It’s far too long since I picked up a Persephone – and my read of “Miss Buncle’s Book” is definitely overdue! I was lucky enough to receive the first two Miss Buncle volumes as my Virago Secret Santa gift the Christmas before last, from the lovely Kerry (thank you again!), and I really don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get to it. I think I’ll blame the Russians…

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Anyway, in the middle of a stressful week (both work and home) it seemed like the ideal comfort read – and it was! D.E. Stevenson has written many, many books and has quite a following, but this was my first experience with the author, about whom Wikipedia says:

D. E. Stevenson (1892–1973), Dorothy Emily Peploe (married name) was a Scottish author of more than 40 light romantic novels. Her father was the lighthouse engineer David Alan Stevenson, first cousin to the author Robert Louis Stevenson. 2009 saw a renewed interest in Stevenson’s books with the reissue of two of her most popular novels, Mrs. Tim of the Regiment (from Bloomsbury) and Miss Buncle’s Book (from Persephone Books). The sequel, Miss Buncle Married, was reissued by Persephone in 2011

And that’s it – apart from noting inter-novel links. Do I sense a slightly disparaging tone there? “Light romantic novels”? Hmmmm.

The book is set in the 1930 and Barbara Buncle is a single woman, living in a little village called Silverstream. Her dividends are no longer bringing in much income, and so she is seized with a need to earn money. Having dismissed such schemes as keeping chickens, she decides she will write a book. However, being a simple soul, she can only write about what she knows, and so her book is about a village called Copperfield and its inhabitants, who seem to mirror quite closely the residents of Silverstream… There is the hideous Mrs. Featherstone Hogg, snob of the highest degree; crabby old Mrs. Carter; lively Sally Carter, her granddaughter; Miss King and Miss Pretty, devoted companions; Dr. and Mrs. Walker and their children; the vamping Mrs. Greensleeves; and the new vicar Mr. Hathaway, to name a few. The book is accepted by the mild-mannered publisher Mr. Abbott, who scents a bestseller, and it is published under the title “Disturber of the Peace” – which is certainly what it does! The book is indeed a runaway success, but the village is thrown into uproar when it is realised that the book is about them…..

The obvious comparison that springs to mind here is with “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”, another wonderful Persephone which I read a while back, but although there is a similarity between the two heroines, both struggling for a livelihood, the books are not that similar. “Miss Pettigrew” is pure, joyous fairytale; and although “Buncle” is also joyous, I perceive a little more depth in it. The second part of “Disturber of the Peace” is a little unusual, in that Barbara introduces a fantasy element in the form of the Golden Boy, whose procession through the village causes the inhabitants to act in the way their hearts would really like them to. Thus, for example, Colonel Weatherhead’s fictional counterpart marries that of Mrs. Bold, and Miss King and Miss Pretty head off to Samarkand in riding breeches. And very cleverly D.E. Stevenson mirrors this in the real life of Silverstream – as “Miss Buncle’s Book” progresses, DOTP acts as a catalyst on the villagers in the same was as the Golden Boy did, and so the real villagers start to behave like the fictional ones. Mr. Abbott at one point makes the analogy of a book about a book about a book, rather like one of those pictures of somebody holding a product with the same picture on its packing repeated an infinitum. The book is rather like this and of course Stevenson herself is rather smartly doing just a thing with her book!

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Apart from the brilliance of the concept, the book itself is such a lovely read. The characters are all very real, from the nasty Featherstone Hogg, to the rather silly vicar trying to live on nothing, to the daft Meadows family, the reliable and good Dr. Walker and his wife, the sympathetically portrayed Miss King and Miss Pretty. And then there is Barbara Buncle herself – quietly observing what goes on in village life, ignored and dismissed by all as of no consequence, yet possessed by a true author’s need to write. The relationship between Barbara and the rest of the villagers is beautifully portrayed, and the developing friendship with Mr. Abbott is also delicately handled. It’s gratifying to read through the book watching the ‘good’ characters having happy resolutions and the ‘bad’ ones get what they deserve! And Stevenson is quite happy to be disparaging about the blindness of readers in picking up whatever happens to be the latest bestseller, in a way that is still surprisingly relevant:

“What fools the public were! They were exactly like sheep…thought Mr. Abbott sleepily… following each other’s lead, neglecting one book and buying another just because other people were buying it, although, for the life of you, you couldn’t see what the one lacked and the other possessed.”

There is also a lovely sequence where Miss Buncle and Mr. Abbott visit the cinema, where Stevenson’s description of the awfulness of the film is just hilarious

“Light romantic novels”? No way! There’s actually a lot here about bullying, snobbishness, tolerance or the lack of it, and a rather chilling portrayal of how some nasty characters can step right over the line when their pomposity has been punctured. The threat to the Walker family is actually quite unnerving. However, all *is* resolved in a satisfactory manner at the end: an unpleasant marriage is put right; the vicar is saved from a fate worse than death; Miss Pretty’s health problem is sorted; and the book has a wonderfully feel-good ending.

Obviously I *loved* “Miss Buncle’s Book” – clever, funny, enjoyable and yes, probably cozy and comforting; but in the best way, written with an intelligence and a love of story-telling. This was my first D.E. Stevenson, but it certainly won’t be my last!