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.