This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
D. E Stevenson’s story, first published in 1959, changed my life because she made me yearn to be an author. In this well-crafted book, Barbara Buncle chooses that role for herself when, having naively lived on her ‘dividends’ for years, she suddenly finds herself penniless. She and her faithful servant Dorcas (well, OK, it does seem a little dated now) decide that there is nothing else for it – Barbara must either write a book or keep chickens. And so, Barbara sets to and gets on with her novel. In long hand, on pages and pages of unruly foolscap, shut in a box room. For days on end, Dorcas anxiously brings trays of food and leaves them outside the locked door, wishing fervently that her mistress had chosen the chicken option.
The tale woven by Barbara Buncle starts prosaically enough but swiftly develops wings and seems to write itself. Barbara has always thought that she has no imagination, but soon she is pouring out her story, unable to stop even if she wanted to. Unfortunately, the novel she is writing with such painful accuracy and attention to detail is all about her neighbours. When they find out, a terrifying witch hunt is set in motion. Furious at the author’s honesty (or lies, depending on how self-aware her readers are) the villagers search relentlessly for the culprit.
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I have read this book-within-a-book countless times, as the repair work on the spine testifies. First as a teenager – short of reading material and working my way through my mum’s book supplies – when Barbara seemed ancient and very frumpy. Later, I began to understand her fear when faced with a harsh future and started to respect her tenacity, although to be fair, having a book published must have been an awful lot easier in those days. Barbara simply parcelled her manuscript up, posted it to the first publisher listed in the telephone book and then married him. Easy.
My own route to publication has been a lot less straightforward, but I still read this book and all the other treasures by the same author when I need inspiration or comfort. At the time, The Glasgow Herald described Miss Buncle’s Book as ‘kindly, ironical observations of ordinary life’ and her other books are mostly in the same vein. I re-read the sequel, Miss Buncle Married when I was in labour with my first daughter, and along with a few Cadbury’s Cream Eggs, it gave me the strength to go on. The final part of the trilogy, The Two Mrs Abbotts, is just as well-written, and I will never part with any of the books by this witty Edinburgh lady, whose father was a cousin of the great Robert Louis Stevenson and who, in her own words, ‘followed the drum’ during her eventful life as an army wife. As legacies go, this one from my beloved mum is the best.