The Mingham Air by Elizabeth Fair – A mature comedy of rural manners from Dean Street Press

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Mingham is a place that probably never existed, but after reading this novel of rural affairs you may well wish it did, together with characters that have a life of their own. Elizabeth Fair’s 1960 novel, recently republished by Furrowed Middlebrow at Dean Street Press, is a true gem of observation of life in a village in the mid twentieth century. Combining characters who attempt to manage, a family which needs organising, an ill fated Fiesta and a big house which forms a bone of contention, this comedy of manners and fate is enjoyable, hopeful and deeply engaging. Some characters make the reader wince, others frustrate, and others just amuse, as this novel proceeds without earthshattering events, but with a certain dramatic flair. I was very pleased to receive a copy to read and review.

The novel opens with Hester and her godmother Cecily looking at pictures of a Priory which has been remodelled by its reclusive owner and widower, Thomas Seamark. Certain tactless remarks set up an uneasy relationship between the family and the local squire, as Cecily realises that she must handle the situation better, as well as improving her own relationships with her daughter Maggie and her son Derek. As we see the family in its own setting, we discover Bennet, husband and father, has decided to adopt the role of invalid who must be continually placated and humoured. He is beginning to discover that to be involved in other people’s business he must stage a sort of recovery, with the option to fall back on fragility as necessary. Meanwhile Mrs Hyde – Ridley, while conniving to get as much rent as possible from her memorably named tenant, Chrysanthemum, is anxiously game playing with her troublesome visitor, Mrs Vandevint, with her programme of cheap entertainment.  A Rector’s wife, Mrs Merlin, is determined to put on a Country Dancing Fiesta, which is beset with problems. Hester tries to manage several situations, despite Cecily’s conviction that she is still suffering from a broken romance, and tries to encourage despite fixations such as Bennet’s “precious car”, a changeable lord of the manor, and a secret ambition on another character’s mind. Summer weather confounds the best laid plans, and gentle humour pervades the whole novel as misunderstandings, mistakes and general mayhem ensues.

This is a novel which can remind the reader of the gentle humour and characters of Austen’s “Emma”, and the sort of ongoing polite battles of Benson’s “Mapp and Lucia”. I appreciated the reality of these characters, was fascinated by the attempted machinations of Bennet Hutton, and loved the humour of the dialogue. Fair’s novel is a finely balanced read of great confidence and maturity, and this final novel of six to be reprinted stands as a really good read. I thoroughly recommend it as a cosy read with some underling power, as Hester discovers the true nature of what she wants from life, family roles and relationships are readjusted, and the minutiae of daily life is examined in a glorious and often telling narrative. While Elizabeth Fair’s six novels have not been well known, she is an author well worth discovering, and I am so glad that they are now available both in paperback and digital formats.


In other news, our Big Book Sale went extremely well. We made nearly £350 for Ronald MacDonald Houses for the parents of children who are seriously ill in hospital. As we only charge 50p for each book, it means that we must have sold a few books! Lots of people came, some had refreshments and generally we had an excellent time. It is a lot of effort, but we are recycling books with a purpose as well as getting people involved. Well done D the Book Organiser!

A Winter Away by Elizabeth Fair – a cosy, funny story for everyday

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Family feuds, unlikable relatives and a secret romance all go to make a lovely novel which recaptures a time and place which seems so familiar, yet so far away. This 1957 book, now reprinted by the wonderful Furrowed Middlebrow and Dean Street Press, goes some way to introduce a world of high tea and a large house full of challenges. A car accident damages egos, a curate creeps around, and a winter in the country is brought to life by this skilful and clever writer. I was so grateful to receive a copy of this book to read, enjoy and review.

Maud has just arrived in a tiny village to stay with her cousin Alice, whose companion Miss Conway is less than enthusiastic about a new house guest. For Maud it is an answer to her less than happy existence with her stepmother who has tried to get her conveniently married off. She is to be a non resident secretary to Old M, an eccentric man who lives in the local big house, who has some distinctly odd ways which have meant that other secretaries have left. Maud is lacking confidence and has been lonely; she knows that she must make a good impression and some friends in this new life. She soon meets some of the local characters, who include a family who have the most awkward parties which Maud finds incredibly difficult, and the reader will find most entertaining. She encounters Charles and Oliver, and also has some embarrassing experiences. Wilbraham is a daft dog who provides some comic relief, while creating another source of jealousy. My favourite character is Ensie, clergy daughter who swings between her different identities with amazing results. This book has a plot which does not produce many surprises, but it a most enjoyable ride, partly because of the details of food eaten which neatly sum up the various personalities, the distinctive rooms in the various houses which dominate the story, and the outings and trips which show so much about the characters.

I enjoyed this book for its sometimes delicate and sometimes brutal sense of humour. The small actions of the characters sum up the various personalities so neatly, their reactions to situations are always entertaining. Fair has a wonderful writing style which is honest and always true to type; not great leaps of introspection but a charmingly accurate self realisation from Maud and some others as how they appear to others. Even the relatively minor characters, such as Miss Conway, have a back story which is efficiently conveyed as justification for their present actions. The set pieces of parties and picnics, arrivals and departures are full of real life, and contribute to the story hugely; the big house almost becomes a character in its own right. I recommend this book as an enjoyable read for anyone who enjoys a cosy experience with perhaps little drama, but lovely characters and a soothing plot, full of the little incidents and events which made up real life in the 1950s, and are not so very different from today.


This is one of Furrowed Middlebrow’s best books, a joy to read. While it is lovely to find obscure books by women authors (see my ongoing obsession with Angela Thirkell’s books) and reading them, it is so wonderful that publishers like Dean Street Press, Persephone and others are making these books available to everyone. I can recommend these books in the certain knowledge that they can be bought (and even borrowed if you are lucky enough to have access to a good library) and you too can make a collection of these once forgotten but now happily rediscovered novels.

Seaview House by Elizabeth Fair – a novel of 1950s small town life, full of wonderful characters

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A peaceful setting, a small family hotel, romance and an obnoxious character – all contribute to a super read full of the rather delicious characters which are standard for Elizabeth Fair’s novels. This book, originally published in 1955, has recently been republished by Furrowed Middlebrow and Dean Street Press, as part of their complete reissue of all of Fair’s novels. It sets a fascinating scene of middle class life, where one family must work hard, in contrast with the sole occupant of another house who is cossetted and permitted to attempt to meddle in other people’s lives. This picture of sedate country lives is a superb comfort read, and I was glad to receive a review copy.

The novel opens with a description of Caweston, a seaside resort where Edith and her sister Rose own and run a large house as a hotel. It is packed with the paintings and furniture belonging to their late father, Canon Newby, and his memory has become sacred within the sisters’ need to earn a living. The scene is set for an unexpected visit by Mr Heritage, a self satisfied single man for whom women are destined to be listeners and admirers. Mr Heritage has views on widows such as Rose, “They were bold, they were cunning, and they would probably aspire to marry him.” He also dislikes her daughter, Lucy, for no better reason than “Rose would insist on talking about Lucy when he wished to talk about himself”. The reader soon discovers that Lucy, a young woman who attends a secretarial college, is one of the more sensible people around, though she has grown up believing she will marry Nevil, a rather self regarding young school teacher. It is when Edward, who proves to be Mr Heritage’s godson, turns up as one of the architects working on a new group of houses, that the picture gets confused. Set pieces such as a picnic at a supposed castle, a difficult tea party and an amazing lunch party are funny and so realistic. The portrait of people is so lifelike, and in many ways Mr Heritage is a great comic creation as he connives to get Edward onside and show him off to everyone. An incident in which a minor character, Mrs Turnbull, gets locked inside a caravan is truly funny, and it is a tribute to Fair’s writing that even minor characters doing fairly mundane things are beautifully described. Even the weather contributes to the tale’s atmosphere, as walks on the beach and explosive emotions seem to fit the temperature. Small boys get covered in oil as the action ventures into the little private school where Nevil teaches, and generally the effect of the humourous touches makes this a novel to savour.

This is a classically enjoyable novel, full of brilliant characters, detailed settings and little gems of characterisation that make it come alive. Though very much of its day, this book has much to say about women who have to scrape a living and are criticised for doing so, young women who see a suitable marriage as their only option, and men who believe that their way is the only way to live. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a largely restful book of small incidents which add up to a refreshing novel of lives in a small town.

Life here continues in its usual merry way, with a meeting about my dissertation and future plans for book reviews among other delights. Lots of books to come!

Landscape in Sunlight by Elizabeth Fair – a Furrowed Middlebrow slice of 1950s British life

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Village fetes, cars stuck in country lanes, eccentric retired artists; so much in this book suggests a harmless book of country memories, shaped into novel form. To a certain extent that is true, but this is more. The characters that make up a community are fascinating, with all their foibles and faults, but this is a writer who goes beyond a surface description, these are real people whose effect on others they realise, and the setting which is just very funny. Elizabeth Fair produced a novel full of characters that would have been familiar in 1953, when this novel was first published, and now it has been reprinted by Furrowed Middlebrow, and I am very grateful for this review copy. These characters remind us of people we may meet now; dreamy impractical academics, determined people realising they must wait for others, the spoilt and the pretentious. Fair handles them all well, setting them in situations which test them, but also allow them the small victories that make up life in anything but tragic circumstances.

“Landscape in Summer” begins as plans begin to evolve for the annual fete in aid of church funds. This is of great concern to Amy Custance, always called Mrs Custance, wife of the abstracted Vicar who spends more time thinking about the ancient Greeks than his family or parishioners. Their daughter, Cassandra, is governess to Leonard, youngest child of the Templer household, an interesting combination of adults with their own agenda, and two preoccupied teenagers, Lily and Felix. Eustace is a vastly eccentric but actually good natured   retired artist, whose obsessions include mythical scorpions and getting rid of his tenants, Mrs. Midge and her difficult son, Lukin. He is keen to get his hands on the cottage so that his brother Henry will move out, before his morose view of life and passion for his car proves too much to bear. Miss Templer is artistic and delightfully vague, while Lily is trying to save Lukin from his severe introspection. All these characters clash over daily life and their ambitions, but there are mild disagreements over fallen fences and tennis matches rather than deeply wounded feelings. Genuine emotions are felt and indeed examined by Cassandra and George, as the latter’s father Sir James is alternately generous and helpless in the face of those around him, including his own servants. George and Cassandra spend the novel trying to sort out those around them, while trying to discover the truth about their own feelings.

As with Angela Thirkell’s novels, this is not a hysterically funny book, but full of slyly amusing scenes where the incidents of daily village life take on importance. Cricketing whites hang out of windows, beloved cars get stuck in fords, and no one quite dares to tell anyone what they really thing. There is romance, but also friendships, lively young women and strange young men, and a repair man who rarely finishes anything. This is gentle English humour, comforting and non challenging. Today we may condemn the class attitudes and the servant problems, but acknowledge that we are quietly attracted to a way of life with such people. Perhaps not great literature, but an undeniably enjoyable novel, comforting and funny in its descriptions of life which has mostly disappeared but with people who still exist.

This is a very suitable book for this lengthy period of sunny and dry weather, with dry fields and burnt verges.  We have just returned from Norfolk,m which was very dry and sunny. We had some good visits, including to “Norfolk Lavender”, a place with fields full of hardy lavender and where they distill oil for many uses. Many purple things were bought….

The Native Heath by Elizabeth Fair – A small community in all its beauty

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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.

Bramton Wick by Elizabeth Fair – a rural comedy with some difficult characters

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This “cheerful debut” novel originally published in 1952, recently reprinted by Furrowed Middlebrow(Dean Street Press) is indeed a comforting read in the sense of rural matters and manners. That is not to say that it is all gentle and lightweight; some of the characters are quite unpleasant, and some totally ineffectual. There are types of people who may be identified in communities everywhere today; the carefully calculating, the misguided, the romantic hopeful, the naïve and the unfortunately loyal. To a certain extent this community dictates the chances and relationships which will occur as limited opportunities to meet and travel in this post war world, when the lives of most of the inhabitants are dictated by genteel poverty. Choices are made, often to the surprise of some, but also lives continue powered by the gossip, minor disputes and general good humour which typify such small communities in this form of literature.

Miss Selbourne is the first character to be described as the book opens, with her rather slapdash approach to housekeeping playing second fiddle to her many dogs,  being pets, business concerns and ultimately her obsession. Her friend, Miss “Tiger” Garrett is shown as a less attractive character, demanding and impulsive, lazy and a truly dangerous driver. This is ironic as her greatest life experience was driving ambulances in the First World War. Laura and Gillian are the daughters of Mrs Cole, neighbours of the two ladies, forced to an extent to come into contact on a daily basis. Mrs Cole lived her early married life in the big house, Endbury, but at her husband’s death she was forced to move into a small cottage with her daughters, finding her comfort in obsessive gardening. Now Endbury is inhabited by Lady Masters who is the familiar matriarch in the tradition of Lady Catherine de Bough, being manipulative and determined, though curiously blind as to the qualities of her only child, the adult son Toby. Laura supposes that if she marries Toby she can return her mother to Endbury, and begins to speculatively encourage the vacillating Toby. Mrs Cole also realises that such a marriage would be life changing, though has no real idea how to encourage it. Gillian is far more calculating and determined, having discovered another local man. Alongside this romantic theme operate the side characters who produce much of the humour, including the gossip, religion and nostalgic dominated Misses Cleeves and their landlord, the devoted and down trodden Mrs Worthy and her frankly unpleasant husband.

Fans of some of Austen and Gaskell’s Cranford will recognise some types here, and Anthony Trollope and Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire books are suggested. Unlike the latter two authors, however, this is a relatively short book and not part of a series, so each character, theme and question of country life must be fairly quickly dealt with by Fair. It is therefore light and suggests the humour of humanity in a rural community rather than developing it. This is a limitation to those of us used to affairs taking longer times to work out as the author tries to tie up each characters’ fates neatly at the end of less than two hundred pages.  It is an enjoyable slice of rural life with its frustrations of transport, tea parties and church services, and I recognised the dangerous driving, women with a fondness for drink and the complicated romances that Thirkell develops in her novels. I am grateful for this review copy, and look forward to reading other books by this confident and skilled author.

Once again we have snow, at least in Derbyshire! Some of us have had to get to places so, not everyone has been enjoying a snow day off, but at least we have had some extra time to read/finish something/ watch tv….Either way, I hope you have all managed to stay warm. Of course, you could be reading this in a place where such snow is not exceptional, so no doubt you think that the U.K. makes a bit of a fuss!