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My second read for the 1954 club was Charlotte Fairlie by D E Stevenson, another great read from Dean Street Press. D E Stevenson is such a lovely writer, this provided a delightful escape from the twenty-first century.

The novel is named for the central character, Charlotte Fairlie is a young, girls’ school headmistress – who sometimes tries to look a little bit older than she is so she is taken seriously. Charlotte was once a pupil at St Elizabeth’s herself, and dreamed of being headmistress, and now she is. Two years into her dreamed of position, she has discovered that to be a headmistress is a very lonely profession – unable to make friends among her staff – and with the responsibility of the school resting on her shoulders. Another teacher at the school; Miss Pinkerton had been in the mix for headmistress, and is very resentful of Charlotte – and her resentment becomes really poisonous. With her secretary Miss Post ever desperate to know the contents of private letters, or the other side of a private phone call, Charlotte is not exactly surrounded by friends.

When the new school year starts, Tessa MacRynne is brought to the school by her American mother. Tessa lives on an island in Scotland – a place she loves as much as she does her father – the lord of the isle. It soon becomes apparent that Tessa’s mother won’t be coming back to visit – as she has left her husband, and returned to America. Tessa is terribly hurt by her mother’s departure, unable to understand why she would leave her father, and is desperate to go home to be with him.

“It’s a very bad thing to harbour resentment, Tessa. Do you understand what I mean? It won’t do your mother any harm if you think unkindly about her, but it will do harm to yourself—to your own character.”

When Tessa tries to run away, she draws Charlotte into a little deceit. Charlotte comes across Tessa late at night, and realising how distressed she is, she sneaks her back into school – and the sick bay. Charlotte can’t show favouritism to any pupil, but she is drawn to Tessa, and Tessa responds to her kind sympathy. Miss Pinkerton knows there is something odd about Tessa’s sudden apparent illness – and doesn’t really let the matter drop, keen to prove that Charlotte is showing inappropriate favouritism for a pupil. Miss Pinkerton’s resentment becomes more and more apparent – and the horrible woman is driven to play a very nasty trick on Charlotte around the time of the Queen’s coronation.

Tessa becomes friends with Dione Eastwood (known as Donny) – whose family home is nearby, though Donny only goes home on Sundays. Donny’s two brothers go to a local boys school – whose headmaster is a friend of Charlotte’s. When Tessa goes home with Donny one Sunday, she sees why it is that poor Donny often lacks confidence in herself. All three of the Eastwood children are horribly, bullied by their father Professor Eastwood – no one can do or say anything right in his presence. Donny’s brother Barney is particularly badly affected by his father’s bullying – and although, bright, witty, and chatty when he’s not around, becomes a stammering, nervous wreck as soon as he enters the room. Such is Tessa’s trust of Charlotte that she tells her all about the Professor and his unhappy children.

Over the rest of the school year, Tessa and Charlotte become really good friends – though there is little chance for Charlotte to speak to her young friend on many occasions. There are things about Tessa’s life that reminds Charlotte of her own childhood, she can’t help feeling an extra degree of interest in the girl who has made her affection for her headteacher very obvious. Charlotte is charmed by the girl’s stories of Targ, the island where she lives with her father.

As the summer holidays draw near, Tessa decides to persuade her father to write and invite Miss Fairlie to Targ for a few weeks. Charlotte is very unsure if she should accept the invite – but Tessa’s tales of the island have made her long to see it. Charlotte then manages to persuade Professor Eastwood to allow his three children to also make a summer visit to Targ.

When Charlotte arrives on Targ, the Eastwood children have already been there a week or two – and the change in them is remarkable. Barney has found a hero in Tessa’s father Rory MacRynne and has taken to island life extraordinarily well.

“It was bright and breezy. The sea was very blue with crisp white caps upon the waves; the sky was a paler blue and cloudless. The land was green, the beach was of pure white sand with piles of bright yellow seaweed. Far in the distance there were purple hills, their outlines softened by haze. All the colours were clean—like the colours in a brand new paintbox—and the sunshine was so strong that the very air seemed to glitter.”

Charlotte is soon equally beguiled by the beauty of the island – and life with Tessa, her father and her father’s two elderly aunts who live in their own apartment in the castle. She meets other residents of the island – listens to the old legends about the MacRynne family – it is all a million miles from the realities of being a girls’ school headmistress. It isn’t long before she knows she will be very sad to leave – but the school year begins soon, and all this is complicated by her feelings for Rory MacRynne. A terrible incident – brings Professor Eastwood’s treatment of his children into sharp focus – and Charlotte works with Rory to help Barney who is clearly very damaged.

Targ has changed things for Charlotte and Barney forever – but Charlotte has no idea about the future – she returns to St Elizabeth’s reluctantly to take up the reigns again. I won’t say anything about how things end – but you can probably guess. This was an absolutely delightful read – the kind of book you look forward to returning to later.

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I found this lovely old edition of D E Stevenson’s Anna and Her Daughters in a bookshop in Devon while I was on holiday a few years ago. I had practically forgotten that I even had it, but I when I came across it in the tbr cupboard recently, I knew it was exactly what I was in the mood for. It was an excellent read – and luckily for the rest of you this happens to be one of the D E Stevenson novels reissued by Dean Street Press recently.

As the novel opens Anna Hardcourt and her daughters are having to confront the fact that they are much less well off than they thought. Anna’s husband Gerard has died, a respected businessman, a director of several companies – it seems his affairs were not as his family had been led to believe. Things are going to have to change – the large London house will have to go for starters.

Anna has for twenty years been the gracious, well groomed, supportive society wife, she and her three daughters (aged between about 17 and 20) have enjoyed the society that comes with that. No one it seems can imagine Anna in any other realm but that of London society, however Anna herself can. For she wasn’t born and bred in London.

When Anna announces she intends to move back to Ryddelton in Scotland, the small town where she grew up, everyone is shocked. It means great change and sacrifice for everyone, Jane – the narrator of the novel will have to give up all thoughts of going to Oxford, Rosalie the youngest won’t be able to go to Paris as she had hoped, and for Helen, the oldest most beautiful of the three sisters, her dream of being a deb is over. Helen can’t imagine living anywhere other than London, and doesn’t want to. Jane accepts her mother needs her to go to Ryddelton with her, and with a sad sigh gives up all thought of Oxford – but her two sisters are harder to prise away from London. After some talk of Helen and Rosalie staying in London, the inevitable is faced and all four women pack up and move North. Anna’s cousin Andrew from Edinburgh has found them a little house in Ryddelton, which is being got ready for them.

“It was curious that when we had been able to buy new clothes when we wanted we had never really appreciated them nor enjoyed them. You have to be in the position of needing things very badly indeed before you can appreciate possessing them.”

The house in Ryddelton is much nicer than anyone had expected and Anna and her daughters start to settle into a new life. Helen remains restless, yearning for the glamour and bustle of London life. Rosalie gets work helping to look after the children of the doctor and his wife. Jane gets a job working for a writer. Mrs Millard is writing a historical biography and needs help sorting through the piles of correspondence of her subject, copying out parts and organising the mass of papers she has acquired. Mrs Millard is something of a mystery locally, and not always an easy woman to work with, but Mrs Millard and her historical subject inspire Jane to start writing a novel. Later, Mrs Millard even helps Jane get her book ready for a publisher.

“I believe you’re as silly as I am,” said Mrs. Millard smiling rather sadly. “You’re a sentimental young woman, I’m afraid. You mustn’t be sentimental; it’s a sure road to a broken heart. It’s ever so much better to be tough and callous — and a little bit selfish.” I thought of Helen — it was dreadful of me to think of Helen but I could not help it — Helen was like that: tough and callous and a little bit selfish and she sailed through life very comfortably.”

Ronnie Fergusson comes into the sisters’ lives, it is Jane who meets him first, and is instantly smitten, but it is later Rosalie who brings him home as her new boyfriend, unaware that Jane met him before. However, Helen breezes in, with her extraordinary beauty, so used to being admired she barely notices it, and Ronnie is helpless. Ronnie has recently qualified as a doctor – like his brother who Rosalie works for – and for the love of Helen gives up a big chance in Oxford – so they can go to London, where Helen has wanted to be all along. An engagement is announced, and Helen is totally oblivious to the effect this has on her two sisters. I must say, D E Stevenson does a great job at making us dislike Helen, she is so blinkered by her own desires, dreadfully selfish – we know Ronnie is a nice young man, who will soon see the error he has made, and fear greatly for this relationship.

“They don’t understand anything,” declared Mother smiling at me rather sadly. “They don’t even know that there’s anything to understand. They’re like horses with blinkers —they just see what’s in front of their noses and nothing more. I’m always terribly sorry for horses with blinkers,” added Mother with a sigh.”

Over the next few years, with Helen living first in London and then in Kenya with Ronnie, life in Ryddelton for Anna, Jane and Rosalie is largely very happy. Anna is happier away from London, feels more like herself and is more relaxed than she has been in years. Cousin Andrew and his sister Margaret from Edinburgh become a big part of their lives, their friendship meaning a lot to everyone. Jane becomes a published writer, there is romance for two members of the household, and the prospect of extensive travel for another.

When a telegram arrives from Africa, Jane finds herself going out on a mission of mercy, and when she returns life in the house at Ryddelton will be changed forever.

I absolutely loved this novel; it could well end up being one of my favourites by this author – true I have dozens by her left to read. I liked the fact the novel was set over several years, and that a couple of characters get to travel beyond the UK. This was a perfect book for a slow reading week, it was an absolute pleasure to spend time with these characters, and I was rather sorry to have to set it aside when I finished it. That’s always a good sign.

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Many of us I think are finding ourselves in need of a comforting hug in book form every now and again, and the Mrs Tim books slide very nicely into that category. Hester Christie is delightful company for a few days, there is nothing too silly or fluffy here – she is instead sensible and nice and immensely likeable. Mrs Tim Flies Home is the fourth and sadly final book in the series – and time has marched forward. The war is over – though many service personnel like Colonel Tim are still stationed abroad.

It is always difficult to review books that are part of a series – as readers may not have read the others. However, for those of you who like these Furrowed Middlebrow type novels, and especially have enjoyed D E Stevenson’s Miss Buncle books, or the novels of O Douglas then I think the Mrs Tim books would suit you admirably. I think it is generally accepted that D E Stevenson’s novels vary a little in quality, but the Mrs Tim books are light without being silly, charming without being mawkish and have a gentle humour and warmth that make them just perfect for tired, lazy weekends.

All the novels take the form of a diary – and Hester’s voice is always a delight, while she is clearly and firmly middle class there is nothing snobbish or condescending about Hester, there is a lovely normalness about her. In the three previous novels we have followed Hester Christie through the war years and before – through several moves and promotions of her husband.

“In the course of my wanderings I have started life anew in many places, and in every place the same thing happens: at first there is little to do, one knows nobody and life passes by like a pageant, then gradually the world breaks in and one becomes a part of the pageant instead of a mere spectator.”

We have watched her throw herself at all those little domestic disasters that come along, child rearing, war work and a spell at a Scottish hotel. Through all those years Hester can’t help but be a good friend, she has even been known to try her hand at a little romantic match making.

Hester has spent a very happy eighteen months with her husband Tim stationed in Kenya, however as the novel opens she is heading home alone. While Tim stays in Kenya for a while Hester is heading back to England to be with their two now almost grown up children – who are both still nevertheless at school.

Hester has arranged to rent a house in the village of old Quinings close to the pub run by her faithful former maid Annie and her husband. She is planning a quiet summer with the children when they are home from school and looks forward to catching up with Annie too. 

Hester is flying home – which in itself is quite the thing for the early 1950s – but will be breaking her long journey by spending a couple of days in Rome. On the plane from Kenya Hester meets a woman called Rosa Alston – who she swerves spending any more time with in Rome, when an old friend turns up to surprise her.

A few days later settled back in England, and reunited with Annie, Hester is getting to know the charmingly named The Small House – where she looks forward to welcoming Bryan and Betty. Hester has almost forgotten all about Mrs Alston – but of course she turns up – having remembered Hester’s descriptions of the village and attracted by the sound of the place she arrives in Quinings with her son who needs plenty of quiet to complete his studies.

Soon enough Hester is dragged into the lives of others too. There are the usual curious neighbours as well as a dishonest landlady to be dealt with. As ever D E Stevenson gives us an enjoyable cast of characters, including an impoverished village librarian in need of some good fortune, young lovers and a nice chatty daily woman who advises everything should be done ‘straight off.’

“My life has made me what I am. It hasn’t been easy, sometimes I have found it almost unbearable, but suffering can be transmuted into strength-as a rod is tempered by passing through a furnace-and all my hard work, all my anxieties and failures and disappointments have made me what I am. When the rod is tempered it has to be polished and made fit for service…everything that happens as one goes through life helps to polish the rod. If I didn’t feel sure of that I couldn’t go on; I couldn’t face the future.”

The only cloud on the horizon for Hester is the knowledge that she has become the subject of some rather silly gossip – and Tim’s latest letters seem oddly abrupt.

This was a lovely conclusion to the Mrs Tim series – and of course there are lots and lots of D E Stevenson books still to read – she was nothing if not prolific. A lovely little nod to her Miss Buncle series of books can be spotted in a few mentions of the town of Wandlebury – where Hester has a pleasant lunch with family friend Tony Morley. It seems D E Stevenson often pops people and places from other books into her novels.

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Mrs Tim Gets a Job; is the third book in the delightfully, gentle and undemanding Mrs Tim series from D E Stevenson. Brought back to us by Dean Street Press, this novel begins a few years after book two ended. We find Hester Christie (to give the poor woman her own name) a little jaded from what she calls six years of total war.

The war is over, but the difficulties are not, and as Hester takes up her diary again at the written suggestion of her husband Tim, she must face up to the fact that it could be another year or two before Tim is able to get home from Egypt for good. Hester’s voice is as engaging as ever, though there is a slight weariness of tone, and we know the years have rather taken their toll. Meanwhile, the time has come for her daughter Betty to go off to boarding school, her eldest child Bryan has already been away at school for some years. Her friend Grace; has decided that Hester needs some occupation and has already suggested Hester to Miss Clutterbuck; a friend in Scotland looking for help in her hotel. Initially, Hester is appalled at the idea, not really sure she does want a job after all. However, just then Hester receives a letter from their landlord giving Hester just a few weeks’ notice to vacate the house. She also receives a letter from Miss Clutterbuck, her handwriting is appalling and difficult to read, but it is clear that she thinks Hester will suit her perfectly.

“Miss Clutterbuck would like me to run the bar–no, it can’t be that–run the car, which has seen its best days but is still useful for shopping. Grace has told her I am patient and tactful, so (as she herself is neither the one nor the other) she thinks I am the right person to look after the social side.”

Hester makes a decision, she could go and live with Tim’s aunt in the house he inherited in the last book and is sat waiting for Tim to be freed from the army, but she decides instead, to go to Ryddelton in the Scottish Borders and work in Miss Clutterbuck’s hotel. Arrangements are made, the house packed up, the faithful Annie goes away on a brief holiday, she will be joining Hester at the hotel as a maid. Betty starts at her new school and all Hester has to do then is make her way North and write and tell Tim what she has done.

Upon arrival, Hester finds Miss Clutterbuck to be every bit as alarming as her letter suggested.

“Miss Clutterbuck meets me at Ryddelton Station. It is quite a small station and there are not more than a dozen people on the platform, most of them railway officials, so there is no doubt at all as to the identity of my employer. She stands near the booking stall, a solid figure in a Lovat tweed coat, which is somewhat shabby but well cut. She stands with her feet well apart and her hands in her coat pockets, a cigarette in a cherry-wood cigarette holder is stuck in the corner of her mouth. She is short necked; she is hatless, her grey wavy hair is slightly tousled with the evening breeze. For some strange reason Miss Clutterbuck remind me of Mr Churchill, Mr Churchill in one  of his belligerent moods.”

Hester’s convinced that Miss Clutterbuck took one look at her as she got off the train and found her wanting. The hotel is in Erica Clutterbuck’s family home, and it is pretty much full, as it always seems to be. Tocher House is popular, much to Miss Clutterbuck’s irritation, she is embarrassed by the business side of things, especially the feeding of people who pay her – and she generally struggles with dealing with people. She needs Hester to organise her, deal with the guests, the bookings and written requests for rooms. Erica soon sees she sorely misjudged Hester, that despite being initially overwhelmed at what she has taken on, she is quickly into her stride and managing wonderfully. Hester finds that she is rather enjoying herself – setting herself to sorting out the linen closet in the middle of the night when the hotel is quiet – a surprised Erica finds her thus employed and lends a hand – helping the two women to bond further.

Still missing Tim and the children terribly, Hester is soon far too busy to spend much time fretting. She can’t help but involve herself in the lives of the hotel residents. There’s the deep trauma of a young man returned from war, the romantic fortunes of a couple who seem to have got themselves in a tangle of misunderstanding and two American women who seem to want to know just what makes British women tick. Hester is further persuaded to play the part of a fortune teller in the local fete. She looks forward to when Betty and Bryan will visit for the holidays, though nervous of the effect they might have on Erica, but she is utterly delighted when her and Tim’s old friend Tony Morley turns up, as charming and mischievous as ever, he soon has the whole hotel eating out of the palm of his hand.

Honestly Mrs Tim books should be widely prescribed for anyone feeling unwell or a bit fed up and in need of gentle escape, they fit the bill perfectly. I find D E Stevenson less snobbish than the likes of Angela Thirkell (it is clearly of its time, but less obviously so) it was a real pleasure to spend time with these characters. I am glad I have the last Mrs Tim book; Mrs Tim Flies Home waiting in the wings.

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With thanks to the publisher for the review copy

I have had this book quite a while – as it’s a review copy, I feel a bit guilty about that – but when it arrived, I hadn’t read the first book in this series. So, I read Mrs Tim of the Regiment, and then promptly forgot about this one. 

I read Mrs Tim Carries On as part of the ongoing LT ‘reading the 1940s’ project – it doesn’t really fit in with this month’s theme (food – I mean people eat, but I can’t claim it as an overarching theme) – but will slot happily into several of the other months.

Mrs Tim of the Regiment was first published in 1932 – and was followed by many other novels and the increasing popularity of their creator – nine years later this sequel to Mrs Tim appeared. Despite that nine year gap – the second book picks up just a few months after Mrs Tim of the Regiment ended. This timeline works perfectly well as from what I can remember there is nothing in Mrs Tim of the Regiment that particularly dates it to the early 1930s. What remains the same is a delicious warmth that envelops the reader immediately. D.E Stevenson brought her characters back in this delightful sequel apparently to lift wartime spirits – I can only think that it would have done that perfectly.

“There is so much War News in News Bulletins, in Newspapers, and so much talk about the war that I do not intend to write about it in my diary. My diary is an escape from the war…though it is almost impossible to escape from the anxieties which it brings.”

Our narrator is again Hester Christie, the wife of Major Tim Christie – mother to Bryan and Betty. Written in a series of diary entries, in the same bright, warm chatty style that so endeared Hester Christie to readers of that earlier book. While Major Christie is away serving in France with the regiment, Hester is keeping the home fires burning in the small Scottish town of Donford where the regiment are now stationed. Her friend Grace is expecting a happy event any day and has somehow managed to make a deadly enemy of Mrs Benson, the colonel’s wife.

Over the course of this novel we see Hester try to suppress the natural exuberance of her delightful Betty when in polite company, cope with her son’s misspelt letters, holiday escapades and the lonely Polish soldier he adopts. When not ministering to the children, Hester spends her time volunteering at the comforts depot, sorting the piles of items which have been donated for the comfort of the men serving abroad. We witness some of the tensions that always seem to exist between people in any organisation of this type – not unlike the ladies who argue over the tea urn in Barbara Pym books.

While Tim is away in France, Tony Morley is again a frequent visitor – he is now a colonel – itching for active service and trying to knock his battalion into shape. It is Tony, who alerts Hester to the worrying situation in France (in the days before Dunkirk) and with no news from Tim for several weeks, Hester knows the fear that was experienced by so many families in these days.

“Sometimes I feel hopeful – I feel it is impossible that anything could happen to Tim without my knowing it in my very bones – and sometimes I am crushed with despair. Oh Tim, where are you? You can’t have gone away and left me here in this horrible, terrifying world alone!”

Hester’s faithful Annie gets married – and while she is away on honeymoon a peculiar replacement generally called ‘not Annie’ by Hester in her diary. Hester entertains a house guest, Pinkie, a blonde Amazonian type of head turner who is delightfully guileless and popular with just about everyone. Pinkie stays far longer than originally intended and is soon very much a part of the family. Dear Mrs Loudon, who we met in the first book turns up to visit her son Guthrie in a near by hospital, Hester makes a flying visit to London to see her brother on embarkation leave and experiences a proper air raid.

I enjoyed this book much more than the first book – which I liked a lot, but thought was a little bit too long, and has two sections which are noticeably different in tone. This book is a charming escape, but never completely shies away from the realities of war, it is also more of a cohesive whole. I have already bought the next two Mrs Tim books (soon after being sent this one, I think I decided I needed to get them in case they ran out or something) so lots more of Hester Christie to enjoy.

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mrs tim of the regiment

I have read only a few D E Stevenson books, not many compared to the enormous number she wrote. I have heard they vary in quality a little, but I loved the Miss Buncle books, Celia’s House and The Four Graces and have more D E Stevenson tbr. I recently received Mrs Tim Carries on from Dean Street press, and I realised I had never read the first Mrs Tim book. So, my first book of 2019 ended up being Mrs Tim of the Regiment on my kindle, a book that seems to have come about out of two books originally. It seems as if originally there were two books Mrs Tim Christie and Golden Days and at some point, they became Mrs Tim of the Regiment. Certainly, the first half of the book has a different feel from the second half – and I must admit I slightly preferred the second half.

I was glad to have something gentle and escapist to settle into around New Year, and I enjoyed spending time with Hester Christie and her family. It actually felt like quite a long book – probably because it was originally two books.

Hester Christie; – married to Tim Christie a captain in an unnamed army regiment – is our narrator, and diarist. The tone especially of the first half of the book is very much in the style of E M Delafield’s The Provincial lady – a light, breezy slightly mocking tone in which she relates her day to day life. She is the mother of two children, Bryan eleven and seven-year-old Betty – and she is assisted in the children’s care by Miss Hardcastle – Bryan goes to boarding school, but the family finances won’t stretch to two lots of boarding school fees. The family live in rented accommodation in a fictional village in the South of England, from where Tim goes to work at the regiment, and Hester keeps the home fires burning, which seems to be all that women in these kinds of books ever do. Annie the family housekeeper is very much part of the household too. Life might seem narrow to us at the start of 2019, but Hester is clearly happy, and her diary is full of small day to day domestic happenings.

“According to this book I have been sowing the seeds of complexes and cultivating inhibitions in Bryan and Betty ever since they were a few months old. Feel much worried about this, but decide that it is too late now to do anything, and that Bryan and Betty must just take their chance.”

Hester is happy enough in her domestic arrangements – everyone it seems knows who she is in the village, and she enjoys catching up with everyone. There are all the village shopkeepers for starters and Nora the other captain’s wife – who is rather annoying and who always manages to crop up whenever she is least wanted. Hester is always trying to keep on top of things, and not quite managing it, but she has her friendship with the latest regimental wife Grace and her irrepressible little daughter on hand to keep her entertained.

Suddenly, the family fortunes take an unexpected turn when Tim is posted to a job in Scotland. Hester and Tim take the family’s old banger Clementine to Scotland to look for a house – naturally the car breaks down – and all the houses seem terrible or absurdly large.

“Betty hugs me, and says, ‘Oh, Mummy, have you found a house? Is there a swing in the garden? You do look old this morning!’ Reply that I feel at least a hundred years old, and that I have found a house, but there is no swing in the garden. Betty’s face falls, so I rashly promise to see what can be done about a swing. She is overjoyed, and tells me that I do not look nearly so old as a hundred; only about sixty or so.”

It is at around this point that the narrative style changes a bit, (I assume at the point the original two books meet). The narrative is still Hester’s diary but the telling of it is much more narrative like – and that Provincial lady style of the first section of the book is dispensed with. More happens in this part of the book too.

They find a house which is pretty much perfect – and return home to make preparations for the move. The family are soon on their way North, without Miss Hardcastle, but with their trusty Annie in toe – with a whole new community to get to know. Here they meet Mrs McTurk, the sister of the dreadful Nora, who is a dreadful snob and talks loudly about the Rolls rather a lot. Betty makes friends with some local children, begins to attend the local school and Hester worries a little about the accent she may pick up.

Just as the family are beginning to settle in, Grace has visited and Bryan has paid his first visit home from school – Tim receives his majority – and it looks like the family will be on the move again.

One of their neighbours; Mrs Loudon is wealthy, locally respected woman who Hester soon begins to get very friendly with. Mrs Loudon invites Hester and Betty to her holiday home in the Highlands while Tim is away. Also staying with Mrs Loudon is her cousin Mrs Falconer – who really is quite a character. Here Hester gets embroiled in matters of romance when Mrs Loudon’s son Guthrie appears to have got himself attached to the wrong woman in a certain Miss Baker, who Mrs Loudon is anxious to gently separate her son from.

“‘You don’t think I’m wrong to try to influence Guthrie’s life, do you, Hester?’ ‘She’s not the right person for him.’ ‘She’s all wrong in every way. I’m not that despicable creature, a jealous mother. I’d welcome any girl I thought would make the man a good wife. Someone like you,’ she continues, looking at me, almost with surprise. ‘Yes, somebody exactly like you. And I’d steal you from that Tim of yours if I could, but I know there’s little hope of that – that’s the sort of woman I am. People must marry, and have children – and yet I don’t know why I should think so, for there’s a deal of sorrow comes to most married folks that single ones escape.’”

Then Major Tony Morley – who Hester and Tim already know through the regiment – turns up and becomes a frequent visitor at the house.

All very enjoyable, humorous, shot through with jolly little nuggets of wisdom. Spending time with Hester and her family was a real pleasure – and I look forward to meeting up with her, during the war, in Mrs Tim Carries On.

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thefourgraces

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.

DE Stevenson

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When I finished reading Miss Buncle Married – I felt I wanted to read the next book – The Two Mrs Abbotts right away. I found out that Persephone are probably publishing it at some point but I wasn’t sure I could wait. A quick look online revealed old copies fetching rather high prices – I know D E Stevenson books can be quite sort after these days. So I did a quick search on the Birmingham Library Catalogue – there was one book – I requested it. That was back in February – and I had almost forgotten all about it. Then I received an email while I was away in Devon, the week before last – saying the book was waiting to be collected. I went after work last Monday, knowing it would have to be my next read. I started it very late on Wednesday night, reading slowly the next two days after work, trying to savour it – but just gobbled up about 200 pages this afternoon to finish it.
Since the events of the second “Miss Buncle book” several years have passed. It is now 1942 and people are living with the everyday realities of wartime. Barbara Abbott – who was once Miss Buncle – now has two young children, Simon and Fay. She and her husband still live in Wandlebury – the faithful Dorcas still in attendance. Jerry (Jeronina) Abbott is married to Arthur Abbott’s nephew Sam, Sam is fighting the war in Egypt and Jerry must manage things on her husband’s estate Ganthorne with the help of her former governess Markie. These include a family of dirty London evacuees living in an estate cottage, soldiers billeted on the estate, and rumours of a German spy in the vicinity.
Meanwhile Barbara is drawn unwillingly into a rather regrettable love affair between Lancreste Marvell (who readers may remember from Miss Buncle married) and a fairly unpleasant girl called Pearl. There is also an adorable storyline involving a very successful romantic novelist, dominated by her sister.
Barbara Abbott – takes a bit of a back seat in this novel, we see far more of Jerry, Markie and the other characters. Fortunately they are all as lovely as Barbara, and although this novel is not quite as fabulous as Miss Buncle’s Book and Miss Buncle Married, it is wonderfully charming and hugely readable, and just absolutely hit the spot for me the last few days. D E Stevenson may not be a great literary talent, but I think her writing may be quite underrated she creates a charming yet believable world, and her characters are adorable. She can be very funny too, and really very observant of people, with a good ear for their voices.

“There’s nothing to do but think about her all the time. If only I could get my orders. Why haven’t they sent me my orders? D’you think the war office has forgotten all about me Mrs Abbott?”
Barbara had no idea whether or not this was possible and was about to make a noncommittal reply, but Simon got in before her.
“Perhaps they don’t need you,” he suggested
“Perhaps they think they can win the war without you” added Fay.
The Wretched Lancreste looked at Simon and then at Fay – and, being met by the stare of two pairs of innocent eyes, he looked away again.
“oh no, it can’t be that,” said Barbara hastily – far too hastily, for of course she had merely made it worse. She was really at her wits end by now and entertained wild thoughts of putting the children to bed, and getting rid of them.”

I will definitely buy a copy of this if and when Persephone publish it – just to add to my collection – as I just know these are books I will come back to. I was rather bereft at finishing it today – which I think is exactly how I felt when I finished Miss Buncle Married

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From Persephone books
Miss Buncle’s Book, Persephone Book No. 81, is about a woman who writes a novel about Silverstream, the village where she lives, under the pseudonym John Smith, and is then involved in the comedy as her neighbours try to discover the identity of the viper in their midst. Eventually she is forced to leave, and having married her publisher Arthur Abbott, moves to his house in Hampstead. The Abbotts then move out of London, which is when Miss Buncle Married, begins. Early on Arthur thinks: ‘But I really hope, in a way, that [Barbara] won’t want to write … because this place is delightful – simply charming – and if she starts writing about our neighbours, we shall most probably have to leave Wandlebury – just as she had to leave Silverstream – in a hurry.’
DE Stevenson’s great-granddaughter Fiona Bevan writes in the Persephone Afterword: ‘It is the truthful depiction of people, and the exposure of their faults, that makes Barbara’s writing dangerous.’ For, although witty and readable, DE Stevenson can be sharp and caustic, indeed occasionally verges on the cruel when she lampoons some of her characters. However, she is also intensely sympathetic to the less fortunate, for example the reader knows that Miss Foddy, the governess to the neighbouring children, faces a bleak future where ‘it is so extremely difficult for a woman of my age and uncertified qualifications to find a post‘ and DE Stevenson never forgets ‘the potentially bleak outlook for women who cannot marry into a secure life.’ Yet despite moments of seriousness, Miss Buncle Married is overall a funny, touching and interesting novel that most Persephone readers will enjoy very much.

 

 

It almost goes without saying that I loved Miss Buncle’s book – I say almost – because there are in the world those who are not aware of the wonderful books published by Persephone and so therefore may not have read Miss Buncle’s book as DE Stevenson books seem pretty hard to come by these days. I received this book for Christmas and have been looking forward to it enormously. It didn’t disappoint, in fact I fairly gulped it down. It looks like a fairly thick Persephone book, one that may have lasted until at least tomorrow night – but alas it was a much quicker read than I had anticipated and the pleasure of reading it all too soon over. I now feel quite bereft that I have finished it so quickly. I would have probably finished it hours ago – had I not deliberately slowed myself down – gone for walk, watched some TV etc.
One of the main delights in this novel for me was in the relationship between Barbara and her husband Arthur Abbott, although sometimes slightly confounded by his dear Barbara – ultimately he gets her in a way that no one else ever has or ever could. I was amused and charmed by how meek little Barbara turns into a veritable lion when she come across something she want so very badly as she wants The Archway House in Wandlebury.
As the Abbotts settle into their new life in Wandlebury, Barbara begins to involve herself in the lives of her neighbours. With her usual quiet perceptiveness she picks up on things; she learns a secret, one she even feels unable to share with Arthur – a secret which causes Barbara no end of worry. Arthur stumbles across an old friend of his from the trenches and Sam Abbott – Arthur’s nephew falls in love. Wandlebury is a wonderful setting – one in which Barbara and Arthur Abbott fit perfectly – they are surrounded by a host of marvellous characters – some wonderfully humorous creations of DE Stevenson, who give Barbara Abbott much to think about and are wonderful fodder for her imagination. Barbara and Arthur are rather afraid of her imagination – after what happened in Silverstream – they realise Barbara’s writing could be dangerous to their happiness.
This book was a complete joy – and I am desperate to read The Two Mrs Abbotts – the third in the series but it is pretty hard to find, and expensive, the cheapest on abebooks today being nearly £28. I only hope that following the success of the Miss Buncle books Persephone decide to do the decent thing and put her fans out of their misery.

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This is only the second D E Stevenson book I have read, most of her books are now out of print, and they are hugely sort after and very difficult to find. Therefore even though this is a registered bookcrossing book, I am keeping it  for now – instead of passing it on ( bad bad bookcrosser!) and if I do come across another copy I will then let it travel on.

I absolutley loved this book. The book opens in 1905 with the first Ceila Dunne – 90 year old owner of Dunnian house. She informs her astonished younger nephew Humphrey that she will be leaving Dunnian house to him, and not to his elder cousin who is fully expectant of the bequest. The house and money is to be for his lifetime, and then should pass to the next Celia Dunne – someone as yet unborn, as Humphrey’s 3 children are Mark, Joyce and Edith. The first Celia dies, and Humphrey, Alice and their children move into the house, they have two more children, and have a neice Deb come to live with them too. We then watch these children grow but as everybody grows older Dunnian remains unchanged. The books ends in 1942 in the middle of the second war.
D E stevenson has created characters you instantly love, Dunnian house almost a character in it’s own right. This was the kind of book I feel sorry to finish, as I have loved spending time with the people in it.

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