Reviewed by Harriet
Born in 1908, Elizabeth Fair published six successful novels between 1953 and 1960. But when she submitted her seventh, The Marble Staircase, to her agent, she was sent it back, presumably because the fashion for books such as hers had passed. So the manuscript ended up in a black tin trunk and forgotten for sixty years, but happily it was recently discovered, and has just been published by Dean Street Press. DSP has already published the other six, but I haven’t read any of them (though I certainly intend to) and thus I was coming to The Marble Staircase with no preconceptions or expectations at all. What I found was a thoughtful, perceptive study of human nature, old age, family relationships and the importance of place, among other things.
Set sometime in the 1950s, this is the story of Charlotte Morley. Widowed before she was twenty after a short and not particularly happy marriage, she has raised her daughter Alison alone. Now, twenty-five years later, she finds herself in the small village of Nything on the Lancashire coast, gazing at a house she has just received as a wholly unexpected and, to her, extraordinary legacy. The house has been left to her by Mrs Gamalion, an elderly woman she had met more than twenty years ago on her first precious escape to Florence, when she had been able to leave Alison with her grandmother. At first, she had been unsure if the happiness she had anticipated would really materialise:
The pensione had balconies and a view, the chambermaid spoke a little English, the food was Italian and delicious, the holiday was in fact just what young Mrs. Morley had dreamed of – and yet it wasn’t. Alone, shy, unhappy, overwrought, she felt herself as much a failure in Italy as she was in England. She sat in corners, or went for sad walks by herself, down to the lake or up the hill, and everywhere she went she seemed to be enclosed in an impenetrable glass shell, outside which there were people, noise, laughter, life surging past in kaleidoscopic patterns, and the bright Italian landscape. She could see and hear everything but she could not be part of it. The glass walls imprisoned her.
All this had changed when, on a steamer on Lake Como, she met a ‘bizarre figure whose vivid colouring and brightly striped dress made her think of a parakeet that had escaped from an aviary to flatter and screech in an alien countryside’. Mrs Gamalion, for this was she, proved to be staying in the same pensione, and had soon taken Charlotte under her wing. Their friendship had developed year after year, when they both returned each summer to Florence and talked and explored. Now Mrs Gamalion has died, and Charlotte is confronting her legacy, a rather charming but somewhat battered and overgrown cottage overlooking the village green. It is literally stuffed with all kinds of useless bric a brac, ‘the hoarding of a lifetime’, and she imagines herself staying for a few weeks, just long enough to clear out the house and put it on the market. But she soon develops a fondness for the little house and sets about making it comfortable and habitable. Initially guilty about leaving Alison in their shared flat, she soon discovers that her daughter is getting on very well without her, and as she meets some of the inhabitants of Nything she feels more and more inclined to make the cottage a permanent home.
Charlotte is soon befriended by Mrs Bateman, a ‘big, robust woman’ whose clergyman son, about Charlotte’s age and staying with his mother owing to some unspecified illness, proves to be very helpful in clearing the overgrown garden and doing odd jobs around the house. Through the Batemans she also meets Lily and Bart Wakelin, an ageing couple who have sold their large, rambling manor house and moved into a smart modern flat with all conveniences. Though much of an age as Mrs Bateman, who prides herself on her continuing strength and vigour, these two are constantly preparing themselves for the approach of infirmity, cosseting themselves and each other to a ridiculously extreme degree. Age and ageing is indeed a primary theme here: Charlotte herself, though only in her early forties, has been thinking of herself as somewhat over the hill for some time. An unexpected meeting with an old admirer, also met in Florence, both cheers her and rather appalls her, for he, once young and handsome, has aged badly.
As the weeks and months go by, Charlotte imagines herself living out her life in the cottage. But some surprises are still in store for her, and the ending sees quite a different future in view.
This is a really enjoyable novel, and well deserves its reappearance in the light of day after all those years buried in a trunk.
Harriet is one of the founders and co-editor of Shiny New Books
Elizabeth Fair, The Marble Staircase (Dean Street Press, 2022). 978-1915393067, 210pp., paperback original.
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