D E Stevenson was a very prolific writer, and although I have only read very few of her books, I get the impression from what I have read of her work elsewhere that the quality of her work varies considerably. The Four Graces is the fourth novel in the connected series of books which begins with ‘Miss Buncle’s Book’, the first three of which are published by Persephone books. I thoroughly enjoyed The Four Graces, it’s charming, a deeply comforting read which I happily gobbled up pretty quickly, but I wanted there to be more, and in that I think lies one of this novel’s minor flaws. The novel would have benefitted from being a little longer, and a couple of the characters more deftly explored. However, I shouldn’t start a review with a negative, and none of that prevents the novel – which cries out for re-issuing by Persephone – from being a really delightful read.
Miss Buncle fans be warned; this novel although starting where The Two Mrs Abbots left off – does not feature Barbara Abbot (nee Buncle) at all. The novel has been described as the fourth Miss Buncle book and a World War Two ‘Little Women’; I don’t think it is either of those things really.
The novel opens with the wedding of Archie Cobbe from Chevis Place, the big house at Chevis Green, who we met in The Two Mrs Abbots. The ceremony is conducted by the vicar Mr Grace, and the organist is one of his four daughters. The two Mrs Abbots – who we know so well, are in the congregation, and that is the only reference to them throughout the novel. Archie Cobbe and his bride Jane Watt only feature very slightly, as does Markie who readers may remember from that novel too, as the story is that of the Grace sisters.
“They had their supper in the kitchen because Joan had gone home and it was easier; and if anyone had seen the Graces sitting round the kitchen table enjoying their evening meal, he would have seen a pleasant sight. The girls talked about the wedding, of course, but their conversation wandered about a good deal and veered to and fro in a manner which a stranger would have found perfectly natural. Sometimes they disagreed with each other and said so, making no bones about it, but they were so much in tune and so fully in accord upon non-essentials. In fact a good hearty disagreement was welcome, adding spice to their talk. Now and then Liz would emit her sudden explosive snort of laughter, and Sal would chuckle delightedly.”
The sometimes vague vicar George Grace, is the head of a delightful, warm and supportive family, a family the reader can’t help but want to spend time with. The four Grace daughters are an endless trial and worry to the widowed Mr Grace, but also a great delight, their relationship is touchingly portrayed, their everyday routines, teases and family banter lend the whole novel a lovely, warm nostalgic air. Liz, the eldest, beautiful, and energetic, having nursed past heartbreaks, is spending these war years working on a nearby farm. Sal her father’s favourite, sensitive and delicate, is a capable determined young woman, on whom the whole family depend. Shy Tilly is the organist we meet in the opening pages; she likes being hidden behind the organ screen, shunning attention. Addie is the youngest daughter, she is also the most independent, and we see much less of her as she is in London, a W.A.A.F sharing a flat and only writing the occasional letter home. Stevenson devotes the majority of her novel to exploring the characters of Sal and Tilly, the story revolves mainly around them, although Liz comes to have a more significant role in the romantic storylines than I was expecting at the beginning.
Change is in the air, and the change that war inevitably brings to everyone, is heralded in this novel by the coming of visitors to the vicarage. Captain Roderick Herd stationed nearby becomes a frequent visitor at the vicarage, which of the sisters will he end up with? It is interesting how Tilly never feels entirely comfortable about Roddy, I wasn’t sure of him myself, that may be deliberate on D E Stevenson’s part, although that kind of ambiguity doesn’t entirely fit with the tone of the novel. Roddy is not as well fleshed out a character as I would have liked, which given that he is one of two ‘love interests’ in the book, is a small weak point. Into the happy informal Grace home comes Aunt Rona, a dreadful domineering, elegantly dressed, chattering presence from London, who upsets their routines and idle friendly companionship. Rona, a widow, has rather decided upon marrying Mr Grace, and his daughters are not sure is up to resisting her. The other long term visitor, who beats Rona to the better of the two spare bedrooms, is William Single, an awkwardly large archaeologist, who comes to lodge for the summer. William is a more rounded character than the mysterious seeming Roddy; he’s older, hugely likeable, quiet, wise and caring.
“Roderick looked small beside Mr Single; you could hardly hope to find two men more different in appearance, manner and personality. A St. Bernard dog and a terrier was the nearest comparison Tilly could find… and as a matter of fact Roderick was much more like a terrier than an eagle. Could you have brown terriers, wondered Tilly, as she shook hands with him. He sat down and accepted a cup of tea, and explained at some length that he happened to be coming in this direction and remembered that he had forgotten the umbrella. William Single had not disturbed the atmosphere of the room, but this man did. There was a sort of electricity in him thought Tilly.”
Stevenson, of course is very good at English village life, and with a fete at Chevis Place, village gossip, and rows over church flowers amid the interminable queuing for rations the inhabitants of Chevis Green and Wandlebury are affectionately portrayed. Two of the sisters are given what we can only assume are happy endings – although I do think there may be a bit of ambiguity here about one of them, and Aunt Rona is rather amusingly dealt with by Liz at the Chevis Place fete. Readers of The Two Mrs Abbotts can content themselves in the knowledge that Archie and Jane are happy, and although the world is on the brink of change, some things at least stay the same. Overall I enjoyed reading this novel enormously, and if not for those small flaws it would have been a definite five star read, nevertheless it is a satisfying, comforting read.