I’ve talked a little about the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint before, but to recap, it is a collaboration between publishers Dean Street Press and Scott from the Furrowed Middlebrow blog. The imprint publishes books from ~1910-1960 by “lesser-known British women novelists and memorists.” And there are a lot of wonderful reads waiting to be found amongst their offerings.
Thanks to Furrowed Middlebrow, I recently had the good fortune to discover the author Elizabeth Fair, and her enjoyable novels A Winter Away and The Mingham Air.
Elizabeth Fair is like a gentler Angela Thirkell crossed with Barbara Pym. Her novels are comedic gems full of quirky characters and entertaining snippets of mid-century English village life. Here you’ll find plenty of bicycling down country lanes, awkward dinner parties, church fêtes, successful and unsuccessful matchmaking, and tea shop tête-à-têtes. Fair’s writing is a perfect blend of the silly and the serious. She touches on universal truths and rich characterizations while also reveling in the slightly absurd and the charmingly witty. A Winter Away and The Mingham Air are delightful reads and lovely ways to pass the time. How lucky we are that Dean Street Press decided to republish these neglected works! I look forward to picking up another one of Elizabeth Fair’s six novels very soon, and hope you will too.
A Winter Away, Elizabeth Fair
Published by Dean Street Press in 2017, First Published in 1957
Twenty-year-old Maud is viewed as “delicate” by her family, and feels like a disappointment to her glamorous stepmother. To escape this family dynamic, Maud goes to stay in the country with her cousin Alice and her domineering companion Con, and to work as a secretary to an eccentric older gentleman at his once-grand estate. Mr. Feniston- or Old M as he is called behind his back-is no longer on speaking terms with his nephew Charles; a fact that is rather awkward considering Charles owns the garden business that adjoins his Uncle’s estate. Old M’s son Oliver comes to stay from time to time, yet these visits often end in quarrelling. As the novel progresses from early winter to early spring, Maud becomes more and more immersed in local life and drama.
There are multiple feuds and arguments throughout the novel; from serious family estrangement, to disputes over a car accident, and a “lost” key. Maud does her best to restore order to the lives of her new friends, just as she restores order to Old M’s library and correspondence. However, she often finds herself inadvertently making things worse. There’s much about her new friends’ pasts she is still to learn; not to mention the inner workings of her own heart.
I was fully entertained by Fair’s rich characters. Their quirks, conversations, and interactions leapt off the page. I wouldn’t have minded spending even more time in their world. There was a great balance of romance and humor, and a comfortable yet not too predictable plot. I don’t want to give anything away, but the novel ends with a perfect scene that takes place amongst a stack of books. I’m sure I had a smile on my face during most of my reading.
A Winter Away is a lovely, cozy read and an ideal antidote to the winter blues.
The Mingham Air, Elizabeth Fair
Published by Dean Street Press in 2017, First Published in 1960
Hester Clifford is a young woman recovering from a broken engagement and a bout of pneumonia. She leaves London at the invitation of her godmother, Cicely, to recuperate in the village of Mingham. Here she stays with the Huttons, including Cicely, her “invalid” husband Bennet, and their two grown children Derek and Maggie. Hester quickly throws herself into managing the family and to improving their lives. Yet, Hester herself will have plenty of changing to do too. The Mingham Air is full of hilarious snippets of village life, sweet romance, witty dialogue, and enough misunderstandings to keep things interesting.
Fair allows us glimpses into the inner thoughts and feelings of multiple characters. While many of them are quite eccentric and hilarious, they never felt like unrealistic caricatures. Hester reminded me a bit of Flora Poste from Cold Comfort Farm- although admittedly with less self-knowledge and finesse. She is more flawed and perhaps more realistic than Flora. I, like Cicely, had certain expectations for how the relationships between the younger characters were going to pan out. I love that Fair managed to surprise me part way through, and that everything ended as it should-although not in the manner I had first suspected.
Fittingly, for a novel set in spring and summer, there are themes of second-chances, renewal, and transformation woven throughout. I laughed out loud at several points and enjoyed every moment I spent with Mingham’s residents.
The Mingham Air is a charming read and a breath of fresh air.