Bel Lamington by D E Stevenson (1961)

When you want to escape into a book that is warm and engaging, as I did a little while ago, you could do well to turn to the work of D E Stevenson.

You need to choose carefully, because her books are rather variable, and think that I chose well when I chose this one. I warmed to the heroine from the first, and I appreciated that the book held many of the ingredients that D E Stevenson used regularly – and very well – mixed with more that enough other ingredients to make it distinctive.

This isn’t her best book; it isn’t a book that would stand up to very much scrutiny; but it is mid 20th century romantic fiction done rather well.

Bel was orphaned when she was just three years-old; when her mother and father died in car accident; but she had a happy childhood with an aunt who loved and cared for her. Sadly, her aunt died when Bel had only just finished growing up, and the small income that they lived on died with her. That meant that Bel had to start earning her own living, and so she trained as a secretary.

Her first job was as a typist in a London shipping firm, Copping, Wills and Brownlee, and she was quickly promoted to the position of secretary to junior partner, Ellis Brownlee.

She was promoted because she worked diligently, she watched everything that was going on and thought about it, and she took a genuine interest in what she was doing and the work of the company. Sadly – but maybe inevitably – that made her unpopular with other female staff members, who all seemed to be marking time until they didn’t have to earn their own living, or bitterly accepting that they had to work and doing as little as possible. Miss Goudge, who oversaw them all, would be a terrible thorn in Bel’s side, and she really had no idea how to deal with that.

The author had a good grasp of the dynamics of an office, there are characters and incidents that I know will ring a bell for anyone who has worked in an office, and I felt for Bel as she succeeded and as she struggled.

Away from work, Bel was lonely. She had come to London knowing no one at all, and she hadn’t found a way of making friends. She spent all her evenings and weekend in her small flat, and the tiny rooftop garden she has created outside her top floor window became her greatest passion.

A handsome young artist named Mark discovered Bel’s garden when he when he wad out on the roofs outside his own top floor studio-flat. Bel took the arrival of a strange man in her home rather more calmly than I would have, but I put that down to her background and her upbringing. He was charmed, they became friends, and that led to his painting of Bel’s portrait.

Mark invites her to parties, takes her on outings, and for a while it seems that Bel’s lonely life is over. But Mark’s interest waned as quickly as it had grown up,  and he moved on without a backward glance. Bel wasn’t quite heartbroken, but she was disappointed and unhappy at the prospect of returning to her solitary, lonely life.

Luckily she was persuaded to attend the unveiling of her portrait, and it was there that she bumped into an old school friend, and they quickly discovered that they were kindred spirits.

Louise was only child of a widowed doctor, she had no need to earn her own living, and she was every bit as happy to have Bel come and stay with her as Bel was to escape London and stay with her in the country. Her father was delighted with the friendship; not just because he thought that Bel would be a good influence on his warm-hearted but rather flightly child, but because he was a kind and thoughtful man who was pleased that he and his daughter would be able to help and a young woman who wasn’t having the easiest time of it.

The drawing of this friendship was lovely.

Louise was disappointed that Bel couldn’t join her and her father on their annual holiday in Scotland, but she understood that her friend couldn’t take time off while  Mr Brownlee has left on an extended overseas business trip; and so she was greatly surprised when her friend did come to join her.

Something had gone terribly wrong, and Bel had fled.

Scotland was a wonderful refuge, but would it offer Bel a new start or would travel south with Louise?

The Scottish scenes and characters were well done, but I found nothing that I hadn’t found in more than one of the author’s books before.

This book had a well drawn cast of characters, well evoked characters and situations, and a lovely heroine.

I enjoyed that set-up more than the rather predictable playing-out; but the ending was exactly right and I will probably pick up the sequel when I want to to escape into a book of the kind that D E Stevenson did particularly well.

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 …