by D.E. Stevenson
Publication Date: January 1, 1934
Project: a century of women
Barbara Buncle is in a bind. Times are harsh, and Barbara’s bank account has seen better days. Stumped for ideas, Barbara draws inspiration from fellow residents of her quaint English village, writing a revealing novel that features the townsfolk as characters. The smashing bestseller is published under the pseudonym John Smith, which is a good thing because villagers recognize the truth. But what really turns her world around is when events in real life start mimicking events in the book. Funny, charming, and insightful, this novel reveals what happens when people see themselves through someone else’s eyes.
I’ve read a few other D.E. Stevenson books, but this book takes the prize so far. No wonder it stands as one of Stevenson’s most beloved books out of a whole pile of beloved books.
We start with our protagonist and heroine, Barbara Buncle, a spinster a bit past her prime, worried about making ends meet. Like many women of her time, she has slipped into genteel poverty. She’s prohibited by custom from seeking gainful employment, her dividends have diminished to nearly nothing, and she isn’t sure how she is going to make it through the winter, prices for things like heat and food are so dear in 1934. She needs to come up with a scheme to supplement her meager income. She contemplates chickens, but ultimately decides that she will write a book and sell it to make a tiny bit of extra money.
So she writes, although, as she explains, she has no imagination, so she has no choice but to write what she knows. And what she knows is her village of Silverstream, which she (barely) camouflages by calling it “Copperfield,” and she knows the inhabitants of her village, whom she also (barely) camouflages by changing their names, so Dr. Walker becomes Dr. Rider, and Mrs. Bold becomes Mrs. Mildmay.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, as the case may be) Miss Buncle has an unerring eye for the human foible, and she gets deeply under the skin of the village inhabitants when the book becomes a runaway best seller. Mrs. Featherstone Hogg (aka Mrs. Horsley Down), a termagant who prides herself on her village status, gets a hold of the book and immediately recognizes the village, and herself and her chorus girl past, in its pages. Miss Buncle has published under a pseudonym, and the entire village is afire with trying to figure out who wrote the book. At the same time, the book seems to be having a queer effect on some of the villagers, and they start bursting out with interesting behavior all over the place.
There were several times that I laughed out loud as I was reading. D.E. Stevenson has written some lovely, lovely characters. Miss Buncle is a delight, as she, too, begins to act like her village counterpart, buying herself a new hat and a dress or two to swish deliciously around her ankles, and generally gaining confidence and abandoning her repressed, spinsterish attitudes. She is astonished at how much money she has made, and is forced to make up a generous uncle to explain her sudden affluence. The youthful granddaughter of one of her neighbors, Sally Carter, is delightful and drawn with both kindness and affection. The doctor and his wife, Sarah, are wonderful. And the publisher, Mr. Abbott, is very funny.
There are several follow-ups to Miss Buncle’s Book. The next in the series (spoiler alert) is Miss Buncle Married, which I have already ordered from Abe Books. I didn’t buy the lovely Persephone copy because it was around $20.00, so I bought a recent Sourcebooks reprint for $3.99 (with free shipping).
For this one, though, a friend sent me her gorgeous Persephone edition. I’ve actually never owned one of the traditional dove grey Persephones – they are hard to get a hold of in the U.S. I do have a few of their “classic” editions, which have the printed cover, and they are nice, but the traditional Persephones are just a pleasure to handle and read. The cover is buttery smooth, the end papers are gorgeous, and the printed paper has such a nice feel. Even though they are expensive, I might sign up for one of their book of the month clubs. I will treasure this one, and I imagine that it will become a book that I reread often as a comfort read.
TL/DR: I loved this book. It was simply delightful.