Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Two Mrs Abbotts - D. E. Stevenson

It's that stage on a Sunday evening when I try and persuade myself that bunging on a mixed wash is basically all the housework I really needed to do (it isn't), worry about what work will bring tomorrow, and wonder why I didn't write this post hours ago (I was probably looking at twitter). However I'm here now and ready to think about 'The Two Mrs Abbotts' (Persephone book 104). It's both an obvious and a curious choice for Persephone - obvious because as a sequel to 'Miss Buncle's Book' and 'Miss Buncle Married' (Persephone's 81 and 91 respectively) it makes sense to complete the trilogy. Curious because this isn't Stevenson at her best (that would be in 'Miss Buncle's Book') which is not to say that the book is without interest or isn't enjoyable (it's both interesting and enjoyable), unusually there is no preface or afterword (we are directed to the earlier Buncle books instead) which I also think suggests that this one has been published for slightly different reasons. 

Plot wise there isn't much to say. Barbara Buncle (now Mrs Abbott) plays quite a small part in the action most of which centres around the household of her niece by marriages - Jerry - the other Mrs Abbott. There is a touch of romance and a bit of adventure but nothing that really counts, what interested me was the view of war time Britain that I got from this - one that was subtly but disturbingly different from any other home front sort of book I think I've read, especially Thirkell's 'The Headmistress' from a few weeks ago.

The first surprising thing is how little Barbara's life has changed with the war, her home is still well ordered, her husband is to old to have been called up so is still engaged in his publishing business, she still has a cook and a nurse for her children - apart from having to walk more and think a little bit harder about meals there's no outward sign of conflict. For Jerry the situation is rather different, her husband has gone, her business is all but closed, she's turned her home into a sort of canteen for local soldiers - in many ways her life is on hold, it's certainly turned upside down. 

Really though what was most striking was how segregated life is. Men and women live separate lives (one passage makes it clear how wide a gulf of wartime experience there is between Jerry and her husband Sam), the soldiers who use the house use the kitchen and back premiss - Jerry and her old governess Markie are on the other side of the baize door. Town in the form of a family of refugees refuses to mix with country; Mrs Boles removes herself and her children back to London disturbed by the ideas they are picking up. Class is still more rigidly segregated, the Boles family are definitely common and also dirty and dishonest, everybody is glad to see the back of them - it takes a week to clean the house to something like normal after they've gone and then Elmie the 14 year old daughter returns. When she does Jerry and Markie agree to take her in without informing her parents the rationale being that she's better off in the country and away from their influence. Elmie is described as an intelligent girl who turns into a nice looking child with the right care and you would think having fallen into the hands of a committed educator (Markie) that she might have a bright future but instead she's trained as a housemaid - something that I found rather jarring. There is also the matter of Pearl - another common young woman from London who has enthralled a young man by the name of Lancreste Marvell, and although nobody likes him they still don't think Pearl 'suitable'. Naturally soldiers and civilians remain somewhat segregated, and so do the Abbott children from their parents. 

I'm in the habit of thinking of the war as a time when social boundaries started to relax and crumble, Stevenson is obviously holding out against that but also, I presume, illustrating how rigid some of those codes actually were. It doesn't always endear me to her as a person but it's an interesting insight. The other moment of insight she offers is in Barbara's dealings with her children - Simon and Fay. Fay is still at the chubby almost a baby stage (about 4 I think) Simon at roughly 7 is something of a menace. Turning into the golden child of her imagination he is the apple of his mother and nurses eye but there is something off about Simon. He shows Barbara how little control she has over him one night when he behaves badly at bedtime, and worries her again when he lies easily to his nurse about an expedition to buy her a birthday present. Barbara know this lie is harmless and comes with the best of motives but it makes her uncomfortable showing as it does that children don't always remain innocent and beguiling creatures. Stevenson was good on children in 'Miss Buncle Married' too which makes me wish she had explored this particular relationship a little further. 


  1. "Lancreste Marvell", brilliant... One thinks perhaps of Mrs Miniver re the wartime situation - she too is not particularly infringed upon by loss of the things she is used to or particularly swayed from her routine. There is a cushion of money (and status) in that situation too. It's really disconcerting to read texts like this against something like Nella Last's War.

  2. It was disconcerting, perhaps more so because for some characters a lot changes and then suddenly there's a character who seems oddly untouched by events. The moments with the children were fascinating too but also disconcerting.