by James Wallace Harris
Why do we love some books more than others? Why are some books so enchanting? Why is it so hard to always find the perfect book to read? Especially when we’re old and jaded and have read thousands of books.
I just finished Miss Buncle’s Book by D. E. Stevenson and I want to explain why I loved it so much. I mostly read science fiction, but lately, I’ve gotten tired of the genre. Well, not completely. I recently found a science fiction novel that completely enchanted me too, but it was an old science fiction book that came out in 1939, the setting was England in the thirties, and wasn’t sold as science fiction. See my review of The Hopkins Manuscript by R. C. Sherriff.
I just finished Miss Buncle’s Book by D. E. Stevenson and it pushed all the buttons that make me love books. Am I so burned out on science fiction that any decent story from any other genre would charm me to pieces? I don’t know.
Can I examine these two books and draw any conclusive conclusions that would help me always find a great book to read? And what is great? I might think Miss Buncle’s Book and The Hopkin’s Manuscript are great novels and other people might think they’re both snooze-fests.
Both books are set in England during the 1930s and I have to admit that I’ve been watching a lot of TV shows and reading other books about England before 1960. Maybe I’ve just found a new fictional setting that I like better than those offered by science fiction right now. But why England? And why older books? (I should admit that I still like older science fiction books. Maybe my reading problem is the 21st century.)
Is this a case of reading the right book at the right time? Would they have been so entertaining if I had read either of these books when I was in my teens, twenties, forties, or fifties? Is part of the equation for finding the right book include the age, gender, and philosophical outlook of the reader? I worry about recommending books because even when I love a book, I’m never sure someone reading my review will.
One reason why I’m sick of science fiction is I’ve read too much of it. But I’ve also got tired of the future, especially the far future. But the present isn’t very appealing either. I think I’m looking for comfort books. For cozy novels. And Miss Buncle’s Book fits the bill perfectly.
Normally, I wouldn’t pick a book aimed at women readers, but in the last year, I’ve read quite a number of books by women authors aimed at women readers. I had just finished reading a science fiction book by D. E. Stevenson, The Empty World and while researching her I found this video from The Comfort Book Club:
The enthusiasm of the YouTube host and her mother, as well as the testimonials from the show’s viewers, convinced me to give Miss Buncle’s Book a try. I’m so glad I did.
This 1934 novel is set in the small village of Silverstream. That might be in Yorkshire because we’re told Barbara Buncle has a Yorkshire accent. Barbara has a problem. The depression is on and her investments are no longer paying dividends. She needs money and decides to write a novel. Unfortunately, she has no imagination and writes a story about all the people in her village, just changing the names. She submits the book with the pen name of John Smith and it gets accepted. The publisher loves it, thinking that it’s either a very gentle satire or the work of a very simple mind. However, the publisher renames her novel, Disturber of the Peace.
Slowly the citizens of Silverstream discover the book. Even though it’s set in Copperfield and the characters’ names are different, they recognize themselves. Barbara Buncle has a knack for realistically painting portraits in words. Some of the village folk find it a pleasant read but others are outraged, especially Mrs. Featherstone Hogg, who is livid that the novel reveals she was once a chorus girl. She wants to find out how John Smith is and have him horsewhipped.
Miss Buncle is so mousy that no one suspects her. Several of the Silverstream citizens make it their business to ruin John Smith. But we’re also shown many villagers who are good people. The plot gets quite involved and it eventually becomes a book within a book within a book story when Miss Buncle writes a sequel.
Having this book within a book plot is rather clever. The humor is relatively dry since the story is told realistically even though the action gets rather far-fetched. Its humor is not like P. G. Wodehouse, but I imagine Wodehouse fans will love D. E. Stevenson too. If you like the TV series All Creatures Great and Small and the James Herriot books they were based on, you’ll probably like Miss Buncle’s Book. Miss Buncle’s Book is the first in a series of four. The blog Books and Chocolate thought Miss Buncle’s Book had the same appeal as Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson.
But why did I prefer Miss Buncle’s Book now over my standard fare of science fiction? The writing in science fiction has gotten rather baroque in both prose and ideas. Miss Buncle’s Book is very straightforward and simple, yet very detailed. The characters are far more appealing and realistic compared to what I see in 21st science fiction.
However, I think the most important factor is the novelty of the setting. Science fiction and fantasy settings have gotten old and tiresome. Right now I’d much rather visit a small English village than Mars, or the future, or an interstellar spaceship. However, I wouldn’t mind if a Martian or a human from the future was visiting a 1930s English village.
If you’re a Scribd subscriber, they have the first three Miss Buncle books on audio. They are also available for the Kindle at Amazon and audio at Audible.com. There are nice paperback editions of the first three books from Persephone Books.
17 thoughts on “Miss Buncle’s Book by D. E. Stevenson”
As you probably know, I just read both THE EMPTY WORLD and MISS BUNCLE’S BOOK … MISS BUNCLE’S BOOK really is very charming. D. E. Stevenson had that magic touch of keeping the reader reading, even when not at her best. (MISS BUNCLE’S BOOK is her at close to her best, I suspect, but THE EMPTY WORLD less so.) Looking forward to your review of THE EMPTY WORLD!
I think I started your review of MISS BUNCLE’S BOOK but got distracted by the mention of THE EMPTY WORLD and went off and read it. For those others who might be reading this comment, here’s Rich’s review:
I’ve already reviewed THE EMPTY WORLD on my other blog for science fiction. Here it is:
I’m now wondering what the next best D. E. Stevenson book to read is. She has so many.
I’m not sure what the next best Stevenson book is. Scott Thompson really loves the Mrs. Tim books (there are four of them, starting with Mrs. Tim of the Regiment.) They seem to be somewhat autobiographical, based on her time as an Army wife. For myself, I had already bought a copy of Music in the Hills at an estate sale; and I bought two books (both well-reviewed by Jo Walton) from Scott Thompson’s Furrowed Middlebrow imprint: The English Air, and Charlotte Fairlie. The latter, in particular, looks quite interesting to me.
As for finding Miss Buncle’s Book — I also ran across it, for about a dollar, at an estate sale. I bought it based only on knowing that Scott Thompson (and others) adore Stevenson. It was a lucky find, I guess — I did not know that it was so highly regarded among her books when I bought it. And when I read it I was surprised — it was not at all what I expected! (It was better.)
Was that dollar copy of Miss Buncle’s Book the edition you showed on your blog – the original hardcover?
Are you familiar with Persephone Books? They reprint forgotten writers. https://persephonebooks.co.uk/ – I can’t believe you aren’t.
I wasn’t familiar with Furrowed Middlebrow ( http://furrowedmiddlebrow.blogspot.com/ ) but I’m going to start reading it. I think that’s where my current reading interest is taking me.
I’m getting tired of science fiction. You’ve always read much wider afield than I have. I need to keep a closer eye on your blog for those interesting out-of-the-way books. (For those interested, Rich’s blog is here http://rrhorton.blogspot.com/ )
No, I looked online for a picture of the original Miss Buncle’s Book with cover. My copy was a reprint edition (probably Grosset and Dunlap?) and had no dj. It was printed in the 1930s, though.
The audiobook I listened to was exceptional fun. The woman narrator acted out all the parts. She had quite a range of voices, much like Jim Dale who narrated the Harry Potter books. I still need to pick up a physical copy.
You should look at that video review I posted with the review. It looks like she has lots of original editions.
James Herriot, not Harriot. Loved those vet books when I was younger, should probably reread them now. And this one by the sounds of it.
Thanks for the editing help, I can always use it.
Hi Jim. I like this book, too. Here are two very different recommendations for you based on your comments. Magpie Murders and Moonflower Murders. Haven’t seen PBS series yet but loved the books. And any of Mary Kingswood series. Set in the Regency period, good stories and characters, and series of books which always makes me happy. The Silver Linings series has a mystery as part of it. These may not be to your taste. Have you read Rosamund Pike? I reread Winter Solstice every year or so at Christmas in my holy books. I never read her when she was the rage but her writing is so good.
Not holy. Holiday. Stupid AI autocorrect. I can just imagine our lives when AI is more prevalent.
I’ll give those books and shows a try. How did you even find MISS BUNCLE’S BOOK? It’s kind of obscure.
I’m not sure. I have one on Kindle and got all the others at the library. Pre covid I was often wandering around there finding authors new to me but with lots of books. Nothing better.
You–and that Youtube link–convinced me to seek out and read Miss Buncle’s Book. Like you, I read a lot of Science Fiction and mysteries, so this book will be something different. I’ll let you know what I think. I might even go the audio book route since you praise that performance.
George, I’ll be anxious to know what you think since you are my first firm convert. I’ve been telling all my friends about the story but so far no one has promised to read it.
I ordered the audiobook from AMAZON and I’ll start listening to it this weekend. It’s around nine hours so I should have it done by this time next week. Then, I’ll tell you what I think!
I’ve purchased several D.E. Stevenson books over the years for Mary and she’s really enjoyed them, including this one. I suspect I would like these as well given other stories of a similar vein as well as television shows that I like, but there are always more books to read than time.
I don’t read as much science fiction as I used to (though I’m reading a lot currently), and part of that is that so much of the contemporary science fiction that I dip in to is too much about our culture now and that doesn’t interest me, so when I do read I’m often rereading or going back to classics that I’ve not yet read, which certainly is nothing to complain about, I like them, by and large.
But I also like a lot of other kinds of books too and I’ve found myself reading much more mystery/detective fiction in any given year than I used to, and whenever I can discover a middle-grade book that is well written, like anything by Kate DiCamillo, for example, I want to make time to read it.
And I’ve certainly read a lot more nonfiction over the last several years than I probably ever have, outside of my college days and required reading.
Science fiction will always be my first love, yet I like having diverse reading tastes.