I loved Miss Buncle. I loved [b:Miss Buncle's Book|1200465|Miss Buncle's Book |D.E. Stevenson|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1340037486s/1200465.jpg|2827104]*. I loved Miss Buncle's book. I loved the book within Miss Buncle's book.
Barbara Buncle is in serious need to some income to support herself and her elderly nurse. What's a genteel spinster to do when she has no skills and women don't get jobs? Write a book? Keep chickens? She hates chickens! A book it is, then.
Having, by her own assessment, no imagination, Miss Buncle decides to simply record the daily life of her small town, changing her neighbors' names but otherwise portraying them faithfully. Hey, what's the chance of any of them ever reading it, right? To make it more interesting, she adds in some adventures, romances and travels for people she likes and punishments and embarrassments for those she doesn't (desertion for the local abusive husband, for instance).
But Barbara Buncle is a better writer than she gives herself credit for, and soon her "novel" is a best-seller! Half the town is up in arms, and everyone wants to know who the culprit is. Meek and dowdy Miss Buncle doesn't occur to anyone as a suspect, but how long can she keep her secret?
This is Stevenson at her best, funny and satirical and kind. This was the first book of hers I'd read and it was far cleverer and more humorous than I expected. And despite being very approachable, the prose is also amazingly controlled. Stevenson can be very subtle. Miss Buncle is more observant than she herself is aware, and the gap between the things she writes and says and her understanding of their implications provides some of the funniest and most insightful moments.
For instance, it's never totally clear whether Barbara doesn't realize her two "spinster" neighbors are lesbians, or doesn't realize that other people will disapprove of them when she accidentally outs them. Stevenson clearly has no problem with lesbianism (they get to vacation in Egypt! In trousers!), which was a little surprising to me in a book written for middle class women of the 1930s. I especially liked that one lesbian and the married doctor who were childhood best friends are still friends and hang out talking about their relationships.
Stevenson is also very kind to her less, um, intellectually gifted characters. The Major, for instance, has no introspection, can hardly follow a conversation, and thinks in cliches. Many authors would make him a stock character, a buffoon and probably a bigot, but just when the reader is judging him (man, what an idiot!) Stevenson gently points out that he is also one of the kinder and more decent people in town. Do the stupid and simple deserve happiness any less? Let him have his happy ending, even if it is a maudlin one.
Stevenson is very charitable: few of her unsympathetic characters are irremediably bad. Some of them just need a wake up call. Where the inexperienced Miss Buncle take pleasure in giving her characters what she thinks they deserve, Stevenson gives hers what they need.
*Except for the cover. In addition to being hideous, um, the main character is supposed to be 32. I understand that 32 used to be considered an "old maid" but that doesn't mean she looked 65!