Xmas: The Unwanted Gift

Every year I do a series of Xmas entries on the blog, helped and encouraged by suggestions and recommendations from my lovely readers. If you use Pinterest you can see some of the beautiful seasonal pictures on this page, and you can find (endless!) more Xmas books via the labels at the bottom of the page.

A Winter Away by Elizabeth Fair

published 1957

Unwanted Present Elizabeth Fair 3

“You’ll be able to start tomorrow, I expect,” Miss Conway said suddenly.

The remark was addressed to Maud, who for a moment could not think what was to be started.

Then, with dismay, she remembered. “Perhaps not tomorrow, because it’s Boxing Day and I have to write my thank-you letters. But I shall certainly start it as soon as I can.” What else could one say? Gratitude and enthusiasm were obligatory when referring to a Yuletide gift.

“The frame is included,” Miss Conway assured her. “It’s all yours. So you’ll be able to do more tapestries when you’ve finished this one.”

Maud lived again the moment of horror that morning when she had seen the label tied to the great work and realized that Con had given it to her. “It’s a beautiful frame,” she said. “And the tapestry will look lovely when it’s finished. All the wools and everything, you know. It’s all yours.” Con settled back in her chair again, and looked as if she were going to sleep.

Unwanted Present Elizabeth Fair 1Unwanted Present Elizabeth Fair 2

commentary: This is a charmer – one of the splendid mid 20th Century novels being republished by the Dean St Press in their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint. It took me a while to warm to it – at first it seemed too similar to many other books. Na├»ve young woman goes to live with older relations, who do hideous tapestry and thinks others will like to.  It’s  a cold house, there’s not quite enough to eat, she takes up a job with an eccentric older gentleman, meets various young men, has to choose between them, looks on at another young woman’s romantic entanglements, and considers cafes, tearooms and cinemas in the nearby town.

It does at times feel like a weird mashup Barbara Pym, Angela Thirkell and Stella Gibbons – but then they are all great blog favourites, so who am I to complain? There is also a vicar who has fought with his bishop over heresy – which reminds me of the vicar in Mrs Gaskell in North and South with his ‘doubts’.

The book follows her mild adventures over, as the title suggests, the autumn and winter months, and the Christmas section is highly enjoyable – much discussion of lifts to church, flowers for the altar, who will preach. And can Oliver be kept happy for the whole seasonal visit?
The plans for his entertainment included a wholly impracticable one of telling him just what she thought of him.
Fair has that odd trait of sometimes working up to what might be expected to be a moment, then passing over it with just some sentences of description afterwards – the first invitation to a date, and then, actually, the date itself. But that’s not a problem, it’s just intriguing.

The young woman opening presents is from the Dutch National Archive. She obviously hasn’t yet seen the tapestry kit.


  1. I think we've all had that experience, Moira, with getting an unwanted gift. And, of course, you have to be grateful and all that, and it can get awkward. It sounds as though the book itself has some good scenes, even if it is a bit of a mashup. And I like what seems to be an interesting look at the times.

    1. The danger is always that we'll act too grateful, and get the same thing next year! Elizabeth Fair has a nice light touch with these minor problems of life, ones that seem very difficult at the time.

  2. I can remember as a kid receiving a football annual as an Xmas present from a relative. I've never been the slightest bit interested in footie, but I didn't want the sender to know, and as a result I ended up hanging on to it years after the sender had probably forgotten that they ever gave it to me!

    Fair's habit of building up to what appears to be a big moment and then passing over it lightly reminds me of (of all people) Patrick O'Brian. Very often he seems less interested in 'the big moment' as an event, than he is in how it affects the characters. It's an odd habit in what appear to be adventure novels, but it works well.


    1. We remember very clearly what we got and from whom, especially if there was some slight awkwardness attached, but in fact the giver probably doesn't remember nearly so well: they haven't seen or thought of it ever since, so it's not seared on their memory so much. It never seems likely from the receiver's end, but I have had the experience of people telling me 'you gave me this' and I have no recollection at all... I certainly wouldn't be able to question them about it! Your relative, if asked, probably thought s/he gave it to your cousin...
      I read one Patrick O'Brian and didn't pursue, but that's very interesting. I think I quite like it as a style in a certain way - it's so wrong-headed, but somehow endearing.

  3. In the belated spirit of Christmas - bah humbug - not for me!


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