Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Coming back to life with D. E. Stevenson

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!

30 comments:

  1. What a lovely collection of DES titles. I am so glad you found them entertaining. I wish you many more continued readings of her lovely books. And thank you for the pat on the back.

    Jerri

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  2. I've read all of these! They are super great! You do know she did one dystopian right? A World in Spell, it's fascinating!

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    1. I've heard mixed reviews of that one Elizabeth but I do definitely want to read it. Thanks for the recommendation.

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  3. It would be lovely to have all these and actually all DES books in ebook format.

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  4. Your shelf of DES looks just as the library shelf for 'S' would have looked when I worked in libraries in the 1970's.
    Every March with the money that needed to be spent before the tax year ended the Librarian - Mr Fordham- would pop to the booksellers in Cambridge and re-stock with a complete run of DES or Mazo dela Roche or any of the other popular authors of the time. The books would arrive and fill a shelf, looking new and neat before they were eagerly read and re-read by all the loyal customers.

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    1. Oh that sounds lovely Sue! Wouldn't it be fun to be able to time travel to check out library books?

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  5. Good to hear all is returning to some sort of normality for you Scott and for three more lovely recommendations. Any review that favourably compares a title with my beloved Miss Buncle just has to be sought out. Enjoy your week off!

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    1. Thank you Ann! Well I've only read Tall Stranger once, not four or five times like Miss Buncle, so I can't swear it's AS good, but it was definitely great fun.

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  6. So glad you're back in the saddle again, Scott, AND that you'll have a week of sheer pleasure coming up.

    Nice that you still have MORE DES to read, still.

    Have you really not read The Blue Sapphire yet? Then you are in for a HUGE treat.

    (a world expert? Thank you...)

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    1. Surely anyone who's seen your DES spreadsheet would agree your a world expert Susan... And now I'm really looking forward to Blue Sapphire!

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  7. DES is my absolute go-to author when I need a comfort read. I just finished The Five Windows yesterday. When you described Barbie France in The Tall Stranger I said "But I know her!" She is a minor character in The Five Windows. I love that about DES, running into characters you already know and that delicious feeling of familiarity.

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    1. It is quite fun isn't it? And Five Windows is one I still have ahead of me too, so nice to know I'll "see" Barbie again soon!

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  8. Oh so happy to see this - and lovely start to a work day for me. Enjoy your well earned break.

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  9. Welcome back, lovely to see a post from you again! And what perfect reads, too. Thank you for the work you've done in the meantime, too.

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  10. You have some treats in that pile! Both The Blue Sapphire and Green Money are favourites of mine. Happy reading and lovely to see a post from you.

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    1. Another recommendation for Blue Sapphire! Clearly I have a treat ahead. Thanks Claire!

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  11. Dare I confess I abandoned DES not long ago when I simply could not get into one of her books. She had been comfort reading in the past; maybe it was one of her later ones. I am now encouraged to take another look at my bookshelves where there are a fair number of the paperbacks. Though I am stuck in the Czech Republic at the moment, and fear that most of the DES may be in the UK....

    Glad you have some more time to breathe now Scott.

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    1. There are a couple of DES novels that don't work for me either, but I can vouch for these three anyway Gil!

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  12. I really enjoyed reading your descriptions of these D.E. Stevenson's books as I love all of her books. I think I've read them all twice over the years. I discovered her writings in the early 80's and only wish I had started a more serious collection back then!

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    1. Yes collecting her now is not an inexpensive hobby! But at least many of her books are in print again now, and maybe more to come?

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  13. Further to my previous comment, I have found eight DES paperbacks on the shelves here, including The Young Mrs Savage and The Tall Stranger. But oh my goodness, isn't the print tiny? My failing eyes are quailing....

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    1. Oh dear, that's like the tortures of Tantalus isn't it? Tall Stranger is available in e-book at least, though that's not as much fun. Maybe someone will do new editions soon...

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    2. Not as much fun as reading a physical book I mean.

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  14. Hello Scott, and thank you so much for re-visiting D.E. Stevenson. Somehow, no matter what else is happening, I can always read her books and feel better. I am thrilled you may be publishing and that I might be able to complete my physical library with an affordable version of my very favorite author. Why aren't there more authors whose plots and endings are more or less predictable but that make you feel as warm and engaged as Ms. Stevenson. It would have made the last year easier if all our brethren had taken up a deep dive of D.E. and not stayed glued to our sides of the News aisle.

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  15. I am new to your blog - thanks to writer buddy Dean James. I adore D.E. Stevenson, and have for decades. Listening Valley is my favorite, although I think I have read every single one. I read on kindle, nowadays, for, as Cestina mentioned above, the tiny print of "real" books is impossible for my aging eyes. Look for to more engaging posts now that I've found you! (grew up in Alameda County) Cheerful Blessings!

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  16. What a great treat to stumble onto this on a Monday morning. AND so very glad you are back with us, and back to "normal," whatever the hell that is anymore! You ticked off lots of lovely Stevenson titles, Scott! Thanks to the Stevenson list *the DESsies) I am still finding titles I had never read, or perhaps read back in the early 70's and forgotten. Stevenson is sort of liek Angela Thirkell for me - she can always soothe me, calm me down, get me back on track. Perhaps better than drugs! Tom

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