I’ve been having a particularly vexing week, dealing with some ongoing health issues (nothing serious, just annoying problems I’d like to be rid of) and having my computer in the shop. So it was nice to have an e-galley of a thoroughly pleasant book like D.E. Stevenson’s Miss Buncle’s Book at hand.
First published in 1934 and just now republished in the U.S. by Sourcebooks (and previously by Persephone in the U.K.), Miss Buncle’s Book is the story of Silverstream, a quirky English town filled with pleasant and not-so-pleasant people who manage to live together quite peacefully until something comes along to disturb their peace. That disturbance comes in the form of a pseudonymously published novel about a town called Copperfield that is filled with characters who look uncannily like the people of Silverstream. Some look at the novel, appropriately titled Disturber of the Peace, with amusement, but most are scandalized.
The book’s author, Barbara Buncle, had no intention of creating a scandal. She was hard up for money and decided to try writing. By her own admission, she didn’t have the imagination to think up something original, so she just wrote about the people she knew. But her depictions are uncomfortably accurate, and the more imperious, greedy, and cruel citizens of Silversteam want to unveil the author so they can take their revenge. Luckily, unassuming Barbara Buncle is the last suspect on their list.
As I said at the top of this post, this book is thoroughly pleasant, but as is the case with so many Persephone books, it has just enough bite to keep it from being cloying. The nasty characters are thoroughly nasty and not all of them in a comic way. But the overall tone is light and cheerful and funny. The plot takes an unexpectedly sinister turn toward the end, but you never feel the danger (which is a good thing, given that the danger involves children). And interestingly, when the novel goes all meta in the final chapters, that unexpected twist is commented on in very much the same way I would have commented on it, except the fact that Stevenson includes the comment in the narrative takes the wind out of my critical sails. She knew what she was doing there.
One thing that kept coming up that interested me was the question of Barbara Buncle’s intelligence. Miss Buncle is seen by everyone around her, and even by herself, as not being very intelligent. Even her book isn’t seen as evidence of intelligence because it’s not consciously written as satire or social critique. Yet she has the number of every single character in Silverstream. She sees things in them that they didn’t even see in themselves. Her flights of fancy about their futures cause some of them to act on secret desires or find happiness in places they didn’t know to look. Barbara Buncle may lack fashion sense, and she may be naive and unknowing about the ways of the world, but she knows people. There’s intelligence in that.
Stevenson also wrote a sequel, Miss Buncle Married, which was recently published by Persephone and will be published by Sourcebooks next month. I’m hoping to get a chance to read it too. If you’ve read both, I’d love to know how it compares.