Celia’s House by D E Stevenson (1943)

I hoped – in fact I expected that I would fall in love with ‘Celia’s House’.

It promised things that I love, and things that I know D E Stevenson is very, very good at:

  • A Scottish setting
  • A big house
  • The history of a family.

I did fall in love with the story as it began, but sadly I fell out of love again before very long. I found things to love, I found moments to love, but it wasn’t the same. Because the spell had been broken.

Let me explain.

The story opens early in the twentieth century. Celia Dunne had lived at Dunnian for every one of her ninety years. She knew that the end of her life was very near, and that she would have to leave her beloved home. She knew that there always been Dunnes at Dunnian, and she was going to do everything she could to make sure that there always would be.

She summoned Humphrey, her great-nephew, who she knew was home on leave from the Navy. She saw that he loved the house too, and that he understood how wonderful it would be to raise his children there; and so she told him that she was going to disinherit the nephew she knew had plans to redevelop her property as soon as he got his hands on it, and leave it to Humphrey instead. In trust for his daughter Celia.

25643863Humphrey is thrilled, but he is also somewhat confused. He doesn’t have a daughter named Celia. The elderly Celia assure him that he will, and indeed he does.

It isn’t long before Celia dies, the nephew who thought the house would be his is sent packing, and Humphrey; his rather delicate wife, Alice; and their three small children, Mark, Edith and Joyce, move to Dunnian. It becomes a family home; two more children, Billy and Celia, are born; Humphrey and Alice take in a seven-year old cousin, Debbie, when her mother remarries and follows her husband to India.

This part of the story was lovely. The house and family life is so very well evoked. It was lovely to meet the family retainers, who loved Dunnian too, and to see them ease the family’s transition into a new life that was so lovely, but quite different from what they were used to.

Sadly, the story lost its way when the children grew up. Their lives became tangled with the lives of a family at a bigger, grander, neighbouring house. It turned into a reworking of ‘Mansfield Park’, with Mark, who was studying medicine cast as Edmund Bertram and his cousin Debbie cast as Fanny Price. If only it had been a little more than a retelling, if only more that a few of the character had been given the depth they needed, and if only it hadn’t gone on for quite so long, it could have been lovely. But it wasn’t, and I was relieved when it was over.

There had been some lovely touches along the way. The author used the world’s expectation that Mark, as the eldest son, would inherit, and the reality that he wouldn’t very cleverly. I appreciated her understanding of Humphrey’s feelings -as a father, as a widower and as a military man – when war came, his sons were called up, and he realised that there was very little he could contribute.

I couldn’t help thinking that if D E Stevenson had understood all of her characters as well this would have been a better, more even, book.

It was only at the end that Celia, the heir to Dunnian, emerged from the shadows to learn her destiny and to bring the story to a lovely ending, that had its roots in its very beginning.

It’s maddening that, though D E Stevenson does many things so very well, she sometimes goes terribly wrong.

I’ve read more of her books that have gone right than have gone wrong, and so I’m going to keep picking my way through them.

I just need to tread carefully …

29 thoughts on “Celia’s House by D E Stevenson (1943)

  1. Oh dear, Jane! I’ve had this happen to me to, when I’ve been convinced I’m going to love a book, and I really haven’t. It’s very frustrating, isn’t it?

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  2. My favourite books by DES are “FIVE WINDOWS” and “THE LISTENING VALLEY” but i have read a few “duds” as well.Bit of a mixed bag.

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    1. I have ‘The Listening Valley’ lined up, as it’s a companion piece to ‘Katherine Wentworth’, which I read a while ago and liked. And I’ve heard good things about ‘Five Windows’, though as it seems particularly scarce I shall have to wait for the reissue.

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      1. CELIA’S HOUSE is the first and LISTENING VALLEY the second book in mini series called RYDDELTON says FANTASTIC FICTION.I did not miss reading part one while reading LISTENING VALLEY.

        KATHERINE WENTWORTH and KATHERINE’S MARRIAGE are another pair in a mini series.

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      1. I belong to an internet DES reading group and I posted your blog to the group (as well as on FB page). The members of the group are devoted DESsies but the answers I read have shown an interest to your blog. There is one recurrent question that you might answer – if you wish, of course: what is the painting heading your page and who painted it?

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      2. Thank you. The painting is ‘The Beach at Land’s End’ by John Brett. I love his work and we visit that part of the coast, just a few miles from home, quite often.

        I usually tag paintings so that anyone interested can see the title and artist, but header images don’t seem to share the details the way images in posts do.

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  3. Yes, when D.E.S. goes wrong, she goes very, very wrong. Back when I was reading a few of her novels a month, it was enraging (and eventually entertaining) to see how well she could construct the beginning of a novel before having the whole thing fall apart spectacularly. I agree with Tina above that Five Windows and The Listening Valley are two of her best.

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    1. Thanks Claire–i chose these 2 favourites from the library after reading your comments and” LEAVES AND PAGES” blog reviews.So i knew the books wee “a mixed bag”.So thanks for your blogging advice.

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  4. I had a similar experience with CH. Ifelt the references to MP were just lazy although, like you, I enjoyed the beginning & the end.
    I’m so glad to have found you again, Jane. I somehow missed the announcement of your new blog but now I’ve added you to my blog roll so I can’t lose you again. I’ve just had a lovely time reading back through your posts. So glad you enjoyed The Usurper, too.

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  5. It’s so disappointing when you’ve been led down the garden path only to end up at a parking lot. But, may I just say…that is one of the most delightful front covers I have seen!

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  6. When I first looked at this post, Jane, my immediate thought was ‘I don’t remember that one.’ I’m not a reader of Stevenson myself but my mother was a great fan and I thought I knew all her books just from seeing them lying around her home. I wonder if the fact that this one didn’t ring any bells is a sign that Mom didn’t get on with it either?

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  7. Oh! I have this out from the library because I’ve been longing to read more of her books. But maybe I’ll save my reading time for one of the others you’ve all recommended.

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  8. I read this five years ago and found it charming, although I have to admit to not remembering that much about it (I read the same copy as Ali so maybe our memories fade at the same rate). I compared it to Francis Brett Young in my review, I think because of the themes of the house set in the countryside and the large cast of characters.

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