A Winter Away by Elizabeth Fair

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I was kindly sent this to review by Dean Street Press, who have recently reprinted a whole host of female middlebrow authors from the mid 20th century in attractively designed paperbacks and ebooks. Now normally I leave review books languishing for months in guilt inducing piles, but I knew instantly from reading the description of eccentric village life on the blurb of my copy of A Winter Away that I would love it, and so I began reading as soon as it plopped onto my doormat. My instincts were not wrong; this is a hilarious, witty and wonderfully warm story about a number of misfits whose convergence in a corner of rural Dorset leads to just the sort of trifling yet utterly absorbing events that make up the often ridiculous course of everyday life. This is the perfect antidote to current affairs: it’s light and wonderfully funny, but also very well written and sensitively observed. I adored every moment, and felt quite bereft at leaving the world of the characters behind. If you are a fan of Persephone Books, Barbara Pym, and/or Angela Thirkell, then I can guarantee you will find in Elizabeth Fair a marvellous new author to get stuck into.

A Winter Away begins with Maud, young and delicate, sent away to live with her much older cousin Alice and her friend, Miss Conway, in their cottage in the village of Glaine. She is to be the secretary to the eccentric, elderly lord of the manor, Mr Feniston, her cousin’s landlord, and owner of a large and crumbling mansion a short walk up the lane. However, Maud’s stay in the countryside, which is supposed to be a chance for her to build up her strength in an untaxing environment, seems far from relaxing from the moment she arrives. Not only does Miss Conway seem to resent her presence, but there are unsettling remarks made about the fate of Mr Feniston’s previous secretary. Maud is not convinced she will be up to the job, nor whether she particularly wants to stay in the same house as the jealous, prickly Miss Conway. However, she soon discovers that Mr Feniston, or Old M, as she calls him, is all bark and no bite, and he quickly warms to his keen, insightful young secretary. Meanwhile, life in the village becomes far more exciting when it transpires that Old M has a son, Oliver, and a nephew Charles, both of whom have troublesome relationships with the patriarch of the family, and who also happen to be rather good looking. Maud, who has found herself becoming very attached to the Fenistons, decides to take it upon herself to try and heal the rifts in the family. However, Old M’s penchant for keeping secrets from everyone, and making her keep them too, puts her in a rather difficult position. Added to these problems is the issue of poor Ensie, cousin Alice’s neighbour, whose overbearing father keeps her practically housebound, and can’t see that she has fallen in love with the local curate. Maud takes it upon herself to help Ensie too, but keeping everyone else’s secrets only leads to the unconscious masking of her own…

The village of Glaine comes vividly to life through Fair’s description of the surroundings and the residents, all of whom are excellently drawn. I loved Mr Feniston the best – contradictory, mischievous and stubborn, his dialogue sparkles on the page and left me in fits. I also found Miss Conway a very intriguing character; there were hints that she felt a little too strongly for cousin Alice, and her jealousy of Maud was a lightly treated, but still rather dark undercurrent to the story. Ostensibly A Winter Away is a love story, but it is also a rather Stella Gibbons-esque tale of how an outsider can transform the stagnant lives of a small community through refusing to observe the traditions that keep the inhabitants trapped in their ways. Fair was a very talented writer with a real gift for characterisation, and I can’t recommend A Winter Away highly enough. This is definitely a novel that thoroughly deserves to be brought back into the light.

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12 comments

  1. The covers on the Dean Street Press books make me swoon. And they all sound like perfect reads too.

  2. Is that a Ravillious on the cover? So delicate. Love his work. A cover like that would tempt me to read and your review makes it a definite one for me.

  3. Thank you for your detailed and lovely review. Your enticing description made me order the book immediately – and it is just what I needed right now.

  4. As you know, I also loved this one – and the comments on our podcast ep about it suggest that some of her others are even better, which is exciting!

  5. Haven’t read any of the Middlebrow books by Dean Street but I know they’d be right up my alley — a whole new list of books to want! Project 24 is doomed, I’ve already bought The Lark and asked for two others for Mother’s Day, based on your podcast.

  6. Thanks to what you said about this author on your podcast, I was intrigued enough to give her a try. I’m about halfway through The Mingham Air and finding it utterly delightful! I will be reading more of Elizabeth Fair’s work. Thank you very much for bringing her to my attention!

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