Modern books and stories are thrilling, entertaining, well written, and in increasing turns, dull, formulaic, and badly written. Something, perhaps a childlike delight in stories and the world around us, is lacking. I see it in myself. As a fantasy writer, I tend to conceive of fantastic plots, eccentric characters, strange settings, but sadly, I find my stories disconnected, if intentionally, from the real world. This is, of course, because I have so much room to grow as a writer, but also because I have a fear of writing about real people, perhaps characters even inspired by people I actually know, and the places in which I have lived. This is not an idle fear. How many books and how many films begin with the cautionary paragraph: “All events and characters in the following are purely fictional and not meant to represent any real person or circumstances, etc.” (or some form of the same disclaimer).
Enter Miss Buncle’s Book, a supremely delightful read I happened to come across at the bookstore this past week. Written by D.E. Stevenson and published in 1936, the book concerns an English village of the kind that that likely don’t exist anymore and a world in which Anne of Green Gables (also a delightful series) would be comfortable. Stevenson plumbs the amusing side of “writing what you know” in this tale of a thirty-something woman who decides to write a book about her village. The characters are at once larger than life and also very human. It is a book within a book, a conceit made ample use of in the hilarious reactions the village people have when they recognize themselves in the new bestseller sweeping the country. Miss Buncle, the authoress of this bestseller, is a very good writer, yet her talents at, well, anything, are completely overlooked by the people she interacts with daily. She is, in fact, a very sharp observer of human nature, but with a comical lack of foresight to her actions. Her bestseller about a village being turned upside down by a singular event is itself the singular event that turns Buncle and her village upside down. Miss Buncle herself becomes braver, better dressed, and poised upon a new life entirely, one of passion, writing, travel, and romance.
Miss Buncle’s Book delights in the ordinary, everyday interactions of people and how people’s behaviors are so often misinterpreted. It portrays those villagers who instantly see the characters as themselves in the book as being self-centered. It seems to indicate that those who do not really see themselves in the story as having purer hearts. Yet the former are in some ways more intelligent than the latter. It is funny that a loud, bossy gossip should see a village character portrayed exactly as such and think immediately that it must be herself. Not only that, but also that a lawsuit must happen because of the portrayal. Yet, the gossip is smart enough to know that she is being made fun of, even if that’s not what the author, Miss Buncle, intended.
Miss Buncle’s Book reminded me so much of the Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery, and also Little Women (referenced in the book and also a book within a book) by Louisa May Alcott. These types of books that take joy in portraying an idyllic, ordinary world are quiet spaces of refuge in shelves and shelves of modern stories full of cynicism, dystopia, and perhaps a bit too much excitement. It gives a writer like myself pause. Which is the truth? Write what you know, or never write what you know? Miss Buncle’s Book plumbs both ideas by first describing an average village with average people, and then plunging it (somewhat fantastically) into an innocent chaos.