Miss Buncle’s Book is the sparking invention of the author D.E Stevenson, a Scottish writer who was a second cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson. According to the notes on the book’s dust cover, she wrote over forty novels of which some seven million copies were sold on both sides of the Atlantic. The edition of Miss Buncle’s Book that I read was a reprint by Persephone Books London, a publisher dedicated to reviving out of print books by English women of the twentieth century. The book is dressed in a lovely dove grey cover and contains beautiful end papers in the design shown below. This is a book as pleasurable to hold, as it is to read.
Miss Barbara Buncle, the shy and gentle protagonist named in the title lives in the tiny village of Silverstream just a short train ride from London. The period is the early 1930’s and the economy is not very prosperous thus while her deceased parents were thoughtful enough to leave her a trust fund as well as the house in which she lives, Miss Buncle’s dividends have diminished to a desperate trickle. How could anyone have predicted the worldwide depression that occurred between the two world wars? Luckily for Miss Barbara Buncle she is not entirely alone in the world, some of the old English values prevail and the one servant in her employ loyally stays on to be the maid of all work so that Barbara may go down to breakfast every morning assured that the drawing-room would be dusted, the fireplace cleaned and breakfast served. The maid of all work was previously her nursemaid and apparently did not mind living in the shadows caring for Barbara’s domestic needs which harkens back to an age when domestic servants were a class of their own, a notion we find hard to comprehend in the twenty-first century. Barbara is facing the menacing dilemma of impoverishment because she does not have the means to support her genteel lifestyle. However, having been raised a child of the middle class and above all being a woman there is no thought of her going out and finding a job. What to do? The conventional solution to this dilemma would be the traditional one that predates the literary era of Jane Austin and even the earliest English novel for that matter. That solution of course would be to marry a gentleman who had the means to support her comfortably. Alas, for Barbara, there were no such suitable candidates in her neighbourhood.
Barbara may have had a very sheltered upbringing but she was not one to sit back and let circumstances ruin her life. She was in her own way a woman of action and at the suggestion of her maid, Dorcas, decided to write a novel in order to improve her financial situation. She did not believe she possessed a great imagination and thought of herself as more of an observer then an inventor. In her book she told the real life stories surrounding the characters that lived in Silverstream describing their vanities and mis-adventures in the arts of social-climbing and seduction. Miss Buncle’s descriptions of the lives and eccentricities of the inhabitants of Silverstream were drawn in a way that was so vivid and precise her novel was accepted by the first publisher that reviewed it and almost overnight it became a best seller. She was careful to write under the pseudonym of John Smith and changed all the names of the people and places she worked into her story. Despite her efforts at discretion the inhabitants of Silverstream recognised themselves in her novel and were not flattered by the truth. They vowed to track down John Smith and possibly horse whip him.
The narratives that make up Barbara Buncle’s book are both mischievous and endearing and in them she allots happy endings to those she feels are deserving and harsh consequences to those who have behaved badly. The UK author, Aline Temple, creator of the D.I. Marjory Fleming mystery series, wrote the preface to this reprinted book that is a very fine piece of writing all by itself. Cleverly (in fact I wish I had thought of it myself), she quotes Miss Chism in the Importance of Being Ernest, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means!” This describes precisely the twist of magic D.E. Stevenson has added to this book. Thus, for example, the retired Colonel Weatherhead lived the life of a bachelor in a large dreary brick house near the Silverstream Bridge. He was comfortably pensioned and still quite vigorous but lead a sedentary life where his main occupation was fighting the weeds in his garden. Across the way lived Dorothea Bold, widowed, pretty and very lonely. In Miss Buncle’s book the character representing the Colonel makes a passionate plea for the widow’s hand in marriage, which she accepts. After the Colonel reads Miss Buncle’s book he suddenly realizes that he has always felt quite attracted to his beautiful neighbor and within in a week they are engaged, elope and begin married life with a honeymoon in Monte Carlo.
As for deciding what should happen to the ‘bad’ Miss Buncle wished the verbally abusive Professor Bulmer would be humiliated by the poor, brow beaten Mrs. Bulmer whose good looks and health were being destroyed by his wicked ill temper. In her book Miss Buncle imagines that the abused wife has an affair and runs away with a more agreeable gentleman. Mrs. Bulmer’s destiny was not quite as dramatic as a passionate love affair but she does take her children and return to the peace of her childhood home with her parents leaving Mr. Bulmer behind, livid with anger at the anonymous author of this tattle tale book.
The best consequences of Barbra’s writings are bestowed on her own humble self. She regards herself as being rather ordinary and not endowed with gifts of intellect or beauty. The inhabitants of Silverstream reinforce this idea regarding her as a mild-mannered frumpy woman who is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. No one suspects the mousey Miss Buncle might have the wherewithal to write a best seller. In her novel Barbara calls herself Elizabeth Wade and develops a character who is both pretty and vivacious. Sometimes when she is in London shopping or dining with her publisher Barbara imagines she really is the Elizabeth Wade she describes in her book. With the help of the money she earns from her book and a young dressmaker in London she updates her wardrobe that was sad and quite shabby due to penury and maybe a lack of fashion sense. In doing so she gained new confidence in herself. There arose an improvement in her from the inside out that manifested itself as a renewed joie de vivre.
This novel may have been published over eighty years ago but it retains a freshness and a liveliness that is entirely enjoyable. Does it represent village life in the U.K. in the 1930’s? I do not have the expertise to venture an opinion. However there were hints of there being many military families in the neighbourhood. This seems a plausible legacy of what would have been the recent events of the Great War and a foreboding of what was to come as in the year before this book was published Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany; a very sobering thought. Nonetheless, despite some nasty behaviour, (including a kidnapping), by the neighbours who are trying to find out who wrote Miss Buncle’s infamous and scandalising book, all is revealed in the end and Miss Buncle’s personal story arrives at it’s own perfectly happy ending.
This is the address of Persephone Books London catalogue, which is well worth a browse. http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk