Dean Street Press books are almost always fun to read, but more fun in company with others! So when Liz started a “Dean Street December” event last year, I was happy to join in. In spite of the sad fact that due to the unexpected death of publisher Rupert Heath, no further books will be produced, I still have quite a lot on my shelf waiting for review. And so I’m glad the event is back this year, giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts about one of these backlist gems.
For no particular reason, I settled on The Fair Miss Fortune by D.E. Stevenson. This author has been the source of many cozy reads, though I find some of her books decidedly more successful than others. Intriguingly, this particular book was rejected by Stevenson’s publisher at the time of writing, and it was not published until Greyladies rediscovered it in 2011. That made me curious to find out more about why such a popular and prolific author made an apparent misstep in the middle of her career, and whether it still presented such an obstacle today.
The reason given in the letters which preface the book (spoiler!) was that the plot concerns identical twins and mistaken identities, and the reading public had been subjected to enough of those stories at the time.
Now, identical-twin plots can be a bit contrived, but that weakness alone doesn’t seem enough to sink the book. Stevenson herself couldn’t understand the objection at all. Having read the book, I’d say that the problem is that the reason for the twins confusing their identities is not strong enough and that the confusion goes on for too long. An editor could have worked with the author to strengthen these elements — but maybe it was thought easier to simply reject it and have Stevenson produce another book, as she did with such ease.
That weakness aside, what was there to enjoy in the book? We get to visit a small English town that has been disturbed by the coming of a road that will connect it to the wider world — which fills certain inhabitants with horror. One widow, accompanied by her devoted but downtrodden son, leaves her dark, old Elizabethan cottage for a new house where they can be sun-worshippers. But she sells the old house to a young girl who intends to do something shocking: open a tea-shop! And then, abetted by another young man who’s just come home from India, cuts down the rhododendrons that made the house so dark and gloomy. What larks!
Such mildly comic antics are entertaining enough; houses and land are important to Stevenson, and we get a sense of the social milieu through the way the characters care for their environment or merely use it to show off and bolster their status. But the tea-shop never materializes, sadly, for that could have been a wonderful way to shake up the old regime. Instead, the identical-twin element comes in and becomes the main focus. The two Miss Fortunes, naturally, attract two different men — a nice touch is that these swains know “their own” beloved in spite of their identical appearance, and are surprised to fall out of love so quickly when confronted (unknowingly) by the other!
But again, I think the reason for this device was thin, other than to create narrative complications. There are some amusing scenes, but also unnecessarily painful and silly ones. In addition, the “good” characters were a bit bland, and the more distinctive “bad” ones (notably the downtrodden man’s mother, and a flashy girl who attracted him before he met Miss Fortune) did not get enough time on the page for my taste.
If you enjoy this sort of thing, though, I encourage you to read it and form your own opinion. It was certainly not a terrible book, and had some moments that sparkled.
Have you read The Fair Miss Fortune? What did you think?
D.E. Stevenson, The Fair Miss Fortune (Dean Street Press, 2022)