Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Fair’

Popping up with a quick review, as I try to catch up a little. It’s about two weeks since I finished reading Bramton Wick, a period during which I have been reading quite slowly. My usual blogging timetable has gone out of the window, so bear with me.

Bramton Wick was perfect for an overtired weekend just as I began to feel quite unwell. I have previously read three other Elizabeth Fair novels all re-issued by Dean Street Press – and I really enjoy her world – small villages, eccentric characters, and a touch of romance. However, this one was her first published novel. Her observations are often highly amusing – her quirky characters all too believable. I was particularly struck by this quote from Stevie Smith on the back cover – taken from the time the book was originally published. Many of you will remember how – despite reading quite a number – I have struggled a bit with Angela Thirkell – and although publishing a little later than most of Thirkell’s – Elizabeth Fair was a writer of a similar type who didn’t fall into that trap of uncomfortable snobbishness that I find so unpalatable in many Thirkell books.

“Miss Fair’s understanding is deeper than Mrs. Thirkell’s and her humour is untouched by snobbishness; she is much nearer to Trollope, grand master in these matters.” – Stevie Smith

Bramton Wick is a tiny village – the setting of this delightful feel good debut. Here we encounter all the tensions, resentments and potential romances that exist in such a small community. Elizabeth Fair peoples her village with a variety of recognisable types – the romantic, the cynical, those who really need a shake up, the selfish and those who are too put upon. We have a lot of post war, genteel poverty, living cheek by jowl with those who are far better off.

There is Mrs Cole, with her two adult daughters, Gillian and Laura, Gillian was widowed in the war. Mrs Cole herself has long been a widow and she is still smarting somewhat from having to give up the big house – Endbury after her husband’s death. The house she has had to see Lady Masters lauding it over them all from ever since.

“She wondered how Lady Masters got her parlour maid to carry the coffee right across the lawn. But of course, Lady Masters got things simply by always having had them and by taking it for granted that she always would have them.”

Lady Master’s son Toby, a good friend of both Laura and Gillian’s is one of two local young men who really need to settle down and decide what they want to do with themselves. The other one is Jocelyn, who is living with his aunt and uncle – the uncle just about as irascible as it possible to be, his poor wife something of a door mat. Laura wonders whether she would like to marry Toby or not because if she did she would be able to return her mother to Endbury in time. Mrs Cole’s landlord proves not to be quite as awful as she thought – though nothing like his father – and the practical thinking Gillian meets a wealthy man with a terrible sense of dress.

Nearby at a cottage loomed over by the railway embankment live Miss Selbourne and her friend ‘Tiger’ – Miss Garrett – they once drove ambulances together in the First World War. They now have a dog kennels and a house that is a complete shambles – Miss Selbourne seems to do everything, Tiger being quite good at staying in bed or not feeling up to things she doesn’t like doing. Tiger is also the most appallingly bad driver – as we see a couple of times. These are the two best characters in the novel for me, and the novel opens with them preparing to go off to the local dog show. In another cottage close by live the three Misses Cleeve, from where much of the local gossip emanates, rather delightfully described by Elizabeth Fair as being ‘all remarkably like toads.”

This relatively short domestic comedy was a perfect little slice of escapism. A novel where of course everything gets tidied up quite nicely at the end – and how we all need that now and again. Although firmly in the category I call comfort reads – not everything in Bramton Wick is cosy – and yet it is the kind of book to curl up with under a blanket and hide from the realities of the twenty-first century.

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Elizabeth Fair wrote six novels, now all thankfully brought back to us by Furrowed Middlebrow and Dean Street Press. Landscape in Sunlight was her second published novel, and the third of the six I have read to date. I also think it is my favourite so far too. It was the perfect book for me last week, undemanding, gently witty examining the politics of village life with a knowing eye. Of this novel, Compton Mackenzie said it was ‘in the best tradition of English humour.’

A novel of vicars, village rivalries, summer fetes, little snobberies and burgeoning romance, it is a perfect example of a certain kind of English middlebrow novel.

The novel is set in Little Mallin, separated from the larger country market town of Mallinford by a toll bridge across the river. As spring looks like turning into a glorious early summer, village life is mainly dominated by the preparations for the August Festival. Vicar’s wife; Mrs Custance is the driving force of the festival which she has decided this year will be held in the grounds of Sir James Brigham’s house. Mrs Custance has taken against George, Sir James’ son, who was once quite close to her daughter Cassandra. Feelings have been hurt and gossip aided misunderstanding – but Cassandra is thrown together with George over the summer – and perhaps a thaw is starting. It’s not just George, who Mrs Custance has taken against, Mrs Midge is another, she lives in Prospect cottage with her son Lukin – a grown man, who is supposed to be delicate.

“At the end of the war, Mrs. Midge stayed on. While the war lasted Mrs. Custance had accepted her as part of the war-effort; it was only in the past year or two that Mrs. Midge had been transferred to the category which Mrs. Custance described as “people we could manage without.”

Before the festival preparations get underway properly, Mrs Custance seems more concerned with getting her daughter married off. Her husband, meanwhile, spends rather a lot of time dreaming about ancient Greece.

Nearby, the eccentric Eustace Templer and his sister Isabel live in Prospect House. Their brother-in-law Colonel Ashford, recently retired from the tropics, is staying with them while his wife is in a nursing home. Eustace and Isabel’s two orphaned nephews and a niece also live at Prospect House, and Cassandra is employed to teach the youngest, Leonard. Lily is the eldest, at seventeen she has just left school and is desperate to grow up, she has started practising with lipstick. Prospect Cottage where Mrs Midge and Lukin live also belongs to the Templers, and it has occurred to more than one person that the cottage could be perfect for Colonel Ashford and his wife – if only Mrs Midge could be made to leave. Lily, realising she also needs practise talking to men, decides to befriend Lukin, who she has rather dismissed in the past. It is around this time, that Lukin decides it is time to start and defy his mother.

“Just as Lukin, to forestall or deflect criticism, adopted the character of a small boy, so did Mrs Midge, in moments of crisis, adopt the third-person and the lofty personification of herself as ‘Mother.’ At such moments it was not her everyday self who spoke, but a Superior Being inspired solely by an anxious devotion to duty, and therefore entitled to respect.”

Aside from summer festival preparations, there is an eventful picnic, tennis parties with Lukin, and some surprising matters of an artistic nature to be dealt with. Over all this, Elizbeth Fair casts her wry observant eye.

Like the village of Mallin itself, Landscape in Sunlight is filled with a host of memorable characters, including the Misses Fenn, middle aged sisters who live by the toll bridge. Whenever anyone they want to speak to pulls up at the toll, they race out to talk to them, caring little whether they hold everyone up. They really are a couple of characters, nicknamed Fizz and Pop, the talk about mysterious Mr Xs gushing and giggling like young girls. Poor old Sir James is living in thrall to two lazy servants who haven’t cleaned his large house properly in ages, are now refusing to do the mending, and simply won’t serve him custard cold as he likes it.

When Sir James decides his vicar Mr Custance needs a holiday, but, realising the Custances can’t afford it – he persuades his son George to write a cheque, and sends them away for a fortnight to Cornwall. A prospect that fills the poor distracted vicar with some small dread.

When the Custances return, arrangements for the festival get into full swing. Mrs Custance is a force of nature – but in the end it does seem as if there is a role for everyone.  

This was a novel I was quite sorry to finish, I liked spending time with these people in Little Mallin. It’s a different time of course and took me right away from current nonsense in the strange old times in which we live. I have a feeling, I may be reaching out for more of my furrowed middlebrow titles in the coming weeks and months, I have a few of the paperback books and several more on my kindle.

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seaview house

All six of Elizabeth Fair’s novels have been re-issued by Dean Street Press in conjunction with Scott from Furrowed Middlebrow – this is the second of them that I have read. A Winter Away was the first, and with Seaview House we are in fairly similar territory. A village setting, its inhabitants, a few humorous incidents and some romantic misunderstandings. If nothing else it is lovely, feel good escapism, and there are plenty of times when we all need a bit of that.

The village in question is Caweston a seaside village on the East Anglian coast. The inhabitants of this small coastal community have always enjoyed their uninterrupted view of the sea. Two of the village’s most prominent residents are sisters Rose Barlow and Edith Newby – they have come down in the world – so thinks their friend Mr Heritage – as they have been forced to run a small hotel. Widowed Rose, and her elder sister Edith are the daughters of Canon Newby – who had enjoyed a certain standing in Caweston, as did his daughters. Now with the occasional help of Rose’s daughter Lucy – who is taking a secretarial course at college – they must minister to the vagaries of summer visitors. During the summer season, Rose, Lucy and Edith must live in the small attic rooms they can’t let out to guests – where they are surrounded by the memories of their past in the old furnishings that surround them up there. Mr Heritage is a confirmed old bachelor who has all his needs catered for by a cook and butler. He is a terrible snob, set in his ways, and oddly suspicious of Lucy, Rose’s daughter. As the novel opens Mr Heritage is taking tea with Edith and Rose – and is – he believes the bearer of interesting news.

“Her three elders, however, did not realise that Lucy had outgrown the little stool, though Mr Heritage noticed how hunched and awkward she looked. He was more ready than usual to find fault with her, because her arrival had been so particularly ill timed. He was the bearer of interesting news, and he had been saving it up to tell his old friends and looking forward to the effect it would produce. The right moment for the telling would have been just now, when the first cups had been drunk and the pangs of hunger assuaged; but Lucy’s entry had deprived him of their undivided attention, without which he could not so himself justice. He felt aggrieved, cheated of his happy moment, and he almost decided to keep the news to himself.”

A controversial new development is underway in Cawseton, a small terrace of superior houses with a sea view – they will block the view completely for some residents. Edward Wray, a young architect is involved with the project and is obliged to come and stay in the area from time to time. Edward, is the godson of Mr Heritage, and with Edward spending so much time in the area, the two take the opportunity to get to know each other again after having lost touch. Edward stays with his godfather at his home Crow’s Orchard. Edward is passionate about the future regeneration of this seaside town, for which he can see a great future.

Some delightful little dramas are given a lovely little touch of humour by Elizabeth Fair, including a fire in a neighbouring bungalow, and Rose and Edith getting trapped in a caravan. Peripheral characters are brilliant too – we have the hotel cook Mrs McWilliams-Jones – commonly known as Mrs M-J and the colourful Mrs Turnbull, she of the bungalow and the caravan.

In the months before the summer season gets underway for the women at Seaview House, Edward Wray becomes a regular visitor. Always happy to help out, Edward soon begins to get involved in the life of Seaview House and its neighbours. Lucy is always delighted to see Edward, he shows himself to be thoughtful and good company. Two people, Mr Heritage and Lucy’s childhood sweetheart Nevil; a school master at a local private school, are less than happy about Edward’s friendship with Lucy. Lucy can’t help but compare the two young men, and often it is not to poor Nevil’s credit, Nevil has developed some annoying habits – including taking meals at the hotel, and never offering to pay, despite the narrow margins Lucy’s mother and aunt must work to. Nevil can’t help but see Edward as a rival – but Nevil is sometimes just a little too confident in his prior claim to Lucy’s affections. Rose thinks Edward would be perfect for her Lucy while Edith seems to favour Nevil.

“‘I wonder what Mr. Heritage thought of his godson,” she said quickly.

‘Rather clumsy, but quite good manners,’ Edith remarked. ‘And a well-shaped skull.’

These were her own views, but she took it for granted that sensible people would agree with her.”

Another rival is Lucy’s friend Philippa – the two young women don’t seem to have much in common but have been friends for years. Philippa is very concerned with her appearance, shocking her parents and naturally old Mr Heritage with her London bought latest fashions. When they meet, Philippa is very taken with Edward herself, and arranges an outing for herself, Edward, Lucy and Nevil.

Mr Heritage becomes obsessed with the idea of keeping Lucy and Edward apart, going as far as to try and arrange their engagement with the help of his doctor – Nevil’s father. Mr Heritage, is a brilliantly written character – guaranteed to make the reader’s blood boil – he is bitter, small minded, manipulative and downright nasty, and it isn’t long before his godson begins to see him for what he is.

As the summer season gets underway Lucy finishes her college course and promises to spend the summer helping at the hotel. Manipulations and romantic misunderstandings get tidied up after a disastrous lunch to celebrate the memory of Edith and Rose’s father – where everything gets a little bit fraught.

Elizabeth Fair’s fiction is light, bright and affectionately humorous – perfect escapism, though written with a certain amount of shrewd observation, and brilliant characterisation.

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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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