Something A Little Different: Furrowed Middlebrow Books, August 2022

To get in a holiday mood you could do no better than play this Dean Street Press trailer for The Marble Staircase. Unlike most ‘Furrowed Middlebrow’ titles this is not a reissue, but a novel written by Elizabeth Fair c 1960, the typescript of which languished for 60 years in a black tin trunk until her literary heirs, inspired by the success of Dean Street Press’s reissues of her published novels, thought to mention its existence. Once read, there was no hesitation in adding it to the Furrowed Middlebrow list and I was delighted to be asked to contribute a foreword, building on those I have written for all Miss Fair’s other novels.

Elizabeth Fair, photographed by Angus McBean

The research was absorbing, allowing me to pick up clues from Elizabeth Fair’s diary, study in detail the topography of a Lancashire seaside town, linking that to the lives of her antecedents, while relishing the effect visits to Lake Como and Florence had on the life of the novel’s heroine. ‘Liberation of the mind’ is the theme, Italy the catalyst, a combination familiar to readers of E.M. Forster and Elizabeth von Arnim, but given an entirely individual rendition by Elizabeth Fair.

And here is the trailer for more Dean Street Press August largesse – 12 novels by ‘Susan Scarlett’, aka Noel Streatfeild. Again, I was delighted to be commissioned to write the foreword to these reissues, detailing how the author, now mainly remembered for her books for children, came to write these light novels that did so much to brighten the lives of her readers during the Second World War. The first, Clothes-Pegs, was published in 1939 and the last, Love in a Mist, in 1951, and, between them, allow us to enter worlds all well known to the author – those of fashion, concert parties, ballet, munitions (this novel has perhaps the best title, at least to those of a certain age – Murder While You Work), and even that of the film studio, all set against the background of ordinary lives in wartime and post-war England.

In the course of my research, I reread Angela Bull’s biography of Noel Streatfeild, as well as the author’s various autobiographies, and very much enjoyed mining digitized newspapers for obscure details of her early years, all grist to the mill. But a particular source of information was one that, as a sometime publishing house employee, I particularly value – the ledgers of ‘Susan Scarlett’s publisher, Hodder. These very heavy and unwieldy objects are held, most conveniently for me, in the London Metropolitan Archives and I would make a bold guess that it is many decades since anyone else has looked at the sales and profit and loss accounts for the novels of Susan Scarlett. It always gives me great pleasure to investigate prime records such as these that bring to life the facts behind the books.

‘Susan Scarlett’ during the Second World War

Dean Street Press have served a veritable ‘Furrowed Middlebrow’ feast this summer. Enjoy.

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