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REVIEW:  Miss Buncle Married by D.E. Stevenson

REVIEW: Miss Buncle Married by D.E. Stevenson

Dear Readers,

“Miss Buncle Married” takes up nine months after the close of “Miss Buncle’s Book” with Barbara Buncle now happily married to her publisher Arthur Abbott. They live fairly blissfully in Arthur’s house near London with the only blot on their happiness being the tiresome round of social obligations both finally admit to each other they find boring. Barbara also dislikes the odd married couple who have done for Arthur all these years but who despise her. Arthur’s solution – that they move to a nice place in the country with a garden and lawns and trees – is genius. Barbara starts the hunt for their perfect place which ends when she discovers a (frankly) derelict wreck of a house in Wandlebury. Barbara sees in it the house of her dreams while her husband sees only a disaster. But they get it cheap and if it makes Barbara happy, Arthur is satisfied.

After intense months of chivvying workmen and charwomen, the house is finally ready and the Abbotts move house to their little slice of English village heaven. Quiet Barbara is flowering out of her shell (I know that makes no sense) as a married woman but she hasn’t abandoned her habit of watching the people around her and succinctly limning their personalities and quirks in her mind. Just as in her former residence, she finds an abundance of interesting – and sometimes annoying – people upon whom to practice her skills.

miss-buncle-marriedThings get personal when Arthur’s nephew Sam begins to spend some weekends with them and meets a local woman named Jerry about whose family Barbara knows more than she wants. Seeing a match in the making, Barbara is forced to exert all her ingenuity to slow it down for reasons she has promised not to reveal. The itching to write has also overcome her much to her loyal maid Dorcas’s distress as Miss Barbara – sorry, Mrs. Abbott – tends to get obsessed at these times. Arthur loves the book but Barbara fears that if it’s published, she and Arthur will have to do another runner when the people of Wandlebury suss themselves out in the characters of her novel. Sam and Jerry’s relationship also worries Barbara enough to meddle in it frightfully. Will everything come right in the end or will the situation blow up in Barbara’s face?

Much of what I enjoyed in the first novel is here again. The little details of life in the 1930s and the – at least as it’s portrayed – more innocent viewpoint of the world flow through the story. Barbara’s search for a house yields a delightful short monologue on the idiosyncrasies of English villages, of village solicitors, of The Archway House that the Abbotts buy and of Barbara’s efforts to bring it back to life. How delightful that Arthur gives her a free hand about everything. I also enjoyed watching the two of them together. They have a solid, comfortable love for each other that glows like a cozy fire on a cool evening. They respect each other as well and though their relationship might baffle young Sam – imagine crusty old (he’s 43) Uncle Arthur getting married at his age?? – I get a feel for the deep affection between them despite not only a closed bedroom door but one that’s practically not mentioned.

This is still a world with governesses for middle class families though there are inklings about how hard and lonely the lives of those governesses could be. The winds of change are blowing through Wandlebury as evidenced by the fact that Jerry supports herself with her business but also in the servant problems Jerry has – a 2 mile walk to the nearest cinema and having to light oil lamps in a house with no electricity have lost her 4 maids thus far. The Abbotts also have some bizarre, free thinking neighbors – he’s an artist, you know, and she’s just an odd duck all around. And the local Lady at the Stately House has some strange ideas regarding matrimony. Barbara captures most of it in her manuscript which it pains Arthur to vehemently talk (they try not to argue) with her about how to change some of it so she isn’t outted again. This time around, there’s more insight into what drives Barbara as an author and I can’t help but think this was Stevenson’s own viewpoint and experiences peeking through.

Once again, Barbara captures the people around her on the pages of her manuscript and her shrewd insight into their lives is – pretty much – on track. And where it isn’t, well it’s probably for the best. Yet there are scenes here that I hate to say I found boring and wondered at the time spent on them. The children of their neighbors get lots of page space but frankly I found them the little savages that Arthur does. In the first book, the oddities of her fellow villagers are described to show how Barbara saw them and used them in her novel. Here there are things described, such as one child’s sort of OCD personality and strange dreams that Barbara didn’t see or knew nothing about and thus that wouldn’t have even made it into her novel. And the frankly strange things these children do and their interpersonal relationships also don’t appear in Barbara’s third book effort. So…why did Stevenson include them in the book? To shine a light on modern child raising of the time?

There’s also one character I didn’t like from the beginning. Each appearance of his made me dislike him more and no amount of familial loyalty or dismissing of his actions excused the fact that he was a little ass. Yet in the end, he gets rewarded and his previous actions white washed. The loyalty of most of Britain for the Royal Family leads to a tedious chapter as well.

It was nice to watch Barbara continue to grow and mature. The fact that she finally has some people in her life who acknowledge it and appreciate it is icing on the cake. But there are incidences and sections of the book which dragged or felt superfluous. The window into a long passed world is fun to look through even if I didn’t enjoy the view of every room in the house. B-

~Jayne

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REVIEW:  Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson

REVIEW: Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson

“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.”

Dear Readers,

It is the new cover for this book that caught my eye at Netgalley and lured me into reading the description. Then I realized that it had been republished by Persephone Books (who brought us “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”). Now Sourcebooks is making it available. Based on my response to “Miss Buncle’s Book” I have my fingers crossed that we’ll get access to more of D.E. Stevenson’s works. This is a lovely, sweet, gentle book that is at times funny, charming and then deliciously wicked. The humor is subtle and all the better for it. More a sly wink and a nod and a delighted chuckle though some bits are LOL funny. Stevenson uses human nature at its best, or worst, to engineer the comic bits but it is only ever truly skewering to the puffed up people who think more highly of themselves than they ought to. Only the ones who make themselves ridiculous end up losing out here.

Miss Buncle's Book by D.E. StevensonHer publisher’s change of the book title to “Disturber of the Peace” certainly fits the contents and how it impacts the lives and loves of the people of Silverstream. It even changes Barbara in a fairy tale way – she emerges from her cocoon a little more confident, a little more smartly dressed, a little more … more. Barbara never sets out to change people – unlike Heyer’s heroine Sophie – but she has an unerring eye and naturally picks up on little clues that point the way to probably outcomes as in the romance between Dorothea Bold and Col. Weatherstone. But she isn’t totally perspicacious in that she missed Sally and Ernest’s romance and the ridicule heaped on Mr. Bulmer that got him to sit up and notice how awful his home was due to his actions which then caused him to change.

It’s funny but also a little sad that no one, not even her closest friends and acquaintances ever imagine that Barbara could be the one behind this pointed book. It’s a lesson to us all not to overlook people merely because they don’t wear brilliant plumage or are a bit shy in public. People have hidden depths and Barbara hid hers well in her shabby clothing even as she avidly soaked up details like a sponge for her writing.

At times I’m not exactly sure about Barbara. She’s totally honest – something that amazes her publisher Mr. Abbot – which helps in her writing but also fairly naive. Even he wonders if she’s too sly for words or just hopelessly innocent. She does get wiser as a result of the effects the book has on the people around her, which shows in the second book she writes, but she also loses a touch of the openness and innocence that made her such a nice person. She’s a little toughened now, a hint harder. It will be interesting to see how she changes in the second book of this series. Though I love that Barbara is like a moth coming out (no, she’s not quite a butterfly), that she grows as a more confident person and that she finds love (though a restrained sort that will probably have her calling her husband Mr for a while) I’m slightly disappointed that said man who loves and admires her as she is, is happy she’s not quite as smart as he. I do like his way of proposing – very novel, if you’ll pardon my pun.

I was struck by how the publishing industry and publishers worked then vs now. Not too much difference actually. Mr. Abbot thinks that the public are generally like sheep in their reading – they follow the crowd and often need for things to be highlighted for them in order to “get it.” Abbot is also crafty in how he manipulates Barbara. Not meanly but in a way that initially puts his business first as he tries to get her to write and then keep her focus on a second novel – since the first is such a bestseller

In her novel, Barbara is kindest to the kind people of Silverstream and the two I enjoyed the most are Dr. Walker and his wife Sarah. Down to earth, unflappable and quietly but deeply in love. Sarah is also one smart cookie who immediately cottons on to the fact that the book is about her village and the people there – though even she can’t see beyond her own prejudices to believe that Barbara wrote it. Dr. Walker is a dear too, and so devoted to his intelligent wife – a woman of whose intelligence he is fully aware.

“Miss Buncle’s Book” also shines a spotlight on a now gone preWWII era when even middle class people had at least one – if not three – domestics in service, rose late in the morning to breakfast in bed, had tea served with a silver service, dressed for dinner, wrote copious letters and notes and had the Daimler brought around when they wanted to go out. The social classes were more strictly separated and servants still felt they were part of the household family and were willing to put up with their employers’ foibles. Though they can and did make some pointed comments about their “betters.”

I enjoy the little aspects of a book which strictly set it in one place and time. Here I learned about Marie biscuits and Benger. It also shows how specific social status was then – Mrs. Featherston Hogg commands people to her lousy At Homes – despite the undrinkable tea and awful tea sandwiches – merely because of her status. How? No one is quite sure but the situation is almost unquestioned. It also shows the less salubrious aspects of the era in that women were sheltered/stifled – note Sally’s and Miss King’s educations and how Mr. Bulmer tyrannizes his family. Lots of “there, there, let the man take care of you” patronage.

If you like “Miss Pettigrew” or gentle books about bygone times which were actually written in those times and which take their time to set up the action, then this might be for you. Watch as Barbara Buncle blossoms and finds within herself the strength that’s always been there, just waiting for its chance. B+

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