Friday, October 24, 2008

D. E. Stevenson and Mrs. Tim

D. E. Stevenson wrote her Mrs. Tim Christie books, a quartet of interwar novels written in the form of witty diary entries , after a friend read her amusing diary and suggested she “pep it up” and publish it as a novel. The four resulting novels, Mrs. Tim Christie (originally Mrs. Tim of the Regiment), Mrs. Tim Carries On, Mrs. Tim Gets a Job, and Mrs. Tim Flies Home, resemble E. M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady series, though Stevenson's are less telegraphic (and Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle is possibly influenced by both). The diary genre was popular in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and perhaps the short entries made the domestic comedy seem more appealing and realistic because they fit the staccato routines of daily life.

Mrs. Tim, though a British officer’s wife, is not in the least military: rather, she is a tactful, often secretly mirthful, popular figure among the soldiers and their wives: her husband, Tim, has a dry sense of humor, though, like all husbands, he is obtuse about fashion and wonders why she can't keep wearing the same dress; their Tom-Sawyer-like son is away at a prep school; and their rambunctious daughter asks embarrassing questions when the meddling colonel's wife drops in to tea.

The entries, subtly hilarious, consist of a vivid, first-person narrative (if only we could all write diaries like this!). For instance on April 12 in Mrs. Tim Christie (published in the 1930s):

“Sit down after dinner feeling very tired. Tim points out that I have done nothing all day to make me tired (which is true, in a way). He continues that I have no business to be tired. I have not got a crowd of half-boiled soldiers to plague my life out from morning to night. Am surprised at this statement (as Tim has been very keen on his territorilals up to now), but conclude that something must have occurred to upset him, and resign myslef to listen and sympathize instead of starting Sheila Kaye Smith’s latest novel, which I have just procured with vast trouble from the librfary.”

Compare this to an entry of Diary of a Provincial Lady Dec. 9 (published in 1931, a bit earlier than the Mrs. Tim books:

“Rose staying here two days before going on to London. Says All American houses are Always Warm, which annoys Robert. He says in return that All American houses are Grossly Overheated and Entirely Airless. Impossible not to feel taht this would carry more weight if Robert had ever been to America."

Stevenson and Delafield write gentle satires of family life, but I prefer D. E. Stevensons more expansive (and less snobbish) entries.

The Christie family adjusts to frequent moves, and much of the book is set in Scotland. Mrs. Tim and the Provincial Lady both have to cope with the servant problem, which few of us have had to contend with these days, but the British in novels have difficulties with governesses, cooks, etc. (And of course Monica Dickens, in One Pair of Hands, quits her cook job, because the employers are so unreasonable, so that's another way of looking at it) .

These are great winter books. Very addictive.

1 comment:

Ellen said...

I learn about all sorts of books when I read your blog. Sheila Kaye-Smith is one of the two women who wrote one of the earliest popular criticism books of Jane Austen: Speaking of Jane Austen. The other woman was a novelist too.

The self-deprecating diary mode is also found in _The Egg and I_ and _Bridget Jones' Diary_ and _Mrs Miniver_. I think women write them because one can write a little at a time -- in the interstices of time allowed. Blogs allow for the same thing.

The husband when there is one often has this responsible job, middle management.

I had a better night tonight than I've had in some time. I began _Mrs Stevens Hears the Mermaids_ which has a journal-like feel, and now I have a kitten on my lap.