The sequel to D.E. Stevenson’s Miss Buncle’s Book finds novelist Barbara Buncle happily married and leading a busy social life in the London suburbs. But Barbara and her husband Arthur realize that bridge and parties just aren’t for them, so Barbara goes on the hunt for a suitable country home. What sort of neighbors will she find? And will they inspire her to pick up her pen again?
As soon as Barbara finds the village Windlebury and the decrepit old Ashworth House, she knows she’s found her home. The house may not look like much, but she can see what it will be, and she gets right to work bringing the house she imagines to life. For just as in Miss Buncle’s Book, Barbara knows far more than she realizes. In this case, she refuses to believe she has any imagination, but the way she see her new home demonstrates just how much imagination she has. Arthur can’t see the house’s potential at all, but he trusts Barbara to bring her imaginings to life.
When I read Miss Buncle’s Book, I couldn’t quite work out how Stevenson herself felt about Barbara Buncle’s intelligence. Barbara’s writing reveals keen insight into her neighbors, but everyone, including Barbara, seems to accept that she’s not particularly clever and the only element of the plot that seems to contradict that is her writing. Here, the nature of her intelligence and others’ awareness of it is more clear. Arthur in particular is aware of his wife’s power:
The strangest thing about Barbara, Arthur reflected, the strangest thing about this strange woman who was now his lawful wedded wife, was that although she understood practically nothing, she yet understood everything.
She might or might not have “an imagination” (Arthur could not be sure of that), but she certainly had an extraordinary power of getting underneath people’s skins. Without being conscious of it herself she was able to sum up a person or a situation in a few minutes. People’s very bones were bare to her—and she had no idea of it.
Much like Miss Buncle’s Book, this novel is filled with enjoyably quirky neighbors, many of whom could provide great material for a new book, should Barbara choose to write it and risk alienating them all. There’s a fairly predictable romance—Stevenson gives it a couple of twists that I saw coming, but the predictability didn’t really take away from the pleasure. When it comes to romance, I don’t mind predictability; I think it adds to the feeling that the love is destined and right.
I mostly enjoyed the stories of the neighbors, although few of them interested me as much as the residents of Silverstream of the first book. I would have liked a little more attention paid to the children who live next door to Barbara and Arthur. Toward the end of the book, Stevenson reveals some truly troubling circumstances in their lives, and the thread is dropped. The problems aren’t the sort that could be easily resolved, but not returning to them makes the story feel incomplete. I’m left worrying for these children.
And the book left me troubled in another way. In the final pages, the principal storylines come to a satisfying end, and Barbara muses on her new situation:
She looked back, smugly and patronizingly, upon her virgin self. She was now one with the vast regiment of Married Women, no longer barred from their councils by the stigma of virginity, they discussed marriage with her, sometimes they made her cheeks hot by the freedom with which they discussed it (Barbara could never contribute to these discussion, she had entered the married state too late in life and her nature was too set in spinsterhood), but, all the same, she was glad when they discussed marriage in her presence, for it helped to make her aware of her new status. When she had assured Arthur that she had “changed a lot” she saw just how and why she had changed. The world had broadened and deepened, and she was its citizen, full grown, and all the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship were hers.
I’m sure I don’t need to explain why I found this passage upsetting. I’m generally the sort of reader who can set aside problematic declarations like these in older novels as being products of their time, but this got under my skin. I mean, this book was published in 1934, and this thinking would seem regressive even in many older novels that I’ve read. Was Elizabeth Bennett not full grown until she married? Or Margaret Hale? Or Margaret Schlegel?
True, marriage could have helped Barbara Buncle Abbott find herself, but there’s a universalizing attitude in her thoughts here that I find hard to swallow. And isn’t it sad that having published two wildly successful novels wasn’t enough to make her feel a citizen of the world? It’s possible that we’re meant to question Barbara’s attitude here, but this passage is couched as part of the shiny happy ending, so it doesn’t come across as something we’re meant to critique but something that’s supposed to guide us toward closing the book with a sigh of contentment. For my part, I was contented with the ending and with the book in general, but my pleasure was tempered by annoyance in the final moments. It’s too bad because, otherwise, this book was a lot of fun. Less fun than its predecessor, but enjoyable nonetheless.
Edited to add: I asked on Twitter if Sourcebooks planned to publish the third Barbara Buncle Abbott book, The Two Mrs Abbotts, and their editorial director said they’re planning to publish it in January 2014 when the rights are available, so if you’re in the U.S. and aren’t able to find it now, it should be much easier to find in 2014.