The weekend before last weekend - sorry, this post has been one of the things I've never got round to sitting down and finishing until now - I saw a copy of 'Amberwell' by D. E. Stevenson with a dust jacket. As it was in a second-hand book shop, I didn't even pick it up, let alone look at the price. I have a hardback of my own, one that I bought thinking it was a children's book, perhaps if it had had a dust jacket I'd have been disabused of the notion. At first, the story is about a generation of children living in a house named Amberwell, but it follows them as they grow up and lead lives that would have been difficult even without the outbreak of the second world war, and, in fact, adult problems and mistakes blight their childhoods anyhow. So it's not a children's book at all. I was probably too young for it when I read it, because the bitterness and disappointments that the characters faced, and, maybe, the lack of a clear protagonist threw me. I read the sequel several years later and that may have been too long a wait, I'd reread 'Amberwell' at least once since, and 'Summerhills' felt like a different novel, and it lacked the focus on a place, although it did resolve some of the unfinished strands of the first book.
My favourite Stevenson book - so far, I've only read a handful of hers, and annoyingly haven't seen any new-to-me copies lately - is 'Miss Buncle's Book', which doesn't have that twist of, well, bitterness that's in 'Amberwell'. It's about a spinster and the village that she lives in. Our heroine Barbara is neither young nor middle aged, IIRC, and loves her village, but has something in her that can make her see it with a slightly removed perspective. And so she starts to write a book about it, a shadow narrative about the village's life, that imputes motives and expands mysteries, not nastily, because Barbara Buncle is a darling. But the story grows in the telling, as stories do, and contains a fantastical element - and has to be published. Once it is, Barbara in a tricky position. She's changed in the writing of her book and the book has changed her village.
It's altogether charming, I loved the book-within-a-book aspect and insight into the writing process. I've read one of the sequels, which isn't so much lesser as feeling quite different. Sequels that revisit characters' lives are a trait of Stevenson's (who, yes, is related to Robert Louis), so although not all the books are linked in an Oxenham or Brent-Dyer way, you do sometimes get the opportunity to find out what happened next. It's apt that not all the books are linked, some of them are quite different - you never know how light the mood will be with her, but their setting is always important.
Last weekend too, I reread 'Ballet Shoes', which was fun (particularly Posy's monomania for ballet). I was going to review it, but my notes were a little harsh. The thing is, I can't remember when I did read 'Ballet Shoes' first, but I suspect I was a teenager and not a child, so I didn't grow up with it, and the ballet dancer I took to heart young was Veronica Weston, and the young performers, the enterprising Blue Door theatre group. As such, even the first time I read Ballet Shoes, I was probably distanced, which is partly why I didn't empathise with any of the Fossils exactly, and found them a little quaint because there's this mix of the ordinary and the extraordinary. Usually, difference of period or location doesn't phase me but this time it did, especially their genteel poverty (oh, Gum, you selfish man!). Also, I'd have liked more detail on the ballet school's life, although I know that the story's about the Fossils, their family circle and their lodgers. I've also got 'The Painted Garden' (there's a mention of 'The Secret Garden' in 'Ballet Shoes', was it Streatfeild's favourite book?) to read, now there's a book I ought to reread, ('The Secret Garden') though I don't know if I have a copy.
What I suppose I'm getting at is how much subjective experience informs whether I take a book to heart. It all depends so much on what books are available in your childhood, in libraries or in shops, and whether your reading age is a bit beyond your actual or emotional age (or if you're reading something pitched younger, whereas if I had read 'Ballet Shoes' when I was closer to the girls' age, it might be one of my favourite books). Of course, there are other reasons to love books, and this blog is all about books that transcend reading age.
A D.E Stevenson page and another