By D. E. Stevenson

This is the story of Five Little Children and How They Grew. I listened to this on Audible read by Lesley Mackie. With her gentle voice and slight Scottish accent, she added a lot to my enjoyment of this sometimes somewhat dark novel. While we hear about the children and their story it almost felt like I was being told a fairy tale and it was lovely, hoping as I was for happily ever afters for the children after the storms had passed. And lessons learned and justice served for those that required them.

The Ayrton children, two boys, and their three younger half-sisters are the children of two parents who don’t know or love their children or even care to. They are not socialites, jet setters, or workaholics, or V.I.Ps who are too busy with their own affairs to pay attention to their children. They are conventional and stolid pillars of the community. They keep the children from church and school and pretty much just ignore them unless they are of use or can’t avoid them. They just do not have any love in them. It was very odd.

Left to their own devices, they bring themselves up, thanks to a loving Nanny who unfortunately has little influence with the parents, and they do a wonderful job. Roger and Tom, in time, go off to boarding school where they learn that their parents and family are not normal. The reader spends the most time with Nell and Anne. The beautiful older sister, Connie, is nice as a little girl, but grows up only wanting to avoid unpleasantness and difficulty and doesn’t feel things very deeply. She gets married because that is what girls did and like her parents before her, we learn she is a horrendous parent, but in a different way. Nell and Anne are almost pathologically shy (unsurprisingly) sweet, and very close, with Anne being somewhat of a free spirit. They are both bright but ignorant scholastically and socially. It is Anne who was the most interesting with her fey ways, stronger spirit, and her unusual infectious laugh which is triggered mysteriously and unexpectedly.

It was no use of course. When Anne began to giggle it was hopeless trying to stop her. Anne shook with internal convulsions; she was seized with uncontrollable mirth and flung herself upon the bank writhing helplessly. The others caught the infection and laughed too. “What are we laughing at?” asked Gerald at last in a trembling voice. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his eyes. “Come on, Anne. Tell us the joke.” “Anne can never tell you,” said Nell hastily …“Anne can never tell you the joke, and even if she does it isn’t a bit funny.

The war comes and has a dramatic effect on Amberwell, the center of the universe in this book. Mr. And Mrs. Ayrton are inconvenienced by the war, but that is the end of their involvement. But Roger and Tom go off to do their duty and become fine young men. Roger marries and has a baby. Nell comes out of her shell somewhat and becomes the dependable rock of the family. Anne, however, goes off to London with their Aunt and under her influence disgraces the family by eloping without the blessing of her parents. She disappears off the face of the earth. And we lose the most fascinating character in the book. Throughout the novel, the reader and Nell are consumed by Anne’s fate. Is she well and happily married? We have reason to hope, but why doesn’t she write? Or is she in dire straits? We don’t know until the end.

There are some sad and tragic times as well as a lot of growth and hope in this novel. Despite the happy ending, there were some disappointments and a boatload of loose ends and unrealized promise. Hopefully, the sequel (Summerhills)will resolve some questions and fates and provide some more closure. But I really liked this gentle and serious story with its intricately fashioned characters, insight, thoughtfulness, and atmosphere. **3 1/2 stars, rounded up**

Rating: 4 out of 5.

December 22, 2021

The Fair Miss Fortune

by D. E. Stevenson

What a sweet, funny, and charming book! That is if you like old-fashioned chaste romances set in the English countryside. And who doesn’t? Well lots of people, I guess. But I like them. Not as a steady diet, but if they are as well written, and as beautifully narrated as this one, I could get used to it.

Miss Jane Fortune causes quite a stir when she comes to the insular village of Dingleford with her old nanny to open a tea shop. She charms everyone in sight with her beauty and sweetness. Especially the eligible bachelors. Everyone except Mrs. Prescott who sold her her cottage/future tea shop. She is an overbearing entitled old battle-ax who mercilessly bullies and dominates her son Harold. You know the type. Miss Fortune and the most eligible bachelor in the village, Charles Weatherford, soon become quite close. One day, Jane’s twin sister, Joan, a slightly more impulsive and unconventional version of Jane, comes to stay. She is escaping from an amorous Frenchman who has vowed to chase her to the ends of the earth. Jane agrees to keep Joan’s existence a secret, to protect her. Thus begins, at times, an hilarious comedy of errors, wonderfully narrated by Patience Tomlinson. I listened to this on Audible. Charles, meeting Joan, thinking she’s Jane, is very confused by her indifferent behavior and falls out of love with her. Joan unaccountably falls in love with the browbeaten mama’s boy, Harold Prescott, who is amazed at her sincere interest (as is the reader). The scene where Mrs. Prescott visits Jane, thinking she is the shameless hussy who is attempting to ensnare her beloved son is priceless. Jane may be sweet, but she has enough spirit and poise to spare. She is not to be underestimated, especially in the face of the character assassination of her beloved sister.

The book is peopled with some very well-drawn characters: Jane and Joan’s nanny, Charles’ Mother, the shopkeeper who sells Harold some exercise books, the middle-aged colonel, horrid Mrs. Prescott, and especially Harold, who knows he is “a worm” but vows to make himself worthy of the Fair Miss Fortune.
The only criticism I have is the book ends too abruptly and leaves some loose ends regarding the endearing Harold and his mother.
Probably if I had read it it would have been 3 stars, the narration made it 4. so **3 1/2 stars**

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

December 2, 2021

The Four Graces

By D. E. Stevenson

“I have noticed that nowadays when people speak of being broad-minded they really mean muddleheaded, or lacking in principles—or possibly lacking the strength to stand up for any principles they may have. Nowadays people are anxious to appear worse than they are,” said Mr. Grace, smiling. “It’s a queer sort of inverted hypocrisy, Mrs. Smith…but I must apologize for sermonizing.” “Not at all,” replied Mrs. Smith. “I always think it’s so interesting to hear people talking shop.” Mr. Grace was a trifle taken aback at this description of his calling. He was silent.”

The Four Graces takes up right where The Two Mrs. Abbotts leaves off. Starting with Miss Buncle’s Book, This is the 4th novel set in the universe which opened with Barbara Buncle in Silverstream and continued to Wandlebury and environs. The once mysterious Jane Watt is marrying Archie Chevis-Cobbe and the wedding is being officiated by Reverend Grace, the local vicar, with one of his 4 daughters, Tilly, playing the organ. We are soon introduced to the other 3 Graces: Liz, Sal, and Addie. Liz and Sal are the two sisters that this book revolves around. After the wedding, Miss Marks, my favorite character from “Abbots”, loses her umbrella which kicks off a series of events that ends in marriage for one of the Graces. Or is it Tilly’s failure to dust the organ before sitting down which starts things off? While getting two of the 4 Graces settled as far as their “happily ever afters,” we are treated to stories involving an evacuee who is being called home to London by his mother (echoing a similar happenstance in a former book), a scandal involving doing the flowers in church, an archeologist excavating a Roman fort, a fete, and the various challenges that all England had to face during WWII. Not to mention, an intrusive Aunt that causes havoc and confoundment for our family. Through it all, three of the four sisters are right in the thick of everything that happens.(Addie is in London doing her part in the war effort.)

Do I wish there were more of the beloved characters from the previous 3 novels? Yes. But I absolutely adored it. Of all of the 4 interconnected novels, it was my favorite. It was touching, tender, wise, and the most romantic. And it is funny. The characters of each of the Grace family, their neighbors, and the fly in the ointment, Aunt Rona, were flawlessly drawn. The two love interests for Sal and Liz were so appealing. I couldn’t have devised better for the two young women, whom I grew so fond of. Aunt Rona was the soul sister of Mrs. Elton of Emma, and I am maybe exaggerating a little bit when I say she belongs right up there next to her in the pantheon priceless English caricatures (in a bad way.) There is a passage towards the end of the book where Liz is cleverly satirizing the vanquished Aunt that is not only witty and clever but hilarious as well. I wish I could quote reams from the book, but I listened to it on Audio which was charmingly narrated by Karen Cass. And you would have to get to know Aunt Rona to appreciate the humor. And you should. I would recommend to anyone who loves gentle English novels to treat themselves and get to know this charming happy family. But first, you really should read the one prior to it, and the one prior to that, and the one prior to that. I wish D. E. Stevenson had written more in this particular world ala Angela Thirkell and her Barsetshire Chronicles.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

August 23, 2021

The Two Mrs. Abbotts

By D. E. Stevenson

“Sarah!” said Barbara Abbott again.
“Yes, it’s me,” nodded Sarah (who although aware that one should say “it is I,” could never bring herself to utter the words because for some reason or other it sounded as if one were God).

We are introduced once again to Barbara Abbott, nee Buncle, and her niece Jeronina Abbott, (“Jerry for short. It’s rather a blot to be called Jerry these days but it was too much bother to make everyone change.”) We first met the younger Mrs. Abbott in the previous book, Miss Buncle Married. They are weathering the war years, Barbara happily married to her darling Arthur, and Jerry, missing her soldier husband, Sam, who is “somewhere in the desert.” As with the last two books in the series, this novel consists largely of stories and glimpses into the lives of their friends and acquaintances. Some are lovable and some not so lovable.

On the lovable side, we have “Dorky”, Barbara’s children’s elderly Nanny, Hard-working Archie, Jerry’s brother, Miss Janetta Walters, a lauded author of sappy romances, or “high-powered tushery” as Arthur calls them, a mysterious stranger in their midst, Jane Watt, and a young girl, Wilhemina Bowles, a diamond in the rough, who has taken refuge with Markie and Jerry from her slovenly and coarse family. My favorite is the wondrous Sophonisba Marks, “Markie,” Jerry’s beloved and intellectual housekeeper and catcher of German Spies extraordinaire.

On the unlovable (but still very entertaining) side we have Helen Walters, Janetta’s domineering sister, Lancreste, Barbara’s hapless and silly neighbor, Mrs. Boles, the least said about her the better, and the very common and not very nice, Pearl, Lancreste’s almost fiance.

There are many other characters as well, all beautifully portrayed and interesting. Their personalities were enhanced by the quirky interpretation of the narrator, Patricia Gallimore. The stories we follow most closely as we weave our way in and out of the lives of the select denizens of Wandlebury are the romance and courtship of confirmed bachelor Archie with a newcomer to the village, and the crises and fates of Wilhelmina, Lancreste, and Markie. As these stories reach their satisfactory conclusions, we hate to leave the pretty English town and hope they all emerge from the war safely and happily. Especially Sam and Jerry.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

August 4, 2021

The English Air

by D. E. Stevenson

This is a novel that essentially is a comparison between England and Germany and ultimately a comparison between the English and German characters. The slightest of plots are the dual romances of an upper-middle-class widow and her daughter. What casts it in an extraordinary light is that it is not only set in England on the brink of WWII but that it was written at that same time. One senses that D.E. Stevenson herself was struggling to understand and be fair to the German people while in the midst of the relief and joy of Neville Chamberlain’s agreement with Hitler, and then the ultimate betrayal, Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia and Poland and the Blitzkrieg.

Franz, a young Nazi and the son of Sophie’s dear dead friend and cousin comes to England to basically spy and learn about the “behind the scenes” life and character of the English people. His contempt and bewilderment at the differences in outlook between the two cultures ultimately turn to admiration and understanding. To seal the deal he falls in love with Wynne, Sophie’s daughter. The plan his true-believer Nazi father who had hoped to get reports of the weakness of the English people and their sad deprived lives has backfired. After war is declared, he no longer has a place in England and reluctantly returns to Germany. He is shocked by what he finds. What will happen to him? What will this nice boy do?

Although the Germans we actually meet are good even heroic people, by the end of the novel, probably influenced by what was happening at the time, D.E. Stevenson does not give Germans the benefit of the doubt. It ends very abruptly on a rather bitter note.

He had always intended to go back, but, just lately, he had begun to wonder whether the Germany which was enshrined in his heart, had any existence save in his fond imagination.

And who can blame her fear and distrust? By the time she had written the last page and the book was published, Germany was winning. England was a hair’s breadth away from invasion, Germans were bombing London and innocent civilians were dying. And brave young boys were being killed in defense of their home “This precious stone set in the silver sea.” **3 stars out of 5**

February 8, 2020

The Blue Sapphire

By D. E. Stevenson

Who said I was going to be married?’ cried Julia in alarm. ‘Nobody. Nobody at all,’ he replied, with a little chuckle. ‘But there’s always a chance that some misguided man might take a fancy to you.’ Julia laughed

This is gentle story of a girl who finds her independence by escaping from her controlling fiancé and cold uncaring father. Along the way, she meets and falls in like, then love with a nice, interesting guy who’s crazy about her, moves away from home to a boarding house, meets new friends, gets a job, makes a bit of money of the stock market, finds a long lost uncle, gains a possible new love interest, helps save her uncle’s life, and becomes an heiress.

I couldn’t have asked for more in her final confrontation with her jerk-wad of a fiancé. I did wish that there had been more closure with her equally awful father, but the fact that she just moves on is probably more realistic. As with The House on the Cliff, I felt sorry for the sad fate of our heroine’s mother. So far D.E. Stevenson’s novels have been happy but tinged with a bit of melancholy lurking in the background. That’s not a bad thing.**4 stars out of 5**

March 23, 2019

The House on the Cliff

By D. E. Stevenson

The House on the Cliff Is a simple sweet story of how a girl out of place finds her place. Young Elfrida has been drained by being in the wrong profession, infatuated with the wrong man, and by the death of her beloved mother. When she inherits a lonely house on the Devonshire seaside, she recovers her spirit and her health and finds the right man for her.
What makes it compelling and charming is its sense of place and time, and the deft characterizations including the growth of our shy heroine. She is challenged by a greedy relative, gentile poverty, and the re-emergence of the heartthrob she had a crush on in London. This guy turns out to be a real piece of work and is one of the most interesting if hiss-worthy characters in the book. What rescues it from a run of the mill light romance is an overlay of the sadness of lost opportunity and the fate of an emotionally abused and ill-treated young boy. The happy ending has few remaining wisps that could have been incorporated into a sequel. I would have loved to read about young Patrick 10 or 12 years down the road.**3 1/2 stars out of 5**

March 16, 2019

Miss Buncle Married

By D. E. Stevenson

The sequel to Miss Buncle’s Book is just as charming and delightful as its predecessor. Barbara and her husband must move away from Silverstream because their friends and neighbors keep inviting them to bridge parties and they don’t know how else to get out of the constant round of social obligations without hurting or offending them. Barbara searches high and low for a new house and community to move to and finally finds her perfect place: Decrepit and neglected Archway House in Wandlebury.

Mr. Pinthorpe fitted a key in the lock and opened the door….Barbara thought that the house seemed to welcome the sun, it had been empty and darkened for so long; and the sun seemed to be glad to be welcomed back, it streamed in through the tall windows onto the bare floors, it explored the walls from which the faded paper hung down in curling strips. The dust floated in the air, it eddied and swirled…so that the whole place seemed full of golden smoke….”This is my house,” she said, and sat herself down on the broad window seat in a possessive manner.

We are treated to amusing and insightful descriptions of her new neighbors and their quirks, a nice little romance, domestic dilemmas, and comic situations. Plus a brilliant new book about her new neighbors by “John Smith”! Which will never be published to the dismay of her publisher husband. “I should be terrified,” said Barbara with a shudder. “They would recognize themselves and we should have to leave.”**5 stars after 5**

October 21, 2019

Miss Buncle’s Book

By D. E. Stevenson

She explained, somewhat incoherently, that the character of Mrs. Horsley Downs was a horrible character and not in the least like her, but that it was obviously intended for her, because it was exactly like her, and that therefore it was a libel and as such ought to be punished to the utmost rigor of the law.

Some books you really are entertained by and enjoy. And some books you love like a friend. This is one of those. The very definition of charming and delightful. That’s all.**5 stars out of 5**

August 29, 2019