These charming books were written in 1937. The first tells the story of Barbara Buncle, unmarried lady in her thirties living in a small village somewhere near London. She lives on some kind of dividends, and has a long time maid/housekeeper as everyone but the very poorest did in those days in England. But she has a worry — the dividends are dwindling, and she is quite concerned as to how to make money to supplement the ever-decreasing income source.
She and her maid Dorcas discuss what can be done. Barbara suggests the possibility of raising chickens, but the two ladies dismiss it as impractical, and not an activity that could produce enough income to justify the awfulness of raising chickens and all that entails.
But Miss Buncle gets an idea! She will write a book, and so she does. Although she calls it fiction, it is a roman á clef about the people who live in the village and their doings. She used the pen name of John Smith. She sends it to a publisher in London, not expecting much, but hoping. The publisher reads it, and is thoroughly delighted with it. He makes an appointment to come to see her and sign a contract, and gives her an advance of $100 pounds, and Barbara is thoroughly relieved because now she can pay her bills in the village.
The book is published and distributed, and is a great success! A best seller, and the publisher is thrilled, Miss Buncle is amazed at its success, but a dark cloud looms. The villagers reading it, begin to recognize themselves in the book, and although the names have been changed, it is abundantly clear who is who, and many of them are not shown in a very good light. This book that is making the rounds is funny, and charming and there is a lot of talk about it. Because it was published with a pen name, no one knows who wrote it, Barbara is keeping mum about it, and the villagers are now sure it is one of them because who else would know them so well but another villager?
There ensues all kinds of comings and goings and speculating and the village finally settles on the doctor’s wife, because he knew everyone and could possibly come home and talk about everything he had seen. It becomes clear to Barbara that this cannot continue and she tries to tell the village that she wrote it, but no one will believe her because she had always been so quiet and mousy and unassuming they all thought she was a little dull and not capable of such a thing. But at last they are forced to understand that their little mousy quiet Miss Buncle has indeed written this best seller.
After a number of meetings between Barbara and her publisher, a bachelor, they find themselves in love and plan to get married. But things are heating up terribly in the village, and it is clear she can no longer live there. She sells her house and leaves without telling anyone, so a committee of the village which has convened to confront Barbara and give her a good piece of their collective mind arrive to find the house empty and a for sale sign on the premises.
But the charming thing is that many of the villagers see how their characters in the book do things differently and decide themselves to make some changes. A somewhat abusive man determines and achieves being a kind and loving husband and father, two ladies who live together decide on a long stay in Egypt in stead of the Samarkand that their fictional counterparts travel to, etc etc.
The second book is the married life of Barbara Buncle, now Abbot, and it is not nearly as interesting. She and her husband move to a house in another small village, said to have a ghost, which turns out to be a youngster from next door trying to scare away prospective buyers. It also has its share of colorful characters, just as Barbara’s former village. It is more of a ladies magazine type story fleshed out to book length, with all the standard plot points expected in such.
I enjoyed the first book immensely, and simply enjoyed the second. I tend to like books written in the early part of the twentieth century. Whether American or British, they have a certain rhythm and flow to the language and the plot that feels quiet different from today’s books. Not necessarily better, just different.
It is the type of charming early twentieth century book that could only have been written in England, sweet, delightful and exhibiting a stalwart belief in the innate goodness of the human race.
Dorothy Emily Stevenson (1892–1973) was a best-selling Scottish author. She published more than 40 “light romantic novels” over a span of more than 40 years.