A review of Vittoria Cottage by D E Stevenson
Increasingly I am finding that in these times of uncertainty there is something extremely comforting about retreating into a world that is distinctly twee and cosy. It may explain why some authors, extremely popular in their day but then dismissed as old hat, are making a well-deserved comeback. One such is Scottish author, Dorothy Stevenson, who wrote forty novels over a career that spanned from 1923 to 1970 and sold over 7 million copies here and in the States.
Originally published in 1949 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, Vittoria Cottage is the first of three novels charting the fortunes of the Dering family. I always wonder about trilogies whether the author initially set out to write a three-part series or whether the trilogy just evolved. Rather like a television series that is desperate to be commissioned for a second series, Stevenson’s novel ends somewhat abruptly. I did not mind that as she had left enough clues for the reader to make their mind up as to what happened next. If I read Music In The Hills I might find out if my expectations have been fulfilled.
As with Cold Comfort Farm, there have always been Werings at Vittoria Cottage, or at least since the Regency period. The latest incumbent is Caroline, recently widowed, whose life is a struggle, juggling tight finances, keeping up appearances and trying to sort out the lives of her three children. She reminds me a little of Mrs Durrell.
Bobbie, the youngest of the brood, seems to cause no trouble, unlike Leda who is selfish and headstrong and makes an unsuitable engagement with the son of the local squire, Derek Ware. The ups and downs of the relationship do nothing to preserve the piece and calm of the household. Caroline’s son, James, is in Malaya but his return is a breath of fresh air, giving Caroline the stability and inner strength that she craves.
A handsome stranger (natch), Robert Shepperton, settles in the village and he and Caroline start to get emotionally attached. Then Caroline’s sister, the actress Harriet Fane, turns up after the run of her latest play was curtailed due to unfavourable reviews, and she makes eyes at Shepperton. Will she snatch Caroline’s just desserts from her or will she continue with her acting career and tour the States? The two sisters fall in love with the same man is a bit hackneyed, but Stevenson makes an entertaining enough and moving tale out of it.
What endeared me to Stevenson is her style. It is gentle, undemanding and easy to read but its sheer simplicity is deceiving. It is a difficult trick to pull off convincingly and just as you seem to be drifting off, she pulls you back sharply with a memorable turn of phrase or a cleverly worked joke. An example is a description of the family dog, Joss, which is described as an enigma, a breed unknown to the villagers.
Stevenson delineates her characters sufficiently enough for them to be believable, but I do not think you can claim to really know them, understand how they think. I enjoyed her portrayal of Comfort Podbury, the home help who, as her name suggests, is a little on the large side and whose ambition is to lose weight, ideally with as little effort as possible through a miracle drug.
While it not my normal fare, I enjoyed it as a form of escapism. You can understand why she was popular in her day, why she fell out of favour and why, in these desperate times, her time has come again.