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.”
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.
Her 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+
I adore D.E. Stevenson!!! My aunt introduced her to me when I was in the hospital at the age of 16, in traction with a broken leg. “Still Glides the Stream” was my first one, I believe. Over the years I have collected many if not most of Stevenson’s books and I really do love them. They are gentle and sweet, but they give me the warm fuzzies and that’s okay by me! :) Thank you for bringing back those memories!
I own a lot of her books (I thought I had them all, but discovered just this week that there are two very early ones I don’t have, Peter West and Golden Days.) I wasn’t keen on The Empty World, a futuristic one I picked up some time ago, but other than that I love her books. I just reread the Miss Buncle trilogy, as it happens.
It’s odd; I’ve read it many times and only just noticed on this reread, the plethora of run-on sentences. Maybe it wasn’t seen as a grammatical fault back then?
There’s something very charming about this — and the book-within-a-book notion. I think it’s my favorite of all her stories.
Angela Thirkell is another author who might work for folks who enjoy Stevenson, specifically the Barsetshire series, beginning with High Rising and ending, 28 books later, with Love at All Ages. These were written between 1933-1959, and are set among the county and the minor gentry against a background of village life before, during and after WW II in Trollope’s fictional Barsetshire – they’re historical now, but at the time they were written they were contemporary. There are definitely romances, some across class lines. Maddeningly, they are not available as ebooks – only trade paperbacks.
I like the early Thirkells, and own all the Barsetshire ones, but she drives me crazy with the snobbery that takes over in the war/post-war ones and the anti-Labour Party government tirades. Heh, in a way they’re fan-fiction…
I just read and loved “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” a couple of weeks ago, so this weekend I’ll have to search for “Miss Buncle’s Book.” I’m all about 1930s England lately.
@Jane Davitt: I noticed the sentences as well and assumed the same thing. This is a trilogy? Do tell.
@Evaine: Which of her other books would you recommend? I saw several on Amazon but am clueless beyond that.
@Jane Davitt: Yeah – she wrote for money, and she really struggled with class. Evidently she wasn’t exactly an easy person. Her second marriage ended with her basically abandoning her husband and older son and scampering back to live the county life with her parents. I prefer the prewar ones – especially August Folly, Summer Half and Pomfret Towers – and I just sort of let the snobbery go.
@Jane Davitt: Do these need to be read in sequence?
Miss Buncle’s Book is first, and then Miss Buncle Married and then up to WWII in Two Mrs. Abbotts.
I like Miss Buncle’s Book but you might also try the Four Graces. Many of her books ‘connect’ in characters. Some of the sisters in the Four Graces show up in the Two Mrs. Abotts.
Some of my favourites are Gerald and Elizabeth, Amberwell, Katherine Wentworth, andThe Tall Stranger. Many of her books are intertwined, for instance, KW follows G&E and Amberwell, I think… It’s been a while. There’s also Miss Bun the Baker’s Daughter that I remember as being very cute. I liked The Four Graces too.
@Anne V: Another Thirkell fan here. I found a number of her hardbacks in a used bookstore a while ago. Such a treat! Like Jane, I find the later books both less enjoyable and more annoying, but I’ve still read all of them, most more than once. They’re a fascinating window into her era, and the romances are usually appealing.
If you haven’t read the biography by Strickland, Angela Thirkell: Portrait of a Lady Novelist, I recommend it.
The bewilderment that class must have felt as their world crumbled around them during and after the war comes over very plainly and it’s poignant in a way. I just can’t stop my teeth grinding in places.
I like that the romances aren’t always between the younger characters. And August Folly is a brilliantly observed and relevant look at the gulf between parent and child.
There are some intriguing and not at all judgmental references to homosexual relationships in the books too. In Wild Strawberries, Joan marries Lionel (gay) for his money, in what she calls a ‘companionate marriage’. Then there’s the lesbian couple sharing a double bed in a later book and some deliciously snarky bits in Summer Half about teacher/student crushes as Colin goes for his job interview as a teacher:
And the sublime innocence of such lines as
Actually, the earlier books are really very funny and well-observed.
@Sunita: I haven’t read it – it seems to be out of print, and someone has not returned it to the library for over two years now. I need to just cave and order it used.
I found Thirkell at a garage sale in Maine – there were three boxes of books as a lot for $5, and the top box was full of penguins, those ancient orange and green ones, with a lot of Margery Allingham and Wodehouse and Michael Innes and Ngaio Marsh and then some random Dorothy Dunnett and S.J. Perlman and Rebecca West and Rose Macaulay – clearly someone cleaning out summerhouse bookshelves. I was so greedy for the Allingham and Wodehouse that I didn’t even look in the bottom boxes, which is where the Thirkell was, mixed up with Maud Lovelace and George MacDonald and Noel Streatfield and E. Nesbit. It was an excellent score.
Oh, Mrs. Rivers in Pomfret Towers. And Sally and Lady Pomfret’s dogs. I do like the way people recur along the way – it’s very nicely and lightly handled, and they stay true to the characters as originally established.
I love Wild Strawberries. I have 3 copies.
@Jane Davitt: Yes to everything you’ve said. As a teenager when I first read Thirkell, I remember being surprised and pleased by the lesbian couple (Hampton and Bent) who reappear through a number of the novels. Yes, they’re stereotyped by today’s standards, but they’re also very human and sympathetically drawn, and they develop and deepen as characters over the course of the books.
I agree that the earlier books are very good indeed.
@Jane Davitt: I haven’t read the book so I may be off the mark here, but there is a difference between the way ‘run on sentences’ are defined in the US and the UK. In the US, I’ve seen the term applied to any long sentence which could be rewritten as two or more sentences. In the UK, it more strictly only refers to sentences which are missing a conjunction or, perhaps, a punctuation mark such as a semi-colon. So, it depends what sort of sentences you’re seeing in the book, but it’s possible that they were indeed considered grammatically acceptable.
I’m English, but I’ve been in Canada for fifteen years, so I’m used to two sorts of punctuation — or alternatively, totally mixed up, heh. The sentences seem wrong to me.
Here are some at random
Buncles book is famous book , although i did not study completely till date but some people like my friend says about this book. so i think this give the best review
OMGosh! I am so glad to have found y’all!! Sourcebooks linked your blog to their Facebook page :) I love D.E. Stevenson, I have probably 20-25 of her books. A good website devoted to Stevenson is http://destevenson.org/ There are lots of links, if this info helps anyone!
/s/ your newest follower :)
@JuneA**: Oh, excellent! Now you can tell me which ones to try next. ;)
I will say that I checked out the prices for the last book in the Buncle trilogy and – holy cow! – it’s like $60 used. Hopefully someone (are you listening Sourcebooks?) will rerelease it too.
What a terrific resource!! You can see which of her books are intertwined and how they’re related, where they’re set. Lovely!!
That’s why I only own about half..OUTRAGEOUS!! I love them all so much, its hard to say a favorite!! <3 <3 But if I have to choose!
Vittoria Cottage, followed by Music in the Hills, then Shoulder the Sky. Its a gentle trilogy, it served as my introduction to DE Stevenson.
@Evaine – I stumbled across this website years ago and still visit!