I was lucky enough to receive a couple of Dean Street Press Furrowed Middlebrow imprint books from the publisher to review again this summer. They were both published on 1 August and you can read all about this one on its page on the DSP site here. I’ve already read four Elizabeth Fairs which were published in her lifetime – this is a lost one, rediscovered by her heirs – it looks like it was sent out and rejected by her publisher around 1960 and the editorial matter in the book opines that she fell foul of the same publishing winds as Barbara Pym at that time; it’s very much a “library book” just as the commercial circulating libraries were closing and fashions were becoming more bold and extreme. It’s a super story with an extra location in Italy not found in my other Fair reads so far, and I’m very glad it’s been rediscovered and published!

Elizabeth Fair – “The Marble Staircase”

(16 June 2022)

… looking back, she couldn’t believe she had ever shown much obstinacy in the past where Alison was concerned. But she was undoubtedly prepared to be obstinate in the future. She felt strangely bold and determined, and she wondered whether this was becaise she was in Mrs Gamalion’s house, where something of Mrs Gamalion’s enlivening spirit still remained. But probably it was because she was far away from Alison. It was much easier, he thought ruefully, to be bold and determined in a letter.

Twenty-five years ago, downtrodden Charlotte Moley, newly widowed at 20 and with a small child at home who is turning into a carbon copy of her domineering mother, manages to escape to Italy for a holiday. She walks around in a depressed daze, feeling like she’s locked behind glass, until she encounters the parrot-like Mrs Gamalion, of uncertain and fictitious age, screeching about bargains and excursions, two girls she’s taking around (for payment?) trailing behind her. She takes up Charlotte and Charlotte finds a new world of experiences, colour, food and a set of faithful friends who go in and out of favour and are moved in and out of the better rooms at Mrs Gamalion’s whim.

Of course there’s a man, a foppish Merchant-Ivory hero in a hat who is artistically keen on Charlotte but is suddenly reminded of his own domineering mother at the crucial point. Also, in these steps back into the past, there’s a too-good-to-be-true scheme for these ladies to be able to have a house in Italy to go to whenever they want, which is bound to end in tears and culminated in a Mrs Yeobright-like trek through dusty paths to find out the truth.

In the present day, Mrs Gamalion has left Charlotte her house, half of a semi-detached villa in a seaside town (identified as Lytham-St-Anne’s). It’s in a mess, and Charlotte goes there to simply look at it and put it up for sale. But two things happen: Mrs Gamalion’s presence is felt in the house and gives her new firmness and backbone, writing to her capable daughter that she is NOT coming back home just yet, and she meets Mrs Bateman, another strong mother but without so much interference, and her kind son, who help her with the house and give her a glimpse of a new life.

Of course there are some intrigues and being Elizabeth Fair, the small coastal town is brought to life, with more inhabitants. She’s such a perceptive and clever writer – for example, there are echoing pairs of aged married couples living a peculiar life of their own choosing in Italy and England. Little details are poignant as well as funny at times; finding all her own gifts to Mrs Gamalion, carefully packed away to enjoy later, and the realisation that time has passed and we have to be sensible:

Charlotte looked away and the spell was instantly broken. The absurdity of it was what struck her now – of feeling herself a girl again, of experiencing in rainy middle age the poignant emotions that belonged to youth and Italy. It was rather like seeing a ghost, she thought; one would be tricked for a moment into thinking it was a living human being and then realize it was a phantom, dead long ago. It was the young Charlotte, not Harley, who was the ghost.

A lovely book, sure to appeal to lovers of Fair, of course, but also the D.E. Stevensons and other kind women novelists we love from this imprint. And I did love the Lake Como setting, because we’ve spent a lovely week there ourselves, and visited Menaggio and the Villa Carlotta and other places mentioned in the novel.

My photo of Menaggio waterfront from 2009!

Thank you to Rupert from Dean Street Press for sending me a review copy of this book in e-book format in exchange for an honest review.