A couple of years ago, I stumbled on the Furrowed Middlebrowblog. It’s a treasure trove of reviews and lists of “lesser-known British, Irish and American women writers 1910-1960,” books that are often hard to find. But some of them are now much easier to find, because Scott, the blog’s owner, has an imprint at Deane Street press, which has re-released a number of his selections.
The books look like just my thing (it’s my taste for “mid-century middlebrow” reading that led me to discover the blog in the first place), and I’ve acquired a few–the e-books are reasonably priced. But the first one I actually read was A Winter Away, by Elizabeth Fair, originally published in 1957, which I borrowed from the library. It won’t be the last I read, because I loved it.
A Winter Away had me from the opening lines:
“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 the daylight and the single electric light was behind her at the other end of the room.
An unassuming heroine arrived in unprepossessing surroundings, and a narrator with a sense of humour about it. Bingo.
Maud’s “winter away” is spent with her father’s Cousin Alice and Alice’s companion Miss Conway (known as Con), who have arranged a job for her as a secretary to “Old M.” Feniston at a crumbling house called Glaine–one of whose cottages they rent. At 20, it’s her first chance to escape her smothering step-mother and take on an adult role. At first, the job threatens disaster: her shorthand can’t keep up with Old M.’s dictation and she types up his letters from memory.
Soon, however, Maud hits her stride. I saw a Goodreads review that compared this to Emma, and there is a certain resemblance. Fair, like Austen, works on a “bit of ivory,” a handful of families in the countryside, and she has a gift for domestic comedy. Like Emma, Maud decides to set people to rights and begins to meddle, just a bit, in her neighbors’ affairs. There is, for instance, the tense relationship between Old M. and his son, Oliver:
He had looked forward to Oliver’s arrival, but now that he was here they did nothing but bicker. Or so it seemed; the echoes of the bickering rang down the passages and were reflected in Old M.’s temper when he entered the estate room.
Maud does her best to smooth this over–with consequences she doesn’t foresee, though the reader begins to. Then there’s Old M.’s estranged nephew Charles. And what about Maud’s new friend Ensie and her interest in the curate?
Fair’s comedy is gentler than Austen’s. Maud sometimes misreads people and situations, and eventually realizes there are plenty of secrets affecting the people around her. But she never makes Emma’s missteps–or if she does, Fair and her characters easily forgive them. Maud may have some minor embarrassments, but she never gets a comeuppance. The incidents here are mostly small, though Fair gradually builds suspense about just what is behind the tensions in the Feniston family. A Winter Away is a novel in which even the big blowup is underplayed, and emotions aren’t delved into very deeply. Everything wraps up neatly and easily. For this reason, it’s a delightful escape. Who doesn’t want to spend a few hours in such a world these days?
If you like Angela Thirkell, or the idea of a less ironic, more romantic Barbara Pym appeals–or perhaps a less angsty and romance-focused Betty Neels–this is a book for you. I bought two more of Fair’s novels as soon as I finished it. I’m only sorry that, like Austen, she didn’t leave very many. She wrote only six, all published between 1952 and 1960, though she lived many years longer. They’re all available in Furrowed Middlebrow editions now, and for that–and the discovery of Fair–I’m grateful.
Pop Sugar Challenge: Book featuring a library or bookstore (I know they were thinking public library, but Glaine’s library plays a key role in this story as a site of conflict and triumph).