Archive for the ‘D.E. Stevenson’ Category

The House on the CliffMaeve Binchy helped me through day one of this silly and inconveniently-timed cold I seem to have contracted but by the end of day two I was ready for something even less challenging and so I curled up Friday night with The House on the Cliff by D.E. Stevenson.  Everything about this book is simple – the writing, the plot, the characters – which makes it the perfect thing to read when your brain is feeling a bit fuzzy.  Though published in 1966, there are very few details in the story to date the book and it feels like something both written and set much earlier.

Elfrida Jane Thistlewood is twenty-one years old and working as an actress in London when she spots a mysterious advertisement in a newspaper, placed there by a law firm looking to make contact with her mother.  Elfrida gets in touch to let them know that her mother has recently died only to discover that her grandmother, who was estranged from her daughter after her youthful elopement, has died and left the family home, Mountain Cliff, to (in the absence of her mother) Elfrida.  It is extraordinary news and Elfrida, whose mother spent much of her final illness dreaming of her childhood home, cannot wait to see Mountain Cliff for herself.  When she does visit, she falls in love with it.  Despite having no money of her own to maintain it, she decides to keep Mountain Cliff, leave the stage (which she was not particularly attached to), and go and live there permanently.

As befits a light romance, everything goes relatively smoothly for Elfrida.  All of her neighbours love her and she loves them, finding the community of kind, sensible people she had longed for amid the flashy insincerity of her theatre friends in London.  Mountain Cliff’s invaluable housekeeper and handyman not only stay on after learning that Elfrida won’t be able to pay them but even invest some of their own money into building up the farm and maintaining the lands that come with the house.  There is a sinister cousin – a shifty character from Montreal – but his brief appearance does not do much to establish him as a real threat.  The only tension here – and it is never very tense – is over which of her admirers Elfrida will pick.  Will it be the matinee-idol she used to act with in London, the kind and well-off neighbour she befriended so easily, or the boyishly energetic junior partner at the law firm which has been handling her affairs?  It is clear from his first introduction which man will emerge victorious but, as always with Stevenson, it is fun to see the story unravel, especially since so little of the story is actually focused on romance.  Instead, mostly we see how Elfrida adjusts to her life in the country, falling in love with her new home by the sea.

The nice characters are nice, the nasty characters quite nasty, and nothing particularly unexpected happens in the entire book but it is just that which makes it delightful.  There is nothing wrong with reading about nice things happening to nice people.  There was not a lot here that particularly stood out for me – I doubt I will remember many of the details a month from now – but it was a pleasant story to immerse myself in for a few hours on a rainy night.  And it did remind me of one of the great attractions of Stevenson: she understands that there is no romantic fantasy as satisfying as one that revolves around real estate.  Books that feature several men vying for the attention of the heroine are fine; books that add in the unexpected inheritance of a fantastic house and the joy of establishing it as your home are much, much better.

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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 better 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.

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It is the Thanksgiving long weekend here in Canada and I have been putting it to good use.  Errands have been run, rooms have been cleaned, volunteering hours have been logged, walks have been taken, pies have been baked (and consumed at Sunday’s family dinner), and, most importantly, books have been read.  There was an unintentional theme to my reading this weekend so that even as I was enjoying the stunning weather here in Vancouver, my thoughts were in Scotland keeping company with the characters in my books.

I started with Katherine Wentworth by D.E. Stevenson.  I have officially decided that I am a D.E.S. fan but I find her books vary widely in quality and this one did not impress me.  Published in 1964, it is the story of a young widow (Katherine Wentworth), living in Edinburgh and raising her two young twins and teenage stepson.  I really, really wanted to like this book but whether it was the clumsiness of the first-person perspective or just the dullness of Katherine herself, I could not find it in myself to care about the heroine.  She was nice but, for a book that is written from her perspective, strangely distanced from the reader.  There is a predictable love story between her and the brother of an old school friend that is complicated only by his sister’s bizarre behaviour.  Still, the reader is never in doubt that Katherine will end up with her “solid and sensible” suitor, even though Katherine is remarkably mute about her feelings towards him for most of the book.  The only real tension in the story comes from a decision Simon, Katherine’s stepson, has to make about reconciling with his father’s family and, for that reason, Simon comes across as the only really interesting character as he struggles to figure out where he belongs and what he wants.

On the other hand, I loved Stevenson’s Listening Valley, which I read next.  Growing up in Edinburgh during the 1920s and 1930s, Antonia Melville lived happily in the shadow of her elder sister, Lou.  But when the teenage Lou elopes (with, it must be said, a very nice and quite unobjectionable man), Tonia is left alone and insecure.  She finds happiness and confidence in a marriage to a much older man who adores her but she is left a widow a few years later.  Still only in her early twenties, she is horrified when her husband’s relatives try to bring her under their control and so runs away to an old family house she inherited in the small Scottish Borders’ town of Ryddelton (one of D.E.S.’s favourite settings).  Here, in the house where her great-aunt Antonia had lived, Tonia begins to settle down and create her own life.  She becomes friends with Celia Dunne (of Celia’s House) and with a number of the R.A.F. officers stationed nearby, including one whom she had known as a child in Edinburgh.  The romance is well-handled and satisfying but the real pleasure of the story comes from seeing Antonia grow in confidence.  This begins with her marriage but she really blossoms once she takes over Melville House and realises how well she can manage on her own.  Published in 1944, Listening Valley is recognizably a wartime novel.  Most of the time it is relatively subtle: there is a detailed description of an air raid during Tonia’s time in London and the war becomes even more present once she arrives in Ryddelton and comes to care for the flyers who visit her home.   But there is also the most laughably awful spy I’ve come across in a while, whose dastardly plans are uncovered by Tonia’s vigilant housekeeper/neighbour.  That particular part of the story I could have done without.  Still, it is a lovely, cosy read and a perfect example of why I am drawn to D.E. Stevenson’s work.

I then moved on to Sunshine on Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith , the most recent installment in his never-ending Scotland Street series.  This was a real disappointment.  I felt that he rambled more than usual, at the expense of character development.  Even Bertie, frustrated to still be six when he feels that he has been that age for years and years now (as he has), failed to delight in his usual manner.  Oh well, better luck next time.  That said, I was charmed by the idea of Big Lou becoming an overnight internet sensation after a Danish documentary filmmaker discovers her.

I am quick to recover from disappoint though and  am now half-way through The Proper Place by O. Douglas and loving it.  My reactions to O. Douglas’ books have been all over the place (which you would already know if I’d gotten around to reviewing the ones I’ve read in a timely manner – bad Claire!) but the delight I get from her good books far outweighs my frustration with the less impressive ones – rather like my feelings about D.E. Stevenson, really.  This, the story of Lady Jane Rutherford, her daughter, and her niece, who have to relocate after her husband’s death and the sale of their family home, definitely counts as a good one.  How could I not love a book that has characters who share my own literary tastes?  When, among a small gathering of friends, Nicole Rutherford proposes that everyone share an amusing story or joke, one of the guests won my approval by remembering a piece by A.A. Milne (one, as it happens, that I haven’t yet come across in my reading):

‘But I do remember one thing, Miss Nicole,’ Simon said, ‘one of A.A.M.’s Punch articles on how to dispose of safety-razor blades.  The man had been in the habit of dropping worn-out blades on the floor, and his wife protested that the housemaid cut her fingers and dropped blood on the blue carpet.  ‘Then’ said the husband, ‘we’ll either have to get a red carpet or a blue-blooded housemaid…’ I always think of that when it comes to discarding a razor-blade, and laugh!’

It has been a busy weekend, especially when you consider that I’ve only had a few hours each day to read between all my other activities.  And I still have a few hours of freedom left to enjoy this evening before it is back to work tomorrow – plenty of time to finish off The Proper Place!

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I really wanted to love Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson.  So many other bloggers had assured me I would and, after adoring my encounters with Stevenson’s Mrs Tim, I was certainly excited to finally meet Miss Barbara Buncle for myself.  But my excitement faded as I started reading.  Stevenson had impressed me before with both the warmth and wit of her characters and the humourous intelligence of her writing.  Very little of that was apparent here in this rambling, rather forgettable book.

The idea though is a charming one: Miss Barbara Buncle, a middle-aged spinster who is struggling to make ends meet, writes a fanciful novel featuring thinly veiled versions of her village neighbours and publishes it under a pseudonym.  Her portraits of them are unerringly accurate and when her book becomes a surprise hit, the outraged citizens who unwittingly served as inspiration – especially those whose negative traits were highlighted – set out to discover who the author is.  But who among them would suspect the dowdy, quiet, not particularly intelligent Miss Buncle?

It’s an excellent premise, isn’t it?  It vaguely reminded me of one of my favourite films, Theodora Goes Wild, about a woman (played by the excellent Irene Dunne) who writes a racy bestseller which has her conservative small town up in arms and her attempts to keep them from discovering that she wrote it.  And when have I ever turned down a book about an author or, more importantly, a book about village life?  But with meandering, plodding prose and lifeless characters, it was difficult to enjoy this book, hard as I tried.  It was fine, just not very good or memorable.

Mostly, I just kept wishing that some other, more skilled writer had taken up this story.  Stevenson took a half-hearted attempt at skewering the villagers but the result was neither affectionate nor amusing, just rather dull.  E.M. Delafield, Angela Thirkell, E.F. Benson…it was hard not to think of those excellent writers and what they have done so brilliantly when dealing with provincial life that Stevenson failed to do here.  Miss Buncle’s Book is diverting enough as a form of brief, light entertainment but there was nothing special in it, no moment that ever charmed or delighted me.  There was no grace to the storytelling and so many of the ideas and sentiments had me remembering other books and other authors who had phrased it much more cleverly or succinctly.  Still, the story is diverting and some of the characters are quite entertaining, however two-dimensional they may be.  It is a fine book to pass an afternoon with and I am sure I will be reading Miss Buncle Married sometime soon.

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credit: Joan Griswold

I’m never particularly eager to make favourites lists.  I love them but it’s such a brutal process: all those wonderful books that get cut!  I read roughly 200 books in 2010 and loved so many of them.  Usually I measure my favourite books by not just the initial reading experience but my desire to reread the book.  Since most of my books come from the library, the true test of a book is whether after reading it I want to search out a copy to own.  Except my opinion changes day to day, hour to hour, making lists rather difficult to compile with any confidence.  But lists, however stressful I may find them, are still fun and it was interesting to review my year with all its ups and downs and pick the ten titles that stood out for me.  Here they are, in order:

10. The Shuttle (1906) – Frances Hodgson Burnett
My most eagerly-anticipated Persephone title, I adored this tale of the effervescent Betty and her spirited quest.  The melodramatic ending, a trademark of FHB, did grate, which is why the book didn’t place higher on this list.

9. Can Any Mother Help Me? (2007) – Jenna Bailey
A wonderful collection of letters written between the women of the Cooperate Correspondence Club, mostly from the 1930s to 1960s, begun as a way of keeping active and engaged with intelligent society despite days surrounded by toddlers and dirty dishes.

8. A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True (2009) – Brigid Pasulka
Part multi-generational family saga, part fairy tale, this novel set in Poland during the 1930s and 1940s as well as the early 1990s was the best kind of surprise.

7. Why We Act Like Canadians (1982) – Pierre Berton
Combining two of my great loves – books about the Canadian identity and Pierre Berton – was always going to end well but Why We Act Like Canadians truly did the best job of any book out there at explaining Canadians both for foreign and domestic audiences.  With his usual romantic flair, Berton made this book not just fascinating but beautiful to read.

6. The Rehearsal (2008) – Eleanor Catton
The story of a community reacting to an illict relationship between a teacher and student at an all-girls school provided a very unique reading experience that forced me out of my comfort zone.  I was more than rewarded for my diligence with fascinatingly complex relationships and skillfully-executed themes.  This doesn’t seem to be a book for everyone but I loved it.

5. Mariana (1940) – Monica Dickens
Surprisingly hilarious, my first Persephone novel was nothing less than an absolute success.

4. Greenery Street (1925) – Denis Mackail
Immediately after finishing this charming book about a newly married couple I said that I wanted to live in it.  Now, not even two months after reading it, I already miss Ian and Felicity and their dear little home on Greenery Street.

3. Lunch in Paris (2010) – Elizabeth Bard
I adore this book, the story of Bard’s life in Paris after falling in love with a Frenchman.  The recipes are fantastic but Bard’s engaging voice and energetic but not overly romantic attitude towards her new French life made for a delightful read.  Easily the book I recommended the most over the course of the year.

2. Women of the Raj (1988) – Margaret MacMillan
This book may have left me with a phobia of cobras falling from the ceiling but it also provided an excellent education on the British Raj and the lives of European women in India.  It’s one of those books that I want to carry around with me always, just so I can press a copy onto random strangers.

1. Mrs Tim Flies Home (1952) – D.E. Stevenson
I fell in love with both Mrs Tim and D.E. Stevenson this year.  Mrs Tim of the Regiment was an excellent introduction to my new favourite heroine but a weak second half prevented it from being a favourite.  Mrs Tim Flies Home, on the other hand, suffers from no such shortcomings and so earned its top place on this list by being simply charming and heart-warming.

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Oh Mrs. Tim, I find it impossible not to love and adore you.  I read the delightful Mrs. Tim of the Regiment in the spring, stretching out the reading experience as long as I could, rationing myself to prolong my pleasure.  Novels written in a diary format have long been a weakness of mine (along with real-life, non-fiction diaries) and Mrs. Tim quickly proved a kindred soul to the heroines of my other favourites, The Diary of a Provincial Lady and Elizabeth and Her German Garden

After such an enjoyable experience, is it any wonder that I immediately attempted to search out the other Mrs. Tim books?  There are four in total: Mrs. Tim of the Regiment, Mrs. Tim Carries On, Mrs. Tim Gets a Job, and Mrs. Tim Flies Home.  The titles may be less than inspired, I grant you.  Happily, my library had one of them available and, despite it being the last in the series, I placed a hold on it immediately.  As I said at the time, reading books in the proper series order is for those with no imagination.

Mrs. Tim Flies Home by D.E. Stevenson picks up, funnily enough, as Hester is about to fly home to England from Kenya where she and her husband are currently stationed.  I defy anyone to read this opening scene and not fall in love with Tim, who, for the first time in their marriage, is the one being left behind rather than leaving and is having trouble coming to terms with it, desperately trying to convince his wife not to get on the plane.  It is a short scene and the last time we shall see Tim for quite a while but, despite its briefness, Stevenson gives a vivid impression of a happy marriage and an affectionate couple, important in helping the reader understand why Hester is so immune to the charms of the persistent Tony Morley, still just as in love with her as ever though Hester remains blissfully unaware.

Hester has taken a small house in the country for the duration of her stay in England so that Betty and Bryan can join her during their school holidays.  Betty and Bryan are quite grown up now – Bryan busy studying agriculture, Betty a young lady of sixteen (already old enough to have the beginnings of a very dear, very sweet love story of her own).  However, they are only able to spend part of the novel with Hester (education being a pesky, time-consuming thing) and so, before their arrival, she contents herself with making new young friends and being squired about by Tony.  Hester seems to have a gift for meeting and then matching up young people.  Despite her age and children, she truly does seem rather youthful and I know that if I met her I would want to be great friends with her too, so I suppose it’s not surprising.  As the father of Hester’s young friend Susan relates with eerie familiarity, sometimes it is difficult for children to listen to their own parents and they need to learn these lessons elsewhere:

If I offer her advice on any subject she listens most respectfully and then explains with the greatest patience why her way is much better than mine. (p. 232)

There’s also something about her personality that simply makes people want to protect or confide in her (or both).  Tim calls her many protectors her ‘Eskimos’; wherever Hester may end up, for however brief a period, there will always be someone there who, after taking one look at her, decides that clearly this woman needs to be guarded from the world and its many dangers.  Hester is far more competent than outward appearances may belay but it is still heart warming to see how people react to and rally around her.  And as for the confiding, young persons always need some empathetic ear to whisper their secrets into and more often than not it is Hester to whom they go.  All this combines to paint a portrait of a woman who may seem, yes, a little too good to be true but who, nonetheless, I desperately wish existed.

As with the first Mrs. Tim book, there is no grand action, merely a number of sweet, domestic plotlines that weave together for a warm, comforting entertainment.  You as the reader are never in doubt that things will end well – you may worry about the young couple, you may become anxious about Tony’s advances, but you know that all will be resolved pleasantly, that the Christies will be reunited once more, that the young people will be happily matched up.  The only sadness comes from knowing that this was the last book in the series.  I know I still have two more to read (if I can track down copies – Dear Bloomsbury Group, please, please, please publish the remainder of the series) and I have no regrets about reading this ahead of those but, as with any source of pleasure, you cannot help but be saddened, knowing it is finite.

I read this while my father was visiting and he was dream about it, happily occupying himself with other entertainments the afternoon I smiled and giggled my way through Hester’s adventures.  Indeed, he matched her description of the perfect guest and I was heartily glad of it: 

Quite often in my varied life I have thought how very pleasant it would be to have a guest who would always be there when I wanted to chat, but would vanish into thin air when I did not. (P. 246)

If more visitors were like that, I would have no compunction in inviting people to stay!

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