I have read a lot – a lot – of D.E. Stevenson this year and there is more to come: I currently have three of her books out from the library, unread. But I never know how to review her books because they are so much of a muchness, which is how we ended up here with a massive post of brief reviews for seven of her novels.
I started my D.E. Stevenson reading this year back in August with Celia’s House (1943), which is a bit of a strange book. It is a reworking of Mansfield Park (why? Of all of Jane Austen’s stories to use as a template for your own work, why this one?) that ignores all of the risqué and entertaining parts of the original story.
The book begins in 1905, when Celia Dunne decides to leave her house Dunnian to her great-nephew Humphrey on the condition that he leave it to his daughter Celia – a daughter he hasn’t yet had. A sailor with a delicate wife (Alice) and three small children (Mark, Edith and Joyce) already, Humphrey is thrilled to be left the home. Mark and Billy and Celia, his two siblings born at Dunnian, also adore the house. In addition to their own children, Humphrey and Alice take in Debbie, a distant cousin who comes to them when she is seven, after her mother remarries and moves to India.
Massive time jumps take the novel through the children’s’ untroubled youths, into their early adulthood in the 1920s, and all the way through to 1942. At the heart of the story is Mark, who becomes a doctor and is the Edmund Bertram to Debbie’s Fanny Price. It is not a clever reworking of Austen’s story, just a watered down retelling featuring benevolent parental figures who would like nothing more than to see Mark and Debbie together and rather toothless reproductions of the Crawford siblings.
In terms of family stories, Stevenson does a much job with Amberwell (1955)and Summerhills (1956), detailing the lives of the Ayrton siblings who grew up at Amberwell, the family estate on the West Coast of Scotland. Much of the first book focuses on their childhood, spent sharing adventures in Amberwell’s wonderful garden or holing up in the cosy nursery, a domain entirely their own where their distant parents seldom venture. The two boys (Roger and Thomas) are sent off to school but their younger half-sisters (Connie, Nell and Anne) remain at home and as tightly knit as ever. But then they begin to grow up.
The beautiful but dull Connie makes an early marriage, leaving Amberwell for her equally dull husband’s side. For the others, their connection to the house is much more precious. Roger, the heir, adores it and feels it is part of him. Anne loves it but the poisonous words of her bitter Aunt Beatrice, whose heart broke when she had to leave Amberwell when her brother inherited, drive her into a foolish marriage. Tom finds Amberwell is the only place that can settle him down after his traumatic experiences during the Second World War and Nell, well Nell is the one who keeps Amberwell alive for all of them during the dark years of the war, raising Roger’s motherless son, taking on the work of absent housemaids, and generally holding everything together so that all the siblings still have a home to return to. This is really her story and she is wonderful.
Amberwell’s ending is cruelly abrupt but at least there is Summerhills, the sequel, which picks up shortly after the end of the first book. It doesn’t have the excitement or sensational events of Amberwell but it does provide a very satisfying, pleasant conclusion to the Ayrton siblings’ stories with almost everyone appropriately paired off and their happy futures secured.
Vittoria Cottage and Young Mrs Savage, published in the late 1940s, are pleasant but forgettable stories about widows finding new love. Both Caroline, from Vittoria Cottage, and Dinah, from Young Mrs Savage, had rather awful first husbands: Caroline’s was a pessimist who could never see the positive in anything and Dinah’s a charming cad, who lied and cheated on her. Though they are at different points in their lives – Caroline is in her early forties with three practically adult children while Dinah is not yet thirty and has four children under eight – it proves remarkably easy for them to find gentle, intelligent new love interests. These aren’t bad books but then neither is either one particularly good. Still, they are pleasant enough when you just need something unchallenging to pass the time. I loved the seaside setting of Young Mrs Savage but, on the whole, I think Vittoria Cottage was the better of the two. It is also the first in a triology so I am looking forward to the next two books.
And then there are the books about Sarah Morris. Sarah Morris Remembers came out in 1967 and, so far, is my favourite non-Mrs Tim D.E. Stevenson book. It follows Sarah through her childhood during the 1920s and 1930s and into young adulthood during the war. I adore this kind of gentle coming of age story, especially ones set during this period, and Stevenson does an excellent job. Sarah’s life isn’t particularly extraordinary; she is the daughter of an English country vicar, with two elder brothers and one spoilt younger sister. (In any family with more than two children, Stevenson always seems to have at least one sibling who is irredeemably selfish and seems to exist entirely outside of the family circle.) While in her early teens, Sarah’s brother brings home a university friend, an Austrian with the delightful name of Ludovic Charles Edward Reeder (his middle names having come from his Scottish mother), who quickly becomes very close with Sarah. I love the name Ludovic (or Ludo) but he chooses to go by Charles among his English friends so Charles we must call him. Over the years, they fall in love and by the late 1930s are ready to be married. After the Anschluss though, Charles must return to Austria where his father, a prominent landowner but outspoken critic of Nazism, has been arrested. Charles then disappears, presumably taken prisoner or dead, and the war begins. Sarah, who spent her teen years studying languages having been inspired by Charles’ multilingualism, finds herself working as an interpreter in a department store once she and her father move to London and so the years pass. Inevitably, the lovers are reunited and it is all very wonderful and satisfying. Of all the books I’ve mentioned here, this is the only one I’m eager to buy for myself and which I look forward to rereading.
On the other hand, Sarah’s Cottage, which was published a year later in 1968 and continues Sarah’s story from the late 1940s onwards, is an altogether different matter. Now married, Sarah and Charles have built a cottage on her grandfather’s estate in Scotland and, after having been separated by the war for so many years, are looking forward to a quiet life together. And it is very, very quiet. There are friendships with neighbours and some family issues revolving around Sarah’s elderly grandparents and also the care of her neglected niece but, essentially, nothing happens in this book and not in a charming, endearing way. No, in a boring, tedious, why-isn’t-this-as-good-as-the-first-book way. There is an idyllic Scottish setting and we get to see more of Sarah’s wonderful grandparents but those are the only real positives. The book is scattered and episodic, clumsily catching up with Sarah after lapses of several years. She will talk to another character about events that took place years before as if they happened the previous week. I found that particularly frustrating and none of the characters or their endeavours were enough to keep me that involved in the story.
For me, the only trouble with these D.E. Stevenson books is that none of them have any real sense of individuality. These books are all pleasant and gentle, but they all blend together, featuring characters and locations that are barely distinguishable from one book to the next with writing that is simple and clear but lacks any sort of flair. I do like flair but the only time D.E. Stevenson seems to have any is in the Mrs Tim books (which is why I will be giving Mrs Tim Gets a Job the individual attention it deserves and am not lumping my review of it in with the rest). Still, there is a time and a place for this sort of novel. You don’t always want authors like Angela Thirkell, Georgette Heyer or Agatha Christie, whose distinctive style and strong authorial voice can be overwhelming in large doses even though it makes them much more fun to read. Stevenson is much gentler and (outside of the Mrs Tim books) seems to shy away from any sharp humour, opting instead for straightforward family stories and light romances. These she does very well. Her books are always nice and always just right for a cosy afternoon or a dopey sick day when you want something enjoyable but not too challenging.