I am being strict on myself this year and only joining in reading challenges I can fulfil from my own To Be Read shelves. Fortunately, when Kaggsy and Simon launched their new year-week challenge, the 1954 Club, I was able to take part, as I had an unread Elizabeth Fair novel languishing on my Kindle (the lovely people at Dean Street Press kindly sent me her whole oeuvre in ebook format from their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint rather a while ago; I have read most of the others).

Elizabeth Fair – “The Native Heath”

(21 February 2017 – from the publisher)

“Dear Goatstock! It’s our native heath.”

“It isn’t exactly a heath,” said the literal Dora. “It’s just a little village.”

But Julia was too enthralled to mind.

This is one of those delicious change of lifestyle / new house / new village books which I always seem to enjoy and which were seemingly a mainstay of mid-century, middlebrow novels. In this one, we meet Julia, widowed six or so months ago and living in a rented flat, just as she has inherited a house in the village of Goatstock – she was left it by an uncle, although it’s not certain exactly why she was chosen, as she has various other cousins. In fact, she invites Dora, always seen as the “poor relation” and as having had a “hard life”, to go and live with her – not to share the house as such (this is dwelt upon) but as a sort of companion/housekeeper. She also brings Nanny, who she now claims was her old nurse, although really she was a sort of housemaid; Nanny has very firm ideas on the rights and wrongs of things and becomes more difficult. We can add Robert, Julia’s late husband’s nephew, into the mix to give a younger person, and off they trot to do up the house and settle in.

There’s another cousin or two around, too, and Julia has various schemes to improve people’s lots, being one of those women people seem to confide in, and then Harriet and Marian, Harriet the orphaned niece of the rather wonderful village eccentric and Marian who is engaged to a missionary no one seems to like, even though she’s perfectly happy. When Harriet spies Robert, she starts machinating to get him and Marian together, and to avoid the irritations of the boy next door. The cast is complete by a selfish vicar, his exhausted sister and the woman who may or may not be trying to push her way into the vicarage and other locals such as Mrs Prentice and Mrs Minnis, who both seem to look down on the other, and the plot by a sub-plot about the threat of a New Town being built around them, which allows for meetings and discussions among the villagers.

It’s a very funny book, with social mishaps, buttonholings and set-pieces galore; it’s hard to know what Fair thinks of her creation, Julia, as she does seem to be mocking her (she becomes quite monstrous at times) but then she might be given a happy ending. Similarly, Dora is mocked by Julia but only for being different – she has given up on feminine fripperies and is quite happy with that, but gets on well with people, and Julia comes to a fairly upsetting (for her) conclusion about her cousin. So it’s a curious book with more to think about than it might at first appear.

Thank you to Dean Street Press for sending me this book in return for an honest review and sorry it took so long to generate said review!

This book fills in a year in my Century of Books, which I have been trying to fill for almost a decade, while being determined not to buy anything myself just because it fits …