Saturday, 6 August 2011

Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson

This book has the feel, as it opens, of the beginning of the (written much later) Fairacre novels by Miss Read – the sun rises over a small village square with the baker at work in the early morning, an English idyll. Both have something to say about the disruption of that idyll – the Fairacre sequence is about a village dealing with the change brought about by the end of the Victorian era and descent into war. Miss Buncle’s Book hints at, though it does not directly mention, the Depression: Miss Buncle’s dividends, which she has relied on since her parents’ deaths, have ceased to materialise at regular intervals, and she is forced to consider the dire prospect of keeping hens. Chickens, in the numbers required to earn even a meagre income, are not such endearing creatures as a mere five or six may be, and Barbara Buncle turns in desperation instead to the pen, and writes a “novel” about the doings of her neighbours. Once the book is published, speculation about the anonymous author is rife and Miss Buncle watches the repercussions from the sidelines in bemusement.

I have a dilettantish sort of interest in books about women who have to earn their own living in an era when ladies didn’t, from Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey onwards. In the early 1960s my grandmother suddenly found herself coping first with a husband too ill to work any longer, and then alone with a young daughter and her own mother to support after his death. She was in her late 40s at the time, and in need of both income and home, so she went as a “cook general” to a succession of English country houses (inadvertently giving us all a glimpse of, and taste for, the sort of gracious living we could never afford). The pattern repeated two generations on when, without ever having had a “proper” career, I found myself with a disabled husband with a very small pension and two sons, suddenly thrust into the role of family wage earner. So I have a sympathetic interest in books about women thrown on their own resources, and Miss Buncle is an intriguing example (fortunately, despite childhood aspirations, I had no illusions about being able to support us by writing!)

The Depression may loom but Miss Buncle’s Book is really about transformations, and it has a delightfully sunny feel. D.E. Stevenson writes knowingly about people, but her wit is always tempered with affection rather than malice, and the same quality extends to her heroine’s portrayal of her fellows, even if they feel to perceive it. The stirring-up of the villagers works very much to their own good, even in the case of the least pleasant amongst them (although I doubt that Mrs Featherstone Hogg would agree).

Vignettes of village life abound: Colonel Weatherhead’s battle with the Bishop,  the ghastly tea-party for the children, the earnest young vicar asking for the outside leaves of cabbage (as a young child I was sent to scrounge these from the grocer for our rabbits, and fish-heads for the cat, which came in a horribly smelly newspaper-wrapped parcel to be carried dripping up the High Street); it may be a work of fiction but it’s a true picture of life in a small community before and after the Second World War. You can’t help but wonder if D.E. Stevenson, too, had neighbours to avoid when her books were published.

The Persephone edition, with its pretty endpapers is, it goes without saying, a thing of loveliness. These beautifully produced books are a pleasure to handle and read.

Postscript: I'm sorry that when I lived a few miles from Moffat, I didn't know that D.E. Stevenson had lived there. I would have made a mini pilgrimage to her grave during one of our many visits there - we used to go to buy Moffat toffee, much beloved of one of the sons, and to take visitors, as it was our nicest local town. Once we went to buy hens, an appropriately Miss Buncle sort of activity.

11 comments:

  1. This is one of my favourite D E Stevenson books, so I'm really pleased that you enjoyed it so much.

    With regards to Moffat, I'd been visiting one of my husband's relations there, long before I knew that DES had lived and died there.

    That sweet shop in Moffat should have a health warning posted over the door! It's definitely injurious to the waist line.

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  2. Without having checked, I doubt my local library has this book, but I would really love to read it. Maybe I can find it on ebay. Thank you for introducing me to an author I had, until now, never heard of.

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  3. Geraldine, you're right about the sweetshop - I'm not susceptible to toffee but I certainly am to tablet, which they also sell (must be to do with growing up on it, because I'd find anything else like it far too sweet!).

    Librarian, goodness, I assumed I was the last person to have read it - you absolutely must try her. If you can't find any of her books, let me know!

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  4. I have this in my notebook under the 'try to find somewhere' list. I've seen several reviews and love the sound of it. It was interesting to hear how personal the book felt for you too. So, no... you're not the last person to read it. LOL.

    Cath @ read_warbler

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  5. I think my comment disappeared, so I'll try again! I enjoyed MBB very much when I read it a couple of years ago. I've read several more DES novels, I especially like the Scottish ones, & I have the sequel to MBB, Miss Buncle Married (also Persephone) on the tbr shelves. I've listened to the third Miss Buncle called The Two Mrs Abbotts, on audio. It's set during WWII, I think you'd enjoy it.

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  6. I loved the Miss Read books, so I really should read this book. I haven't read anything by D E Stevenson - I hope the library has some of them. If not I expect one of the secondhand bookshops will.

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  7. Yay! Another D.E. Stevenson fan! have you read the two new books, just discovered in an attic and finally published this spring? I am planning on getting them as Christmas presents, but it's hard to wait so long...

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  8. I very much enjoyed reading about your family history. It is quite remarkable that your experience mirrored your grandmother's. Wouldn't it be nice if she had kept a journal of her life?

    I am a big fan of MB'sB, and Miss Buncle Married. It thrills me to see Persephone publishing Stevenson's work. So many of their choices are depressing, and Stevenson is always uplifting to me. I keep thinking I'd like to take a year and read just her books. I think I've read maybe ten.

    Again, thank you for this.

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  9. My mother, who is an enormous DE Stevenson fan as far back as I can remember, always gives this one to people when she's trying to talk them into DE Stevenson. It looks utterly charming!

    (I also may or may not be comparing it in my head to a similar plotline on my old soap opera. Don't judge me! :P)

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  10. "I have a dilettantish sort of interest in books about women who have to earn their own living in an era when ladies didn’t, from Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey onwards."

    I quite enjoy this theme as well. One which comes immediately to mind is the Emma McChesney series of stories by Edna Ferber, with the first being, perhaps, Fanny Herself. (Love Miss Buncle too, of course!)

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  11. I just started this last night and I am loving it. I even did an enthusastic post on it today which I never do with books in progress. I don't want to read your review until I finish. So far this books makes me so happy.

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