Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Anna and Her Daughters, a story about sisters by D.E. Stevenson

Title: Anna and Her Daughters
Author: D.E. Stevenson
Publication: Ulverscroft hardcover, originally published 1958
Genre: Fiction
Setting: 20th century London and Scotland
Description: When Anna’s husband dies unexpectedly, leaving very little money, she decides to retrench by moving to a cottage in rural Scotland with her three daughters. Helen and Rosalie are upset at leaving their London social life and Jane has to give up her dream of Oxford but she learns to love Ryddelton and unexpectedly finds a career as well as being the unofficial ballast of the family.

My Impression: This is a Stevenson novel I don’t recall having read before but it contains elements that are familiar to her readers: a family having to adapt to modest means, sisters interested in the same man, and plenty of coincidences. Despite Anna’s having had an affluent carefree married life (albeit without life insurance, as her brother-in-law observes), she retained her practical Scottish upbringing and astonishes her daughters when disaster hits by saying she knows how to cook. She is only 40 and is ready to take on the next stage of her life. From the title, I expected Anna would be the main character but the story is told in the first person from Jane’s point of view and it is for Jane the reader roots and worries.
While I liked the descriptions of the Harcourts adapting (or not) to Ryddelton, the story becomes more interesting when Jane develops a crush on a young man she encounters in Edinburgh and becomes the secretary to a well-known writer (she earns 30 shillings/week!), Mrs. Millard. All three sisters are interested in the same man and he is bewitched by Helen, the eldest and most selfish sister, so it is fortunate that Jane can throw herself into her new job. Mrs. Millard is eccentric and entertaining and the locals disapprove of her shady past but working for her gives Jane confidence. When she has a few days off, she starts her own historical novel:
It was so tedious doing nothing that I decided to try my hand at writing a story just for my own pleasure and to while away the time (as a matter of fact the idea would never have occurred to me if Helen had not put it into my head) so I bought a large exercise-book in the town and started off.
Mrs. Millard helps her get it published and presto-chango Jane is a novelist, just like Miss Buncle from one of Stevenson’s other books, but without the added complication of recognizable characters:
“Of course you must read it,” I said.

“What is the book about?”

“Oh – just people,” I said vaguely.

“People in Ryddelton?” asked Mother with some anxiety.

“Oh goodness no! It’s about highwaymen – and duels – and – and things like that.”

Mother laughed and said she was glad. “We might have had to leave Ryddelton in a hurry,” she explained. “I once read a book about a woman who wrote a book about her neighbours and they weren’t at all pleased. She had to fly for her life.”
This reference is a literary Easter egg to Stevenson’s devoted readers, referencing a book written 24 years earlier.  Jane’s mother is a little jealous of Mrs. Millard's influence but becoming an author gives Jane a career and financial independence. She eventually gets a happy ending but there is a lot of worry and sorrow before that happens.

Source: Library. Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow selected this one for a forthcoming Dean Street Press reissue.  It is now easy to sample Stevenson's work if you have never read any of her books. 


Unknown said...

Scott/Furrowed Middlebrow is planning to have Anna and Her Daughters as part of the January 2022 D. E. Stevenson reissue package.


So it will become easy to read yet more of her wonderful books.


LyzzyBee said...

Oh, this sounds excellent! There's another Miss Buncle Easter Egg in either one of hers I've read recently or Molly Clavering's, who was of course Stevenson's friend. I love that!