A Century of Women, D.E. Stevenson

Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson

Title: Miss Buncle’s Book
Author: D.E. Stevenson
Published 1934

Plot Summary from Goodreads: 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.

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, 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.