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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?)
As far I remember, Pygmalion is the first play I’ve ever read. I’ve been tempted by Oscar Wilde, but Pygmalion was also at the top of the Ugly-Duckling – Makeover Stories list, so it got the honor. It’s a short play and it works well in audiobook because you get to listen to all the accents and the story is all about the accents.
Phonetics expert Henry Higgins bets he can teach Cockney flower-girl Eliza Doolittle to pass for a duchess at an upcoming ambassador’s party. His theory is that an impeccable diction is the most important thing about being perceived as gentility.
Although being packaged as a romantic comedy (Shaw himself called it “A Romance”), he actually seemed to go for anti-romance. All readers expect Eliza to fall in love with Higgins and she does, but then she begins seeing him for the hyper-rational, egomaniac he really is. And all readers are expecting Higgins to fall in love with Eliza, but we’re never sure if he ever does.
I found Higgins a surprising and unexpectedly feminist character. Although he has the tact of a door nail, the man is at least honest and consistent! Eliza starts out as a strong character, pro-actively deciding to take lessons and improve herself, but then becomes completely dependent on Higgins’s approval. Bad idea.
Here’s Higgins at his best (after Eliza leaves his house):
HIGGINS: (…) If you come back I shall treat you just as I have always treated you. I can’t change my nature; and I don’t intend to change my manners. My manners are exactly the same as Colonel Pickering’s.
LIZA: That’s not true. He treats a flower girl as if she was a duchess.
HIGGINS: And I treat a duchess as if she was a flower girl.
… and another after Eliza asks for a bit of kindness on his part:
LIZA: Don’t sneer at me. It’s mean to sneer at me.
HIGGINS: I have never sneered in my life. Sneering doesn’t become either the human face or the human soul. I am expressing my righteous contempt for Commercialism. I don’t and won’t trade in affection. You call me a brute because you couldn’t buy a claim on me by fetching my slippers and finding my spectacles. You were a fool: I think a woman fetching a man’s slippers is a disgusting sight: did I ever fetch your slippers? I think a good deal more of you for throwing them in my face. No use slaving for me and then saying you want to be cared for: who cares for a slave? If you come back, come back for the sake of good fellowship; for you’ll get nothing else. You’ve had a thousand times as much out of me as I have out of you; and if you dare to set up your little dog’s tricks of fetching and carrying slippers against my creation of a Duchess Eliza, I’ll slam the door in your silly face.
It’s also only when Higgins’ manages to rouse Eliza’s temper that she returns to her old vigorous self and shows her claws. She threatens to set up her own diction business… Higgins congratulates her!
(after Eliza makes her threat)
HIGGINS: [wondering at her] You damned impudent slut, you! But it’s better than snivelling; better than fetching slippers and finding spectacles, isn’t it? [Rising] By George, Eliza, I said I’d make a woman of you; and I have. I like you like this.
LIZA: Yes: you turn round and make up to me now that I’m not afraid of you, and can do without you.
HIGGINS: Of course I do, you little fool. Five minutes ago you were like a millstone round my neck. Now you’re a tower of strength: a consort battleship. You and I and Pickering will be three old bachelors together instead of only two men and a silly girl.
Higgins’ a insensitive rascal, but no one can accuse him of dishonesty. What you see is what you get.
Pygmalion was the basis for the 1964 movie My Fair Lady and I’ve also re-watched it for the “Read the book, See the movie” challenge. It seems a remake is in the works with Daniel Day Lewis and Keira Knightley – still not sure how I feel about it. No matter how much I try to avoid it, KK always seems to pop up in the book adaptations I really want to see: P&P, Atonement, Silk…
MFL is almost a word-by-word like the play, except of course, for the musical bits. As expected, it was “Hollywoodized” to satisfy people’s hunger for an unmistakable happy-ending (it’s open to debate in the play). Because of this we see Higgins walking home after the final confrontation has an epiphany (wasn’t there something similar in Gigi?). Small side note: isn’t it incredible after almost 50 years, Eliza’s ball dress is still gorgeous and fashionable? I wantssss it!
One of my favorite scenes in the movie – it’s great visually, love the irony in the lyrics and the dialogues are hilarious:
Right up there, tied with Wolf Hall, Room is the best book of the year so far. I can always trust the Man Booker for good recommendations. When the long list recently came up I ordered Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America straight away and while browsing Waterstones last weekend I couldn’t resist the idea behind “Room”. From the back cover:
Jack is five and excited about his birthday. He lives with his Ma in Room, which has a locked door and a skylight, and measure eleven feet by eleven feet. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits.
He loves watching TV, and the cartoon characters he calls friends, but he knows that nothing he sees on-screen is truly real – only him, Ma and the things in Room. Until the day Ma admits that there’s a world outside.
“Room” is told from Jack’s POV and he’s the only source of information we have about his life. It’s always great to find a book with a credible child’s voice and this one is especially powerful because although being a precocious child, Jack knows very little of the world. Also, through him we pick up on things he can’t understand, for instance, everyday except on Saturdays and Sundays, he and Ma play the Screaming game, where they stand on the table and scream at the top of their lungs and then stay silent for a few minutes.
Donoghue’s “Ma” easily turns into a figure of survival and resilience. How do you raise a healthy, happy and sane child in a room? How do you make sure that your child has enough exercise? How do you stay happy enough to make your child happy, when you’ve been trapped for seven years?
Room is tiny, but Emma Donoghue creates a whole world inside it with no futile sentimentality and an unexpected dose of humor – in Room, there’s always “thousands of things to do”. The expression “world-building” can be used here without hesitation, and the best constructed one I’ve seen in years (sorry Brandon Sanderson). Highly recommended.