Sunday, August 08, 2021

What I'm Reading: D. E. Stevenson

I recently began reading all the D. E. Stevenson in our library. Previously, I'd read her Mrs. Tim books, and liked them well enough. I assumed the rest were romance novels, since our library has them catalogued as such, and left them alone. Outside of Jane Austen, I mostly don't like romance novels.

But a few years ago, as loyal readers recall, I began reading Georgette Heyer, and found her novels entrancing, despite being romance novels; and also I'm having trouble with regular-sized print again (this happens every few years, as my eyesight steadily degrades), so I was rummaging in my library's miniscule Large Print section. I came across a row of Stevenson, and checked one out -- Winter and Rough Weather, which turned out to be the last book in a trilogy. 

Since then I've been reading all of them owned by my library, which is only about half of the Stevenson books published. I thought I might pick some of the others up over on Thriftbooks, but while the site does have some of those not in my library, they're all priced out of my range -- like fifty dollars for a book. Ai.

The novels I've read so far remind me a great deal of Angela Thirkell's novels, in that they give close looks at a narrow segment of English society from the 1930s through the 1970s. Stevenson isn't as mean-spirited as Thirkell can be, though. She has occasional satirical turns, but these are almost always aimed up, rather than down -- that is, where Thirkell mocked and satirized the lower classes and the merchant classes (the new rich), Stevenson mainly mocks the upper classes: a wealthy lord who refuses to hear anything anyone says, a Lady who neglects her own children to care for the children of the poor, that sort of thing.

But even this sort of satire happens rarely. Mainly her novels are about life in Scottish villages and in the Scottish countryside. The Winter and Rough Weather trilogy, which starts with Vittoria Cottage, is about the entangled life of four sisters, now in their mid to late thirties, and all their families, and the families around them. It's also about living in England after WWII -- the books were published in 1949, 1950, and 1951.

In 1936, she wrote a science fiction novel (sort of) called The Empty World. It's set in her future -- the future from the perspective of 1936 -- and is charming to read for just that reason, to see what at least one writer thought the world of about 1950 might look like. (She got almost everything wrong.) The plot concerns a comet sweeping by the world and catching the world in its tail. This causes an electrical field which destroys everything with "life force," tearing apart the electricity in the bodies of everything from elephants to ants, including humans, and reducing them to handfuls of dust. (This is why I say it's only "sort of" science fiction: Stevenson clearly knows almost nothng about actual science.)

Only two groups of people survive this comet: one is on an "airline carrier" and happens to be above the comet's tail (what? don't ask me) and so they survive, by chance; the other is a carefully selected group of about fifty people who a mad scientist (the only one who understands what the comet means) takes up in giant dirgible/air balloons, along with certainly useful animals and insects. Like Noah's Ark, except with eugenics. 

This gives an interesting look at the world of 1936, when eugenics was a good idea, and television only a vague notion on the horizon; and when airplanes existed, but clearly no one flew passengers across the Atlantic. The opening scenes, in which our historical novelist is returning from a tour of America back to London (they end up in Scotland), take us aboard an "airliner," which is like a little ocean liner, but on a giant plane. It has private cabins, and two separate dining salons: one for the first class passengers, and the other for their servants. (The pilots eat first class, the engineers with the servants.) Also there are "televisors," which apparently beam live pictures non-stop, following a famous actress around and broadcasting the minutia of her daily life to her eager viewers. Like twitter, but with pictures.

This is definitely NOT Stevenson's best book, and I would not start here. Start with Amberwell, published in 1955. This is the story of landed gentry and their land, or specifically their estate, Amberwell. It focuses on five children in one generation: their lives from about 1930 to just after WWII -- that period in England when everything changed, in other words.

She does an excellent job with bringing characters to life, and not just upper class characters: her servants and working class characters are excellent.

I've still got plenty of Stevenson to read just in my public library; I've also lately discovered our library has Kanopy, which gives me access to heaps of e-books, and many of Stevenson's books which our library does not have in print I can get through Kanopy. So this should keep me occupied for a week or two.

Content Warning: Casual racism, though almost always by characters we are not supposed to admire; casual imperialism; and Stevenson is a conservative, though the referrents for that word in Scotland in 1950 bear no resemblence to what we mean by "conservative" in the USA in 2021. Less "Yay bigotry!" and more pro-church, God, and Duty.


Releeh said...

Never heard of D.E. Stevenson, so this is interesting! I feel like "science fiction written by women in the 1930s set around the 1950s" could be a potentially interesting subgenre to explore (the only other one I can think of off the top of my head is Cold Comfort Farm, which is set at some point post 1946) - I'll have to see if I can track down "The Empty World".

delagar said...

It's hard to find.

I didn't know Cold Comfort Farm was set in its future! Now I need to read that one.

Releeh said...

Oh! Yeah it's mostly only incidental to the plot (and a strange mishmash with the pastoral-romance-parody main thread) but includes some imagined technologies and a fictional war of 1946. A strange little book, but I am fond of it.

delagar said...

I've requested it from our library. Can't wait!

nicoleandmaggie said...

Love Cold Comfort Farm, even though it's one of those books where absolutely nobody is likable, at least at first. The movie is also excellent and hilarious (the heroine is more likeable in the movie). (I also did not know it was set in its future, even though I've read it twice and watched the movie I'm not sure how many times.)

(Sidenote: noticed I spelled likable two different ways, looked up which one was correct... turns out they both are. Win!)

p.s. There's something nasty in the woodshed.

delagar said...

I just finished reading Cold Comfort Farm last night -- I'll write about it on the blog soon. But yes, the first 20-30 pages were very off-putting. I almost stopped reading!

nicoleandmaggie said...

Here's my comment on Flora from my last reread:

In the movie, that part is just confusing because you don't know what's going on (though the lavish sets are amazing!) and you completely forget about it. By you I mean me the first time I saw the movie which was before I read the book. Flora is more of a Pippa Passes/interfering aunt kind of catalyst.