|U.S. edition of Bramton Wick|
Undoubtedly a big part of my obsession with obscure writers is the same kind of treasure hunt mentality that keeps people traipsing up and down beaches and backyards with metal detectors, or going to touristy diamond and gold mines, or, for that matter, playing the lottery against enormous odds. You never know when you're going to get lucky.
Probably the search for worthwhile forgotten authors is a more satisfying—if not necessarily more lucrative—pursuit than the above. I've got lucky more than once—with Ursula Orange's charming World War II village comedy Tom Tiddler's Ground (aka Ask Me No Questions), for example, or with both of Celia Buckmaster's clever novels of village life, Village Story (1951) and Family Ties (1952). And those are just to take examples of authors who have never been reprinted at all—there are also all those wonderful unreprinted novels by writers like Winifred Peck or Norah Hoult, of whose bodies of work only one or two samples have been resuscitated.
But I think none of my literary archaeology has produced more enticing and enjoyable results than the unearthing of Elizabeth Fair. And the fact that I came across her after two solid years of digging for little-known writers makes it all the more astonishing that she has turned out to be so worthwhile. It's rather inexplicable, but her books, though originally published in both the U.K. and U.S., appear never to have been reprinted in paperback or even in large print editions. So she is really, truly, genuinely quite "lost," and completely undeservedly so.
|Bramton Wick jacket flaps|
Now, first things first: All the credit for this discovery goes to Jane, one of the readers of this blog, who came across some references to Fair and her novels and forwarded a few links to me back in March. In return (though I really owe her more than this for her suggestion), I promised Jane that I would report on whether I thought her novels were worth checking into. I'm here to tell you now that they certainly are.
Since there is virtually no information about Fair or her novels online (except for, thankfully, those links that Jane came across), I'm going to be fairly meticulous in dumping all the knowledge (and all the scans of covers and blurbs and photos) that I've acquired so far into this one giant post. Bear with me—I think many of you might enjoy her books quite a lot (if only you can manage to nab one or two of them). Oh, and by the way, Fair is such a new discovery that she's not even on my Overwhelming List list yet, but she will be with the next update, which I'm currently working on.
Elizabeth Fair published six novels in all:
Bramton Wick (1952)
Landscape in Sunlight (1953, published in the U.S. as All One Summer)
The Native Heath (1954, published in the U.S. as Julia Comes Home)
Seaview House (1955, published in the U.S. as A View of the Sea)
A Winter Away (1957)
The Mingham Air (1960)
|Author bio from Bramton Wick|
As with so many of my favorite little-known authors, it's torture to think that she lived for another 37 years and never published another book. Did she lose interest in writing? Face personal tragedy that derailed her? Did she become disheartened that her books weren't more successful? Or did she simply have better things to do?
|U.K. edition of The Native Heath, with a cover|
by Shirley Hughes. This appears to be one of
Hughes' earliest works as an illustrator.
Reviews and jacket blurbs offer one or two comparisons to the likes of Trollope and Austen, but more frequently she is mentioned alongside Margery Sharp or Angela Thirkell. The American publisher of her two final novels, Rinehart, also advertises a novel by D. E. Stevenson, a fellow Rinehart publishee, on the back of one of Fair's novels, thus implying that Stevenson's readers would, they hoped, enjoy Fair as well.
|Jacket flaps from|
The Native Heath
I've now read five of Fair's six novels over the course of five lovely, cozy weekends. I bought four of them at rather reasonable prices (well, honestly, the demand couldn't have been high) and I managed to get the other two via Interlibrary Loan. Now, many of you know of my usual tendency to flitter from one author to another. I rarely read an author's entire body of work in anything close to a methodical way. (I wrote more than a year ago about how much I loved my first Georgette Heyer novel, but in the subsequent twelve-plus months I've read exactly three more of her books, at which rate I should finish her entire body of work in about 2045.) So it's a testament to how much I've been enjoying Fair's novels that I've come so far so fast. But of course, I also have a tendency to resist "running out" of a favorite author's works, so perhaps it will be some time before I can bring myself to read the sixth and final Fair. We'll see.
Having read the first five, however, I can say that all the comparisons and associations are easy enough to understand. Angela Thirkell is mentioned several times in relation to Fair, and this is undoubtedly because Fair's novels, too, feature relatively large casts of characters humorously going about their lives in small English villages where postwar hardships, shifting class relations, and crumbling manor houses play their roles but where comedy, sharp characterization, and romance take center stage. Margery Sharp, too, is an obvious comparison—I particularly thought of my favorite Sharp novel, The Stone of Chastity, which offers some of the same cheerful daftness to be found in Fair. And there's certainly a touch of the D. E. Stevenson of Miss Buncle's Book and the Mrs. Tim novels here too.
But Elizabeth Fair seems to me nevertheless to be very much her own author. She managed to evoke all of these authors without giving the sense of imitating them. And, rather oddly, the author who kept coming to mind for me when reading Fair's was none other than Barbara Pym.
Now, I have to confess something rather shocking, and I hope that most of you won't be too traumatized by this. My confession is that I've been feeling rather ambivalent about the beloved Ms. Pym of late. I know some of you may greet that news with horror, and if I add that the ambivalence started when I tried to read her diaries a year or two ago and really did NOT feel an affinity for the person I seemed to meet in them, some of you will perhaps be tempted to smash your computer monitors (I hope you don't, though—they are expensive and the resulting shards might be highly toxic).
More on that ambivalence later, perhaps, but in the meantime, it might seem odd for me to be comparing a new favorite author to a former favorite from whom I have become a bit estranged. It's mainly just that occasional, unexpected, but completely hilarious turn of phrase that Pym is so good at (and which I wrote about here—before our estrangement) that is brought to mind by Fair's novels. Overall, Fair's worldview is much less cynical than Pym's and her humor less acidic, but she is similarly a master of lacerating humor slipped casually into an otherwise benign sentence. One of my favorite examples comes from Landscape in Sunlight and really requires no setup—it's just one villager's lack of affinity for another's:
At the end of the war the Government department returned to its own home, but Mrs. Midge stayed on. While the war lasted Mrs. Custance had accepted her as part of the war-effort and had hardly troubled about her; 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."
I'm afraid that this expression is now a permanent part of my vocabulary, but surely, for better or worse, most of us can bring to mind one or two of our acquaintances who could be categorized as "people we could manage without"—even if, of course, we would never put the thought into words.
Later in the same novel, several villagers (many of them, indeed, "excellent women," a term that Fair even uses at one point) are discussing possible locations for the village Fête. Now, we've learned much earlier in the novel that the village church is not exactly a thing of beauty, but Fair reminds us of that here with humorous subtlety in Miss Temper's suggestion:
The committee was at first a little critical. Traditions die hard in country places, and Mrs. Custance, like many reformers, had to contend with an audience stubbornly opposed to new ideas.
"It's always been at the vicarage," said Miss Templer. "And there's such a pretty view of the church from your lawn at the back. I mean, it's pretty because you can't really see the church, only that it's there."
It's hard to choose a favorite of the five Fair novels I've read so far, but I am inclined to say it would be A Winter Away (or perhaps that's just because it's the last one I finished and therefore its pleasures are freshest in my mind). In that novel, young Maud makes an escape from an overbearing stepmother (not a wicked one, which might be easier to resist, but merely one who takes too much interest in Maud's life and is always imagining that she might be "interested" in any young man who comes along) and comes to stay with her cousin Alice and Alice's companion Miss Conway (aka Con) in a small village, where they have arranged a job for her as secretary to one of their neighbors, the upper-crust but apparently impoverished and rather intimidating Mr. Feniston.
If I had to point out a weakness in Fair's charming writing, it would be that, in the earlier novels, the cast of characters can initially be a bit overwhelming, and she has a tendency to jump from one set to another in such a way that a readerly cheat sheet might be a wise strategy. Once one has met them all and is able to keep them straight in one's head, then the pure enjoyment begins, and this shouldn't discourage anyone from reading any of these fun novels—there certainly worth a wee bit of thumbing through earlier pages to figure out who a character is. But I can say that by the time she wrote A Winter Away, Fair had acquired a bit more polish, and instead of overwhelming her readers with characters all at once, she allows the reader to meet them one by one, as Maud herself meets them.
A part of Maud's work for Mr. Feniston is to organize his vast library of books, some inherited from his grandfather but most a long-awaited inherited from three aunts:
"Three of them," he explained triumphantly. "One old maid and two barren widows, and all as fond of reading as a nest of owls. Very like owls, they were—tawny hair and blinking eyes, you know, and no necks—and they all lived to a good old age. But it was worth waiting for."
"You mean they left you all their books?"
"The last one did. That's what I'm telling you. She knew there was room for them at Glaine, you see. As I said, I had to wait a long time. They all lived together in the end, and the youngest one—the spinster—outlasted the others by twenty years. I thought she'd see her century, but she didn't quite make it. She died three years ago."
Now, this is certainly apropos of nothing, but I have to pause here to acknowledge how passionately I would love to have three elderly aunts who love to read and who plan to make me the beneficiary of their libraries—after living nice long, healthy, happy lives, of course! In lieu of that, however, being paid to catalogue a library acquired in such a way would surely be the next best thing.
I can't begin to go into detail about all the plot strands and twists in A Winter Away, but I can share just a couple more prime quotes with you. Unsurprisingly, Fair's novels contain more than their fair share of engagements and weddings, but none are funnier than that between a neighbor girl, Annabel Curtis, and the young clergyman she has set her sights on. Maud sees this engagement coming a mile off:
The anecdotes flowed on. Maud remembered how Oliver had talked about his landlady, and thought how fussy men were about lodgings, and wondered how Oliver (or Don) would endure living at Combe Cottage. But if Don found a lodger's life so uncomfortable it might encourage him to think of getting married; a dear little wife to look after him, to cook hot suppers and iron his surplices without scorching them, would be an investment, not a handicap. And how lucky that Ensie had not fallen in love with the lantern-jawed type of clergyman who believes in celibacy even if it condemns him to a lifetime of dismal lodgings.
(This is, by the way, another of the passages that brought Barbara Pym to mind.)
When the young lovers do become engaged at last, they try to keep their engagement a secret. Of course, for readers of village comedies it will come as no surprise that this proves impossible:
The engagement could not long have been a secret in Yeomouth, and it must have been Annabel Curtis who heard about it and told her parents. Mrs. Woodfidley told her daily obliger, who was the sister of the farm bailiff's head cowman and a close friend of another obliger who sometimes obliged Ensie by giving the Pixie Cot kitchen an extra good scrubbing. Ensie's obliger ventured to congratulate her; and as a result the news spread back (through the head cowman's sister to Mrs. Woodfidley) that the engagement was a secret because Mr. Martin would be dead against it and might be struck literally dead, by apoplexy or heart failure, if anyone told him. Maud and Ensie supposed that Mrs. Woodfidley passed this interesting news on to Mr. Woodfidley, but of course they could not be certain.
This of course made me wish, among other things, that Andy and I had someone to sometimes oblige us by giving our kitchen an extra good scrubbing, but that's neither here nor there.
In one swoop, I've just added five titles (and probably six, when I finally get around to reading The Mingham Air) to my list of books that should be in print but aren't. How is it, with the popularity of Stevenson, Sharp, Pym, and Thirkell, that Elizabeth Fair has yet to be rediscovered? She certainly deserves to be invited to sit next to these authors in the canon of cheerful, funny, smart middlebrow authors—with the result that I've decided to make the first ever new addition to my Not-Quite-So-Overwhelming List, my sort of long short list of middlebrow authors that might be particular priorities for fans of the period. She will also be added to my World War II book list, because really all of her novels are steeped in the atmosphere of the immediate postwar—recollections of wartime experiences, class shifts as a result of the war, concerns about food and housing, etc.