Friday, August 17, 2012

Miss Buncle's Book: Vintage Romance

Miss Buncle’s Book
By D. E. Stevenson
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Release Date: September 1, 2012

When Barbara Buncle’s dependable dividends suddenly become less dependable in the early 1930s, she needs to add to her income. She rejects keeping hens because they are “such fluttery things,” and she rejects paying guests because Dorcas, her cook/maid/parlor maid/friend who used to be her nurse, didn’t like the idea. The only thing left for a diffident, middle-aged spinster to do is to write a book--and she does. Since she believes she can write only what she knows, she writes about Silverstream, the small English village where she has lived for all of her life, and its inhabitants. She sends Chronicles of an English Village to Abbott & Spicer because they are first in an alphabetical list of publishers.

Arthur Abbott, like all publishers, is in search of a bestseller. He doesn’t have much hope that he’s found one when his nephew Sam, newly employed by the firm, gives him a manuscript with the pedestrian title Chronicles of an English Village written by John Smith. But Sam’s insistence that “the feller who wrote this book is either a genius or an imbecile” persuades him to read it. He reads it twice. He concludes that Sam was wrong.

It was not written by a genius, of course, neither was it the babblings of an imbecile; but the author of it was either a very clever man writing with his tongue in his cheek, or else a very simple person writing in all good faith.

Either way Abbott decides he may have his bestseller, and he sends a request that John Smith pay a visit to the office of Abbott & Spicer to discuss their buying his book. He’s rather charmed when “John Smith” turns out to be the naïve, devastatingly honest Miss Barbara Buncle whose blue eyes and good teeth are all she has to rate her as physically attractive for a woman of her years.

Abbott &Spicer publish the book with a change in title. Chronicles of an English Village becomes Disturber of the Peace, and Disturber of the Peace becomes a bestseller. Those hens Miss Buncle decided not to keep could scarcely have had more ruffled feathers than the villagers of Silverstream when they discover themselves in the book. There are threats of legal action, demands that the book be pulled from bookstores, and plans to horsewhip John Smith when his identity is revealed. No one suspects that the reviled author is the self-effacing Barbara Buncle who is busily taking notes for a sequel, but both Miss Buncle and Mr. Abbott realize that if the villagers don’t find out who John Smith is before the sequel is published, they will certainly have their answer then. 

The first romances written for adults I ever read were my mother’s books, all of them written before the romance revolution of the 1970s. I loved those “gentle romances” and devoured all that my mother owned and all I could find on the shelves of the local library. The novels of D. E. Stevenson were among my favorites. They were written decades before I read them as a preteen, but they had a warmth and a charm that kept me searching for more of them. I was delighted when I saw that Sourcebooks Landmark was reissuing Miss Buncle’s Book, originally published in 1934. Rereading it, I easily understood why Stevenson’s books sold three million copies in the United States.

Barbara Buncle is not the typical romance heroine. She’s older, she’s dowdy, and she’s about as far removed from a “kick-ass heroine” as one can imagine. She provokes laughter, but it’s affectionate laughter, and she moves the reader to sympathy as well. Her problems are real. When Mr. Abbott gives her a hundred pounds as an advance, she signs the receipt with tears in her eyes.

It really was rather astonishing (when you come to think of it) what that tiny piece of paper represented—far more than a hundred sovereigns (although in modern finance less). It represented food and drink to Barbara Buncle, and, perhaps, a new winter coat and hat; but above all, freedom from that nightmare of worry, and sleep, and a quiet mind.

I loved the description of her reaction to the reviews of her book, and seeing the HEA of a character who never even dreamed of one was immensely satisfying.

The cast of secondary characters is large, quirky and memorable. There are some a reader will dislike intensely because she recognizes them, although they may dress differently and speak with a different accent: the domineering, hypocritical Mrs. Featherstone-Hogg; the controlling emotionally abusive Mr. Bulmer; and the cunning, gold digging Vivien Greensleeves. But they are balanced by the hard-working Dr. Walker, still wildly in live with his pretty, intelligent wife; the good-hearted, if misguided, vicar, Ernest Hathaway; and the lively, impulsive Sally Carter. And Stevenson gives her readers three romances—four, if we count the good doctor’s love for his beloved Sarah.

I highly recommend this for readers of sweet romances. But I also recommend it for those who would like a change of pace, are looking for something light and amusing, or find appealing the promise of a book that has the charm of vintage photographs and the comfort of a hug.  I hope that Sourcebook follows up with Miss Buncle Married (1936) and The Two Mrs. Abbots (1943), but I can’t wait. I put them on hold at my library. 

Sourcebooks also reissued Georgette Heyer’s romances and mysteries, the electronic editions of which are on sale for $2.99 each through August 20 in celebration of Heyer’s birthday. I love the idea of making vintage romances available to modern readers. Are there older romances you’d like to see reissued? What do you think makes the difference between enduring appeal and hopelessly dated?


quantum said...

The lady on the cover reminds me of an old photo of my grandmother, especially the hat!

This book sounds fun. I think there is merit in reading a book about the past, written at the time rather than looking back. If the book has quality then it doesn't 'date', it gives a different perspective.

If I like the book I may be tempted to hire a vintage car from the period and take Mrs Q for a surprise picknick, 20's style, then present her with the book as a present! LOL

Afraid my knowledge of vintage romance is sadly lacking. I'm relying on you to remedy that.

Wonderful review Janga. *smile*

PS Loved the review of Kieran Kramer's book. Another new-to-me author to try!

Janga said...

Thanks, Q, for both compliments.

Isn't the cover great? And the vintage car and picnic sound marvelous.