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‘The Two Mrs Abbotts’ by D.E. Stevenson ****

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The Persephone endpapers of ‘The Two Mrs Abbotts’

I decided to re-read this for mine and Yamini’s wonderful project.

D.E. Stevenson’s The Two Mrs Abbotts was first published in 1943, and has recently been reissued by Persephone Books.  Stevenson was an incredibly prolific author, and had over forty novels published during her writing career.  The Two Mrs Abbotts is the third instalment in the books which feature Miss Buncle, both of which have also been published by Persephone.  There has been no introduction included here; instead, readers are ‘referred’ to the first two volumes.

The Two Mrs Abbotts opens in Archway House in the village of Wandlebury in an unnamed county, where nursery nurse Dorcas – lovingly called ‘Dorkie’ by her young charges – is looking after Mrs Barbara Abbott’s children, Simon and Fay: ‘She was thinking how odd it was that children grew up so quickly and grown-up people remained much the same’.  The Abbotts’ home has been partially turned into a school for wartime children, or ‘Vack-wees’, as Fay rather adorably calls them.  Throughout, both children have been written about in such a way that their characters are built up in a believable manner.  Simon, for example, professes that he is ‘Four years older than the war…  I can even remember bananas – and cream’.  Later on, he is found ‘hopping and skipping and talking hard as he always did except when he felt unwell’.

One of the first events in the book is the arrival of Sarah Walker, a lecturer travelling around the country on behalf of the Red Cross.  Sarah is an old friend of Barbara’s, and they have not seen one another since the latter left the village under a cloud of sorts: ‘She had vanished in the night…  She had been obliged to go, of course, because she had written two very amusing books all about her neighbours and their little peculiarities, and her neighbours had not appreciated their portraits – quite the reverse’.  With these foundations, Barbara has gone on to marry her publisher, Arthur Abbott.

The family in their entirety is trying to cope as best they can in wartime.  Arthur’s nephew is away fighting, and his house has been taken over by a whole battalion of soldiers ‘like a crop of dragon’s teeth’.  His young wife Jerry – the other Mrs Abbott of the book’s title – has been left behind and tries to keep herself as busy as she possibly can, spending much of her time visiting Barbara and the children, and finding tenants for the small cottage which sits beside her house.  The lives of all are filled with daily duties, such as hosting tea parties for acquaintances in the village, having evacuee families to stay, and finding innovative ways of making recipes, due to the majority of the correct ingredients having been made unobtainable due to Second World War rationing.

D.E. Stevenson in the 1930s (from destevenson.org)

D.E. Stevenson in the 1930s
(from destevenson.org)

Stevenson’s writing is rather amusing throughout.  A young man from the village who has joined the RAF and is currently at home on sick leave, is said to have ‘cultivated a small moustache which reminded one just a little of Hitler’.  His lady friend Pearl Besserton, a woman whom nobody really likes, ‘looked as if she had stepped straight off the stage of a third-rate music hall without having taken the trouble to remove the greasepaint’.  The novel is also, as one would expect, so very British.  There is a chapter where Barbara goes to the village’s annual bazaar, to which she ‘had set out with the benevolent intention of buying something at every stall’.  She then feels obliged to purchase a very ugly pair of vases which have been saved for her by a woman who is running one of the stalls, and muses over what she can possibly do with them.  Many of the scenes which Stevenson has woven in are almost farcical, and there is one faux pas after another at many points in the novel.

The characters which Stevenson has created are all interesting and unpredictable, and there is not a dull person amongst them.  Everyone is likeable, or at least admirable, in their different actions and mannerisms.  It is rather refreshing to read a novel which veers off in unexpected directions as The Two Mrs Abbotts does, and the twists within its plot work marvellously.  The arc of events throughout is well paced, as is the introduction of characters.  Stevenson writes about social aspects rather wonderfully, from the importance of and reliance which one can have upon the wider community, to the problems which evacuees encounter when living away from home.

It is not necessary to have read the first two books which focus upon Barbara’s life, and no information which is important to the story within The Two Mrs Abbotts has been omitted.  The entirety of the book is quaint, amusing and rather lovely.  It is a light, easy read which is certain to appeal to anyone who enjoys fiction written or set within the first half of the twentieth century, and is certainly a great addition to the Persephone list.

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Classics Club #33: ‘Someone at a Distance’ by Dorothy Whipple *****

After a few not very good and rather disappointing reads, I really felt in the mood for a Persephone.  I adore the books which they publish, and for me, they are one of the most important publishing houses which exists today.  Dorothy Whipple is an author who seems to be one of the most adored on the Persephone list, and I was eager to begin another of her novels, particularly as it helped towards crossing another number off my Classics Club list.  Someone at a Distance, which was published in 1953, was also the lovely Yamini‘s March choice for me to read in the little monthly Instagram project which we are running between ourselves.

Someone at a Distance is introduced by Nina Bawden, an author whose work I very much enjoy.  She writes of how much she admires Whipple’s work, and says this about the novel: ‘[it] is, on the face of it, a fairly ordinary tale of a deceived wife and a foolish husband in rural suburbia not far from London and, perhaps because the author was nearing sixty when she wrote it, there is a slight pre-war flavour about the domestic expectations of the characters’.   Bawden goes on to say that ‘Whipple is a storyteller in the straightforward tradition of J.B. Priestley and Arnold Bennett rather than Virginia Woolf or Elizabeth Bowen’.

I was beguiled from the novel’s very beginning.  The opening chapter sets the tone of the whole wonderfully: ‘Widowed, in the house her husband had built with day and night nurseries and a music-room, as if the children would stay there for ever, instead of marrying and going off at the earliest possible moment, old Mrs. North yielded one day to a long-felt desire to provide herself with company.  She answered an advertisement in the personal column of The Times‘.  A young Frenchwoman, Louise Lanier, determined to spend the summer in England, is its author.  Of her newest venture, Mrs North says the following: ‘”At my age, I don’t expect fun…  But I hope it will be interesting.  I’m too old to go in search of change, so I’ll try to bring change into the house.  It’s too quiet as it is.”‘

As with a lot of the books on the Persephone list, Someone at a Distance is a familial novel.  Avery North, son of the formidable matriarch, is a publisher.  Ellen, his wife, is focused upon, and she is one of the most realistic constructs whom I have come across in fiction in such a long time: ‘Guiltily, pleasurably, she avoided the parties Bennett and North gave for authors, agents and the like…  everybody talked vociferously, and though here and there people moved aside, smiling, to let her pass, nobody interrupted conversation for her.  Slight, fair, with no idea at all of trying to make an impression, she didn’t look important and nobody wondered who she was’.

Whipple exemplifies the changing times within society marvellously: ‘Maids had disappeared from the domestic scene long ago…  Ellen now did as her neighbours did and employed day, or, more properly, half-day, women’.  We learn both about the North family, and headstrong Louise Lanier, as she finds her feet.  Whipple’s description of her is vivid from the very first: ‘Her lips were made up, even for breakfast, in a magenta colour, which nevertheless matched the varnish on the nails of her narrow hands…  What was remarkable about her, the offspring of two large, baggy parents, was her clear-cut, almost exquisite finish…  Yes, she could look after herself.  She was far from ordinary’.

‘Straightforward’ Whipple’s prose may be, but one is drawn in immediately.  Some of the turns of phrase which she crafts are beautiful: ‘Wisteria toppled over a high garden wall in dusty mauve cascades’.  This is, quite honestly, a stunning novel, and one of the best books which I have read in a long while.  As an author, Whipple has an incredible amount to offer; her books provide a marvellously restful solace in our hectic world.

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