Archive for the ‘D.E.Stevenson’ Category

charlotte fairlie dj d e stevenson

An early edition dust jacket illustration. I’m not including mine as it is the 1985 reissue and the jacket illustration is a hideous black, pink and white effort which offends the eye greatly. Well, maybe I will include it, but only at the very bottom. Scroll down if you dare!

December 14, 2014. Thinking some more about Christmas-including books, this novel I read and enjoyed exactly a year ago came to mind. It’s definitely not all about Christmas, but I was most intrigued by the title character’s (and presumably the author’s) thoughts on the “paganism” of many of the socially accepted customs of the time (the 1950s), and her religious musings.

For those of you who didn’t catch this the first time around, and to jog the memories of those of you who are already very familiar with D.E. Stevenson’s novels, here it is again.

Charlotte Fairlie by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1954. Also published as Blow the Wind Southerly and The Enchanted Isle. This edition: Collins, 1985. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-00-222108-X. 320 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Casting about on the internet this morning, looking for other opinions, for I wanted to see if my happy reading experience was shared by fellow D.E. Stevenson fans, I was more than a little bemused by the dearth of reviews on this book. I was favourably impressed, and enjoyed it a lot; I assumed others would have as well, and said so. But perhaps I am not looking in quite the right places?

A straightforward plot and a limited cast of characters make for a smooth, fast read. The heroine is a strong-minded, quiet-spoken, wise-beyond-her-years type; I greatly admired her coping skills and judicious use of silence when confronted by difficult situations; a delicious example of letting one’s enemies defeat themselves by running about ever more madly while one remains at the calm eye of the storm saving one’s breath.

Miss Fairlie’s technique reminded me strongly of that of an enigmatic young Dutch man I once spent a summer working under; in his office there hung a small plaque stating: Silence is the only satisfactory substitute for Wisdom. Berndt was both wise and silent; he was one of the most non-committal people I’ve ever come across, but when he had to say something it was always to the point. I think I learned something there, though I seldom put it into practice, being personally of the say-too-much persuasion!

Charlotte Fairlie is a young woman who has made good. Only in her late twenties, she is already the competent headmistress of a respectable girls’ boarding school. She has no family ties but for one disinterested aunt; no romances complicate her emotions. Her one thorn is the senior mathematics teacher at her school, who feels that Miss Fairlie is the devious usurper of a position which should have been her own, and does not hesitate to stir up trouble at every opportunity.

Two of Miss Fairlie’s three hundred students are causing her particular concern. One, Donny Eastwood, stands out as being one of the least bright and most dreamily befuddled children Charlotte has ever had in attendance. Charlotte suspects that there is a hidden intelligence hiding under Donny’s dull façade, and this proves to be the case when Donny perks up greatly upon becoming friends with a new student, one Tessa MacRynne.

Tessa has been living on a secluded Scottish island and having lessons from a governess, rather an anomaly in these times, for the story is set in the early 1950s, and the teaching governess is no longer anything like the norm. Tessa’s lovely, vivacious, American mother has delivered her to the school with something of a regretful attitude; Mrs. MacRynne appears vaguely desirous of confiding something to Miss Fairlie, but in the confusion and business of start-of-term she leaves without divulging, and Charlotte tucks the idea that something is not quite right with the MacRynne household away in the back of her mind.

The Eastwoods and the MacRynnes are decidedly families with “issues”, and Charlotte becomes ever more embroiled in these two students’ personal lives, culminating in a joint visit to Tessa’s island home with Tessa, Donny, and Donny’s two younger brothers, with dramatic consequences for all.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this story. While it was absolutely predicable in many ways, there were serious undertones that I found most moving. Charlotte herself is an exceedingly likeable character; I found I was completely taken with her and most sympathetic to the way she rebuilt her life after her father’s rejection of her after his remarriage in her adolescent years. Her own experiences aid her in understanding the woes of her  students, in particular Donny and Tessa, who themselves are bereft of a beloved parent, though Tessa has a loving father to cling to while Donny’s coldly unemotional, widowed father refuses to pander to his daughter’s desperate desire for parental affection. But Charlotte is also shaken to realize that she is not as perceptive as she should be, when one of the four children is tragically involved in what appears to be a suicide attempt while on their Scottish vacation.

I should leave off here, in order to allow those of you who haven’t yet read this book to discover its charms, and its few twists and turns, for yourself. For though there are some dark themes, it is a thoughtful and hopeful story, with a strong element of good humour throughout. And, reading it in December, I was pleased to find that it described several of Charlotte’s Christmases, spent in very different circumstances.

The first is with Charlotte’s Aunt Lydia, a self-indulgent gadabout of a woman, whose Christmas celebrations Charlotte finds vaguely distasteful.

Charlotte… found herself even more out of tunes with the festivities than usual. She had nothing in common with Aunt Lydia’s friends and it did not amuse her to see a group of middle-aged people pulling crackers and wearing paper hats and kissing coyly beneath the mistletoe. In fact she found it revolting… (S)he thought about it seriously: was there any connection between Aunt Lydia’s parties and the “Christmas Spirit?” Was it priggish to be unable to join in the “fun?” She thought of the noise and the laughter and the feasting…and then she thought of the birth of a little baby in a quiet stable… The more Charlotte thought about it the more she became convinced that the orgies of Aunt Lydia and her friends were not Christian at all, but pagan…

The author obviously has this topic on her mind throughout the story, as she comes down hard against the “paganism” of secular Christmas celebrations again during her description of Charlotte’s second Christmas. This time Charlotte has decided to retreat to the depths of the country and spend Christmas alone in contemplation; it is after the turned-tragic Scottish episode, and Charlotte has much thinking to do.

Staying at a quiet country inn. Charlotte spends the week before Christmas taking walks, visiting the church, occasionally talking to the elderly vicar – in one notable exchange detailing her objections to the use of mistletoe because of its Druidic – pagan! – associations, and convincing the vicar to eliminate it from his decorations, though she will allow him to retain the holly(!)

Of her three hundred Christmas cards – delivered to the great astonishment of the villagers who have no idea that their transient visitor is a school headmistress guaranteed a card from every one of her students’ families –  only a few depict the Christmas story, and this seems to Charlotte to be indicative of the increasing loss of the “real” Christmas spirit, the religious significance of the holiday. She muses on about this for some time, and comes to the conclusion that unless one has children, that Christmas is an empty celebration.

…and then she raised her eyes and saw the little church with its lights shining through the stained-glass windows and she realized that there was one child who belonged to everybody… or at least belonged to everybody who would let Him come in. The cloud upon her spirits lifted and quite suddenly she was happy and at peace.

I felt that in these passages the author’s personal feelings and thoughts were made quite clear; she uses her character to make a point she obviously feels very strongly about, and I came away feeling that I had had a glimpse into D.E. Stevenson’s private world under the guise of acquaintanceship with her fictional creation.

Whether one agrees or not with the author’s opinions regarding the paganism of popular Christmas celebrations, it was refreshing to read such a strongly expressed argument; it added a bit of an edge to what otherwise was a mildly interesting set piece: “Christmas in the village.”

Though it does not get much mention among some of D.E. Stevenson’s more popular tales, I personally enjoyed Charlotte Fairlie greatly. A simple story competently told, with enough darkness here and there to let the bright bits really shine.

And here, as threatened, is the just jacket of the 1985 re-issue. While not as Harlequin-romance-y as the kilted hero and shapely heroine depicted on the earlier edition, this one is a bit too avant garde for the 1950s era contents! (Not to mention its sheer ugliness.)

And here, as threatened, is the dust jacket of the 1985 re-issue. While not as Harlequin-romance-y as the kilted hero and shapely heroine depicted on the earlier edition, this one is just a bit too avant garde, in my opinion, for the 1950s-era contents. (Not to mention its sheer ugliness.)

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the blue sapphire d e stevenson 001The Blue Sapphire by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1963. This edition: Collins, 1963. Hardcover. 320 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Yesterday’s post was all supercilious and disapproving of D.E. Stevenson’s 1969 novel Gerald and Elizabeth, but happily I am able to balance that with a much more enthusiastic opinion of this also far-fetched but charmingly engaging 1963 effort.

There are several parallels between the two stories, which makes their comparison and my views of one as “good” (The Blue Sapphire) and the other as “not-very-good” (Gerald and Elizabeth) an interesting micro-study in perception and the ambiguities of personal taste. I won’t delve any more deeply into this aspect of these two books, but will zip right into a brief discussion of the book itself.

Dust jacket blurb:

The blue sapphire is a gem which the Ancients called the hyacinthus and which Solinus described as ‘a gem which feels the influence of the air and sympathises with the heavens and does not shine equally if the sky is cloudy or bright’.

On a beautiful spring day, Julia Harburn sat on a seat in Kensington Gardens enjoying the sunshine. She was wearing a white frock and a large straw hat with a sapphire-blue ribbon which exactly matched her eyes – a strange coincidence, as it turned out, for the blue sapphire was to have a far-reaching influence upon her life. So far, her life had been somewhat dull and circumscribed; but quite suddenly her horizons were enlarged. She began to make new friends – and enemies – and she began to discover new strength and purpose in her own nature. This development of her character led her into strange adventures, some amusing, others full of sorrow and distress. The story is itself a blue sapphire story, of clouds and sunshine.

As pretty Julia sits on her park bench waiting for her tardy fiancé Morland to appear for their teatime rendezvous, she is increasingly worried that she will be “annoyed” by the numerous questionable masculine types who have started closing in on her, like hopeful jackals surrounding a tender little gazelle. Luckily a rescuer appears in the person of tall, handsome and very forthcoming Stephen Brett, newly arrived in London after some years away in South Africa overseeing a gemstone mining operation. At first Julia snubs the friendly Stephen, but she soon warms to his innocent cheerfulness, and the two part on mutually appreciative terms just as Morland grumpily hoves into view.

Julia is waiting to break some rather big news to Morland. She has decided to move out of her father’s house and find a job and take a room in a boarding house. Some years ago Julia’s mother had died, and her new stepmother, while not at all cruel, is making it increasingly obvious that she would be happier if she were the only woman in the household.

Morland loftily dismisses Julia’s intentions of independence, but she holds firm, eventually ending up in an attic room in the fabulously Victorian-styled boarding house of the inestimable Miss Martineau, ex-actress and current patroness to “resting” theatrical folk. Miss Martineau takes a shine to Julia, and sets her up in a job at a posh hat shop, where Julia proceeds to thrive, becoming a very special chum to her new boss, the ex-Parisian Madame Claire, to the deep resentment of Julia’s several jealous co-workers.

Meanwhile Stephen Brett pops in and out of Julia’s life, adding some much-needed good humour and friendliness as Julia finds her way as a working girl and tries to cope with Morland’s moodiness and reluctance to set a date for their marriage. Stephen is embroiled in a complicated situation involving a potential sapphire mine back in South Africa; he finds relief from his worries in his growing friendship with Julia.

A turning point in the plot occurs as Julia receives a letter from her father’s estranged brother in Scotland, begging Julia to come and see him before he dies. Off she goes, against Morland’s advice, to find in her Uncle Randal the loving relationship she has never been able to attain with her own father. But Uncle Randal is declining rapidly, and it seems as though Julia will tragically lose him just when she has found him…

Stopping right here, because this is a sweet story which you will want to finish up for yourself. D.E. Stevenson is in her usual form, mixing unlikely scenarios with sunny-natured heroines, grumpy-but-ultimately-innocuous villains, salt-of-the-earth old family retainers, and a knight-in-shining-armour (or two) who appear(s) at just the right time.

The mixture-as-usual, but just what is needed in a book of this gentle genre. Highly recommended to those of you who like this sort of thing; everyone else, tactfully glance away!

Another Look Book liked it, too. As did Claire and Susan, who recommended it to me in the comments to my last year’s post about this other DES, also featuring the incorrigibly snoopy but divinely maternal Miss Martineau, 1966’s The House on the Cliff.

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gerald and elizabeth d e stevenson 001Gerald and Elizabeth by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1969. This edition: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969. Hardcover. ISBN: 03-066555-8. 245 pages.

My rating: 4/10

I hadn’t noticed a lot of discussion regarding this mild romance-suspense novel by the generally esteemed D.E. Stevenson in my online travels, and as it seemed to be widely available and very reasonably priced (for a DES book) in the second-hand book trade, I rather wondered why.

Well, I wonder no longer. The answer appears quite clear. It is my humble opinion that this book is not very good, and DES fans are keeping a discreet silence, spending their reviewing energies instead on the author’s top end novels.

While it’s sufficiently readable to keep one’s interest gently engaged, and there are charming passages and likeable characters galore, the whole thing is something of a stretch in numerous ways, even allowing for the DES formula of everyone ending up romantically paired up with all “mysteries” neatly resolved.

Dust jacket blurb:

Gerald Brown is young, good-looking, personable, but he holds himself aloof from the other passengers aboard the Ariadne, a small passenger ship returning to London from Cape Town, South Africa. In fact, his behavior is so extremely antisocial that he appears on deck only late at night, rarely venturing from his cabin during the day. Something is troubling him deeply, something that happened while he was working as an engineer in a Cape Town diamond mine that has left him spent and hopeless.

After the Ariadne docks in London, Gerald, desperately in need of a job, decides to contact his sister, the beautiful and famous actress, Elizabeth Burleigh, whose current play is the hit of the London theater season. As he reveals to her his haunting past in South Africa, he learns that she too is suffering, that behind her facade of gaiety and sophistication lurks a nagging suspicion about her mental health that is threatening to destroy her career and her love affair as well.

What are the forces that seem bent on these destroying these young people who have so much to live for? Can the mysteries surrounding their lives be solved – and in time to prevent irreversible consequences?

D.E. Stevenson reveals the answers to these questions in a way that will hold her thousands of fans breathless until the very end…

A glaringly obvious diamond-theft frame-up has our hero fleeing the gossip and speculative glances of South Africa to end up under the protective wing of his older half-sister Elizabeth, star of a rather goofy-sounding London stage play – Elizabeth plays a princess from the planet Venus marooned on Earth, to the delight of the hypothetical crowds who pack each performance during the play’s astoundingly successful run.

But all is not well in Elizabeth’s world either. Though feted by the all and vigorously courted by a kind, handsome and wealthy Scottish shipyard owner, Elizabeth fears that she has inherited the “melancholia” which plagued her long-deceased mother. How can she marry with such a doom hanging over her head? – for naturally it will be passed along to her own children!

As Gerald seeks to make a new start he also strives to delve into the background of Elizabeth’s mother, hoping to make some sort of discovery which will ease his sister’s worries and smooth the rocky path of her romance.

A wartime bombing raid on the night Elizabeth was born and an enterprising maternity nurse hold the key to the actress’s future happiness, and the events surrounding her birth are as spectacularly far-fetched as D.E. Stevenson’s conception of mental illness. Shades of the bizarre insanity scenario of Rochester’s Wife, published thirty years earlier, made me cringe in readerly discomfort for the author’s lack of research and her apparent clinging to archaic superstitions.

The mysteries aren’t very mysterious, and the characters never truly come to life. The author could and did do much better in many of her other novels. In my eyes, this is a book to round out one’s DES collection, but otherwise I feel that it is without a lot of merit. Please don’t give it to a neophyte Dessie; it might endanger one’s contention that this is indeed an author to spend time and energy tracking down!

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the english air d e stevenson 001The English Air by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1940. This edition: Farrar and Rinehart, 1940. Hardcover. 317 pages.

My rating: 9/10

I liked this novel a lot. It’s hard to believe it was written at the roughly the same time as the melodramatic Crooked Adam (1942), as it is a much more sober and thoughtful sort of thing, reflective no doubt of the author’s own musings in the years leading up to the start of World War II. It is wonderfully atmospheric from start to finish, and the characters pleased me greatly, from the gorgeous blonde Aryan “super-man” and ex-Hitler Youth Franz to fluffy-but-ultimately-wise Sophie and fragile-seeming but tough-as-nails Wynne.

This book is fairly common, and I don’t want to spoil it for those of you still to read it, so I’ll keep this review brief and avoid any spoilers.

It is the spring of 1938, and half-German, half-English Franz has suddenly invited himself to stay with his English semi-cousins, the Braithwaites. No one is quite sure what to make of Franz’s out-of-the-blue advances, and when he arrives their initial reaction is uneasy. Franz is a tall young golden-haired “Greek god” figure of a man, with stiffly formal manners and no apparent sense of humour. After the initial whispered consultations: “I wonder if he’s a Nazi? Don’t talk about politics!” everyone unbends a bit, and as the days pass Franz is seen to make a real effort to find common ground with his English hosts.

Especially lovely Wynne, the Braithwaite daughter, who has been tenaciously trying to get through Franz’s Teutonic reserve while educating him in the niceties of the English sense of humour, common slang, and recognition of and appropriate responses to friendly teasing.

But Dane Worthington, Wynne’s uncle, who has been her legal guardian since her father’s untimely death, cocks a cynical eyebrow in Franz’s direction. Why is he really so keen to immerse himself in English domestic life? For Dane knows, through certain connections of his own, that Franz’s father is a highly-placed official in the Nazi party, and one of Hitler’s personal advisers.

There are many secrets afoot, this golden last summer of peace before the start of the war…

A rather nicely plotted story – though we do get some major clues throughout as to what is really going on – and well up there in D.E. Stevenson’s oeuvre. The themes are serious and treated with respect without being dreary; in places this one reads rather like an O. Douglas novel, unsensational and matter-of-fact, and deeply appealing in a quietly memorable way. Occasionally things slip into melodrama, but all in all the author does a grand job here; it is one of my new favourites of the many DES stories I’ve now read.

I particularly enjoyed the author’s discussion of patriotism, and thought it well-balanced and insightful, though by the time of the writing of Crooked Adam in 1942 the mood had obviously changed to something much more reactive and extreme, on both sides of the ongoing conflict.

The English Air was finished in February, 1940, and, as well as being a diverting light novel, is an intriguing eyewitness snapshot of a specific time and place in the last year of peace and the first year of war.

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crooked adm d e stevensonCrooked Adam by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1942. This edition: Fontana, 1974. Paperback. 219 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

You have to hand it to D.E. Stevenson. Even if she didn’t know anything at all about her subject (mental illness in Rochester’s Wife, for example) it didn’t stop her from taking a good old swing at it, cheerfully glossing over the complicated bits by having her characters tell each other, “It’s too specialized to explain. Just trust me.” And of course, they do.

In this case it is schoolmaster Adam Southey who is the clueless one. His headmaster, Samuel Cooke, is a prominent scientist who is working on a secret war machine, a kind of death ray which focus an ultraviolet beam of light on an object – say, an enemy airplane – and causes it to burst into flames. “A Death Ray!” exclaims Adam, only to be lectured by his superior that this is inaccurate: “It’s too specialized to explain to a simple soul like you. Just trust me.”

It is early in World War II, and Adam is disappointed that His Majesty’s Army has no use for him, due to a childhood injury which has left one of his legs shorter than the other. Despite this physical handicap, Adam is fit and strong, and can swing along at a great rate, which is about to come in very handy very soon. He surprises a suspicious intruder attempting to get a look at Cooke’s secret weapon, and ends up accompanying the van carrying the machine to a secret army testing base in Scotland, with some interesting adventures on the way, including an attempted hijacking and a stint of camouflage with a travelling circus.

Once in Scotland, with Marvelous Invention to Change the Course of the War almost ready to demonstrate, Adam’s adventures get even more exciting, as he stumbles upon a Cleverly Disguised Nest of Nazi Spies (complete with submarine access to a secret tunnel), teams up with the local shepherds and fishermen to foil the Wicked Teutonic Menace, and ultimately finds True Love.

Despite the simplistic tone of the whole thing, written in a “Gosh! Golly!” schoolboy-adventure-tale-genre sort of way, it is rather an enjoyable romp, and the groaning faux-pas-by-sincere-author moments add to the charming vintage atmosphere. The hero is sweet and true-blue all the way through (“Crooked Adam”, as one of his schoolboy charges murmurs in a scene-setting aside to a friend, is really one of those double entendre nicknames which mean the exact opposite – gimpy leg aside, Adam is straight as they come) and we can only hope that his serendipitous love interest will live up to his nobleness, once the war is safely over.

Though this adventure started off rather slowly for me – this is my second go at reading it, as the first try fizzled out – once I pushed past the “I can’t explain my invention; you’ll just have to take my word for it that it’s marvelous” bit by Dr. Cooke and wide-eyed Adam’s acceptance that he’s too dumb to grasp the complexities of science I started to grow rather fond of our sterling-natured hero, and cheerfully went along with the tale until the heroic and neatly tied up end. I’d noticed before that D.E. Stevenson often has no qualms about cold-bloodedly eliminating her bad eggs, and Crooked Adam proved no exception, with the author showing more sympathy with the German Nazis versus the turncoat Englishmen, who get their (fatal) comeuppance.

Yes, one might safely shelve this one with the propaganda novels, I think.

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D.E. Stevenson’s 1961 novel Bel Lamington, featuring a young woman thrust out unprepared into a harsh world, Miss Beatrice Elizabeth Lamington – the “Bel” coming from her initials – left me just slightly underwhelmed.

I had first read the sequel to Bel’s titular saga, 1962’s Fletchers’ End, and references to Bel’s previous stint as a downtrodden secretary rather intrigued me. My eagerness to discover her prior story sent me off to the internet to purchase the book, and though I can’t say I’m disappointed by my latest D.E.S. acquisition, I’m not as thrilled as I’d hoped to be.

Bel Lamington links up with the earlier Vittoria Cottage/Music in the Hills/Shoulder the Sky (a.k.a. Winter and Rough Weather) trilogy, and the last third or so of the book concerns a number of characters whom the author assumes we have already met. Doubtless this was so for most readers at the time of Bel Lamington‘s publication; D.E.S. had her staunch following, and a nod to the readers-already-in-the-loop was doubtless the author’s intention here. But for those of us coming newly to the D.E.S. world some half-century after her heyday it can be a little disconcerting, though I must say it is fairly easy to pick up and follow the story threads.

It never seems like the author intends to leave things out, just that she assumes that we know the histories of the cameo role stars she features beside the up-and-coming ingénues. And Bel is very much a charming ingénue, in every sense of the word. Luckily her stellar qualities are recognized by just enough people to soften the blows that fall upon her tentative entry into a working girl’s world.

bel lamington d e stevensonBel Lamington ~ 1961.

This edition: Collins, 1961. Hardcover. 255 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

Bel was orphaned at the tender age of three when both parents perished together in an automobile accident –  a “terrible motor smash” – but luckily she was taken in by a loving aunt and raised and cared for with tender affection. Her aunt has now died, and with it the small income they both lived on; there is nothing for it but for Bel to go out into the world and find employment.

She trains as a secretary and finds a job as a typist in a London shipping firm, and is soon promoted to private secretary to the firm’s chief partner, Ellis Brownlee. For Bel is one of those quietly competent types who excels at everything she attempts, and the author gets some digs in at the lackadaisical sorts whose office ambitions are more to do with flirtation and gossip than in dedication to their employers’ interests. Bel is definitely not cut from that pattern, and this inevitably leads to her being ostracized by the other female staff members, in particular the bullying Miss Goudge, who finds meek Miss Lamington a perfect target for her sarcastic jabs.

Bel’s private life is emotionally fraught as well. She is finding London exceedingly lonely, and has not made friends with anyone at all in the eighteen months she has been there. Her one comfort is the tiny rooftop garden she has created outside her top floor window, and lo and behold, this garden brings her into contact with a handsome young man.

Mark is an artist, and his discovery of Bel’s garden when he is scrambling about on the roofs outside his own top floor studio-flat leads to his painting of Bel’s portrait, and his impetuously offhand courtship of this hidden flower, this “charming little mouse” of a girl. Bel is initially bowled over, but soon finds that Mark’s enthusiasms wane as fast as they sprout up, and she sensibly keeps herself out of trouble when Mark’s casual advances become too forceful.

But it is hard to keep smiling, and Bel is descending into the depths of despair when a chance encounter with an old school friend at the exhibition of Mark’s painting of Bel brings her a happy respite, as she and Louise discover that they are kindred spirits.

Back at the office things are not going well at all. Bel’s mentor and protector Mr Brownlee has left on an extended overseas business trip, leaving Copping, Wills and Brownlee under the supervision of the over-emotional and verbally-abusive Mr Wills. Hand in glove with the manipulative Miss Goudge, Mr Wills ensures that Bel’s office days are numbered, and when the inevitable happens, she flees to Louise for refuge, ending up in Scotland, where everything gets itself all sorted out.

Fletchers’ End ~ 1962.

This edition: Fontana, 1971. Paperback. 256 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Spoiler alert: If you want to read Bel Lamington without knowing the results of her romance in book one, you should read no further. Here, I’ll pop in the cover illustration of Fletchers’ End to give you a chance to click away.

fletchers' end d e stevenson

Still here? Excellent. Here’s the next installment.

Bel and Ellis Brownlee are wed, and are now living in Bel’s tiny London flat and both working at Ellis’s office. They are also looking for a proper place of their own, preferably in the country but within easy commuting distance of London so Ellis can be handy to his shipping firm. Nothing suitable can be found, until Bel’s friend Louise sees potential in a dilapidated old house in a jungle of weeds, one Fletchers’ End in the village of Shepherdsford.

The absentee owner is desperate to sell, and Ellis and Bel purchase the house for a bargain price, though they are destined to make up for the initial savings in the ensuing renovation costs. This now becomes one of those “house books”, where the building is a character in its own right, and ultimately rewards its rescuers by becoming a warm and welcoming haven.

Bel’s adventures in renovation and restoration keep her occupied for the better part of the narrative, though there are side plots in the romance of Bel’s dear friend Louise, carried forward from the first installment, and the sudden appearance of the house’s previous owner, a young and handsome naval officer.

Mark-the-philandering-artist from Bel Lamington makes a brief appearance as well, as does the younger Copping from Ellis’s firm.

But not much really happens in this one, unless, of course, one appreciates the overwhelming busy-ness and architectural challenges and intrinsic rewards involved in a house renovation. The romance gets sorted out most satisfactorily, and all seems set for a happy ending when Bel and Ellis are suddenly faced with the possibility of having to walk away from Fletchers’ End: a will has been discovered which puts into question the legality of the house’s sale. Oh dear, whatever will happen now?!

Yes, it all comes out all right in the end.

(Was there ever any question?)

Nice parallel story of the elderly Mrs Warmer (what an apt name) who has been caretaking Fletchers’ End, and who stays on to provide a motherly presence in Bel’s kitchen, to the envy of all and sundry.

In both of these novels much is made of Bel’s timidity, her gentleness, and her overwhelming humility. D.E. Stevenson puts forward the argument that humility – true humility of spirit – is a worthy trait and should be viewed with respect. She therefore endows her heroine with appropriate rewards for her goodness and meekness. Though Bel occasionally shows that her inner core is of the toughest steel, her continual mildness is sometimes just the tiniest bit irritating; I can understand why Miss Goudge of the first book found her such a fitting target for perpetual scorn.

A very moralistic pair of tales, Bel Lamington and Fletchers’ End, with the author making very clear her opinions of how virtue and innate goodness should be rewarded, and how those who offend against the meek and well-meaning should be cast off into the outer darkness. All in all, a satisfying sort of point of view for this sort of blissfully simple fiction, for aren’t we all, fellow readers, on the side of the angels ourselves? 😉

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the house on the cliff pb cover d e stevensonThe House on the Cliff by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1966. This edition: Fontana, circa 1960s. Paperback. 224 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

What a blissfully easy read, second time around this year for The House on the Cliff. Looking at my handy-dandy reading list, I see that I first read it way back in March of this year, while in the throes of dance festival season (my teen daughter was a competitive dance troupe member until this autumn) which seems aeons ago now, as we’re as close as touching to mid-November.

And though I still retained a reasonably accurate memory of the plot line, many of the details were completely erased from my brain. Not such a bad thing in a comfort read, I maintain, because much of the charm in those is their re-readability. I see I rated this one quite highly back in March, and I’ll keep it there, for though it is a slight thing, it is very pleasant, and that has merit enough for me.

Young Elfrida Jane Ware – twenty-one-ish, I believe – is having a rough time of it. Elfrida has grown up as a child of the theatre, accompanying her second-rate actor father and third-rate (despite beauty and intelligence) actress-mother-turned-seamstress from posting to posting, knowing only the backstage world as she grew up, until one day her father disappears, leaving Elfrida to eventually scramble into an acting career herself, in order to help support herself and her frail mother. “Dead”, her mother claims; “Run off!” whispers the theatre community; but no matter which is was, Elfrida has been popped in at the deep end. She’s been working bit parts here and there, but she’s not exactly star stuff herself, though she’s managed to snag a key role in a failing comedy, along with theatre star Glen Siddons, whom she has a serious (though, she thinks, hidden) crush on.

Now her ailing mother has quietly died, and through her grief Elfrida gamely soldiers on, until one day when her benevolent landlady shows her an advertisement in the newspaper asking for news of Marjory Thistlewood – her mother’s maiden name. When Elfrida visits the lawyer’s office named in the advert, she is astounded to find that she has inherited her grandparents’ country house, Mountain Cross, a not-so-shabby two-storey stone-built gentleman’s home on a sea cliff in Devonshire.

the house on the cliff dj d e stevenson

Here is someone’s vision of Elfrida’s house. In the book it is surrounded by neglected gardens, which appear to be missing here, though it does have the appropriate stunning view of the sea. At least there are no couples clinching on this dust jacket, or on the Fontana cover above. For this heroine is very good at standing alone, and avoiding passionate advances with firm grace. Some other covers I’ve seen in my internet travels are rather more trashy, showing the heroine in full embrace with an unspecified male companion. (Coming back to add that there is one passionate embrace, but as it is very much a last page sort of thing, it doesn’t necessarily represent the heroine’s usual habits.)

The search for her mother was meant as an attempt at reconciliation from her estranged parents – Marjory had eloped with Elfrida’s father against all parental advice – and since both of Marjory’s parents and Marjory herself are no longer living, Elfrida gets the estate.

Unluckily there is only the tiniest of cash inheritances, but Elfrida decides to go off anyway and try living in her new possession, hoping to scrape by on her meagre inherited income. In this she is encouraged by one of the junior partners in the law firm, one Ronnie Leighton, who knows Mountain Cross well from his own childhood. Ronnie and Elfrida get along like old pals from the first time they meet; the reader may draw what inference they like from this convenient kindred spirithood!

To Mountain Cross goes our heroine, abandoning her life on the stage with only the briefest moment of regret, and that for the glamorous Glen. She falls in love with her ancestral home, and everyone about falls in love with sweet Elfrida, relieved that she is not some flighty actress, but a new version of her gentle mother, whom everyone remembers fondly.

Everything goes most swimmingly, in fact, until the visit of a cousin from Canada, who has lost out on the inheritance through his own carelessness. Walter Whitgreave is on the hunt for a stamp album which he claims is off sentimental value only, but a search is unsuccessful, and Walter wanders away muttering forebodingly. (Cue dramatic music.)

Then who should show up on Elfrida’s doorstep but Glen Siddons himself, along with his eight-year-old son from his tragically ended youthful  marriage. The child, Patrick, has been fostered out since his mother’s death, but Glen has collected him at last. Though Glen is playing the doting father and  promises to take an interest in Patrick at long last, we sense that this is not going as well as it could be.

The cast of characters includes a slightly fantastical married couple who decide to stay on at Mountain Cross for love alone (Elfrida cannot afford their wages), a handsome local bachelor who has checked out his new neighbour and found her most appealing, and various local characters (“characters” in every sense of the word) who bend over backwards to ease Elfrida into country life. What with the three young men (Ronnie, Glen and neighbour Lucius), not to mention the adorable Patrick – also smitten with our heroine – Elfrida’s retreat is becoming rather full of male presence; we know romance is inevitable, but which one will it be?

I’m not telling, though I did drop a rather obvious clue early on. Oh, and the stamp album reappears, with prefect timing. The villains wander away, leaving Elfrida in possession of her house on the cliff, and her happy new life.

(And there are pigs. And a friendly milk cow. Though no ducks. Read the book, and you’ll get the reference to ducks. A minor note, but I’m rather fond of ducks myself, so their mention piqued my interest.)

How very sweet! <happy sigh>

I wonder if some of the appeal in this not-very-complex story is Elfrida’s gallant disposition, her quiet but witty sense of humour, and her refusal to make a complete fool of herself even while enmeshed with forthcoming and handsome young men? One gets the feeling that this young lady knows a lot more than her swains (bar one) give her credit for. We wish Elfrida well from first to last, enjoying with quiet vicarious pleasure her acquisition of lovely house, thoroughly nice new friends, and well-deserved romantic partner.

Shall I read another, or should I go for something a bit more intellectually demanding? It’s been hectic round here lately – all in a good way – just dreadfully busy – so I suspect another easy-on-the-tired-brain D.E.S. may be coming to bed with me tonight. Which one, though? Hmmm…

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