I’m going through a bit of 30s frame of mind lately and I think it started with this book. I was looking at my TBR shelves looking for something very specific: I wanted “gentle”, “charming”, “witty” and “quintessentially British”, with a bit of a make-over story thrown in, if possible.
What I really wanted was Miss Pettigrew Lives for Day you see, but then, lo and behold!, my eyes fell on Miss Buncle’s Book which ticked all the boxes.
Barbara Buncle is facing a common problem among single country Ladies past their youth: her income is decreasing and her efforts to economize are not making a different. Raising chickens or taking on a border is considered, but it will not do!
So what can a Lady do? She writes a book of course!
And because the small village of Silverstream has been her world, she uses her friends and neighbors as characters (hardly disguising their names) and the brilliant pseudonym of “John Smith”. The novel is an immediate success, probably because no one can agree if it was written by a naïve author bordering on the simple-minded or a genius satirist.
It doesn’t take long until Silverstream’s inhabitants recognize themselves and some aren’t happy with what they see in the mirror. That’s the beginning of a village-wide obsession with hunting down the mysterious author. More than that, the wild things Miss Buncle imagines some of her characters will do are actually coming true! When Miss Buncle starts on her second book the plot becomes very meta-fiction, which adds a bit of zest to the book’s subdued charm.
I’m a sucker for underestimated characters and Miss Buncle plays the part to perfection – she’s practically invisible.
Meeting Miss Buncle in the street, Mr Abbott would not have looked twice at her. A thin dowdy woman of forty he would have said (erring on the unkind side in the matter of her age) and passed on to pastures new. But here, in his sanctum, with the knowledge that she had written an amusing novel, he looked at her with different eyes.
But her situation is also perfect for a cunning observation of the people that surround her. Miss Buncle herself thinks she has no imagination, but isn’t empathy a form of imagination? The ability to place yourself in another’s shoes? I saw her as a sort of Elizabeth Bennett, as they both make a hobby out of studying character.
The only thing that prevented me from making this a 5/5 was the love story. Miss Buncle’s budding relationship with her editor, the Mr Abbott from above, was lukewarm and rather flat. His interest felt superficial and happened only because he liked the idea of this simple woman writing a satire without even noticing. He’s happy to be the cleverer of the two, to become the protector of a gentle and genteel woman in a dangerous world, and for discovering this uncut gem (which I’m sure he’ll want to remain uncut).
Miss Buncle is naïve, granted, but surely her sense of observation and writing skills show sharp wits? Throughout the book I often had the feeling that even the author (the real author, D.E. Stevenson) seems to underestimate her. I’m still not convinced about what Stevenson really wanted us to make of Miss Bungle, and that’s also fascinating.
Looking forward to the opinions of those of you who’ve also read it!
PS: I wonder what BBC is waiting for to adapt this…
Other thoughts: Stuck in a Book, a lovely shore breeze, She Reads Novels, Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf, Biblioathlas, The Captive Reader, a few of my favorite books, My Porch, Bookfoolery and Babble, Bad Bibliophile, Pudgy Penguin Perusals, A Library is a hospital of the mind, Readin’ and Dreamin’, The Literary Stew, Old English Rose Reads, Random Jottings (yours?)