You know how it is – you start a book in October, and… you finish it in January. I don’t quite know how that happened, but there it is, Mrs. Tim of the Regiment by DE Stevenson has been on my bedside table for at least three months, dipped in and out of, and yesterday evening I read the last page. It certainly wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy it, but perhaps because I wanted something light, enjoyable, and reliable on the bedside table. All the books I’ve read in the Bloomsbury Group series have been gems, and this was no different.
The first thing to say, which Elaine and others have noted in their reviews, is that Mrs. Tim of the Regiment is very much a book of two halves. Though not signposted, this novel is actually Mrs. Tim of the Regiment and Golden Days put together, but they have been that way since 1940 odd – it wasn’t Bloomsbury’s decision. The two books are very different in style – both are about Hester Christie (aka Mrs. Tim) an army wife, looking after her husband and two children, and being witty and self-effacing and coping with everything that’s thrown her way. But, though it all takes diary format, only the first half really feels like a diary – the second half is far more narrative driven.
And the second thing to say is – how very like the Provincial Lady this is! Well, the first half especially. Sometimes I had to remind myself that I wasn’t reading an unknown fifth PL book. Take, for instance, this sizeable quotation:
Suddenly the spell is broken, the door of our compartment is pushed ajar, and through the aperture appears the fat white face of Mrs. McTurk. Of all the people in the world Mrs. McTurk is, perhaps, the one I least want to see. I can’t help wondering what she is doing in the train, and how she found me. She must be – I suppose – one of those peculiar people who walk about in trains. Why couldn’t she have remained peacefully where she was put by the porter amidst her own belongings in (I have no doubt) a comfortable first-class compartment?
“Is this really you?” she says
I reply that it is. The woman has the knack of saying things which invite a fatuous answer.
“Well I never!” she says.
I fix a false smile upon my countenance, whereupon she insinuates her cumbrous body through the door, and sits down beside Betty.
“So you are going north for a holiday,” she says.
Betty bounces up and down on the seat. “Do you know Mummie?” she cries excitedly. “Fancy you knowing Mummie! I thought Mummie didn’t know anybody in Kiltwinkle. Of course I knew lots of children at school, but it was awfully dull for Mummy. Mrs. Watt said there would be lots of parties, and Mummie bought a new dress, and then nobody asked her.”
I plunge wildly into the conversation, wishing, not for the first time, that Betty were shy with strangers.
I suspect the Provincial Lady’s Vicky and Mrs. Tim’s Betty never met – but what good friends they would have been, had they done so. I also suspect that DE Stevenson had read the Provincial Lady books (the first of which was published just a couple of years before she started her Mrs. Tim books) and I don’t blame her at all for wanting to emulate them.
Mrs. Tim, especially these early sections, is deliciously moreish. Not a great deal happens, not in the way of linear plot – the attempts to find a house were hilarious, looking round increasingly unsuitable properties – this is mostly the quotidian, finding humour and pathos in the everyday. As the second half of the book arrives, Mrs. Tim heads up to Scotland sans husband, and becomes embroiled in the confusing love lives of various young folk. She even becomes an unwitting object of attraction herself (Stevenson rather cleverly using the diary format to show Hester’s oblivious innocence even while letting the reader know what is going on.) But, of course, Hester has eyes only for her husband.
Mr. Tim himself is rather more likable than his Provincial Lady counterpart – you feel that the Christie marriage has more laughs in it than the PL’s. At the same time, he is as bad as Robert when it comes to recognising quotations from Jane Austen…
Like all the rest of the Bloomsbury Group series, Mrs. Tim of the Regiment is a delight to read, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. Being honest, it doesn’t maintain the high level throughout – I much preferred the first half to the second, as has probably become clear – but it’s just the sort of book you’ll want to read once you’ve exhausted EM Delafield’s superlative Provincial Lady series. And if, somehow, you’ve not read the PL books yet – hie thee to a library!
Apparently there’s a whole series of Mrs. Tim books – and I’m told they’re also more narrative-driven. Though I don’t think I’ll be using up my Project 24 allowance on them, they’re certainly going into my Amazon Marketplace Basket to be pondered over for 2011… (edit: no they won’t! I’ve just seen the prices!)
Oh – and if you’ve got this far, do pop in tomorrow for a giveaway of… a mystery title! All will be revealed tomorrow….