Miss Buncle was born and raised and has lived in the quaint English village of Silverstream all her life, and now in her late 30s, a frumpy old maid who dresses badly and whom no one takes seriously or pays much attention to, she’s arrived at a crisis point. The dividends off which she had always lived in relative comfort have now dwindled to nothing, and she must find a way to increase her revenues. Taking a job isn’t an option for a proper lady, and her old servant Dorcas won’t allow her to take in hens or lodgers, and instead suggests she write a book. But Barbara Buncle claims she has no imagination, so if she writes a book, it will have to be about people she knows and her life experiences, which is how the village of Silverstream becomes the fictional Copperfield, and each of her acquaintances has a part to play in the story. She sends the manuscript to the first publisher she finds in the directory, under the pen name of John Smith. Mr Abbott of Abbott & Spicer Publishers is delighted with it and feels sure he’s got a best-seller on his hands, only he can’t quite figure out if the book is a satire or whether the author is simple-minded and writing about such witty anecdotes completely in earnest, but he’s willing to gamble that this enigma will only keep the readers of Disturber of the Peace all the more interested. As he predicts, the book is in fact a success, and nowhere more so than in Silverstream itself, where several residents read it and are mortified to recognize themselves, hairy moles and all. No one more so than Mrs Featherstone Hogg, fictionalized as Mrs Horsley Downs. Up until now she has firmly held on to her superior social position in the town by sheer force of will, and she has everything to lose by the revelation in Disturber of the Peace that she was a chorus girl when her husband first met her. Unaware that each book sold means royalties for the author, she purchases copy after copy of the book, pressuring all the townspeople to read it immediately so she can launch her libel campaign against John Smith, and if no lawyer is willing to take on the case, then they will unmask the miscreant who will be horsewhipped (Mrs Featherstone Hogg’s preferred method of punishment, though she’s not sure what it actually involves) and driven out of Silverstream. Among others joining her cause are Mr Bulmer, a bad-tempered bully who mistreats his wife (who in the book leaves him for another man), and old Mrs Carter, about whom John Smith has had the audacity to suggest her perfectly styled hair is in fact a wig.
And so the stage is set for a great entertainment, and we see how the residents of this small community react when a mirror is held up to them, showing all their quirks and flaws and revealing secrets they never imagined anyone could know about their lives. This might not be the stuff of award-winning highbrow literature, but I loved this story, which is so very cleverly written, and peopled with an entertaining set of characters in this book within a book. D. E. Stevenson, whose father was first cousins with Robert Louis Stevenson, became a popular writer in her day, publishing nearly a book a year from 1923 to 1969, though most are now out of print. Persephone Books of London, which specializes in “mainly neglected fiction and non-fiction by women, for women and about women” (their biggest seller is Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson, a personal favourite), have printed three of the four Miss Buncle books, originally written between 1934 and 1946. Need I say I’m absolutely dying to put through an order for the next two books?