Sunday, 27 October 2013

DE Stevenson – The Two Mrs Abbotts


The news that the third instalment of the Miss Buncle trilogy was being reissued by Persephone was very welcome information. The first two books (Miss Buncle’s Book and MissBuncle Married) have both been reissued by Persephone in the last few years, and proved enormously popular with fans.

For readers who love the homely warmth of a Dorothy Whipple or Frances Hodgson Burnett (two more much-loved Persephone authors), reading the country cottage concerns of Barbara Buncle are like being enveloped in a big woolly hug by a favourite granny.

Barbara Buncle originally lived in a sleepy English village, until she ruffled the feathers of her neighbours by exposing their shenanigans in a loosely disguised novel. So the second instalment saw her up sticks to her new village, where she settle with her publisher husband. And now we catch up with Barbara who is safely ensconced in her new home and getting to grips with England in wartime.

As the title suggests, The Two Mrs Abbotts (Mrs Abbott is Barbara’s married name) has more than one protagonist. And the other Mrs Abbott is Barbara’s sister-in-law Jerry, who largely takes over as the protagonist of this tale with Barbara assuming a secondary position.

In theme, The Two Mrs Abbotts reminded me of another Persephone book – A House In The Country byJocelyn Playfair (which, it pains me to say, is one of very few Persephone books that I have not enjoyed… which is more to do with the style of writing than the content). In that both books are concerned with the women left behind to pick up the pieces in England’s countryside while most men are fighting the war overseas. In both books, the capable and strong women find themselves sharing their country homes with unlikely characters, making do with some trying situations, experiencing awful longing for their absent other halves, and managing the awkwardness of unwanted attentions from interloping men… themselves displaced by the awfulness of the war.

However, where The Two Mrs Abbotts succeeds for me is that the war is not presented as a character in itself… it is simply the backdrop for the situation that our characters now find themselves in. There is no sense of self-pity, and no searching for sympathy. In fact, there is scant narrative thread through The Two Mrs Abbotts – rather, we are presented with a series of interlinking short stories (a young man and his unsuitable fiancée, a soldier and his unrequited love for Jerry, the resentment of a refugee family, a runaway London girl, the morality of whether a man should fight or not etc), that compel us to turn the pages as fast as possible to find out what happens next.

Although The Two Mrs Abbotts is the last in the Miss Buncle trilogy, the character of Barbara Buncle spills over into several other books by DE Stevenson – such as The Four Graces and Spring Magic. So, if you will mourn Miss Buncle as much as I will, then I suggest we start trawling second hand bookshops until we find her lurking in the pages of other novels by the same author.

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