I started listening to Backlisted this week, a British podcast featuring authors and scholars talking about books from the past. I was sold on D.E. Stevenson’s delightful novel, Miss Buncle’s Book, when the hosts laughingly read out sections of the book. The quote that really got me was this description of a scene from the eponymous book: “It was a passionate scene, and had either been written by somebody who knew very little about such matters or somebody who knew a great deal. It was either very innocent—or else it wasn’t” (p. 46)*. Who could resist? Not me, that’s for sure.
When her publisher asks Barbara Buncle why she wrote her book, she bluntly says that she needed the money. It being the early 1930s, her dividends aren’t coming in the way they used. As she doesn’t really have much of an imagination, Miss Buncle’s book is really a thinly veiled version of the village she lives in. Silverstream turned into Copperfield. Dr. Walker turned into Dr. Rider. Consequently, people who recognize themselves and are unhappy to have their flaws paraded about in fiction are ready to sue for libel in spite of Miss Buncle’s minuscule efforts to disguise their identities.
There is more plot to Miss Buncle’s Book than in Miss Buncle’s Disturber of the Peace. In the book inside the book, not much happens until a strange supernatural creature suddenly releases Copperfield’s pent up passions. When Disturber of the Peace comes out and the characters who hate it get riled, Miss Buncle has to keep her identity as the author a secret for fear of being ostracized and probably sued. Things get even worse for her when the unhappy villagers blame the very clever, very funny doctor’s wife for writing the book.
I laughed out loud more than once reading Miss Buncle’s Book. I love the idea of a book that works as both as satire a la Jane Austen and as a goodhearted portrait of village life with absolutely no malice in it. Miss Buncle is a bit of a paradox in this way. She’s a keen observer. Because she’s quiet and viewed as mousy by everyone else, people say things in front of her or otherwise reveal themselves. But she also admits, more than once, that she has no imagination. (The “character” names make that quite clear.) Her lack of imagination leads to a hilarious metafictional conclusion that made me love this book even more.
There are parts where I had to raise my eyebrows at the casual sexism, however; this book is very much a product of 1934. Readers who can look past this will find a fantastic book that works as satire-of-village-life and comfort read. I had a wonderful time reading it. So much so, that I want to thank the folks at Backlisted for featuring it. I’m so glad I didn’t miss out on this gem of a book.
Quote is from the 2012 Kindle edition.