After reading The Secret History and feeling dirty every time I put it down, I knew I would need something much gentler, feel-good and escapist to help cleanse my sullied soul. Into the breach therefore stepped Miss Buncle’s Book, which I had been assured from various quarters was absolutely delightful and loveable and everything else a book should be. I had high hopes on opening it, especially as the endpapers, a beautiful pastel coloured print of a Vanessa Bell fabric design, sung of 1930s sun filled drawing rooms and afternoon tea on the lawn, which are always good associations upon which to begin a book. By the end of the first page I knew I was in love, and despite sitting on a sweltering beach in Greece listening to the waves lapping the shore (sorry) whilst reading it, the descriptions of the characters and the setting was so convincing and endearing and atmospheric that I felt like I was back in England and walking the streets of D E Stevenson’s beautifully portrayed country village of Silverstream, home to Miss Buncle and her assorted rag bag of neighbours.
The basic premise is wonderful; poor overlooked and underappreciated Miss Buncle, a middle aged spinster who lives comfortably in Tanglewood Cottage with her maid Dorcas, relies on her dividends coming in regularly in order to live in the manner she has been accustomed to since childhood. It’s the early 1930’s, however;the Stock Market has taken a tumble, and Miss Buncle’s dividends have gone down with it. Finding herself with no income, and no feasible means to earn anything (hens have already been discounted), she decides to write a book. Unfortunately she believes herself to possess no imagination, and so she decides to simply write about what she knows; the goings on in Silverstream, and the characters of her various neighbours. However there is an added twist of a magical Golden boy who arrives in the latter half of the book, whose magic enables the inhabitants of Silverstream to cast off the shackles of respectability and live out their wildest dreams, imagined for them by Miss Buncle.
The book is duly written and published by the charming Mr Abbott, who hits upon the name of Disturber of the Peace for Miss Buncle’s incendiary volume, which soon becomes a national bestseller. However, once the book has penetrated Silverstream, and the villagers realise it is they that have been lampooned within its pages, all turns sour and they are determined to hunt down the traitor in their midst who has laid them all open to ridicule. Miss Buncle begins to panic as the overbearing lady of the manor Mrs Featherstone-Hogg, who takes real umbrage at her less than flattering portrayal as the bigoted busybody she is, threatens legal action and mobilises the local community to take action. Despite Miss Buncle admitting her authorship, no one will believe that the silly little spinster from Tanglewood Cottage could ever have written a book, and they insist in pointing the blame directly at the intelligent, no-nonsense ‘outsider’ of the village, Sarah, the Doctor’s wife, who also happens to be the only villager not mentioned in the book. However, when things turn nasty, Miss Buncle realises she has to put an end to all the trouble, and clear Sarah’s name, but how?
In the meantime, the book is doing its rounds amongst the villagers, and whether they recognise themselves in it or not, all of them are changed in some way by reading it. Confronted by their true natures in some cases, and by the things they wish they had the courage to do in others, love, adventure and change begin to sweep through the village, stirring their sleepy souls to achieve their dreams. Miss Buncle herself isn’t immune to the effects of her novel, which truly does disturb the peace of Silverstream, in many ways for the good of its inhabitants, for whom life will never be the same again. This is all thanks to the remarkable capacity for observation and deep understanding of others Miss Buncle has, which no one has ever bothered to realise before, prefering to pigeon hole her as a useless middle aged fool, when really, she has them all down to a tee, and understands them better than they understand themselves.
The book is filled with a great variety of hilarious and eccentric characters, from the pompous Mrs Featherstone-Hogg and her browbeaten husband, to the kindly and sensitive Dr Walker, the catty golddigger Vivien Greensleeves, old romantic Colonel Weatherfield, and the devoted lesbians Miss Pretty and Miss King, plus many more, all of whom come delightfully to life on the pages. The dialogue sparkles, the atmosphere is wonderfully cosy, like being wrapped up in a quilt with a hot water bottle on a cold winter’s day, and despite the threats of the Silverstream residents, you know that nothing bad is going to happen, and you can just sink into the soft and comforting world of Miss Buncle, content in the knowledge that all will work out for the best, and everyone who deserves one will have a perfectly happy ending. Miss Buncle herself is an inspiration; the perfect underdog, she is an example of how dreams can come true, and that you should never underestimate what you can achieve if you put your mind to it. I loved this book so much, and I only wish the irritatingly expensive, out of print sequel Miss Buncle Married had been included as part of the Persephone edition, because I so want to read more! Highly recommended for when you want to escape the world for a few hours – this will become a comfort reading classic for me. It’s the literary equivalent of a nice cup of tea and a sit down – just what you want after a hard day at work. Or, in my case, a hard day sunbathing.
In other news I had the great pleasure of meeting Elaine of Random Jottings at the V&A today; what a lovely lady she is and we had a wonderful chat about books and life and all manner of things! It was so wonderful to finally get the chance to meet her and I do so love it when I meet people I know from online and find they are just as warm and funny and intelligent as they come across from their writing. Plus Elaine was so kind as to bring me her copy of Juliet Gardiner’s The Thirties, which is a real doorstopper and I can’t wait to read it – perfect background reading for all of the 1930′s fiction I’ve been reading of late!
Also, Penny of Life on the Cut Off is the lucky winner of Stone in a Landslide – congratulations!!