Saturday, 6 August 2011
Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson
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.