Occasionally an author’s books chime well with what a reader enjoys reading, and that seems to be the case with Elizabeth Fair’s novels. This 1954 novel, recently reprinted by Furrowed Middlebrow and Dean Street Press, is an excellent read of rural matters, a large village populated by characters that are of their time, yet can still be easily imagined today. I was glad to receive a review copy of this book, and not only because it reminds me strongly of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series, but also as a lovely if short novel that skilfully introduces characters that I am interested in reading about. Although a short novel, it fits in many of the small events which combine to make a very satisfactory picture of life in the 1950s, where competitions, scandal and rumour are never very serious but meaningful, and the irritations of daily life mount up into a fascinating picture.
This is the story of Julia Dunstan, recent widow who has lived abroad with her wealthy husband. She inherits a house that she remembers visiting as a child, and she rediscovers a cousin who also stayed there during school holidays. Dora is a single lady who has always worked to support herself, and now Julia feels that she ought to offer her a home in return for companionship and some help. An awkward servant and an unemployed nephew complete the household which rapidly becomes a focus of interest for most of the villagers. Julia is not content to play householder alone, but find out and if possible help as many people around her. She becomes especially interested in her quiet cousin Francis. There is also Miss Pope, the Vicar’s sister, always involved in the villagers’ lives, who becomes convinced of several interesting facts. Lady Finch has her obsessions, and a niece Harriet who develops plans of her own. Confusions and romance happens, picnics and set pieces of garden parties dominate. Many small details crowd the narrative and contribute to the whole fascinating package.
Taken individually there are no great events, no massive points of dispute, no major scandals in this book. However, the details of everyday life are lovingly and lightly depicted, the people are real with their small concerns and embarrassments, and overall this is a loving portrait of a village emerging from post war austerity. The neighbour who always wants to borrow things indefinitely, the damp garden party, the memorable shopping trip all add up to a very human picture. This is not part of a series, so all the situations have to be resolved in the last few chapters, whereas they could have been stretched out perhaps beyond being interesting. Fair is generous with her characters, with even those who only briefly appear being given real attributes. This is a short, well constructed book which uses gentle humour and really joyous themes to build a world in which the small concerns of life dominate and there is a satisfactory answer to most of life’s problems. I greatly enjoyed it and recommend it to all those who like the gentle humour of Thirkell, and some of the more straightforward of Pym’s tales.