Life During Wartime: The Two Mrs. Abbotts

D.E. Stevenson, The Two Mrs. Abbotts (1943)

Between Miss Buncle Married and The Two Mrs. Abbotts, seven years elapsed, and the world changed utterly. England was now in the midst of the Second World War, and the screwball antics of the first two volumes perhaps seemed out of place to their creator. Whatever the reason, her third outing with Miss Buncle and Co. is distinctly different in tone and structure. Highly episodic, with quick jumps between multiple plot strands that seldom tie into one another, it lacks the narrative tension of the first two books, and also the satirical take on certain characters that provided much of the comedy.

You would never guess that Archie Cobbe, for example, now a rather dull and respectable farmer, was the troublesome disinherited sibling of Miss Buncle Married. The marvelously eccentric Marvell family of that book is almost completely absent, with the exception of Lancreste—once the most devilish of the lot, here he is merely shown dolefully pursuing an unattractive female while waiting for his RAF assignment. And alas, Miss Buncle (now Mrs. Abbott #1) has renounced her authorship for good, it seems, and is given very little to do in general. Stevenson seems to have lost interest in her, and has turned instead to another literary dilemma: that of popular author Janetta Walters, who wants to escape from rapid production of “high-powered tushery” but is hampered by her domineering sister. Although this is one of the more fully developed elements in the book, it is interrupted by many others that are no more than briefly touched on, and often left unresolved. This gives a strange sense of impermanence and distraction—which, come to think of it, is also perhaps a reflection of the wartime setting.

This setting indeed provides much of the interest in this book, which no longer hovers in a timeless English-country-village-land but is very much set in a specific era. Evacuees, German spies, rationing, and billetted soldiers all have a role to play—not out of the self-conscious research of a historical novelist, or with the deeper political agenda of a more “serious” writer, but simply because this is the way life is right now. It’s an interesting example of how the eternal sphere of the domestic comedy is shaped by the pressure of external events.

In short, lovers of Miss Buncle’s Book shouldn’t expect more of the same, but this amply readable story has pleasures of its own.



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