Review: “Miss Buncle’s Book” by D. E. Stevenson [1934]

Miss Buncle’s Book was one of the first titles I decided to purchase when I finally found the beloved Persephone store and was completely overwhelmed by the collection. I had to pick just three from all these delights? I picked Miss Buncle because, to be honest, it had the word ‘book’ in the title. What’s not to like? And I wasn’t let down. It is one of the most delightful and charming books I’ve read.

Barbara Buncle, an unasuming middle-aged spinster, has lived her whole life in the quiet little village, Silverstream. To make up for her ever decreasing dividends upon which her income depends on, however, Miss Buncle decides to write a book based on Silverstream because, as Miss Buncle chirps, she can only write about what she knows and she knows her little village and its inhabitants. To her surprise, her manuscript is accepted by a publisher who is bemused and a little flummoxed by the book and its author, ‘John Smith':

It was not written by a genius, of course, neither was it the babblings of an imbecile; but the author of it was either a very clever man writing with his tongue in his cheek, or else a very simple person writing in all good faith. – p.8

The publisher, Mr. Abbott, upon meeting and instantly liking Miss Buncle decides to publish the book under the pseudonym but changes the original title from Chronicles of an English Village to the much more punchy Disturber of the Peace. Due to Miss Buncle’s slight lack of imagination, the book is a very thinly veiled characterisation of Silverstream, known in the book as Copperfield. Miss Buncle did let her imagination fly though towards the end of the book where she imagines the futures for her ‘characters’ which includes an illicit affair or two and an unlikely couple heading off into the sunset to Samarkand.

To everybody’s surprise, the book becomes a bestseller but the book’s popularity finds its way quickly to Silverstream where its residents quickly realise their printed twins. Some residents are shocked at their portrayal in the book which Barbara had faithfully reconstructed, perhaps a little clearly. An angry mob of Silverstream residents group together and demand the book be pulled out of circulation and that John Smith show himself. While all the hoopla is happening, nobody suspects the quiet and unassuming Miss Buncle who is happily taking down notes for a sequel. However, with the townspeople breathing down Miss Buncle’s neck and narrowing down their list of suspects, both Miss Buncle and Mr. Abbott realise that the Copperfield stories will end once the sequel is published because that will finally reveal ‘John Smith’.

While I’ve probably just made this sound like somewhat of a thriller read, it is not. It is a charming and gentle read, satirical and very tongue-in-cheek. Periodically, particularly in the beginning, I was reminded of Elizabeth Gaskell’s gentle Cranford. As the book progressed, it began to feel quite weird because it felt like I was reading the book that Miss Buncle had written, a little Calvino-esque. My suspicions were confirmed when Mr. Abbott thought similarly too:

The theme was unusual and intriguing. Mr. Abbott had never before read a novel about a woman who wrote a novel about a novel who wrote a novel – it was like a recurring decimal, he thought, or perhaps even more like a perspective of mirrors such as tailors use, in which the woman and her novel were reflected back and forth to infinity. – p. 295

The quiet, dowdy and self-sufficient Miss Buncle is an unlikely heroine. She is alone but is never pitied nor pitiful. She remains true to herself and becomes a rather inspiring figure.

The book is a wonderful read and I can why fans have been clamouring for its sequel, Miss Buncle’s Married, which Persephone has kindly obliged. The sequel title gives the story  line away a little though. :-)


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10 comments

    1. Sadly, Persephone’s aren’t stocked in the majority of public libraries here. I’ve only found a couple in various university libraries. Sad, isn’t it?

  1. Isn’t it just a delightful book? Glad to hear you loved it, too! Did you get the sequel as well? My library only had a very old copy of the first book.

    1. No, sadly I didn’t get the sequel because I wasn’t sure if I would like it and I wanted as much variety as possible. It was difficult controlling myself in the shop! My libraries have NO copy of this.

  2. I must be very lucky living in Bedfordshire (not often you can say that!).
    Our libraries have all the Miss Buncle’s in stock as well as about 25 other D.E.Stevenson books, I can’t wait to read them all

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