Miss Buncle Married

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.

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19 Responses to Miss Buncle Married

  1. Lisa says:

    I found Miss Buncle’s Book in my favorite book shop, soon after reading your review of it – which felt like book destiny. I was in there the other day, and there was Miss Buncle Married on the shelves, but I hesitated because I haven’t read the first yet (and I was buying two other books anyway).

  2. I really loved the first one, so I’m not so sure I want to sully its memory yet. (Also, I’m not married, so maybe I won’t appreciate its full richness! [big grin]).

  3. Mystica says:

    I’ve not read the first one and really want to get that one first!

  4. I don’t know…remember that, back in the day, you often came to marriage literally without any knowledge of your sexual self. Can you consider yourself wholly “grown up” if a whole, critical part of you remains dark to your consciousness? There is huge growth and change when the human person becomes aware of his/her sexual self – I don’t think Miss Buncle is entirely wrong there.

    Also, poor Trivvie! She is totally OCD, and she will never get any treatment for it. :-( I thought it was interesting how Stevenson views Trivvie’s ritualistic behavior and magical thinking as entirely a product of normal childhood – and I am guessing it says something about Stevenson herself. I think you would like The Two Mrs. Abbots – it takes place during the war and that is always fascinating to me.

    • Teresa says:

      Well, I agree that marriage and sex offer a growth experience, but remaining unmarried and chaste also offers opportunities for growth. They’re just different, and it seems wrong to say that one form of growth is more broadening and deepening than another. Certainly, for me, being single at 40 has allowed me to grow in ways I wouldn’t have if I’d married, but I’ve missed out on other things. It’s a difference in kind, perhaps, but not in quality or amount.

      I am still really distressed for Trivvie! I think you’re right that Stevenson sees it as part of childhood. I imagine a lot of children engage in similar rituals (I had phases like that), but Trivvie’s case seems so extreme and involves so much real terror that she obviously needs help.

      I will keep my eyes out for The Two Mrs Abbotts. I like the idea of reading about how these characters manage during the war.

      • What I meant to convey is that one’s whole sexual self was repressed, unlike what is the case nowadays. No argument from me about the growth implicit in the single state – but I do think Miss Buncle had a point, because of how things were then.

      • Teresa says:

        Thanks for clarifying! I definitely see what you’re saying, and I can see how experiencing sex for the first time in her day would be more broadening than it is for women today. Even today, women who choose to remain chaste are probably more sexually aware than a Barbara Buncle would have been. But I still can’t get behind the idea that becoming sexually aware made her a grown-up. She was already grown up; she’s just now awakened a new, and previously silent, part of herself.

  5. I keep seeing reviews about ‘Miss Buncle’ – she’s been on the list of books I want for a while, but I haven’t encountered her in any charity/second hand shops (my usual source of books), so I think I’ll treat myself and order online.

  6. I’m with NWK on this one. I haven’t read the book but mean to get it soon so I maybe missing some of the context, but I can’t help but think that without experiencing sexual love of some kind a person is missing something vital. We’re lucky to live in a society where virginity is a choice and marriage isn’t the only respectable option for a woman. To choose chastity now must be a very different thing from having it thrust upon you in the 30’s when I suppose a women like Miss Buncle really would have been kept in ignorance about sex.

    Oh dear, I know what I wanted to say here but my head is full of a cold and I feel I’m expressing myself very badly.

    • Teresa says:

      I think I get what you’re saying, but I’m just reluctant to say that any specific experience, even one as central to the human experience as sex, is necessary for every individual to have in order to be a “full grown” citizen of the world. It just leaves out so many possibilities, then and now—people who take religious vows or who just are unlucky in love, just to name two.

      However, in Miss Buncle’s case, she was an innocent in a lot of ways that go beyond sex, and a pretty good argument could be made that marriage and sex helped her grow up and have confidence and self-direction. But another woman, even then, might not have needed that experience to feel—and be—grown up.

  7. Iris says:

    I have yet to read the first Miss Buncle book, and I was very much looking forward to it. I am afraid to say that excitement is somewhat tempered by that passage you quoted. I don’t quite know how to feel about it.. except that it signals “highly complicated and not at all favourable” in my mind.

    • Teresa says:

      The good thing is that this line is just a small part of the book overall. That attitude doesn’t come up all through the books, but it did complicate my feelings as I finished this one.

  8. Jeanne says:

    I’m one of the few women I know who got married right out of college, moving from my parents’ house into the first apartment I shared with my husband. While my other friends were still treated like children when they went home, being assigned twin beds in separate rooms, my husband and I joked that because of our “piece of paper” we got to share a double bed. I wonder if the marriage at the end of this story conferred similarly unlooked-for benefits.
    By the way, my parents were adamantly opposed to the old patriarchal custom of giving the bride away, even in its modern incarnation where the father responds “her mother and I” when the person officiating asks “who gives this woman to be married?”

    • Teresa says:

      That’s so interesting because my experience was sort of the opposite. Most of my friends married shortly after graduation, but I didn’t. (There was no boyfriend for my parents to assign to separate rooms on visits, but from what I remember, my sisters did what they wanted as far as sharing or not.)

      What happened with me was that I got a place of my own within a few months of graduation but because I didn’t have a bridal shower and get lots of gifts to start up my new home, my home was mostly made up of hand-me-downs and flea market finds, so it seemed less like a proper adult home than some of my friends’, even though I was paying all my own bills and living a proper adult life.

      I think in the case of this book, the unlooked-for benefit is the confidence and security Barbara feels in being married. In the previous book, before she married, she was sort of invisible, which is not the case here. And come to think of it, my own experience kinds of syncs with that because as a single woman, my needs for establishing a household were only apparent to the people closest to me. There was no big community effort, like a bridal shower, to help me get going. (Not that every bride gets much support, but there is a custom for them that still doesn’t exist to the same degree as for single women.)

  9. Pingback: Review: Miss Buncle Married by D.E. Stevenson « Leaves & Pages

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