Even in Light Novels, the Characters Read the Classics

The Four Graces Stevenson 51o4TBLTbrL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_My light reading lately has included some charming novels by D. E. Stevenson, best known for Mrs. Tim of the Regiment (Bloomsbury Reads) and Miss Buncle’s Book and Miss Buncle Married (Sourcebooks and Persephone).

I have been chuckling over The Four Graces, the delightful story of the four daughters of Mr. Grace, the absent-minded vicar of a church in the charming village Chevis Green.  Published in 1946 and set during World War II, the Graces enjoy themselves, despite the inconveniences of rationing, blackouts, and clothing coupons.  My favorite character, Sal,  the homemaker of the family, is constantly standing in line for fish, stretching meals to feed her father’s pet young men and a middle-aged archaeologist, and  smoothing the feathers of local characters like Miss Bodkin, upset over a misunderstanding about doing the flowers at church.  The other sisters are also agreeable:  vivacious Liz works on a farm, quiet Tilly is the church organist, and clothes-conscious Addie, who is in London doing war work, is obsessed with finding something to wear besides her uniform.

But everything is thrown off course when Aunt Rona, surely one of the most obnoxious characters in literary history, moves in with them after the windows of her London flat are shattered by a bomb. She criticizes the sisters, insults the servant, and sets her cap at the vicar.  The evenings are hell, because she talks non-stop and they can’t read or talk nonsense to each other.

Tilly, especially upset by overbearing Aunt Rona, goes to bed early to read.

Sal knew that she would not sleep so she took Emma to bed with her, hoping that the well-known story would soothe her troubled spirit and dissipate her worried thoughts, but it was no use at all; the worries kept flooding in and she found herself reading whole pages without taking in the sense.  She put down the book in despair and allowed her thoughts full rein.

emma jane austen penguinEmma is one of my favorite comfort reads, too! Although some  disapprove of willful Emma, I find the book very funny and have read it so many times I’ve had to find new comfort reads.

Don’t you love it when fictional characters read your favorite books?

What are your favorite comfort reads?  And can you think of any fictional characters who read the classics?

The Dessie Question: The Popularity of D. E. Stevenson & Why I Love “Katherine Wentworth”

IMG_3630 D. E. Stevenson Katherine WentworthD. E. Stevenson (1892-1973) has hundreds of fans.  There are 345 members of the Dessie group at Yahoo.  Although some categorize her books as light romances, I consider them domestic fiction.  Stevenson is far too discerning and humorous to write a typical love story.

Most of her books are out of print, but several have been reissued in the last decade.  My favorite is Mrs. Tim of the Regiment (Bloomsbury Reader), a comic novel written in the form of a diary  of the wife of an Army officer.   It is based on Stevenson’s own diary.  And Persephone Books has reissued two more and  Sourcebooks has reissued eight.

I am unwilling to pay $25-$50 for an out-of-print DES, but I recently picked up a cheap edition at a sale of Katherine Wentworth,  one of her most captivating books. The atmosphere if not the content falls somewhere between Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and  Richmal Compton’s slightly more wobbly middlebrow novels. You sink immediately into the warmth and stability of Stevenson’s narrative.  Her style is simple and straightforward, getting the job done.  It is her  life-like characters and warm, vivid observations of life that make one read her addictively.

One of the mass-market covers (oh dear!)

One of the mass-market covers (oh dear!)

This charming book is narrated by Katherine Wentworth, a pragmatic, observant widow with a sense of humor. She is struggling to raise her twins and her teenage stepson alonesince the death of Gerald, her archaeologist husband.  The family lived happily in Oxford before; now they live in a small flat in her hometown, Edinbugh.  She is very busy.

Then one day she is walking down the street and an old friend recognizes her.  Katherine has no idea who she is.

The speaker was a woman in a mink coat and a smart green hat with a feather in it; her ace was pale and fine-drawn; her hair, which lay in smooth waves beneath the green hat, was yellow.  I had a vague sort of feeling I had seen her before, but when and where…

Don’t you love her description of fashion?  There are a lot of tweeds in her books, but her women are as fond of clothes as E. M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady and Jan Struther’s Mrs. Miniver.  Zilla is obviously going for a stylish effect.

It turns out that  Zilla went to school with Katherine.  Katherine remembers her as an older girl who was good at games (so was Katherine). And Zilla is heartbreakingly lonely, never married, but  lives with her brother and socializes with shallow rich people.   Zilla insists Katherine come to tea, but has a very possessive nature.   She is annoyed by her brother Alec’s attraction to Katherine, and tries to keep them apart.  Katherine doesn’t care much:  she is busy with the children.

Alec soon becomes a part of the Wentworths’ lives, taking them out for drives and later, when they borrow Zilla’s house in the country for a cheap vacation, he drives them there. Zilla is always having hysterics about his seeing Katherine, so he tries to hide the fact that he is seeing her.  Katherine likes him and is amused by him, but he can she really fall in love with a man who’s afraid of Zilla?  She helps him learn to confront her.

There is an odd romantic plot twist:  Katherine’s late husband left his family, refusing to stay home and manage their estate.  The family has never met Katherine or the children.  Suddenly Simon becomes the heir, and Katherine must visit them.

Well, nothing turns out the way you think it will!  And that’s why I like DES.  The book is a bit uneven, but while you’re reading it you don’t notice.

And that’s why I am a huge fan of Stevenson (though I must admit that not all of her books are good).  Sometimes a comfort read is necessary.

Light Summer Reading: Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen & D. E. Stevenson’s Gerald and Elizabeth

light summer-readingSometimes we like light reading.

We’re waiting at the doctor’s or the vet’s.  There are no magazines except People or Us.

A light novel is perfect while lounging under the linden tree.  I don’t want to read James Joyce outdoors.

Whether at the doctor’s or in the back yard, I can lose myself in Elizabeth von Arnim’s amusing novels or D. E. Stevenson’s light romances.

The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen (1904) is the third book I’ve read by von Arnim this summer.  It continues the exploits of the narrator of Elizabeth and Her German Garden (1898) and The Solitary Summer (1899).  It is really travel writing, with a slender plot.  According to Penelope Mortimer, author of the introduction to the Virago edition, von Arnim wanted to branch out from her meditations on the garden, nature, and solitude.

In 1901, the real Elizabeth traveled around the Baltic island of Rügen with a friend.  She wrote a kind of guide book, with a few charming characters and comic episodes to flesh it out.

In the novel, the narrator, Elizabeth, wants to be alone, so she travels only with her maid, Gertrud, and her coach driver, August.

There are many humorous scenes.  When a motorcar comes roaring by on the road, Elizabeth and Gertrud jump out of the carriage, sure that the horses will bolt.  The horses don’t bolt, but August keeps on driving, unaware that the carriage is empty.  The women are hungry and tired, but eventually they find the picnic basket, which also fell out of the coach.  They have several adventures before they finally catch up with August.

Later, Elizabeth encounters a cousin, Charlotte, on the beach.  Charlotte is married to a German philosopher, but after six years and babies who were stillborn or died shortly after birth, she went to England to become a feminist lecturer.  She is, alas, one of those obnoxious comic feminists, and yet Elizabeth also has sympathy for her.

…and the next I heard she was in England,–in London, Oxford, and other intellectual centres, lecturing on the cause of Women….  Charlotte’s family was so much shocked that it was hysterical.  Charlotte, not content with lecturing, wrote pamphlets–lofty documents of a deadly earnestness, in German and English, and they might be seen any day in the bookshop window Unter den Linden.  Charlotte’s family nearly fainted when it had to walk Unter den Linden.  The Radical papers, which were ony read by Charlotte’s family when nobody was looking and were never allowed openly to darken their doors, took her under their wing and wrote articles in her praise.

Charlotte is made ridiculous, but in von Arnim’s later novel, The Pastor’s Wife, another heroine, Ingeborg, is sympathetically portrayed when, after several pregnancies and a long illness, she announces to her husband that she will no longer have sex with him.  The doctor backs her up, and the heroine finally has time to read and study.  So by 1914, when The Pastor’s Wife was published, von Arnim was definitely a feminist.

There is another important subplot in Rugen.  When Elizabeth and Charlotte  run into Charlotte’s philosopher husband, Elizabeth devises a plot to get the two back together again.  Will it work?  It seems unlikely.

A very enjoyable novel.

gerald-and-elizabeth-d-e-stevenson-001D. E. Stevenson has many fans. A few years ago, Sourcebooks started reprinting some of her books:  Miss Buncle’s Book, Miss Buncle Married, The Two Mrs. Abbots, The Four Graces, and The Young Clementina. My favorite,  Mrs. Tim of the Regiment (the first of four Mrs. Tim books), is available from Bloomsbury.

Stevenson is sometimes rated in the same category as Angela Thirkell, though Thirkell is a better writer.

I have very much enjoyed Stevenson’s books, though I must admit, some are better than others.  Gerald and Elizabeth is charming, but the plot is a utterly unbelievable.  The naive hero, Gerald, framed for the theft of diamonds, returns to England from South Africa, where he was an engineer in a diamond mine.  He has no money and no references.  But his sister, Elizabeth, a famous actress, sees him in the audience at the theater and insists he come live in her flat.  From there, everything slowly gets better, as you can imagine.

The book is feather-light, but I very much liked the characters.

Is there a sequel to this?  Because even though Elizabeth’s life is wrapped up, I didn’t feel Gerald’s was.

If you want to read Stevenson, I very much recommend the books in print, or The Baker’s Daughter.

What is your favorite light reading this summer?

Bicycling in Rags to Barnes and Noble & the D. E. Stevenson Giveaway

bicycle mine on trail

That’s my bicycle!

I received some Barnes and Noble coupons in the mail with my membership renewal.

You can imagine how pleased I was.  Twenty percent off one item…and then 20% off another item…and then 10% off each with my membership card…that’s 60% off!

Perhaps you think I’m a traitor to indie bookstores, but I support them when I can.  We have only two independent bookstores here, so tiny that they have no books I want.  In Omaha and Iowa City there are excellent independent bookstores, but those cities are a long way away.

Anyway, I decided to get DOLLED UP IN RAGS to bicycle to Barnes and Noble with my coupons.

White-haired women frankly look more dignified if they are well-turned-out when they are shopping.  So I put on capris instead of bicycling shorts.  I wore an old peasant shirt, which has been washed so many times that the ruffles now look like rubber bands.  (I wasn’t aware of that until I saw myself in a mirror at B&N.)  And it’s a pity I wore my helmet on the trail.  It made my hair stick up.  It completely ruined the effect.

Nobody particularly cared, though.  They let me have coffee, and they ignored me while I looked at books.

I decided to buy paperbacks today.  (I’ll let you know if any of them are good.)  Among them I saw many wonderful books I already read in hardback:

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

  • BARBARA KINGSOLVER’S FLIGHT BEHAVIOR.  In May I said: Kingsolver boldly interweaves the science and politics of climate change with the everyday lives of a struggling family.  Not only is Flight Behavior an impassioned novel about climate change,  it is  also a mad housewife novel. The 28-year-old housewife heroine is so desperate for fulfillment that she is willing to throw away her marriage for a powerful crush on a hot telephone man, a scientist, or almost anybody.  But on the mountain, when she is going to the rendezvous to meet the telephone man, she sees something that looks like cornflakes on the trees. Then it seems to turn to flames. She thinks she is seeing a kind of orange burning bush, or burning trees.  …It turns out to be butterflies:  monarch butterflies have veered off-course and flown to overwinter in Tennessee instead of Mexico because of climate change.
  • TOM WOLFE’S BACK TO BLOOD.  In March I said:  it is extremely entertaining, the kind of book you can inhale…  Set in Miami, Wolfe’s book interweaves the stories of many colorful characters, including Nestor, a Cuban-American policeman who dramatically rescues a Cuban refugee from the 70-foot mast of a yacht; Magdalena, a beautiful Cuban-American psychiatric nurse who wears very little clothing; John Smith, a Yalie who works for the Miami Herald and breaks a story about art forgery that upsets his editor, Edward T. Topping IV;  Norman, a sex addiction psychiatrist who has sex addictions himself; a rich Russian who donated millions of dollars worth of paintings to the art museum; and Igor, an art forger.
  • J. K. ROWLING’S THE CASUAL VACANCY.  In July I said:  It is a very dark, serious novel, not what I expected from the author of Harry Potter.  The writing is sometimes a little rough, but she plots the story well and the characters are mostly well-drawn.  Barry Fairbrother’s death causes a vacancy on the Parish Council, and the novel revolves around characters who are affected by the coming election.
  • I almost bought Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?  I’ve heard many good things, but it looked awfully light.  Did anyone read it?  Is it good?

And then there were the hardcovers.


I wanted to buy Meg Wolitzer’s  The Interestings, but they didn’t have a copy.  I was disappointed.  It was just published this spring.  Isn’t it too early to send it back to the publisher?

GERMAN LITERATURE IS BACK! I  found a contemporary German novel that looked very good:  Eugen Ruge’s In Times of Fading Light. Book description:  “Alexander Umnitzer, who has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer, leaves behind his ailing father to fly to Mexico, where his grandparents lived as exiles in the 1940s. The novel then takes us both forward and back in time, creating a panoramic view of the family’s history: from Alexander’s grandparents’ return to the GDR to build the socialist state, to his father’s decade spent in a gulag for criticizing the Soviet regime, to his son’s desire to leave the political struggles of the twentieth century in the past.”  In times of fading light eugen ruge

And now for the D.E. Stevenson giveaway.  Does anyone want my copy of D. E. Stevenson’s The Young Clementina (just reissued by Sourcebooks)?

The Young Clementina is a charming, light novel whose heroine, Charlotte, works in a travel bookstore in London.  She grew up in the country and longs to go back:  she always thought she’d marry Garth, her best friend, but her sister, Kitty married him instead.  Charlotte returns to the country after Garth and Kitty’s ugly divorce.  She takes care of their daughter, the young Clementina, while Garth travels to Africa. (Kitty has been found unfit for motherhood because of adultery.)

It’s an uneven novel, but I know there are lots of Stevenson fans out there.  Leave a comment if you’d like the book.