Summerhills by D.E. Stevenson

Summerhills, first published in 1956, is the second book in D.E. Stevenson’s Ayrton family trilogy which began with Amberwell. I knew it had been a few years since I read the first book but was shocked to find that it was actually more than six years! I was worried that I’d left it so long I would struggle to get back into the story, but that turned out to not be a problem; although I could barely remember what happened in Amberwell, Stevenson provides enough of a recap in the opening chapters that I could easily pick up all the threads again.

The book begins with Roger Ayrton, now an officer in the Army, returning to his family home in Scotland for a visit. The house, Amberwell, is where Roger and his brothers and sisters grew up before the outbreak of World War II and it still holds a special place in his heart. Some of the family have moved on, but Amberwell is still home to Roger’s stepmother and his younger sister Nell, who has been taking care of his son, Stephen, since his wife’s death. Stephen is now eight years old and Roger thinks it’s time he was sent away to school, but Nell objects, wanting him to stay close to home. As there are no suitable schools near Amberwell, Roger comes up with what he thinks is the perfect plan – he’ll open a school of his own!

At first it seems that the creation of the school – which becomes known as Summerhills – is going to be the main focus of the book, but the plot soon branches off into several different directions. Roger finds himself unexpectedly falling in love, as does Nell, while his youngest sister, Anne, whose first marriage ended unhappily is trying to move on from her traumatic past and has become housekeeper to an elderly neighbour. A new cook arrives at Amberwell, adding a touch of humour to the story, and there’s also a new governess, Georgina Glassford, who enjoys running and is always looking for someone to time her mile. Although most of the main characters in the book are very likeable, I did find their treatment of Georgina very unkind, particularly as their dislike of her seems to be based on the fact that she wears trousers and gets up early to exercise.

I enjoyed the glimpse of life in post-war Scotland – even though the lifestyles of the Ayrton family seem largely unchanged thanks to Roger receiving a large inheritance on his wife’s death, all around them other once-wealthy families are having to sell their country houses as they can no longer afford to maintain them or pay for servants. This is how Roger manages to acquire a large house to convert into a school (of course there’s no question of an Ayrton boy being sent to an ordinary day school – it must be a boarding school – and there’s no mention of the girls being allowed to go either). At least he does promise to charge reduced fees so that less fortunate boys can attend and gives the job of headmaster to his friend Arnold Maddon (one of my favourite characters), who has lost a foot during the war and has been struggling to find work.

I would have liked Anne’s storyline to have had a proper conclusion – it was left very open-ended – and I was sorry that we saw very little of the other Ayrton sister, Connie, and nothing at all of their brother Tom, who has become a doctor. There’s also a strange subplot in the middle of the book where Roger goes to Rome in search of Aunt Beatrice; I couldn’t really see the point of this as it didn’t have much relevance to the rest of the novel. Still, Stevenson’s writing style is so readable that even pointless episodes like this are quite enjoyable. There is a third novel, Still Glides the Stream, which is described as the final book in the Ayrton trilogy, but seems to be about a completely different family. Have any of you read that one?

This is book 5/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

Vittoria Cottage by D E Stevenson

This is only the third book I’ve read by D E Stevenson, but I’m finding that her novels are perfect when I’m in the mood for something gentle and undemanding, but still with convincing characters, some insights into human nature and just enough plot to keep me interested from beginning to end. Having read what other people have to say about her books it seems that they vary in quality, but I think I’ve been lucky with the three I’ve chosen to read so far (Miss Buncle’s Book, Amberwell and now this one).

Vittoria Cottage is the first in a trilogy. The ‘cottage’ of the title is located in the quiet English village of Ashbridge and is home to the Dering family. Arnold Dering died before the novel opens, leaving behind his widow Caroline and their two daughters (there’s also a son who is with the army in Malaya). The younger daughter, Bobbie, doesn’t give Caroline any problems – at least not during the course of this first novel – but the same can’t be said about pretty, selfish Leda. Her engagement to law student Derek causes concern for both families, who can see that the young couple will have no money and are perhaps not very well suited anyway. However, Caroline and Derek’s father resist the temptation to interfere too much and leave Derek and Leda to learn this the hard way.

Meanwhile, Caroline has a romantic interest of her own, although she tries to deny even to herself that she is falling in love. He is a newcomer to the village – Robert Shepperton, a man with a mysterious past. What did he do during the war? What happened to his family? And why has he come to Ashbridge? When Caroline’s sister Harriet, a London actress, arrives for a long stay at Vittoria Cottage, she also finds herself drawn to Robert. But which sister, if either, is Robert interested in?

The main characters in the novel are well drawn and engaging (apart from one or two, such as Bobbie, who remain a bit shadowy) and I liked Caroline immediately. As an older, more mature heroine, she is sensible and practical and if she can sometimes be frustratingly naive and lacking in self-confidence, it only makes her all the more human. I enjoyed watching her relationship with Robert Shepperton slowly develop – a relationship built around friendship and trust. I also liked Caroline’s maid, Comfort Podbury, a young woman who has gained a lot of weight due to a medical condition and is devoted to Caroline because she is one of the few people in Ashbridge who doesn’t judge her by her size.

Vittoria Cottage was published in 1949 and the effects of the war on Caroline and her friends are clear – rationing is still in place, the Derings wonder where Mr Shepperton gets enough coupons to buy so many new clothes, and Caroline is surprised when she finds herself in trouble for attempting to send eggs to Harriet in London. If I’m going to be critical, I could say that this book doesn’t feel very original and I can think of quite a few other novels I’ve read by similar authors which have similar settings and similar types of characters. I don’t think that matters too much, though, because DE Stevenson is very good at writing novels like this and, as I said at the start of this post, sometimes they are just what I’m in the right mood for.

I didn’t enjoy Vittoria Cottage as much as the last Stevenson book I read, Amberwell, but I did like it. The ending seems very abrupt and, without saying too much about it, it’s satisfying in some ways but in others not very satisfying at all! If I want to know what happens next to the Dering family, I’ll have to read the other two in the trilogy, Music in the Hills and Shoulder the Sky.

My commonplace book: January 2016

commonplace book
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary


A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.


I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966)


Roger had learned from Mr. Gray that this particular kind of rhododendron was called Ponticum, so the secret hiding-place was called Ponticum House. It was used for all sorts of activities and gradually it was furnished with odds and ends of furniture.

Amberwell by D.E. Stevenson (1955)


There was the rub: that Julia, who could get intimate with a trapeze artist after five minutes’ conversation – who was intimate with a salesman after buying a pair of shoes – had talked for an hour to her own daughter, about the girl’s own father and lover, without the least intimacy at all.

“I’m a fool,” thought Julia, again. “It’s just because she’s such a perfect lady. And what I need is a good sleep.”

The Nutmeg Tree by Margery Sharp (1937)


So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all one fabric, as if sails were stuck high up in the sky, or the clouds had dropped down into the sea. A steamer far out at sea had drawn in the air a great scroll of smoke which stayed there curving and circling decoratively, as if the air were a fine gauze which held things and kept them softly in its mesh, only gently swaying them this way and that.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)


Come, Joanna. I can wait no longer.

There it was, Henry’s declaration, as clear as my reflection in my mirror. Neither, I decided, could I wait.

I sent for my uncle of Burgundy. I had an urgent negotiation to undertake.

The Queen’s Choice by Anne O’Brien (2016)


Meantime, all around me is violence and robbery, coarse delight and savage pain, reckless joke and hopeless death. Is it any wonder that I cannot sink with these, that I cannot so forget my soul, as to live the life of brutes, and die the death more horrible because it dreams of waking? There is none to lead me forward, there is none to teach me right; young as I am, I live beneath a curse that lasts for ever.

Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore (1869)


“It is the women who lay clothes to dry on the rooftops of Troy,” I continued. “It is the fishermen who catch the silver fish in the bay,” I gestured out over the plain towards the sea, sparkling blue in the sunlight, “and sell them on the stalls of the marketplace. It is the princes who live in the palaces on the windy heights of the city, and the slaves who draw water from the wells. This, my king – this is Troy. And if we act now, we may still be able to save our city before it is too late.”

For the Most Beautiful by Emily Hauser (2016)


The desolation struck me like a blow, fresh and painful, as if all this destruction had been newly made yesterday, and as if this were my first sight of it. It was grief, I think, nothing more or less. I knew it was absurd. But I had noticed this reaction in others as well as in myself: that we mourned for our ravaged city as if for a mother.

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor (2016) – Review to follow


“And you cannot move at all in Time, you cannot get away from the present moment.”

“My dear sir, that is just where you are wrong. That is just where the whole world has gone wrong. We are always getting away from the present moment. Our mental existences, which are immaterial and have no dimensions, are passing along the Time-Dimension with a uniform velocity from the cradle to the grave. Just as we should travel down if we began our existence fifty miles above the earth’s surface.”

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)


Favourite books this month: Lorna Doone and Amberwell

Amberwell by D. E. Stevenson

The property was situated in a fold of the hills and sloped gently down to the sea. It consisted of meadows and a little wood and some moorland; there was a well, built of glowing yellow stone, which was fed by a spring and was always full of ice-cold water. The water itself was as clear as crystal but the reflection of the stone gave it the appearance of amber…it was this well which gave the property its name, Amberwell.


A few years ago I read one of D. E. Stevenson’s most popular novels, Miss Buncle’s Book. I found it a lovely, charming read, but as I said in my review at the time, I thought it ‘lacked that special spark’. I hadn’t really thought about reading any more of her books until I noticed that some of them were being reissued by Endeavour Press. I liked the sound of Amberwell and decided to give Stevenson another chance to impress me.

Amberwell is the name of a house and estate in the south west of Scotland, home to Mr and Mrs Ayrton and their five children: Roger, Tom, Connie, Nell and Anne. The Ayrtons show little interest in getting to know the children; the two boys are sent away to school as soon as possible, their future careers mapped out for them by their father regardless of their own wishes. Education for the girls is not considered important – they remain in the nursery at Amberwell to be raised by Nannie and taught at home by Miss Clarke, who comes in daily.

As the years go by and World War II approaches, the Ayrton children begin to follow their own paths in life. Roger and Tom go off to war while Connie and Anne (under very different circumstances) both leave home, with only the middle sister, Nell, left behind to care for Amberwell. Amberwell itself remains at the centre of the story and even as the Ayrtons move away or move on, it continues to hold a special place in each of their hearts.

I loved Amberwell. I found it very different from Miss Buncle’s Book (a more serious, poignant story rather than a humorous one) but much more to my taste. I was particularly interested in the portrayal of the effects of war on a wealthy family living in a quiet, rural area who at first are shielded from what is going on elsewhere but eventually find that their own way of life is changing too. I could understand Roger’s anger during a conversation with his parents in which he discovers that they are more concerned about losing their servants than they are about Roger himself, who is risking his life for his country.

This is not just a book about war, of course. It’s also a book about Scottish society before and during the war and what it was like to be a young woman growing up in that time and place. And it’s a book about the relationships between brothers and sisters and between parents and children – and the damage which can be caused by a lack of understanding, attention and affection.

The beautiful Connie is the conventional one who does what is expected of her and as such she is the least interesting of the Ayrtons to read about as well as being the hardest to warm to, but I cared very much about the fates of the other four siblings. Anne’s life takes a dramatic turn following a visit to her Aunt Beatrice and we have to wait until the end of the novel to hear the full story of her adventures, while Tom and Roger are both easy to like and their love for Amberwell and their sisters shines through strongly. But this is really Nell’s story – Nell’s and Amberwell’s – and Nell is a wonderful person, offering help and support to those who need it and ensuring that her brothers and sisters have a home to come back to when the war is over.

After finishing this book I was pleased to find that there is a sequel, Summerhills, which I will be reading as soon as I have the opportunity. I would love to know what happens to the characters I’ve become so fond of, particularly Nell, my favourite. I also have a copy of another Stevenson novel, Vittoria Cottage, which I’m looking forward to now that I’ve enjoyed this one so much.

I received a copy of this book for review from Endeavour Press via NetGalley.

Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson

When Barbara Buncle finds herself short of money she dismisses the idea of keeping hens and decides to write a book instead. Not having much imagination she finds she can only write about people and places that she knows. Drawing her inspiration from her friends and neighbours in the village of Silverstream, she writes her first novel and has it published under the pseudonym of John Smith. When Disturber of the Peace turns out to be much more successful than Miss Buncle could ever have dreamed, it’s inevitable that the residents of Silverstream will eventually read it and recognise themselves within its pages. But how will they feel about the way they are represented in the book and what will happen if they discover who John Smith really is?

Delightful, charming, warm, cosy – those are the type of words I would use to describe Miss Buncle’s Book. Written in the 1930s, D.E. Stevenson captures perfectly the atmosphere of life in a small English village at that time – a place where everybody knows everybody else, where freshly baked breakfast rolls are delivered to the villagers every morning, where people meet for tea parties or musical evenings and gossip with the neighbours over the garden fence. The book is filled with a variety of interesting characters, all with their own quirks and eccentricities. Some of the most memorable include the formidable Mrs Featherstone Hogg, who is enraged by the unflattering way she is depicted in Miss Buncle’s book and leads the campaign against John Smith; Mr Hathaway the vicar and the scheming Vivian Greensleeves who has her eyes on his money; and the retired and lonely Colonel Weatherhead who faces a yearly battle with the Bishop.

Most of the inhabitants of Silverstream make an appearance in Disturber of the Peace and although Barbara Buncle takes the precaution of changing their names (Weatherhead becomes Waterfoot, for example, Miss King and Miss Pretty are renamed Miss Earle and Miss Darling, and Mr Fortnum becomes Mr Mason), she describes their personalities so accurately it’s not surprising that they were able to work out who the book was about! It was fun to see how they each reacted to discovering themselves in Miss Buncle’s story and having all their flaws exposed to the world.

I sent a copy of Miss Buncle’s Book to another blogger as a Secret Santa gift a couple of years ago because I thought it sounded wonderful, and when I saw that it was available through Netgalley I couldn’t wait to finally read it for myself. But although I did like it, I didn’t love it as much as I had hoped I would and as much as most other readers seem to have done. It was an enjoyable, relaxing read with lots of gentle humour and old-fashioned charm, but it lacked that special spark that would have lifted it from being a very good book to a great one. For me, this is a book that sounded better than it actually was, though I would still recommend it as a great way to escape from the stress of life for a while!

I received a review copy from Sourcebooks via Netgalley