REVIEW: The Native Heath by Elizabeth Fair
A widow, at an age when birthdays are best forgotten, with no children to occupy her mind, can be very lonely. Julia Dunstan knew she was more fortunate than most widows, not merely because she was prosperous—as widows go—but because she had always taken an interest in other people.
And from the moment Julia moves to Goatstock, where she has inherited a house, there are plenty of people for her to take an interest in. For a start, there’s cousin Dora, who might just as easily been left the house herself and who instead becomes Julia’s companion.
Then there’s Lady Finch, the local expert on Fresh Food and the victim of a deception so dastardly that even her attractive but irreverent niece, Harriet, is indignant. This distracts Harriet for a while from the rather thankless task of planning the futures of her friends, Marian and Robert. And all are concerned with news that the village will be made into a “New Town”. However the old values, at least those of Elizabeth Fair’s fiction, remain: wit, charm, and romance.
I think Amazon picked up on my Elizabeth Cadell and Angela Thirkell purchases and first brought Elizabeth Fair to my attention. The price is right and they sounded like maybe Thirkell without the postwar bitterness I’ve been warned about. One thing I need to mention is the fact that the fiancé of a secondary character is a vicar on a missionary trip to a country in Africa. Some of the other characters look askance at this and mention him being there to “convert the heathen” while one older character smartly announces (in so many words) that this is a nonsense description.
“The Native Heath” is charming. In it widowed Julia Dunstan inherits a sizeable house from an Uncle and moves back to a place she used to visit and love as a child. To her it is “coming home” although she’s never actually lived there. Julia is delighted to unexpectedly receive this bequest but feels ever so slightly guilty that it is she and not her (tall and gawky) cousin Dora who got it. With that in mind, Julia impulsively invites Dora to live with her along with Julia’s aged and cranky nanny (in reality the parlor maid who would occasionally look after Julia). Before long her nephew Robert (out of school but without a job) joins them.
Soon Julia (the object of great interest by the village) is doing a bit of a Lady Bountiful impression and attempting to (cheerfully and without malice) smooth paths, right wrongs, arrange relationships and getting reacquainted with yet another cousin who has come down (slightly) in the world as he is unable to keep up the stately family home. Will everyone be happy and acquiesce to Julia’s maneuverings and (gentle) schemes or will they be too stubborn and willful to see what (Julia thinks) is best for them?
Here is everyday life in a small, rural Northern English village in the mid 1950s. Women wore hats – and full crowned ones for the village ladies, not that new fangled half hat thing Julia wears, live in help is almost a thing of the past and most make do with twice a week girls, New Towns are threatening open countryside, there is still just a touch of post war rationing and everyone is into everyone else’s business.
In a way, it reminds me a little of the premise of “Seinfeld” in that it’s a lot about actually very little but enjoyable all the same. Relationships take pride of place in the plotting with lives interweaving, tangling and untangling. The humor is subtle and just a bit pointed with the punch line often zinging in just at the end of the scene. Polite facades are maintained but behind the scenes things can be in an uproar (relatively speaking) of village froth.
Fair winds things up with some people paired off, some events headed off, détente is reached with a few things seemingly almost in the bag. But at the same time she avoids the too nicely tided up plot bows. I had fun reading it and look forward to checking out more. B+