Coming to the end of this year's Xmas books on Clothes in Books - so here is a delayed Xmas party...
Miss Buncle’s Book by DE Stevensonpublished 1934
Christmas came and went, Silverstream went to church and gave each other small and somewhat useless presents just as it always did at this season of the year.
The Featherstone Hoggs’ children’s party was fixed for the second week of January. They gave one every year, usually on Christmas Eve and a large and elaborately decorated Christmas Tree was the piece de resistance; but this year, with all the excitement over [the novel] Disturber of the Peace, and the drawing-room meeting, the children’s party had slipped out of mind.
Mrs Featherstone Hogg disliked the children’s party intensely, she only gave it because it was the ‘right thing’ for the most important lady in the neighbourhood to give a children’s party, and because Lady Barnton from Bulverham Castle could always be induced to come to it and bring her small nieces when she could not be induced to come to any other of Mrs Featherstone Hogg’s various parties or At Homes.
In spite of Lady Barnton, Agatha always approached the Children’s Party with reluctance. It was such a bore, she always said, it was so noisy, the children made such a mess.
So, when a few days after the New Year Agatha suddenly enquired with an amiable smile whether they were going to have a Children’s Party this year, Edwin [Featherstone Hogg] looked up from his marmalade with surprise (they were at breakfast)…. He was pleased, he did not analyse Agatha’s motives… Last year he had dressed up as Santa Claus and had been a tremendous success, in fact the success of the evening. It was too late to be Santa Claus this year, of course, but he would think of something else to amuse them, something entirely new.
commentary: The motive for this lady giving a children’s party is one of the most absurd things I read in any book in 2017, completely unbelievable, gasp-inducing and jaw-dropping. It is a slight spoiler, so I will put it at the end of the post, but I can’t resist explaining it there for the benefit of anyone who is not intending to read Miss Buncle.
I read this book a long time ago, but was curious to read it again, and it is exactly as I remembered: Absurd, predictable, funny, entertaining, very badly-punctuated. No wonder it was a best-seller. DE Stevenson wrote similar books all her life.
Miss Buncle is a kindly and poverty-stricken spinster. She decides the answer to her problems is to write a book, so she looks around her and writes a novel based very closely on her village and its inhabitants. The book - published under a pseudonym - is a huge success, but many of her friends and neighbours are absolutely horrified by how they are portrayed in the book. They are desperate to find out who wrote it, and to get the book withdrawn. Meanwhile, various plotlines from the book start to come true in the village.
Well, that’s all you need to know, isn’t it? It is a good idea, nicely executed. There are some ridiculous scenes, and the whole thing is a fairytale, but it is very entertaining.
There is a questionmark over how naïve Miss Buncle is, and part of the success of the book-within-the-book is that its readers don’t know if it is faux-naievete or knowingness. There is an implication that some scenes can be read as rather risqué. And, for example, there is a Lesbian couple who are treated very sympathetically. (Rather as in ER Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books).
For several years on the blog I did April Fool’s Day posts on imaginary books, books-within-books – see round-up post here with links. Blogfriend Susan D suggested Miss Buncle for a future entry, as well as directing us to this amazing website. A brilliant suggestion. Just warning you…
Mrs FH suspects the doctor’s wife, Mrs Walker, of having written the offensive book. She invites the children and their nanny to the party, and then arranges for the tiny twins to be abducted. Mrs Walker (who has not, of course, written the book) is then induced to sign a document confessing to being the author and asking for the book the be suppressed. She is desperate, and will sign anything. The children are then returned to her.
You thought, didn’t you, that English villages in the 1930s were quiet places, with only honest to goodness ordinary Golden Age murders going on. I think Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane would have had qualms about this plotline.
Children’s party picture from the NYPL collection.