Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Miss Buncle's Book by D E Stevenson

Another Persephone publication, Miss Buncle's Book is a highly entertaining story of a rural English village in the early 1930s, with some unexpected excursions into metafiction.

Barbara Buncle, spinster, lives in a cottage in the idyllic village of Silverstream. Her income depleted following the Wall Street Crash, she turns to writing to prop up her finances, having gone into the options of fiction and chicken farming as possible money-spinners with her maid, Dorcas. Dorcas is not keen on hens' feet, so Miss Buncle writes her novel. Mr Abbott (chosen because he is the first publisher in the London phone book) knows a winner when he sees it: Miss Buncle's book, can be read both as a straightforward romance of rural life or as a satire. She has taken characters from Silverstream and depicted their unvarnished foibles and characteristics. In the second half of her book, a mysterious Golden Boy with a pipe passes through the village, and under the spell of his music, the villagers act in odd ways: a woman throws over her cruel husband for a new lover, a pair of home-loving ladies set off for Samarkand, and two long-single villagers realise their love for one another and marry.

Published as Disturber of the Peace, and under a pseudonym, Miss Buncle's book is a runaway success. Its enigmatic qualities lead to controversial reviews which stimulate sales. Once it is read in Silverstream, however, and the villagers begin to recognise themselves, it generates real controversy. A stream of villagers visit Mr Abbott and call for the book's suppression. A village meeting is held to try to discover the author, and have him or her horse-whipped. Lawyers are pestered about libel cases. But, under the spell of the book, strange things begin to happen. The bullying Stephen Bulmer is suddenly much nicer to his put-upon wife and cowed children. Major Weatherfield, enjoying the book in his bath, is inspired to visit his neighbour Dorothea Bold and propose marriage to her. Ellen King and Angela Pretty, longtime companions, are persuaded to travel to Egypt for the sake of Miss Pretty's health. Miss Buncle's book itself is Silverstream's Golden Boy.

But Miss Buncle needs to write another book, and thankfully a second Golden Boy appears in the shape of Sally, a neighbour's grand-daughter sent to the country to rest. Pretty, seventeen and self-possessed, Sally works her own magic on Silverstream: the Vicar is made to realise that his fiancée loves not him, or his charitable ways, but his money, and Barbara is much improved by a new hat and hairstyle. Barbara's second book draws on the effects of the two Golden Boys and describes the effects of Sally, and the publication of Disturber of the Peace, on Silverstream and on the book's author. Mr Abbott remarks that he "had never before read a novel about a woman who wrote a novel about a woman who wrote a novel - it was like a recurring decimal". The reader of Miss Buncle's Book can move the decimal point further back. Cleverly, Mr Abbott's criticisms of certain aspects of the plot echoed this reader's own; D E Stevenson has anticipated the claims of improbability that might be raised. In Miss Buncle's Book, we read Miss Buncle's book again and again through the eyes of different readers, creating a multiple perspective and multiple layers of fiction, and challenging and reforming our own impressions and opinions.

Aline Templeton's introduction points out the very surprising "warmly described lesbian relationship between gruff Miss King and pretty Miss Pretty" and indeed, their relationship seems to be well accepted and even admired by Miss King's old friend the village doctor, who counsels her against leaving Miss Pretty. Unfortunately he does this by explaining that, as Angela Pretty is weak and feminine and will wither unless strong, masculine Miss King is by her side, but you can't have everything. Interestingly, Miss King makes the same sort of allusion to The Well of Loneliness as appears in EMD's Challenge to Clarissa; the book caused worry to women living together, but they decided to ignore its implications. In both books, this ambiguous reference can either be read as a denial or an avowal of a lesbian relationship; but in Miss Buncle's Book there seems to be little ambiguity elsewhere.

This is a book that will bear re-reading, as Mr Abbott spots; it is funny as well as clever, describing a variety of characters effectively, and keeping them well in play. D E Stevenson was a best-seller in her day, and I hope we may see more of her work from Persephone.

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