Book review: Miss Buncle's Book

by D E Stevenson Persephone Books, 344pp, £10


EDINBURGH-BORN DOROTHY Emily Stevenson (1892-1973) managed, inbetween raising four children, to pen more than 40 novels. She was related to Robert Louis Stevenson, married to a relation of the artistic Peploes, and lived her entire life in Scotland, mainly in Moffat, Dumfriesshire, where her body is buried.

Miss Buncle's Book originally appeared in 1934 and was the first of a trio featuring the genial Barbara Buncle. When we meet her, she's a long-term resident of Silverstream, a cosy English village.

Waking one day to discover that a sharp dip in her dividends threatens her genteel life as a quintessential, small-town spinster, Buncle pens a novel, the aptly named Disturber of the Peace, by "John Smith". It lays bare the lives, loves and eccentricities of a certain, badly disguised (certainly to those who live there) English village...

By now, the delightful, candy-box-worthy picture should be coming clear to you. In this case, with every layer of shiny paper peeled back, another layer of confection appears in this tale of a "woman who wrote a novel about a woman who wrote a novel", and the mayhem that ensues when the locals take umbrage at portrayals they deem "spicy descriptions of well-known persons".

The picture is painted with lightweight, yet broad strokes. Characters are just what you'd expect, from the self-appointed top dog, ostentatiously bossy Mrs Featherstone Hogg, to the bemused bachelor publisher, Mr Abbott, who falls not only for the manuscript – which he decides was written either by a genius or an imbecile – but for its author too, who turns out to be a bit of both.

The plot, such as it is, unpacks like Chinese boxes. Various residents read the book, recognise themselves or their neighbours, meet to gossip about the book, threaten legal action and even try getting "Smith's" book banned. In other quarters, the novel has such a profound emotional effect that people act out their literary fates, generally to their all-round betterment.

Meanwhile, Barbara Buncle, clever sausage that she is, quietly revamps herself on the proceeds of her bestseller while compiling numerous anecdotes with which to fill its successor. Never once does the village realise that the pleasant little brown wren in their midst is the cause of all their scandals.

Great literature this isn't. But the frothy romance is great entertainment, a bit like "reading" an episode of ITV's Miss Marple. Barbara Buncle and her neighbours have charm in spades, making them ideal companions for even the most dreich of weekends.