes us to a small English village, and introduces us to twenty-year-old Maud Ansdell, who has come to stay with her father’s cousin Alice and her companion Miss Conway – generally referred to as Con. The two have been sharing Combe Cottage for years, settling into a well-practised routine, they also have a spoiled dog called Wilbraham. Maud is not very impressed with the room in which she will be staying when she first sees it – but at least staying with Cousin Alice will get Maud away from her overbearing Stepmother.

“ ‘I am small and insignificant’ said Maud ‘but this room is going to make me feel much more so.’
She gazed at herself in the speckled looking glass which hung on the wall. A giant’s wardrobe near the window cut off daylight and the single electric light was behind her at the other end of the room. As well as the wardrobe the room contained a white-painted iron bed, a chest of drawers, a chair and a carpet. The carpet had once been crimson with green and yellow flowers. The wallpaper, as faded as the carpet, had been striped brown and beige, with blue flowers on the beige part. The bedspread had never been anything but cochineal pink.”

Alice and Con keep chickens, and eat a largely vegetarian diet – Con is generally in charge of catering – but her menu is somewhat limited. She knows two-hundred and eighty-three ways of cooking eggs – and in the time, she lives with Alice and Con, Maud probably tries them all. Con, rather resents the presence of Alice’s relative, and longs to rid herself of the nuisance. We can’t help, however be enormously entertained when Con succumbs to a little mishap while out searching for Maud one night. (Maud had been drawn into another little mishap involving a couple of friends).

“Explanations must wait till the morning, Cousin Alice had insisted. As it was they had been up half the night, calming Miss Conway, removing thorns from her person and sponging her scratches, and persuading her to accept a hot-water bottle, a glass of hot milk, and three biscuits.
‘I’m perfectly all right.’ Miss Conway had repeated frequently, though even to Maud’s eyes she looked all wrong.”

Alice and Con have arranged a job for young Maud, as secretary to Mr Feniston at Glaine, called old M by almost everyone – although not to his face. Maud is to act as his secretary and help him catalogue his library. Unfortunately, it looks very much as if Mr Feniston drove his previous secretary to the point of a breakdown. Maud is naturally nervous. Mr Feniston is an irascible old so and so – his son Oliver a teacher at a midlands University – visits from time to time, and Maud sees how fond and proud the old man is of Oliver but how the two quarrel terribly – both are stuck in their own ways. While Mr Fenistone wants to preserve his library even amid its chaos, while Oliver rages at what he sees as its impracticality. The Library was inherited by old M from his three aunts. (Maud, and we assume Elizabeth herself – seems to have her own opinion of aunts – especially those who seem to assume one is interested in every young man who crosses one’s path).

“ ‘There they are. Painted in the drawing room here, when they were girls. Feller from Exeter did it. Looked like owls even then.’ They did look like owls. The Exeter painter had given them fixed stares, and they were perched in a row on a spindly sofa with a trail of greenery hiding their knees. Three dear little owls. And old M was an eagle; and Charles was an eagle too, when he was offended. She wondered whether Oliver would be an eagle or an owl.”

Maud is introduced to the three owlish aunts by old M in the family portrait gallery – and later Maud thinks she can detect traces of owlish-ness in Oliver.

The third Feniston in the story; Charles Feniston, is old M’s nephew. Charles leases a piece of land from his uncle for his market garden business and Maud runs into trouble on her first day, getting locked inside his garden and picking his daisies. Maud discovers there is some little mystery or other surrounding Charles, who is completely estranged from his uncle, and about whom Con has hinted at some disgrace.

On her walk to Glaine each day, Maud must pass Pixie Cot with its blue paintwork and bright purple water butt. Here live Ensie Martin and her father, a retired clergyman, who has become very used to being looked after by his daughter. Ensie fusses a little over her father and their cat, but discovering she has developed an affection for a young clergyman, Maud allows herself to be drawn into their lives, determined to help.

Maud gets drawn further into the lives of her new friends and neighbours, she wants to sort out their arguments, or smooth the way for greater harmony, and naturally aid their romances.

A Winter Away is deeply charming, a real cosy, feel good read, with a dash of humour, I look forward to more by Elizabeth Fair in the not too distant future.

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