Miss Buncle goes to la Dordogne

I love DCI Barnaby. Not the John Barnaby, the new, slightly too townie, sophisticated, dog-owner, and DCI with a degree in psychology. No, not this one. But the former, Tom, husband to Joyce and father to Cully. John votes Tory, Tom votes Labour or Lib-Dem at the utmost. John is definitely middle-class; Tom comes from the lower classes – I have always imagined that his father was a thatcher by trade (no pun intended) and that our Tom began as a PC who gradually went up the step of the professional and social ladders: Detective sergeant, Detective Inspector and Chief Detective Inspector of Causton Constabulary. From this long climb, DCI Tom Barnaby has learnt about how to observe and how to deal with people, from the lower-lower classes to the upper-upper classes. Yes, these do exist: look at the number of manors and Halls we visit when we accompany him during his investigations and the eccentrics we meet there… Tom has carved his own private niche and life in the professional middle-class and Cully is an actress but not only partnered, married in the bosom of the Church of England. Joyce belongs to an infinite number of societies and practices all sorts of crafts and arts: choir, botanic, archeology, library, member of charities, RSPB, National Trust, painting, theatre, films: you just name. And, of course, Tom is the least and last informed of all the gossip that goes through Midsomer County, although he would only have to turn to his wife or his daughter to know who is who and why, when, how…

Midsomer County is reputed in the French homes to be the most dangerous place where to live in England. Its constabulary is exceptional but it needs at least three or four murders before the DCI and his sergeant find the murderer both by logic and by a stroke of genius (well, sometimes, the stroke is not there). Otherwise, this is the dreamland county of the French – and MY dreamland county, my dream England.

There the French find all that seems (for them) all that is quintessentially English – not British, English:

the idyllic landscape:

the idyllic village:

the pub:

the church:

and its vicar, choristers (I hope they are choristers), and congregation:

and, of course, the vicarage:

This is England as we see her from the Dordogne, as Midsomer County. And this is England as I first imagined her from my Dordogne when I discovered such writers as Mrs Thirkell, Barbara Pym, Miss Read, Elizabeth Goudge, D.E. Stevenson and others – these “neglected middle-class women writers from the 1890s to the 1960s” as they are called nowadays by newcomers in what becomes rapidly an expanding field of research in Eng Lit.

These “neglected women” were well alive and kicking (sorry, ladies: it is only an image, I know you were not kicking) on the shelves on our libraries in the various houses of the families and I read them as a youngster and then as a not-so-much youngster. They have been with me for a long time, before I discovered and admired the seminal books of Nicola Beauman, Nicola Humble, Alison Light, Kate MacDonald, and the new publishers that were slowly rehabilitating them: Virago PressPersephone BooksGreyladies booksSourcebooks, and others, little by little.

One of my favourite heroines was and still is Miss Buncle cretad by Dorothy Emily Stevenson – Miss Buncle whose life expands on three books and very cleverly on a fourth, even over spilling on a fifth, very indirectly I must say.

She is the true and full heroine of the two first books, which have been reprinted by Persephone Books: “Miss Buncle’s Book” and “Miss Buncle Married”.

Miss Barbara Buncle lives in one of these idyllic, rural, pastoral, villages described above with trains commuting easily for one day spent in London. She is a “spinster”, not as young as she has been but not yet “on the shelf”. She lives with her faithful Dorcas who has been her nurse, her maid and now is cook general and housekeeper. We are at the beginning of the 1930s and the Great Depression is beginning to take her toll, heard by the middle classes. Since then, Miss Buncle has lived from revenue of money carefully invested but now the bonds are slowly coming to no value and the revenues are thin. What is there to do? A lady does not work, which means she has no paid job. She does little in the house: the rough and the less rough work incumb to the servant(s). What would Dorcas do and where would she go should Miss Buncle stop to be Miss Buncle-as-she-is?

Miss Buncle finds the solution to this problem in falling back to eternal resource of the British woman since the XIXth century – after Jane Austen: she will write a book!

Alas! Miss Buncle has no imagination, or so she says. Therefore she will describe what she knows. The village where she lives, Silverstream, will go under the thin disguise of Copperfield and will be inhabited by … its inhabitants, also thinly disguised under false names. Mister Mason will become Mister Fortnum, etc. And we meet these people both through the eyes of Mrs D.E. Stevenson and those of Miss Buncle.

The population is almost stereotyped for a French reader of nowadays for we find almost the same in Agatha Christie’s village mysteries: the bachelor major or colonel retired from the Army (India); the vicar, young, full of zeal and self-sacrifice, with missionary projects among his own flock; the landlady (or just a lady) who lets rooms to commercial travellers and clerks (reminiscences of Leonard Bast from “Howards End” but on a cheerful tone), the poor widow who does not know consciously that she should and will remarry, the “nouveaux riches” in the big house who think themselves the “crème de la crème”, pander to more ancient and titled families of the neighbourhood, and look down their noses upon the “villagers”, the families who follow blindly every fad of the “nouveaux riches”, the doctor, his wife and their children; the young girl on the brink of being a young lady but still something of a tomboy, the lady who consciously seeks a husband and a rich one as well as a remedy for her dwindling revenues, but who likes to be courted by one and all men (heart breaker or vamp?); and the shopkeepers, the “fish”, the maids, the cooks, the gardeners, the men and women of-all-jobs, and even the grave digger. This is the population of a typical Midsomer County village, eighty years ago.

Miss Buncle writes what she sees, losing all appetite and sleep, a flurry of paper sheets around her and ink on her fingers and nose. As a final flourish, the end of the novel is a fairy tale morality where the Villains are punished and the Good Ones will live in peace and happiness for ever and ever.

She chooses a “nom de plume” as she cannot write under her real name in the village she describes in her novel and takes the very bland name of “John Smith”. Of course, it will be thought that the author is a man and will fool readers, but just stop to think a minute of all the women writers who wrote either as wives (Mrs Gaskell, Mrs Oliphant, Mrs Humphrey Ward) or under a man’s name (the Brontë sisters, George Eliot) or anonymously (Jane Austen). And this went well into the 1930s and 1940s.

“John Smith” sends his/her manuscript to an editor who thinks marvels of the book (as well as his nephew who will become a prominent character in the two further Miss Buncle books), asks to meet the author and discovers during the following interview the delicious Barbara Buncle. No, it was no sarcastic or ironic fiction; it was a straightforward story with a fairy tale end. No tongue in cheek yarn. But readers in the country will think it is, and here stands a best seller that, Mr Abbott, the publisher, will not let go.

The book is published, makes a hit but … is read in Silverstream. And it is a revolution in the peaceful village. There will be no murder as in Midsomer Parva or Badger’s End or in Saint-Mary’s Mead. However, the “nouveaux riches” being unmasked are murderous and will find the culprit at all cost – even if their drawing-room is to be an improvised court room where the entire village down to the grave digger is invited. A storm. A tempest. A revolution. A hunt. Who is John Smith who dared criticise Silverstream and its inhabitants?

More revolution to come as Mr Abbott asks Miss Buncle to write quickly a sequel to her first novel that sells like hot “petits pains”. And she does. With another fairy tale at the end: her narrator (herself) is getting married to the publisher (Mr Nun – instead of Abbott) before the entire village again, reconciled and reunited, to live happily for ever and ever.

It is too much for Silverstream. The culprit is found (not the right one); children are kidnapped; blackmail is afoot; Miss Buncle pleads guilty; lovers elope and get married and spend their honeymoon in Paris; other lovers break their troth; others again plight their troth; nobody believes Miss Buncle; it is a whole turmoil getting faster and faster like a crazy roundabout. And… Miss Buncle is finally believed.

I shall tell no more but that Miss Buncle and Dorcas find their way out peacefully with Miss Buncle married with Mr Abbott, which is no great revelation since the title of the second book is “Miss Buncle married”. Reader, now take thy book and enjoy!

This is the awkward review of a book that perhaps most of you have read or heard of. A book that has been reviewed many times. Why find it here and which links does it have with la Dordogne?

First, I belong to the D.E. Stevenson internet reading group and as with other “specialised in one neglected feminine writer”, I enjoy the wit and the nimbleness of mind of its members. I admire their dedication to the promotion and revival of the author’s books, the lobbying they make with the publishers, the links they tie with the families, the researches they make, the ground work, sometimes ungrateful, they undertake for academics, their friendship, their welcome to new members, their wit, their wish to let you into this happy world and forget or share your daily burden.

Do you know about D.E. Stevenson? This is her maiden name, Dorothy Emily Stevenson (1892-1973), whose father was the lighthouse engineer David Alan Stevenson, first cousin to the author Robert Louis Stevenson. She married in 1916 captain Peploe of the 6th Ghurka Rifles, connected to the well-known Scottish colourist Samuel Peploe.

Second, this book belongs to my family library, and I can well imagine my Grand-Mother, sitting in the garden, in the afternoon around teatime (“le goûter”) and reading this with a smile. The perfect book to relax in her busy days. And my Grand-Mother had busy days although they were not far from those lived in this and other fictions – but without flights of fancy: we are in France and Reason is foremost! My Mother had almost the same and now I mill around likewise in their foosteps.

There is the village with its characters – not the same but there are always and everywhere social classes, climbers, well-established “county people”, followers, doctors, wives, children, single ladies per choice or per chance or per bad luck, married couples who function more or less, “prêtres” full of zeal for their parishioners (and others more lazy), cleaning ladies, self-styled gardeners, men of all jobs, shopkeepers, and even grave diggers (though not so “pittoresques”).

But times have changed as well. And the French society has never been structured like the English and British one. The division in “classes” is not exactly the same and never been. The number of lady authors seems to be less extensive. The climate is different and so is the idyllic village in its idyllic landscape. The Church is different and the activities linked with it are slightly different.

I am interested, fascinated, by these two countries so close and so different, by these two cultures so close and so different, by these two people and these nations so close and nevertheless that have evolved so differently.

I shall come back to this matter often. I regret deeply that the field of “neglected middle-class women writers from the 1890s to the 1960s” has not been similarly open in France but I make my own research and would be glad to be pioneer in the French field. I regret that the British “neglected middle-class women writers from the 1890s to the 1960s” have not been more translated in French and that no great enthusiasm was shown when I offered to create a mixed reading group with the British ex-pats and the French residents in the village.

But I rejoice that there are reprints of this fiction in the USA as well as in the UK. They part of their history of literature and although very often conservative and patriarchal is a testimony of something that lived only by and through women.

This would be called in French a “matrimoine” in lieu of a “patrimoine”: something that belonged and was transmitted by women. A testimony of their lives and the way they saw or were bound to see society.

One may be enthralled while others will be shocked.

My only point, as far as gender studies are concerned, is that it is always fruitful to start by knowing the story and the history of ideas and ways of life. Literature does not escape from this scope.

But this is only MY point of view. And for the time being, I feel happy and comfortable in Midsomer County with Miss Buncle as one of its resident. God keep her from meeting DCI Tom Barnaby but at the church fête when she will be introduced to him by his wife Joyce!

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