When her dividends dry up in the 1930a depression, Barbara Buncle sets about writing a book for publication to make ends meet, using the male pen-name of “John Smith” to cut more ice with the publisher. Since, to use her own words, she has “no imagination” this is inevitably about the doings of the inhabitants of her village of Silverstream, whom she has known for years. Mr. Abbott of Abbot and Spicer agrees to publish the book because the characters seem so real, and is also intrigued by the puzzle as to whether the author is writing subtly “tongue in cheek” or “a very simple person writing in all good faith” based on acute observation. The bestselling “Disturber of the Peace” provokes outrage among those who discover that they have been blatantly parodied in the clearly recognisable village which has been renamed “Copperfield”. They are determined to track down and punish “John Smith”, but even when some suggest that the author may be female, it does not occur to them that she might be the dowdy and insignificant Barbara Buncle. Under pressure from Mr. Abbot to write a second book, what will she reveal next, will she be exposed and, if so, with what outcome?
I was initially reluctant to read this for a book group, expecting it to be dated, trivial and at best provide a bit of escapism from the modern world. On one level, it is all these things, but is also an insight into a past way of life, and written with the same kind of clarity and humour as apparently employed by Miss Buncle, it carries the reader along.
Dorothy (D E) Stevenson wrote stories compulsively from her childhood onwards and became a prolific and successful novelist of mainly romantic fiction, since then fallen out of print for decades. It is interesting to speculate how she would have used her talent in different circumstances: if born a man like her father’s cousin Robert Louis Stevenson, she might have written adventure stories; if born now, she might have applied her fertile imagination to TV drama series. As it was, she followed the conventions of her time in which a widow living beyond her means could not think of finding a job but had to scheme to trap a wealthy husband; a vicar’s wife who found it extravagant to hire a taxi still had three servants and a nanny; men dominated their wives who had to resort to subtly manipulating them without appearing to; the two women who lived together were never explicitly referred to as lesbians, but the intelligent one who had never been allowed to get educated and develop her brain is shown playing the “male” role to support her weak and indecisive partner, and so on.
So, in writing about a world in which “the good ended happily and the bad unhappily – that is what fiction means”, Dorothy Stevenson is worth reading mainly for her humorous observation of human nature.