D.E. Stevenson, Vittoria Cottage (1949)
D.E. Stevenson, Music in the Hills (1950)
D.E. Stevenson, Winter and Rough Weather (1951)
My definition of a comfort read is “a book about a place you’d like to be, full of people you’d like to be with.” With all the cozy literary havens out there, I’m always up for discovering one more. And I’m glad that thanks to some recent reprints by Dean Street Press, I have another lovely book-refuge to go to when I’m feeling blue.
I’ve read a few other D.E. Stevenson titles and enjoyed them by and large, but Vittoria Cottage charmed me completely. There’s not much to it in terms of plot, but the characters and setting (see above) just pulled me in and felt like old friends.
That’s not to say that everybody in the book is congenial. Stevenson writes in the tradition of Jane Austen, with her fine awareness of social strictures and her veiled judgment of those who flout good taste and courtesy — however, Stevenson has a softer, less acerbic touch. There are some serious issues here, with difficult choices and some not-so-nice behavior from certain characters. But aside from the few nasty bits of work, there is also much caring, joy, and love, which has as recuperative an effect on the reader, as it does on those within its pages.
The central character, Caroline, is a familiar type, a woman who cares for everybody but herself, and almost manages to cheat herself out of finding happiness. She could have been insufferable, but Stevenson manages to make her sympathetic, and I became truly invested in her fictional moral dilemma. I was glad that it turned out well for her … though others could not be so fortunate. You’ll have to read the book to see how that went.
I was looking forward to the sequels — Music in the Hills and Winter and Rough Weather — and found them lovely as well, but was left a bit disappointed that we never return to the story of Caroline. Instead, these volumes focus on Caroline’s son James and his new life on a sheep farm in the border country of Scotland.
This is Stevenson’s home territory, and she characterizes it with great affection, knowledge, and respect. Although I would have loved another visit to Vittoria Cottage, I adored this sojourn at the welcoming farmhouse of Mureth and its atmospheric surroundings.
While dated gender roles and societal expectations can be mildly annoying to us modern readers, they are a part of the world Stevenson was working within, and it wasn’t her mission to subvert them. More importantly, her characters, lightly drawn though they are, come to life for us — as real people, not just stereotypes. That is one of the most important qualities for a light romantic novel to have, if we are to not to feel empty and cheated at the end.
In this regard some are stronger than others; the villain of the Mureth books, a dastardly interloper from the city, never gets a human side, nor does the femme fatale who tempts James to consider a disastrous marriage. But there are others — like James’s aunt Mamie who is considered stupid by the world’s standards but shows a depth of wisdom that transcends such superficial judgment — who bring a more interesting and vital touch.
In general, though Stevenson certainly is writing in the vein of romance rather than gritty realism, and she creates a convincing and vivid picture of a country community, of farmers, villagers, shepherds, doctors, friends and enemies and neighbors, the natural world that surrounds them, and the human bonds that connect them. I may never make it to Scotland, but I know there is one corner of it that feels like home.
The Dean Street Press editions add an introduction that gives an affectionate and intelligent appreciation of Stevenson by Alexander McCall Smith — most appropriately, as he is perhaps the inheritor of her mantle as a Scottish writer of popular light fiction. The second two volumes also add a magazine article that she wrote about the genesis of Music in the Hills. Altogether, the series is a splendid addition to their list, with these extras as an added bonus.