Tuesday, May 1, 2012

{review} miss buncle's book

D. E. Stevenson Miss Buncle's Book (1934 [2008]) 

Mr Abbott... had given up trying to predict the success or unsuccess of the novels he published, but he went on publishing them and hoping that each one published would prove itself a bestseller. Last Friday morning his nephew, Sam Abbott, who had just been taken into the firm of Abbott & Spicer, suddenly appeared in Mr Abbott's sanctum with a deplorable lack of ceremony, and announced 'Uncle Arthur, the feller who wrote this book is either a genius or an imbecile.' Something stirred in Mr Abbott's heart at these words, (a sort of sixth sense perhaps) and he had held out his hand for the untidy-looking manuscript with a feeling of excitement – was this the bestseller at last?
I'm going to confess up front that I read Miss Buncle's Book... on my Kindle. I know, I know: what about the tactile pleasures of a beautiful Persephone book in the hand? What of the terribleness of e-reading something with the actual word 'Book' on the cover, etc. etc.? I'm a bad person. But Persephone Books is now selling e-books, and one can only hope that this leads to an even wider audience for their lovely publications.

I am always a bit worried that I won't like a book that others love. For instance, I find myself in the tiny camp (I may even be camping by myself) of people who didn't like Miss Hargreaves and found I Capture the Castle twee and annoying. Fortunately, I loved Miss Buncle's Book: I loved the idea of the book within the book within the book, I loved the writing, and I just thought it was screwball comedy funny - like a wonderful B&W film of the 30s.

Without giving too much away, Miss Buncle writes a book based on what she knows. What she knows is, unfortunately for her future peace of mind, the inner workings of the small village in which she lives. Chronicles of an English Village (a.k.a. Disturbers of the Peace) becomes a bestseller and half the village is up in arms about who the anonymous author could be; and then strange things begin to happen amid the chaos... Miss Buncle - with her "unsophisticated palate and a good digestion"- we find, is a very fine student of human nature indeed:
She was obviously a simple sort of person – shabbily dressed in a coat and skirt of blue flannel. Her hat was dreadful, her face was pale and rather thin, with a pointed chin and a nondescript nose, but on the other hand her eyes were good – dark blue with long lashes – and they twinkled a little when she laughed. Her mouth was good too, and her teeth – if they were real – magnificent.
Miss Buncle is also my favourite type of heroine: as well as making her own way entirely on the merits of her own intelligence, she ticks another box - the heroine who whips off her spectacles (figuratively in this case), lets down her hair (OK, perms her hair), finds a good dressmaker and is instantly transformed into, if not a Siren, then certainly into her rather different alter-ego of the book.

I find this trope eerily irresistible. The Cinderella scene always gives me a primitive sort of pleasure even as I snort in derision at yet another manipulative canonical trope courtesy of the patriarchy: think of Miss Pettigrew transformed; or, the companion in Agatha Christie's The Mystery of the Blue Train or the young tomboy in another favourite Christie, The Moving Finger, or, indeed, Eliza Doolittle.

I've heard (My Porch) that the sequel (Miss Buncle Married) isn't as good, so I'm just going to leave this one in my mind for a bit.
'How nice for you – and for her of course,' exclaimed Barbara. She had lived for so long amongst these people and had suffered so many afternoon teas that she was able to say the expected thing without thinking about it at all. You simply put a penny in the machine and the expected thing came out at once, all done up in a neat little packet, and suitably labelled. The machine worked without any effort on Barbara's part, it even worked when the real Barbara was absent and only the shell, dressed in its shabby garments, remained sitting upright upon its chair. The real Barbara often flew away like that and took refuge from the dullness and boredom of Silverstream in the scintillating atmosphere of Copperfield.
Did Stevenson write anything else I should read?

Rating: 10/10.

If you liked this: my favourite examples of the Cinderella transformation are above.


  1. I just finished reading this book and well and the tactile pleasures of the Persephone book are not to be sneezed at -- but that said, it's the words that matter at the end of the day.

    I wish I had liked this as much as you did because I was really looking forward to it. I loved the meeting in Mrs. Featherstone Hogg's drawing room and several of the characters were perfectly drawn, Miss King and Mrs. Greensleeves for example, but I never believed in Miss Buncle's book for a second. Miss Buncle herself seemed sort of a blank space where a character ought to be and the idea of Mr. Abbott finding her attractive or interesting didn't fly with me. Miss Pettigrew yes. Miss Buncle not so much.

    1. Thanks AJ - of course Miss Pettigrew on my 'marks out of 10' scale would be a 15! I think I really related to the attempt both women, flying solo, were making to keep their heads above water - the pathos of their situations was very moving. The romance in Miss Buncle is a bit cold though, I agree.

  2. I think my favorite Cinderella is Elfine in Cold Comfort Farm, partly because I like Flora Poste so much, and Elfine is entirely the work of her hands. So satisfying, at least to my mind.

    1. I can't believe I'd completely forgotten Elfine - thank you, Jenny, another one for the list!


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