Well now. This has been considerably more of a blog break than I originally planned. Apologies for that, and for depriving myself of the lovely feedback, support and inspiration I get from your comments.
I think I mentioned that right in the midst of my planned break of a couple of months, my colleague went out unexpectedly on what turned into a three and a half month medical leave. As our team (dealing with the legal side of child dependency cases) was not only deemed essential, but sadly saw a considerable increase in cases in the past year due to the added stress of covid and its related lockdowns, financial impacts, school closures, etc., this made for a quite intense few months for me. I was generally working from home three days a week, fortunately, which made all the extra work a bit more manageable (no commute time really does make quite a difference), but though I actually did quite a lot of reading, I was largely reading for sanity and survival and had no bandwidth left for sharing my thoughts (not that they would have tended to be worth sharing under the circumstances), nor did the idea of sitting at a computer to write blog posts seem enticing after spending far too much time every day in front of a computer anyway. The best I could do many nights was to sit with Andy watching TV or a movie, and then pass into a coma by 10:00 at the latest.
I wrote a very little bit about the reading I did late last year in my FM Dozen post after Christmas, but it wasn’t until a bit after that that I found myself, after too long an absence, once more reading that most revivifying of all authors—D. E. Stevenson, of course—and felt just the beginnings of an urge to rejoin the outside world. Around the same time, I started puttering with research on the 300+ new authors I’ve come across for my list since my last update there 30 or 40 years ago (or perhaps not quite that long, but it feels like it). Progress is slow, but that anything at all has been happening is encouraging, and I’ve already come across a couple of intriguing authors to explore (and added a couple of new books to my TBR shelves), which is always a source of inspiration to keep going with it…
But back to DES. Somehow I had reached the faulty conclusion that I had already read most of her best work, and what remained was only to be resorted to in case of dire need. There are the marvelous Miss Buncle books, of course, and the four Mrs Tim diaries, and other highlights like Spring Magic, The English Air, The Baker’s Daughter, and the Vittoria Cottage trilogy. Other quite good titles too. But I had been assuming that most of the rest were DES in “romance” or melodrama mode (or worse, in sci-fi or spy novel mode—though it's true that all of those efforts have their defenders, and in a pinch I’ll take any of them). Most importantly, I feared that they would lack her irresistible humor and playful charm.
A comment to that effect in an email to Jerri Chase—one of the world’s leading experts on DES—led to her setting me straight. (And whether or not that particular correspondence with Jerri had anything to do with any possibility that Dean Street Press might publish some of the remaining out-of-print DES titles is something I of course couldn’t possibly comment on at this juncture…) Ahem. But since Jerri was the one who had urged me to read Spring Magic when it was still languishing out of print and unappreciated, and since that book immediately became one of my favorites (and a popular reprint for DSP), I tend to listen to her recommendations…
|My "little splurge"|
So, I had a little splurge on Abe Books (using the term “little” quite loosely). DES’s books, especially the ones still out-of-print, are not cheap, and I’m really not a fan of the cheap Fontana or Collins paperback editions with their (often) ghastly, inappropriate covers. Factor in that some of these (and even some later hardcover editions) are abridged or otherwise edited from DES’s intent (see here for the definitive site by Susan Daly, another of the world experts on DES, with anything you could possibly want to know about her books, including the mistreatment they’ve received at the hands of other publishers), not to mention my fondness for intact dustjackets, and it was a foregone conclusion that I’d be finishing up my Christmas gift cards (and then some) in no time.
I began my DES renaissance with Young Mrs Savage, a 1949 title which combines immediate postwar concerns with a holiday story perfectly calibrated to soothe my COVID-deprived wanderlust. Dinah Savage is a young widowed mother of four who steadfastly rejects all offers of sympathy for her state but is nevertheless having trouble making ends meet, is tired all the time (aren’t we all these days?), and remains haunted by unresolved issues from her troubled marriage. Although I can’t claim that my distinctly benign winter stresses compare to those of Dinah’s, they were sufficient for me to be living vicariously through her when her twin brother Dan returns from the military, decides she simply must have a holiday (again, why does no one ever decide this about me?), and sends her to stay with their unflappable Nannie at Craigie Lodge, in a beautiful coastal town in Scotland.
No one who knows D. E. Stevenson’s work will have trouble fleshing out the events of the novel—old friends, new acquaintances, awkward misunderstandings, and perhaps the tentative beginnings of a new lease on life. But that makes it no less delightful to read, and DES has real insight into how one can overcome past unhappiness to make a fresh start. It was just what I needed at a challenging time, and it’s one to hold in store for a re-read when I again need some uplift.
From there, I moved to what I feared was dangerously late in DES's career (her final novels not being, by most counts, among her best). The Musgraves was published in 1960, and I feared melodrama or tormented love, but instead got an absolutely irresistible family story—set in the Cotswolds, no less, so just as satisfying, wanderlust-wise, as coastal Scotland.
Following the death of her beloved husband, Esther Musgrave believes she will never be happy again. But soon, her "natural buoyancy" and the problems and adventures of her three daughters—difficult, unmarried Delia, cheerful and practical Margaret, and young Kate just out of school—bring her pleasure and purpose anew. DES clearly has a liking for widows as heroines, and Esther, like Diana Savage, provides her with ample opportunity to show a woman (this time approaching middle age) beginning to re-embrace life after loss. There's the local Dramatic Club's troubled new production, the arrival of an attractive widow with a hint of scandal about her, and the return of Esther's long-estranged stepson.
Plus, although I didn't know it yet while reading, there's also a character here who recurs from The Tall Stranger, published three years earlier, a character readers may not be exactly happy to meet again, but whose appearance certainly adds some zest. (No spoilers!)
The story rollicks along in classic DES style, and I ate it up like candy. You know how much I love village stories, and this turned out to be an excellent one. Before moving on, though, I have to introduce the Bloggses, local residents, and provide a glimpse of their unique way of generously sharing their newest acquisition:
Soon after the arrival of Puggy the Bloggses bought a 'telly'; (it was essential to have one, because all their neighbours had 'tellies') but none of them liked it much. The fact was they were all great talkers and they found it more interesting to exchange news of their daily doings and the gossip of Shepherdsford than to look at and listen to the daily doings of the outside world, and they soon discovered that it was more comfortable to sit and talk quietly than to shout and bellow at each other with the 'telly' turned on full blast. Of course they turned it on full blast when a neighbour dropped in to see them because that was the right thing to do, but neighbours often brought news—interesting news about other neighbours—which the Bloggses wanted to hear.
"I dunno why we got the danged thing," declared Mr. Bloggs one evening when the 'telly' had been particularly troublesome. "I couldn't scarcely 'ear a word Danks was saying. It's just a nuisance, that's what."
"I couldn't 'ear Mrs. Danks neither," said Mrs. Bloggs with a sigh.
"We can turn it off now they've gone," said Flo, suiting the action to the word.
The Bloggses provided me a much-needed chuckle in all the craziness.
Immediately after, it happened that I turned to The Tall Stranger, not realizing the connection with The Musgraves. No need at all to read the two novels in any order--there is merely an overlap of one fairly significant character and mentions of a few others.
In The Tall Stranger (1957), we are introduced to Barbie France, who, following a sort of breakdown and a dreadful time in hospital in London, comes home to Underwoods, the lovely house in the Cotswolds where she grew up. Barbie's kind Aunt Amalie, her indomitable companion Miss Penney, and the beauties of nature aid her rapid recovery, only dampened by a troubled romance with Amalie's stepson Edward, a childhood friend Barbie hasn't seen in years and whose character seems to have changed in the intervening time.
When Barbie eventually returns to her successful career as a decorator, new challenges and pleasures await, include a delightful trip to a castle in Scotland, which bears fruit both professional and private, though difficulties with Edward have a way of persisting. Naturally, all works out for the best, and I couldn't stop reading this one either. It has very nearly the sparkle and spirit of a Miss Buncle or Spring Magic, and will certainly belong on a re-read list, too, whenever I need some inspiration or just a fantasy trip to the Cotswolds and Scotland!
I didn't take good notes on any of these, because I was only treading water at the time and my thoughts might not have borne repeating, but suffice it to say I loved all three of these "lesser-known" DES novels, and I owe a debt of gratitude (yet again) to the glorious D. E. Stevenson for providing some much needed literary therapy and making me feel like part of the real world again. Thanks also to Jerri for recommending these titles. And as you can see from the photo above, I have quite a few more to getting on with…
I should mention that my work colleague returned to work at the beginning of March, which is why I'm reasonably coherent and capable of writing this post. Not only that, but I'm taking a vacation next week to stay at home, read books, do research, get some exercise, and indulge in a couple of afternoon naps. So you might actually start hearing from me again more than every three months!