Listening Valley by D.E. Stevenson

Listening Valley

Just a couple of weeks ago I managed to buy an old copy of Listening Valley by D.E. Stevenson in Edinburgh, sadly it doesn’t have it’s dust jacket though. I can’t say I’m all that keen on the cover of the paperback above, but I suppose it’s better than nothing.

The book begins with the Edinburgh childhood of Louise and Antonia Melville. On the surface they have a very comfortable upbringing, it would seem that money was no problem. But in truth they’re really emotionally neglected children, brought up by the nannie. They both have the same problem – they weren’t born a boy and both parents wanted a boy, particularly their father as his family home was a castle and he wanted to pass it on to a son. In disappointment he ended up selling the castle. Their mother was a bridge fiend and playing bridge seemed to take up all of her time. She was disappointed because she thought of her girls as being very dull compared with other children she met, but as she never took the time to get to know her daughters she had no idea of their real personalities at all.

Inevitably both girls marry young, Tonia marries a man even older than her father is but he’s kind and wealthy and gives her some badly needed confidence, in wartime they move to London and experience the Blitz.

Eventually the action moves back to Scotland where Tonia settles close to what had been her father’s country estate. But the war is still very much in evidence with an airfield very close by. Tonia’s home becomes a meeting place for young airmen who never knew when their number would be up.

I thoroughly enjoyed this one, it has some truly ghastly characters in the shape of sponging relatives, I have a feeling that they crop up from time to time in Stevenson’s books, she must have been bothered by some I think! I bet they never read her books though.

Recent Book Purchases

While we were away on our recent (football inspired) trip down to England we took the opportunity to seek out secondhand bookshops, although there aren’t that many of them around nowadays, we visited the Moffat shop when we stopped there for lunch. We each bought a book there. Then on to Penrith in Northumberland where we found another bookshop. We also visited Oswestry, Shrewsbury, Alcester, Stratford on Avon, Much Wenlock, Ironbridge and Kendal. The upshot of that is that I bought a total of 25 books, Jack bought 11, he’s always more reticent than I am! Some of them were bought in charity shops.

I didn’t find any books that I’ve been lusting after for ages, just some books from authors that I’ve read and enjoyed before, and a few from authors I had never even heard of – but I liked the look of them. Here are a few of them.

Latest Book Haul

1. Uncle Samson by Beverley Nichols. It was published in 1950 and is his observations on the American way of life. I think it’ll be a witty report on social history.

2. Rendezvous by Daphne du Maurier is a collection of her short stories.

3. Getting It Right by Elizabeth Jane Howard. I loved the Cazalet Chronicles so I have high hopes for this one.

4. Seven Dead by J. Jefferson Farjeon, a British Library Crime Classic.

5. Counting the Stars by Helen Dunmore. She’s an author that I’ve only recently discovered – sadly she died just a few months ago.

6. An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel, published in 1995 and very different from her Tudor books I’m sure.

I found three D.E. Stevenson paperbacks in an antiques centre for all of £1 each, they were the most interesting things in the whole place.

7. Still Glides the Stream by D.E. Stevenson

8. Crooked Adam by D.E. Stevenson

9. The House of the Deer by D.E. Stevenson.

10. The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall is a Virago which was going for 50p so although I know I could have borrowed it from the library I decided to buy it.

That’ll do for now. Have you read any of these ones?

Winter and Rough Weather by D.E. Stevenson

Winter and Rough Weather cover

First published in 1951 Winter and Rough Weather by D.E. Stevenson is the third and last book in her Dering series which is set in the Scottish Borders. I found it an enjoyable read and all the loose ends were dealt with albeit a wee bit abruptly at the end. It is of course an old-fashioned family tale with a smattering of romance.

I can’t make my mind up what it is that makes these books such comfort reads. Is it the characters? The high moral standards (that sounds so pious but the obnoxious and clueless of country ways new neighbours are clear cut baddies). Maybe it’s the decency of the locals and the sense of community that add up to a fine place to visit vicariously.

At the end of Music in the Hills (the second book in the series) James and Rhoda have decided to get married, it was a difficult decision for Rhoda as she knew it would mean re-locating from London to a remote rural area in the Scottish Borders, as a successful artist she felt like she might be giving up her career. James persuaded her to take a risk and marry him but she hadn’t realised that they would be living in a cottage with no electricity or phone, five miles from a neighbour and with a very poor road in between.

The story involves a bit of mystery with fatherless children who had been evacuated to the area with their mother during the war. She has always been very reticent about her past and seemingly uncaring of her children to the point of neglect. When Rhoda takes an interest in the boy who it turns out has a talent for art, it leads to their father being found.

D.E. Stevenson wrote light romances often with a Scottish setting, very reminiscent of O.Douglas books. It has been mentioned by a few people that in Winter and Rough Weather Stevenson concentrates on the boy and fairly quickly drops his sister from the storyline. This is such a typical thing with Scottish mothers and women of that period that I almost don’t even notice it. If you’ve read O.Douglas books too you’ll remember that she always had a young lad as a central character, very much the favourite – almost in the position of a ‘house god’.

It’s a sad fact that Scottish women of the past held sons and males in general as being much more important than females. I remember that a character in one of Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy comments that ‘in Scotland female children didn’t count’. Daughters were for helping with the housework. Thankfully this attitude has disappeared – I hope.

You can read a far more detailed review of this book over at Leaves and Pages although the book is called Shoulder the Sky there, presumably a title for the US market.

Music in the Hills by D.E. Stevenson

Music in the Hills cover

Music in the Hills by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1950 and it’s the sequel to Vittoria Cottage. The setting is the Scottish Borders, not any specific town apparently but I imagine the countryside as being like that around Stevenson’s beloved Moffat.

James Dering has been in Malaya, chasing bandits for some years and he’s glad to get back to Scotland. He has made his way to Mureth where his Aunt Mamie and Uncle Jock have a farm. James is thinking about becoming a farmer too, he loves the countryside and animals but he’s not sure if he’ll be good at farming.

James had spent some time in London before making his way to Murath, but his romance with Rhoda an aspiring artist had ended badly and he is nursing a broken heart. Will the change of air heal him, or at least help him to discover what he wants to do in the future?

With a cast of couthie characters this is a bit of a comfort read although not everyone or everything in the neighbourhoods of Murath and Drumburly is sweetness and light. Aunt Mamie is perfect though, although she wouldn’t agree with me about that. She envies the way others can talk with ease to strangers and acquaintances, she feels too shy and knows that she’s often seen as being a bit snooty. A lot of readers know that feeling I suspect!

Green Money by D.E. Stevenson

Green Money cover

Green Money by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1939 but World War 2 doesn’t come into it apart from a very brief mention of Hitler. This one isn’t one of her best, it would seem that 1938/39 wasn’t a good time for Stevenson’s writing and given what was going on in the UK at the time that isn’t at all surprising.

George Ferrier is twenty-five years old and enjoying a holiday in London when he meets a man called Mr Green who had known his father years ago. It turns out that Mr Green is a wealthy widower with one daughter and he is in need of a third trustee to look after her best interests if he should die. He decides that George is the man he needs, the upshot of which is that not long after that George has the onerous duty thrust upon him when Mr Green dies suddenly.

The daughter Elma has been brought up in Victorian ways by a governess and when she gets a bit of freedom it goes to her head, she’s very pretty and has men flocking around her and she ends up in a dangerous situation, and George has the job of tracking her down. He discovers that the other two trustees are anything but trustworthy.

There are lots of other characters and George’s Irish mother Paddy gave the author the opportunity to write some dialogue in that style, there are moments of humour and the moral of this tale is that it’s more important to be honest and decent than clever.

Miss Bun the Baker’s Daughter by D.E. Stevenson

Miss Bun the Baker's Daughter cover

Miss Bun the Baker’s Daughter by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1939, written in 1938. The author says in a foreword added in 1973: This book was written in 1938 and published soon after, but although many of the facts have proved untrue it is still artistically true of any little town in the Scottish Border Country and the people are as real today as they were thirty-four years ago.

So far this book has been the least satisfying of Stevenson’s for me, in fact slightly annoying at times as it really didn’t ring true to the era, particularly in Scotland. It’s 1938 and we’re supposed to believe that a young girl would be able to live in a house with just her youngish male employer. She would have been the ‘talk of the steamie’, but apart from that her father and grandparents would never have allowed it.

Early on in the book D.E. Stevenson describes what you should do while singing Auld Lang Syne at New Year, but she did it all wrong – something that drives me mad. She said that you should cross your arms to shake hands with the people on either side of you at the beginning. But of course you shouldn’t do that until the last verse (for brevity the second, third and fourth are usually omitted) when the lyrics say – “And there’s a hand my trusty fiere! / and gie’s a hand o’ thine.”

Anyway, to the rest of the book: Sue has been left motherless at an early age and she is left to be brought up by her rather grim and charmless father who is the local baker. She has had to leave school as soon as possible so that she could become her father’s housekeeper, but when her father remarries she’s seen as a nuisance by his new wife, definitely unwanted in the household. When a well known artist living locally and his wealthy wife offer her a job as their housekeeper she jumps at the chance.

However the artist’s wife very quickly takes herself off leaving Sue alone with the artist. His career is taking a bit of a nosedive as he has started to paint in a different style which is not appreciated by the critics.

The setting is the Scottish Borders, probably where the author is at her most comfortable and so that is always pleasing, but her characters left quite a lot to be desired with the maternal grandparents being particularly unlikely, they didn’t come up to scratch as doting grandparents to me anyway.

This is probably me being nitpicking, but I didn’t really like anybody in the book, and that’s always a problem for me.

As 1938 was a year of worry and turmoil for people in Britain with the onset of World War 2 expected at any time, I’ll forgive her this slightly disappointing book.

Vittoria Cottage by D.E. Stevenson

Vittoria Cottage cover

Vittoria Cottage by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1949 and the blurb on the back of this 1968 library copy says: It is a family novel, and few writers can do this sort of thing better than Miss Stevenson, in which there is a thread of suspense enough to keep the reader guessing to the end. GLASGOW HERALD

That says it all really but if you want to know a bit more – Vittoria Cottage has been in the Dering family for generations, but the most recent owner has died and left his wife Caroline and three children as the inhabitants. The husband was a moaning grump, always feeling sorry for himself so he’s no loss and it’s a comfortable life for Caroline, especially as she has help with the housework from an adoring villager with the wonderful name of Comfort Podbury. Caroline’s two daughters and son are young adults, the son being in Malaya in the army fighting bandits/terrorists.

Caroline is completely honest with herself, she adores her son whereas her daughters are just daughters and Leda in particular she dislikes a lot, she’s too much like her miserable father. When Leda gets engaged to a young neighbour Caroline knows it isn’t for the best but there’s nothing she can do about it.

Meanwhile there’s a new man in town and Caroline likes him – a lot, although he’s a bit of a mystery. Things get more complicated when Caroline’s actress sister turns up.

With a cast of villagers providing some more interest and tension this turned out to be an enjoyable comfort read.

This seems to be the first of a few Stevenson books featuring the Dering family so I’ll have to track down the others, luckily Fife libraries seem to have quite a lot of her books in their Reserve Stock. No doubt they held on to those ones as she is a Scottish author.

The English Air by D.E. Stevenson

The English Air cover

I realised recently that the reserve stock books in Fife’s libraries are now available to borrow after being unavailable for a few years due to the refurbishment at Dunfermline, so I requested a couple of old D.E. Stevenson books from the catalogue, I’m not sure if they have been reprinted recently. She was of course born in Edinburgh and was related to Robert Louis Stevenson.

The librarian seemed quite amused that I was borrowing these books – more fool her! The English Air turned out to be a great read, first published in 1940. The setting is mainly England although the story does take us to Scotland a few times and to Germany briefly.

Sophie Braithwaite is a well-off widow, living in a house big enough to allow her brother-in-law to inhabit his own wing. She has a grown up daughter and son and they’re waiting on Sophie’s sister’s son Franz to arrive, he is half German and has been brought up by his father in Germany, his mother died young. It’s 1938, a time when Neville Chamberlain was going backwards and forwards between London and Munich, trying to avert war. He was criticised for this ‘appeasement’ but in reality it gave us breathing space and a year to ‘tool up’ for war. Something that Nazi Germany had been doing for the previous five years.

I really enjoyed The English Air, Franz becomes part of his cousins’ social group, their sense of humour is often a mystery to him, he’s really very German as you would expect, especially as his father is a Nazi. But as Franz becomes more comfortable in the free and easy atmosphere of Britain he begins to see the advantages of not having to look over your shoulder all the time as Germany is being ruled by fear and violence.

I suppose this is a bit of propaganda, the lesson being that not every German is a bad German. It’s not surprising that writers all wanted to write their own book about the beginnings of the war. I seem to have been reading a lot of them recently and bizarrely I always find that scenario to be a bit of a comfort read, this is one of my favourites by D.E. Stevenson so now I’m keen to read her other wartime books. The other one of hers that I borrowed was Vittoria Cottage, published in 1949. I’ll be chatting about that one soonish.

The Tall Stranger by D.E. Stevenson

The Tall Stranger cover

The Tall Stranger by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1957 and I was lucky enough to find this one in a second-hand bookshop in Kirkwall, Orkney.

I see D.E. Stevenson as being a sort of updated O.Douglas in her writing style and content, although not quite as ‘churchy’.

This one begins in London where the people are having to cope with a horrendous fog that has lingered for almost a week, but thankfully about half-way through the book the action moves to the clear air of the Scottish borders.

Barbie and Nell are great friends and flatmates. In some ways they’re quite different with Nell being happy running around with lots of different boyfriends and cheerfully accepting lots of gifts from them. She works as secretary for a doctor. Barbie is much more choosy about men friends, and at the beginning of the book she’s in hospital, seemingly having lost the will to live.

When she improves enough to be able to travel she goes to Scotland to stay with her Aunt Amalia/Lady Steyne who lives in a lovely old house called Underwoods. There she meets up with her step-cousin, someone she hasn’t seen for years, and at first Barbie is charmed by him.

This was a good read, D.E. Stevenson’s books have the reputation of being light comfort reads, but they also have a serious side. Barbie has a career that she loves and is very good at, she’s an interior decorator and the thought of giving that up to please a husband isn’t a pleasant one for her. Quite a modern concept for 1957 I think.

Also there’s a moment in this book when Barbie realises that she’s not at all happy with her discovery of an unexpected trait in her fiance’s character. It’s a shock and a game changer for her, she’s wise enough to have a complete re-think about her future. I’m sure that this is something that must have happened to a lot of people, and they have looked back and thought – that was the time when I should have taken steps to change things.

Not just a comfort read.

20 Books of Summer 2017 update

I’m doing quite well with my 20 Books of Summer 2017 list this year although I had meant to do a bit of a half-way roundup before now. I have veered slightly from the list for various reasons, but I’m still hopeful of finding my copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet before September. I did a fatal tidy up before some visitors arrived and now that book is lost in the stacks which is very annoying as before that I knew exactly where it was – on the floor!

1. London Match by Len Deighton
2. I Claudius by Robert Graves
3. Highland River by Neil M. Gunn
4. The Demon in the House by Angela Thirkell
5. The Dove of Venus by Olivia Manning
6. City of the Mind by Penelope Lively
7. The Progress of a Crime by Julian Symons
8. Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts
9. This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart
10. Flowers for the Judge by Margery Allingham
11. Claudius the God by Robert Graves
12. Pied Piper by Nevil Shute
13. Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd
14. Katherine Wentworth by D.E. Stevenson
15. The Bertie Project by Alexander McCall Smith
16. A Memorial Service by J.I.M. Stewart
17. The Madonna of the Astrolabe by J.I.M. Stewart
18. Redgauntlet by Sir Walter Scott
19. High Rising by Angela Thirkell
20. Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell