Miss Buncle’s Book, by D. E. Stevenson

When the seasons change, I sometimes get a cold, but this one couldn’t have happened at a worse time. I had a number of author events scheduled for the coming week, including three full days at a book festival where I would be reading and helping out at various booths while also chatting about my books with one and all. Time to get serious! Falling back on my most reliable remedies, I put aside all my plans and spent the day curled up on the sofa with endless pots of tea, herbal supplements, and something to read. Desperate times call for comfort reads, and what could be more comforting than a D. E. Stevenson novel?

In this 1934 novel, recently reissued by Persephone Press, Barbara Buncle is worried about money. The dividends, which up till now have enabled her to continue living in her childhood home in the quiet village of Silverstream, have suddenly dried up. Some didn’t come in at all while others were only half the usual amount. Casting about for a way to earn money she hits on the idea of writing a book.

She has a lot of fun writing it, using her neighbors—thinly disguised—as the characters. But partway through, she realises that not a lot happens in Silverstream (Copperfield in her book), so she starts inventing twists that wake things up.

Much to her surprise, Mr. Abbott wants to publish it and summons her to his London office. He’s not entirely sure whether it is satire or in earnest, but he enjoys reading it so much that he is sure it will be a big hit. Newly rechristened Disturber of the Peace, the book will come out under her pseudonym.

It never occurs to Miss Buncle that her neighbors in Silverstream might get their hands on the book, much less that they will recognise themselves in it. She is shocked by their reactions: a few are delighted but most are angry and determined to find out who “John Smith” is.

The fun continues. Stevenson handles her large cast with ease, making each so memorable that I never got confused. How they handle this vision of their alternate lives entertained me right up to the last page.

Miss Buncle’s confusion and fear that she will be found out made me think wryly of when my memoir came out a few years ago. I wasn’t trying to be anonymous, but I did wonder what people who were in it would think. I was also a bit taken aback when I realised how many of my friends were reading it. There was a resounding silence from my family (other than my sons who had pre-approved it). I don’t know if any of them even read it. Luckily, they didn’t play a large role in the events covered by the memoir.

Any writer, whether working with fiction, poetry or memoir, reveals herself. If you don’t take that risk, you won’t dig deep enough, leaving your words to lie lifelessly on the page. It helps to laugh in the face of fear, and Miss Buncle’s adventures certainly gave me plenty to laugh about. I think all the laughing drove away my cold.

What are your comfort reads?

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