Saturday, April 6, 2013

My Mother's Books, Part 6: D. E. Stevenson (1892-1973)

Before Susan Elizabeth Phillips had her Seppies, D. E. Stevenson had her Dessies. In the case of the latter, they pay visits to Moffat in Dumfriesshire where Stevenson lived for the last three decades of her life rather that showing up for book signings, but their loyalty to Stevenson is just as intense and their knowledge of her characters just as detailed as that of any SEP fan. My mother never made any pilgrimages to Moffat, but she loved Stevenson’s books and passed that love on to me. My fascination with Scotland began with Stevenson’s books, and I still halfway believe that if I ever visited the Scottish Border country, I would find Dunnian with some descendant of Celia Dunne living there. When I think of romances set in Scotland, the books of Stevenson are among the first that come to mind. Even after many rereading, her characters come alive for me, and the world of her novels offers an escape to a simpler, less harried place.

Dorothy Emily Stevenson was born November 18, 1892, in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her father was a first cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson, and D. E. Stevenson claimed that writing was “in her blood.”  She began writing as a child, hiding in a closet to do so since her parents discouraged her efforts. Stevenson persisted even in the face of their disapproval, although she conformed in other ways. She made her debut in Edinburgh in 1913, and three years later, she married Major James Reid Peploe, a young officer home recovering from war wounds. Their first child was born with a year, followed by three other children over the next fourteen years. 

Stevenson published two volumes of poetry, one in 1913 and one in 1926, with a novel, Peter West (1923) between them, none of which attracted much attention. But it wasn’t until the early 1930s that she began writing the books that would earn her an international following. A friend whose daughter was engaged to an army officer borrowed Stevenson’s diary to gain an understanding of the life her daughter could expect to lead, and she found Stevenson’s account of military life so engrossing that she urged Stevenson to publish her diary. Instead, Stevenson drew on the diary to write Mrs. Tim of the Regiment (1932), the fictional diary of Hester Christie, the wife of army officer Tim Christie. Stevenson maintained the diary form in her subsequent Mrs. Tim books that carried Hester and her family through World War II and the post-war period: Golden Days (1934), published with Mrs. Tim of the Regiment as Mrs. Tim Christie (1940) in the U. S., Mrs. Tim Carries On (1941), Mrs. Tim Gets a Job (1947), and Mrs. Tim Flies Home (1957).

The Mrs. Tim books proved critically and commercially successful. Stevenson went on to write more than forty novels, but the Mrs. Tim books and the Miss Buncle books (Miss Buncle’s Book, 1934; Miss Buncle Married, 1936; The Two Mrs. Abbots, 1942) remain her most popular novels. I like the Mrs. Tim books, but I adore the Miss Buncle books. Barbara Buncle writes a book to augment her dwindling income, and she decides she can write only what she knows, she writes about Silverstream, the village where she has always lived, and the people who live there. The publisher to whom she sends it recognizes a bestseller when he sees one, but he changes the title from Chronicles of an English Village to Disturber of the Peace, a title that proves prophetic as the book wreaks havoc in Silverstream. The satire is gentle, but the revelations are unrelenting. A romance between author and publisher, who proves himself the right kind of dragon slayer, is a bonus, and the two sequels show their HEA in process.

Stevenson herself had this to say about her fiction: My books are all novels as it is the human element which interests me most in life; some of my books are light and amusing and others are serious studies of character, but they are human and carefully thought out, and perhaps it is for these two reasons that my public is so diverse and ranges from university professors to old ladies and small boys!
” Her happy endings led many critics to dismiss her later books as light reading, but her popularity continued. At the time of her death, more than seven million copies of her novels had been sold in the United Kingdom and the United States and her work had been translated into half a dozen different languages.

One of the recurring themes in Stevenson’s books is the house as the center of familial identity and stability. In Celia’s House, the opening page introduces Dunnian as the emotional and spiritual heart of the "generations of Dunnes, born and bred at Dunnian and afterwards scattered to the four corners of the earth.” In 1905, ninety-year-old Celia Dunne decides to leave Dunnian to her great nephew Humphrey Dunne on the condition that it pass to his as-yet-unborn daughter, another Celia Dunne. The novel follows four decades of life at Dunnian, following not only the younger Celia but also her siblings as they move through two world wars.  Amberwell (1955) centers on the five Aryton siblings, a dysfunctional family before the term became popular, who grow up at Amberwell. Summerhills (1956) covers the Arytons during the immediate post-war years and they appear in minor roles in Still Glides the Stream, (1959). &nbsp Limbourne, the ancestral mansion of the English Wentworths, figures prominently in Katherine Wentworth (1964) and Katherine’s Marriage (1965). Years later I fell in love with the fictional worlds of Jo Beverley, Mary Jo Putney, and Liz Carlyle in which the paths of characters from other, seemingly unrelated books intersected or ran parallel to one another, but it was Stevenson who first introduced me to a world where such things happened.

Like most of the gentle romance authors, Stevenson experienced a decline in popularity after the romance revolution of the 1970s. Although her books could still be found on library shelves and large print editions occasionally appeared, new readers who wanted to own copies of her books found that they were out of print. Used copies could be found but often prices were steep with some copies of hard-to-find titles selling for over $500. Then, in the twenty-first century, there was a reawakening of interest in Stevenson. The Bloomsbury Group, announcing itself as “a new library of books from the early twentieth-century chosen by readers for readers” reissued Mrs. Tim of the Regiment in 2010. That same year, Persephone Books reissued Miss Buncle’s Book and Miss Buncle Married. The following year, Greyladies Books in Edinburgh published three new books by Stevenson based on manuscripts discovered by the author’s granddaughter in an attic: Emily Dennistoun, The Fair Miss Fortune, and Portrait of Saskia. Two more, Jean Erskine’s Secret and Found in the Attic (a selection of unpublished short stories, poems, plays, and talks on books and writing) will be published in 2013. (All available in North America from Anglophile Books.) Sourcebooks reissued Miss Buncle’s Book (my review here) and Miss Buncle Married in 2012 and will release The Young Clementina (originally Divorced from Reality, U. K. title, Miss Dean’s Dilemma, U. S. title, 1935) in July 2013.

When Connie Brockway asked her fans to name their favorite Scotland-set novels last month, Listening Valley (1944) and Blue Sapphire (1963) by D. E. Stevenson, both out of print, were on the list. And the reissued books are winning Stevenson new fans. Jayne of Dear Author named Miss Buncle’s Book one of her top reads of 2012. Bookfoolery called Barbara Buncle a “delightful” character and the book “a breath of fresh air.” “Charming” was a word frequently used to describe Stevenson’s novels by early critics, and it is the adjective of choice for many of her recent readers. “Comfort read” is another term used often by Stevenson’s new readers, who affirm the judgment of critics writing more than half a century ago. A. F. Wolfe, reviewing Amberwell in the Saturday Review in 1955 wrote, "Opening a D. E. Stevenson novel is like entering the home of a hospitable old friend."   That effectively sums up my feelings when I reread the Stevenson books I own: the Mrs. Tim books, the first two Miss Buncle books, and Celia’s House. But life’s been tough lately, and I feel the need of comfort and a visit with a hospitable old friend. I just put half a dozen Stevenson books on hold at the library, and I’ll definitely be downloading The Young Clementina to my Kindle come July.

Are there books that you classify as “hospitable old friends”? What are your comfort reads? What makes them comforting?

Note: This is the last of the series of posts on my mother’s books. On Saturday, April 20, I will begin a new series on the 2013 RITA finalists that will be posted on alternate Saturdays through July.


Helena said...

I love D.E. Stevenson! I think I first read her in my mother's stack of old Woman's Weekly, serialised. Then I found some old books of hers in the library, and a couple at jumble sales. It's amusing but pleasing to see her rediscovered.

My comfort reads are Georgette Heyer's Regency romances. They are comforting because I know them so well and love many of the characters. Perhaps because I know them well, I can see how good much of the writing is, and I enjoy the world she created.

irisheyes said...

My comfort reads include a wide range of authors but they all have the same thing in common - they create a world and characters that are so real they are like old friends that I love to visit again and again and again.

Some include but are not limited to Mary Balogh, Lisa Kleypas, Jo Beverley, MaryJo Putney, Nora Roberts, Eloisa James, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Robyn Carr, and Lorraine Heath.

Janga said...

Helena, I suspect many current Stevenson fans beyond their 30s discovered Stevenson via their mothers or grandmothers. I'm pleased to see her gaining new fans. Thanks for stopping by Just Janga.

Janga said...

Irish, we have many of the same comfort reads. I think the world building in straightforward historical and contemporaries gets too little appreciation. I love the kind of overlapping that goes on in the worlds of these books.