A Century of Women, D.E. Stevenson

Bel Lamington duology by D.E. Stevenson

Titles: Bel Lamington and Fletcher’s End
Author: D.E. Stevenson
Published in 1961/1962

Plot summaries:

Bel Lamington: Bel Lamington finds London a very lonely place – until a charming young artist literally drops in on her rooftop garden…

Bel Lamington, an orphan daughter of an Army colonel, is brought up in an English village and flung into the whirl of London life to earn a hard living as a secretary while attempting to navigate romance, unexpected friendships and urban life. Shy, sensitive, and innocent, she is unaware of the pitfalls that surround her.

But when Bel is offered a chance to leave London and venture to a fishing hotel in Scotland for a much needed holiday with an old school friend, things begin to change. There she learns that you cannot escape from your troubles by running away from them…

Fletcher’s End: The joys and contentment of newly-wedded life, set against the tranquil beauty of the English countryside, are the subject of this volume by the beloved novelist, D.E. Stevenson. The author of Bel Lamington continues the heartwarming story of the gentle heroine who came to London and fell in love with her employer, Ellis Brownlee.

Shortly before Bel’s marriage to Ellis, her friend, Louise Armstrong, goes house hunting for the Brownlees and discovers a charming but neglected old stone cottage in the Cotswolds. Bel adores the house, called Fletchers End. Equally enthusiastic, Ellis buys the place from the absentee-owner, Lieutenant Commander Lestrange, and, after a picture-book wedding, the happy couple move in.

As she embarks on her new life as a devoted wife, Bel loyally guides Louise through her own romantic tribulations. She also enjoys sharing with Ellis the excitement and satisfaction of decorating their first real home, as well as unravelling the mysteries of the old stone cottage.

But with the unexpected arrival of Lieutenant Commander Lestrange, the peace of Fletchers End is suddenly threatened…

These two very light, old-fashioned romances are available on Kindle Unlimited. Originally published in 1961 and 1962, they tell the story of Bel, young and somewhat impoverished woman living and working in London, and her travails. The first book gets her married off, and the second book deals with the purchase of a first home, renovation, a tiny bit of drama, and the romantic life of her best friend, Louise.

There isn’t a lot of substance to the pair of books, but they are extremely sweet and I liked all of the characters a lot. The friendship between Bel and Louise is quite lovely and is unmarred by the sort of jealous nastiness that can sometimes pass for tension in books of this sort. Bel is a working girl when the books begin, and she is extremely capable at her job. While they were published in the early 1960’s they had a more old-fashioned feel to them to me, more 1950’s or even 1940’s in atmosphere. There wasn’t any real focus on the rapid social change occurring during the 1960’s.

These two simple little books don’t offer the same though provoking social commentary as something like South Riding, but they were free and a pleasant way to while away a few hours reading something entirely unchallenging.

Stevenson is having a bit of a renaissance these days, between her Miss Buncle and her Mrs. Tim series. Neither of those are available for free, so I haven’t dipped into them yet, although I do plan to read them at some point. I suspect that they are better than the ones that I have read, which are enjoyable, if a bit pedestrian, light romance. They are very comfortable books.

A Century of Women, Winifred Holtby

South Riding by Winifred Holtby

Title: South Riding
Author: Winifred Holtby
First published: 1936

Plot Summary from Goodreads: When Sarah Burton returns to her hometown as headmistress she is full of ambition, determined to create a great school and to inspire her girls to take all they can from life. But in the aftermath of the First World War, the country is in depression and ideals are hard won. Lydia Holly, the scholarship girl from the shacks, is the most brilliant student Sarah has ever taught, but when her mother’s health fails, her education must be sacrificed – there is nobody else to care for the children.

Robert Carne of Maythorpe Hall stands for everything Sarah despises: his family has farmed the South Riding for generations, their position uncontested. Yet Sarah cannot help being drawn to this proud, haunted – and almost ruined – man.

South Riding is a rich, panoramic novel, bringing vividly to life a rural community on the brink of change.

I did struggle with this book at the beginning. There were too many characters, and I do maintain that Winifred Holtby spent far too much time on people who were not Sarah Burton, Emma Beddows or Robert Carne, most particularly Reverend Huggins, about whose hypocrisy I simply could not care, and the Sawdon storyline, with poor Lily dying of some sort of cancerous tumor. This is not a book written for the 2018 attention-span, which has been decimated by the influence of social media and our tendency to flit from one thing to the next. It’s a deep dive, not a surface treatment.

And once I let myself really get going in the book, I fell in love.

Sarah Burton, the schoolmistress of the South Riding girl’s school, is a marvelous character. Unmarried, by choice, not necessity –

She had been engaged to marry three different men. The first, a college friend, was killed on the Somme in 1916; the second, a South African farmer, irritated her with his political dogmatism until they quarrelled furiously and irreparably; the third, an English Socialist member of Parliament, withdrew in alarm when he found her feminism to be not merely academic but insistent.

– she said of herself:

“No chance of a love-affair here in the South Riding and a good thing too. I was born to be a spinster, and by God, I’m going to spin.

Her story was the one that I loved the most – a youngish, not especially pretty but still immensely attractive woman who has managed by sheer force of will to get a school for herself. She sees the future in her girls, a future that doesn’t require them to give up themselves for a man. As she says to them (in possibly my favorite quote of the book):

Question your government’s policy, question the arms race, question the Kingsport slums, and the economics over feeding school children, and the rule that makes women have to renounce their jobs on marriage, and why the derelict areas still are derelict. This is a great country, and we are proud of it, and it means much that is most lovable. But questioning does not mean the end of loving, and loving does not mean the abnegation of intelligence.

There are dozens of amazing quotes, like the one above, and so much truth here. Emma Beddows was my second favorite character – a seventyish woman who is also a local Alderman, who sees the role of local government as the place where things get done. She says of herself:

I’m an old woman. But when you’re seventy you don’t always feel old. I know I don’t. There are times when you find yourself thinking of yourself as a girl. “Now the girl went downstairs.” “Now the girl put her hat on.” And then you look in the glass and there’s a stiff heavy lump of an elderly person facing you, your face all wrinkles and the life gone out of your limbs. But you can still feel young.

South Riding is a book that focuses on the public and private lives of women. The men are, largely, foils to the women, especially the bankrupt gentleman farmer, Robert Carne, who ends up as the object of devoted passion by both Miss Burton and Mrs. Beddows, though that passion is quite different between the women. It’s not a love story, though, unless the love is love of independence, of purpose, of a woman’s life lived beyond hearth and home, as this exchange between Mrs. Beddows and Sarah Burton illustrates:

‘You don’t believe then in a higher Providence?’

‘Not if it means just knuckling under as soon as things grow difficult, and calling that God’s will. I think we have to play our own Providence – for ourselves and for future generations. If the growth of civilisation means anything, it means the gradual reduction of the areas ruled by chance – Providence, if you like.’ . . .

We’ve got to have courage, to take our future into our hands. If the law is oppressive, we must change the law. If tradition is obstructive, we must break tradition. If the system is unjust, we must reform the system.

“Take what you want,” says God. “Take it and pay for it.”

I think that South Riding will hold up well to rereads, and that I will likely get something new out of every reading. A story written around the activities of the local parish government is, perhaps, an odd way to tell a story about a place, but it works incredibly well here. And Winifred Holtby wasn’t wrong when she said:

‘all this local government, it’s just people working together – us ordinary people, against the troubles that afflict us all.’

Even with what seemed like a slow beginning, this was a five star read for me.

A Century of Women, Gladys Mitchell

The Devil at Saxon Wall by Gladys Mitchell

Title: The Devil at Saxon Wall
Author: Gladys Mitchell
First published in 1935

Plot Summary from Goodreads: The quaint, cozy village of Saxon Wall is hiding a dark, sinister reality. When fiction author Hannibal Jones retires to Saxon Wall in hopes of reinvigorating his writing career, he instead finds himself in the midst of an increasingly puzzling and dangerous situation. Eccentric villagers and stories of curses, demons, and blood sacrifices abound. A devastating drought and imposing vicar escalate the pervasive fear until Hannibal Jones feels compelled to call in his good friend and detective, Mrs. Beatrice Lestrange Bradley. An alarming tale of a missing baby and suspicious deaths comes to light. And soon Bradley and Jones are at the center of a mystery wrought with conspiracy, murder…and witchcraft.

This classic caper promises to entertain, frighten, and intrigue as you revel in the antics of the gloriously unorthodox sleuth Mrs. Bradley.

This was my second Mrs. Bradley mystery, after The Saltmarsh Mystery, and I think that I can say at this point that Mrs. Bradley is quite unlike any of the other golden age mystery series that I’ve read so far. The book begins with a long preliminary tale about the ill-fated Constance who marries the enigmatic, possibly psychotic, Hanley Middleton. The first section of the book is identified as “First Manifestation: Domestic Interior,” which describes the abusive marriage of Constance and Hanley, and the ultimate death of Constance in child birth after she returns to her home in Saxon Wall, having previously fled back to her parents. Hanley follows Constance in death a short time later.

The second section of the book is titled “Second Manifestation: Conversation Piece“. I have no idea why it’s called this, actually, because there is precious little intelligent conversation in this book, and a whole lot of garbled confusion. At the beginning of the section, we are introduced to the main character of the book, one Hannibal Jones, described thus:

Hannibal Jones had earned a dishonest livelihood for seventeen years by writing sentimental novels. It was the less excusable in Jones to get his living this way in that he knew—none better, since he had lectured in Abnormal Psychology for a year or two in an American university before taking up his rather more nefarious career as author—that such novels as he wrote tended to encourage morbid daydreaming on the part of their readers, and that cooks and dressmakers, mothers of families, spinsters in all walks of life—even his own female relatives—were developing, because of him and his works, a Cinderella-complex of the most devitalising, time-consuming type.

Hannibal, who is quite rich as a result of his success as a writer, has some sort of a nervous breakdown when he accepts a large publishers advance for a book he doesn’t really want to write. He consults Mrs. Bradley, and she gives him advice to “get out your third-best car and travel until you find a sufficiently interesting and secluded village. Make yourself part of it. Study the people, but resolve never to write about them in a novel. Love them. Quarrel with them. Begin a lawsuit. Play village cricket.”

Somehow, he has the misfortune to end up in Saxon Wall, which must be the most terrible place in all of England, full of villagers who are downright creepy, baby-switchers, a psychotic vicar, and a drought which means that they are all, apparently, going to die of dehydration. Jones realizes that he is in the middle of some kind of devilish psychodrama and invites Mrs. Bradley in to help him solve the crimes, of which there are many.

The plot of this book made almost no sense. It was so convoluted that I couldn’t follow the thread at all, much less unravel it. Saxon Wall is a singularly horrible place, and the denizens of Saxon Wall are singularly horrible people. There wasn’t a single non-horrible person living there. Jones himself was confounding – why he didn’t just get in his car and drive the hell out of that place I cannot begin to imagine. Mitchell brings in witchcraft, folklore, and beer to add to the altogether strange tale. Mrs. Bradley shows up at about the 505 mark to untangle the skeins of the mystery, but even at the end I was left somewhat puzzled by everyone’s behavior.

“The temperament,” repeated Mrs. Bradley. “Yes, child. As good psychologists, we ought not to lose sight of that important item. The temperament for murder—an inexhaustibly interesting subject. I have it, you have it, the vicar has it. Mrs. Tebbutt has it, Doctor Mortmain has it. To how many other people in Saxon Wall would you say it has been vouchsafed?”

Everyone, dear reader. Everyone.

The third section contains some brief End Notes, which try to explain the book. They clear up a few things. But only a few things.

One of the most curious and interesting features of the general mentality, if such a term is permissible, of the inhabitants of Saxon Wall, was a noticeable inability to distinguish between essential good and essential evil.

I can’t say that I really enjoyed this book, but it did keep me interested, even if it was totally bananas.

A Century of Women, D.E. Stevenson

Katherine Wentworth by D.E. Stevenson

katherine wentworthTitle: Katherine Wentworth
Author: D.E. Stevenson
First Published: 1964

Plot Summary from Goodreads: A pretty, courageous young widow, faced with the task of bringing up three children and making her way alone in the world is the appealing heroine of this touching love story executed with D.E. Stevenson’s characteristic freshness and charm.

The thirty-ninth novel from the beloved author of The Blue Sapphire, Bel Lamington, and Fletcher’s Eng — this new work centers around Katherine Wentworth, married at the age of nineteen to a man with whom she was very much in love. Widowed after only four years of happiness with Gerald, Katherine is left to bring up her stepson, Simon, as well as her own twins, Daisy and Denis.

Katherine’s struggle to raise her children wisely is one which will move every reader deeply. Told in first person, the story sensitively evokes the personality of Katherine’s husband, whose many outstanding qualities are now perpetuated in his children. When Simon, growing to manhood, suddenly becomes heir to the family fortunes, he faces the difficult decision of either moving to the estate of his domineering grandfather or giving up the inheritance to remain free, as his father did before him.

While Simon wrestles with his problem, Katherine finds romance entering her life in the person of Alec Maclaren, the brother of an old friend. Thrown together on a vacation in the Scottish Highlands, the two realize in each other’s company a new zest for living, and soon Katherine is faced with a future that promises she will no longer be alone.

As in her many other works, D.E. Stevenson has again created a realistic world of warm, believable people whose company brings delight to the reader.

I’ve had Dorothy Emily Stevenson on my list of authors to try for at least five years. I already own two of her books: Miss Buncles Book on kindle, and Mrs. Tim of the Regiment in paperback. I can’t really say what made me finally read this Kindle Unlimited offering – probably just because I will be cancelling the service in November, and I figured I might as well get as much out of it as it can before it goes. At this point, I have identified four D.E. Stevenson books that are available in the KU library: this one, the sequel called Katherine’s Marriage, Amberwell, and Anna and her Daughters. I have already downloaded Katherine’s Marriage, because I must know what happens next for Katherine, Simon, Den and Daisy, and Alec.

Katherine Wentworth, both the book and the character, are simply charming. This is a book where little happens, but it is still such a satisfying read. Katherine is a young widow, raising her stepson, Simon, who is 16 during most of the book, and her 7 year old twins, Denis and Marguerite (Den and Daisy). At the beginning of the book, she runs into an old school friend, Zilla, while having a day on her own, which really starts the book in it’s romantic trajectory.

Katherine is neither perfect nor smug – she is a simply wonderful character. She’s sensible, loving, kind, and cheerfully makes do with what must be quite a small income. Her husband, Gerald, died very unexpectedly, leaving her both grief-stricken and impoverished in a genteel fashion. During the course of the book, they discover that Simon has become the heir to the large estate, that Gerald fled from as a youth. Simon is enticed there, where the family attempts to buy his acquiescence with offers of affluence.

One of the things I liked about this book is that the main characters are just genuinely nice. Simon is a nice kid – flawed, of course, as boys of 16 are, taken with the trappings of wealth, but his step-mother, Katherine, who is probably only 10 years his elder, is just such a generous and sensible person, and she has done such a fine job caring for him after his father died, that his ethics and integrity are well-grounded enough to withstand the pressure. The love interest, Alec (spoiler alert) is also a lovely man, a wealthy Scottish lawyer, not bothering to be jealous over Katherine’s past and the fact that she loved her husband. His proposal to her is simply touching.

‘Oh dear, I’d forgotten you were so rich! Everyone will say I’m marrying you for your money. All your friends will be sorry for you—have you thought of that, Alec?—they’ll say you’ve been caught by a designing widow with three——’

‘Let them say! I don’t care a tinker’s curse what anybody says—besides we’ll be married before “they” know anything at all about it. You don’t mind what people say, do you?’

‘I think I do—a little.’

‘Silly,’ said Alec, giving me a gentle squeeze.

‘Not silly,’ I told him. ‘I wish I had a little more money of my own. You’re marrying a beggar-woman, Alec.’

‘When we’re married I shall endow you “with all my worldly goods,” so you’ll be reasonably well off.’

‘I wish I had money of my own—now. For one thing I should like to be able to give you a really nice wedding present.’

‘You can,’ said Alec. ‘I want a half share in the children.’

There were tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. I couldn’t speak.

‘I hope they’ll be pleased,’ continued Alec in doubtful tones. ‘It’s bound to be a bit of a shock to them—we must be prepared for that. You’ll have to watch them carefully; don’t let them brood about it and get all sorts of wrong ideas into their heads. Daisy and Denis will get used to it, if we give them plenty of time, but I’m worried about Simon.’

I’m pretty sure that this isn’t one of Stevenson’s better known offerings. It’s a small book, full of small moments, but it was a lovely thing to read on a quiet Saturday in October.

A Century of Women, Patricia Wentworth

The Eternity Ring by Patricia Wentworth

Title: The Eternity Ring
Author: Patricia Wentworth
Series: Miss Silver #14
First Published: 1948

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Mary Stokes was walking through Dead Man’s Copse one evening when she saw, in the beam of a torch, the corpse of a young woman dressed in a black coat, black gloves, no hat and an eternity ring set with diamonds in her ear. But when she and Detective Sergeant Frank Abbott went back to the wood, the body had vanished. This would have been mystery enough for Miss Silver…but then a woman reported that her lodger had gone out on Friday dressed in a black coat, black beret, black shoes and large hoop earrings set all around with little diamonds like those eternity rings. She never came back…

I have really started to develop a soft spot for Patricia Wentworth, which is awesome because she wrote so many books that I’ll be busy with her backlist for years. Decades, maybe.

Eternity Ring is nominally a Miss Silver mystery, although she barely appears in the book at all. The main investigator is Frank Abbot, who is a likeable Scotland Yard Inspector. As has been in the case in the two prior Miss Silver mysteries that I’ve read, this one also had a strong romantic subplot, with a young married couple, Cicely and Frank Hathaway who have separated before the murders begin. When the shadow of suspicion begins to fall on Frank, their future is seriously in jeopardy.

I figured out the murderer pretty early in the book by process primarily of elimination. It’s a good mystery, though, and has some tense moments of real danger near the end of the book. I enjoy Wentworth’s romantic subplots more than Georgette Heyer’s romantic subplots (in her mysteries), and wondered that she never wrote straight up romance until I went digging around on the internet and found that, actually, she came to crime writing by way of a few historical novels and mysteries.

Her first novel, A Marriage Under the Terror, was a piece of historical fiction set during the French revolution. It’s available as a kindle book from Open Road. Her second novel, A Little More Than Kin, seems to be entirely out of print at this point, and doesn’t even show up on Goodreads. I don’t know if it was published under another title, which could explain it’s absence, or if its just wholly lost. Her third and fourth novels were romances: The Devil’s Wind and The Fire Within. The Devil’s Wind looks particularly gripping, set in India, which is also where Wentworth was born, during the Cawnpore Massacre. These are both available from Open Road. Her first mystery, The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith, is a bit more difficult to locate, but is still available used.

I still think that I liked Latter End a bit better than this one, and the first one I read, Grey Mask, remains my least favorite of her books. I have a few more on my kindle, and my library has about 25 available, so it’ll be a while before I exhaust my ready supply.

A Century of Women, Gladys Mitchell

The Saltmarsh Murders by Gladys Mitchell

Title: The Saltmarsh Murders
Author: Gladys Mitchell
Series: Mrs. Bradley #4
First published: 1932

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Noel Wells, curate in the sleepy village of Saltmarsh, likes to spend his time dancing in the study with the vicar’s niece, until one day the vicar’s unpleasant wife discovers her unmarried housemaid is pregnant and trouble begins.

It is left to Noel to call for the help of sometime-detective and full-time psychoanalyst Mrs Bradley, who sets out on an unnervingly unorthodox investigation into the mysterious pregnancy, an investigation that also takes in a smuggler, the village lunatic, a missing corpse, a public pillory, an exhumation and, of course, a murderer.

Mrs. Bradley is easily one of the most memorable personalities in crime fiction and in this classic whodunit she proves that some English villages can be murderously peaceful.

Opinionated, unconventional, unafraid… If you like Poirot and Miss Marple, you’ll love Mrs Bradley.

This was my first foray into the long-running Mrs. Bradley series by Gladys Mitchell. Ms. Mitchell was born in 1901, and published her first Mrs. Bradley mystery, A Speedy Death, in 1929. She was a prolific author, publishing 66 of the Mrs. Bradley mysteries. She was also a teacher in girls schools for many years (now I’m thinking Miss Bulstrode, from The Cat Among the Pigeons), and was an early member of the Detection Club along with Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. She was more prolific than both.

The Saltmarsh Murders is book #4 in the series. I’ve never seen the Diana Riggs BBC adaptation, from 1998-2000, and this series didn’t really make it onto my radar screen until a friend referenced it in a blog post. After seeing the reference, I jumped over to Amazon to find out more and noted that all of the Mrs. Bradley books are available in the Kindle Unlimited Library. I’ve not yet cancelled my KU subscription, so I decided to check out one of them and see what I thought. This was literally a stab in the dark. I liked the title – it sound appropriately atmospheric – so I downloaded it and started reading.

Mrs. Bradley’s full name is Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, which is just too good for me to overlook. The book is partially narrated by a young curate, and I was getting some (erroneous) Murder of Roger Ackroyd vibes from his narration. It’s a quirky tale, and I was frankly surprised, and not really convinced, by who-actually-dun-it. Mrs. Bradley herself was eccentric, and somewhat peculiar, not to mention physically hideous (she is variously described as crocodilian and reptilian, her hands clawlike). But it was fun to read, and I want to read more so I can get a better handle on the series.

According to Wikipedia, critical opinion is divided on what is her best work, her strengths and style can be gleaned from the following 16 books: The Saltmarsh Murders (1932), Death at the Opera (1934), The Devil at Saxon Wall (1935), Come Away, Death (1937), Brazen Tongue (1940), When Last I Died (1941), The Rising of the Moon (1945), Death and the Maiden (1947), The Dancing Druids (1948), Tom Brown’s Body (1949), Groaning Spinney (1950), The Echoing Strangers (1952), Merlin’s Furlong (1953), Dance to Your Daddy (1969), Nest of Vipers (1979), and The Greenstone Griffins (1983). This provides a helpful entree into the series.

There is a Gladys Mitchell tribute site, which can be found here, and which provides additional resources.