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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?)
Shannon from Giraffe Days and I noticed we both had Tea With Mr. Rochester by Francis Towers in our TBRs, so we decided to read it at the same time and then exchange thoughts on it. It was great fun and I hope to do this again in the future, with her or other follow bloggers. If you have time, drop by her blog and say hi.
(Isn’t book blogging fabulous? Shannon’s in Canada, I’m in Belgium and here we are, connecting over books!)
Tea With Mr. Rochester is published by Persephone and was the only book ever written by Francis Towers: a collection of 10 short-stories that became my first (and so far only) 5/5 of the year. Now without further ado…
Alex: This was my first “off the beaten track” Persephone, having so far gone for hits like Miss Pettigrew. It was a solid 4.5 but might become my first five stars of the year (this conversation will help me decide). I was pleasantly surprise by Towers’ writing style: delicate but ironic, poetic but not sentimental. It was a very distinctive voice, didn’t you think? Probably why all the stories somehow felt similar, like they were the same tale told in different ways. Or maybe it’s because she uses recurrent characters: the Literary Daughter, the Older-Wiser-and-Darker Woman, the Mysterious Man, etc.
Either way, I think the similarities of the individual stories gave the book as a whole a nice individuality. What was your favorite of the ten?
Shannon: This was my first Persephone book, and I normally love books from this era but I struggled to connect with these stories, due to the writing style. While I loved the delicate, ironic, poetic prose (great choice of words!), I found myself constantly distracted by the effort of figuring out which character was being referred to, what a line meant etc. The narrative seemed to – not jump around but have bits missing, for me. I think it’s a book that benefits from being read more than once and with fewer distractions and interruptions than I had! So the prose was both frustrating and at times beautiful, for me.
But I agree that the similarities between the stories gave it continuity. The downside is that they became more predictable the further along you went. I don’t know if I have a favourite, exactly, but I think the two stories I resonated with and liked the most were “Tea with Mr Rochester” and “Don Juan and the Lily”. You?
Alex: I know what you mean about the not knowing who was being referred to. I had that difficulty in the first stories especially. It also didn’t help that she uses “one” so often (“One dries up when people think their thoughts are above one’s head“), but after a while it became sort of charming. I loved “Tea with Mr. Rochester” as well (do you think they chose it as a title for marketing reasons? Just like anything that says “Austen” sells better?). “The Little Willow” made me all teary, but my favorite was “The Rose in the Picture“. Possibly because there’s more dialogue between the couple and the man’s personality is more fleshed out. Also, I’m always a sucker for stories about the neglected wallflower who’s finally noticed.
However, the story that came to mind more often after I finished it was “The Spade Man From Over the Water”. There is a tension there that you’d expect in thrillers and even ghost-stories. What do you think happened there? The perfect husband wasn’t so perfect after all, right?
Shannon: I KNOW they chose the title they did because of that, because it worked on me!! As soon as I heard the title I just had to get this book. Titles, covers, those tricks work on me all the time! I found that one the story I connected with the most, because of imaginative little Prissy who falls in love with Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester, and in looking for a real-life counterpart finds herself attaching the characteristics of Rochester to one of her teachers, Mr Considine. Not only her love for the book – and Mr Rochester – appealed to me, but also there were lines in it that totally clicked with me. Like here: “Prissy felt a little cheated; as one does, for instance, when someone in a book goes out at a door on the right, whereas in one’s mind the door has been all the time on the left.” (p.32) That happens to me all the time! And also her daydreams, and her changing perception of Mr Considine.
“The Little Willow” was very sad, I agree. The stories seem to be a mix of sweet and sad, with a whiff of the supernatural here and there – like in “Violet“, “Lucinda” and even “The Spade Man From Over the Sea” – it definitely had the feel of something dark and even vindictive, lurking in the shadows. My thought, regarding plot, while reading it was that Mrs Asher’s lost husband was now young Mrs Penny’s husband, because she clearly had a “moment” when she saw his picture, but I also think that the darker tone of the story, whenever Mrs Penny thought of Rupert, as well as that line at the end, “Treachery! … But whose?” – I had to stop and think, am I reading too much into it, and adding melodrama that isn’t really there? But how else am I to take the line about treachery – unless all it really refers to is the end of their friendship because of the return of a husband. Maybe Mrs Penny is just feeling guilty…? But why, then, Mrs Asher’s reaction to the photo? See, I’m a bit lost but I actually enjoyed the ambiguous nature of this story! The not-knowing is part of the fun!
Alex: That quote about feeling cheated was great, also had it marked 🙂 I also felt he was the “lost husband.” Maybe he wasn’t a lost husband at all, but just a lover who abandoned her with her children. Treachery because her friend, who she was beginning to love, left without a goodbye and treachery from her husband (she definitely suspected!).
Lots of food for though in that story, reminds me of The Turn of the Screw in it similarly vague ending.
Most stories are filled with literary references. Towers’ love of Charles Lamb reminded me of the narrator of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, who’s constantly mentioning him as well. (I feel the Universe is telling me to give him a try him) She also clearly loved Shakespeare and Chekhov, as they also appear in several of the stories. Other recurring things: roses, Spanish coffers, people who look like people in paintings, aunts. Do you think Towers was aware of this or was it just her subconscious working?
Shannon: I haven’t read any Charles Lamb either – I’m not even familiar with any of his titles! Shame on me. But I loved all the literary and artistic references. I thought of the recurring motifs as an overall connection between the stories – while the stories themselves don’t link in terms of recurring characters etc., they feel connected via all the recurring motifs and themes. It gives them a similar voice even when the tone changes, which was a nice touch. Whether it was deliberate of not I’ve no idea! It was interesting to me, though, that even with all the lovely flowers, the stories still had that air of a funeral about them (or maybe the flowers added to that!). Do you know what I mean?
As far as I know, she wrote these after WWII, and I can’t help but think that the war influenced all writers in the 40s and 50s, in different ways: with Towers, I was actually mildly surprised at the tone of – not defeat, but quiet resignation, that seemed to be present in most of the stories. What I mean is, there wasn’t much energy, not like after WWI. In the week or so since I finished reading it, that’s the sense that lingers. You’ve got stories of lovers lost in the war, of ghosts, of women keeping each other company in the absence of men. I don’t mean that the stories are all sad or anything, just… quietly accepting. Am I projecting too much?
Alex: Very good points! I know exactly what you mean about funerals. There’s this… subdued feeling about the stories. Like people whispering and flowers that are lovely but on the verge of wilting. The home environments she describes so well also come off as sort of stifling and somehow outside reality. I think someone like Hitchcock would have loved to film Violet for Twilight Zone.
It was a real accomplishment of Towers to pull off atmospheres that cause such a (lingering) impression. It’s a book that I’d like to revisit at some point. I wonder what visions it will inspire then.
Shannon: I was thinking much the same thing: some of the stories, like “Violet” and “Lucinda” and even the Spade Man story we were discussing earlier, would make great creepy films! Especially with that slightly morbid atmosphere. I can’t help but think that Towers was actually aiming for something really positive and hopeful and uplifting with these stories – but I don’t think WWII was so easily escaped.
You’ve certainly given me a more positive impression of this book, Alex! I still don’t love it, but it was such a healthy discussion in terms of helping me focus on its good points! It was lots of fun. 🙂