D. E. STEVENSON


Dorothy Emily Stevenson (1892 - 1973), if remembered at all today, seems to be remembered only as a reliable producer of “light romances” aimed at genteel female readers of the early 20th Century, particularly in the era between the two World Wars. In a writing career that lasted from roughly 1935 to 1970, she wrote around 40 novels, roughly one per year.  She lived in Scotland for almost her entire life, and was related on her father's side to famous novelist Robert Louis Stevenson.   Despite the fact that her earlier novels were reprinted many times, in both hardback and paperback, particularly in the period 1950 - 70, I have found it extremely difficult to locate copies.  Some of her earliest, unpublished novels saw print for the first time as recently as 2013 and 2016, yet are still virtually impossible to find today.  To give some idea, dealers are trying to sell some of her 1970s-era mass-market paperback reprints at prices of $500 to $1000.  Yet, consider that all of her books were published in both England and the US, in hardback and later paperback editions, and many saw multiple printings and reissues... and that a fair number of her most popular books have been reprinted as trade paperbacks in just the last 5 or so years (those are the only ones readily available).

One of her early novels, THE EMPTY WORLD, aka A WORLD IN SPELL (1936), is in fact a science fiction novel taking place in 1973. Life on earth is destroyed by a cosmic calamity, but two groups of humans survive, one by accident, one by design (a few scientists, having foreseen the end, have preserved in a protected location a group of what they consider to be the best of humanity, while another wildly-assorted group consists of  the random passengers on a futuristic airliner that happened to be flying at extremely high altitude). GREEN MONEY (1939) seems to be a comic novel written as an affectionate nod to  P. G. Wodehouse. CROOKED ADAM (1942) is a spy thriller in which an assortment of rogues try to steal the secret of a professor's anti-aircraft raygun. CELIA'S HOUSE is a multigeneration family saga, but the plot turns on supernatural elements, both reincarnation, and the existence of what the ancient Romans called a genius loci. Far from being romances, some of her novels involve continual suffering by the main female characters, with either no romance at all (for example, AMBERWELL), or a potential mutual declaration of love that's pushed to the last line or the last paragraph, or doesn't actually take place within the novel's existing text (many examples).  An early novel, SMOULDERING FIRE (1935), deals with a racing-car driver whose physical abuse of both wife and child is becoming increasingly violent.  (The abuse is only hinted at, by depicting the absolute terror both wife and child exhibit when the racer comes on the scene again after a long absence.) AMBERWELL (1955) relentlessly describes an almost terrifyingly dysfunctional family.




Having read so far about 30 of her 45 or so novels, I have noticed some recurrent themes. One has to give Ms. Stevenson credit for trying to do something different with each successive novel, but one basic situation comes up in almost every novel where the education of children is a concern. The parent (very often a widow, often in reduced circumstances) goes to great efforts to get the male children enrolled in good schools and eventually  a university, but the female children have to do with a succession of in-home tutors or governesses, who give the girls a very narrow and limited education. Often there is one female child who dreams of going to a university, but essentially never succeeds. As far as I can determine from the very limited on-line biographical information about Ms. Stevenson, she was in precisely that situation, within her own family. In fact, her parents and a succession of governesses apparently did their best to discourage every one of her enthusiasms and ambitions, particularly her ambition to become a writer.  Several female characters in various Stevenson novels do eventually manage to become successful writers, despite the initial lack of training and education.  Another situation that occurs in many Stevenson novels is that of a  woman with several children, who is suddenly left a widow by the unexpected death of her husband, who has made no provision for the family.  The widows cope in various ways, but money is a constant worry.  In one book, the problem is solved when one of the daughters becomes a successful writer (ANNA AND HER DAUGHTERS).  Over the course of  Ms. Stevenson's long writing career, she invented a large number of fictitious cities, towns, villages, schools, and even London street addresses, and it's interesting to see in what ways they recur from novel to novel.  Also, a fairly large number of characters cross over from one novel or series to another, at the very least getting a one or two sentence mention, which catches the clued-in reader up as to what's been going on with them since the time-frame of the novel they were once major characters within.  Ms. Stevenson has some gentle but pointed fun with the very concept of writing romance fiction: the works of Janetta Walters are mentioned as being either loved or loathed by various characters in various Stevenson novels. [Probably the most detailed discussion of her novels is found in SPRING MAGIC (1942).]  Eventually the woman behind the pen name shows up to become a main character of a Stevenson novel!  (See THE TWO MRS. ABBOTTS and THE FOUR GRACES.)  When the man she loves condemns her works as utterly worthless, she instantly gives up her lucrative writing career altogether.  [However, her sister takes over the writing of yet more soppy novels, using the same pen name.]



Stevenson's husband J. R. Peploe in 1914.

Stevenson's novels often form series of two or three volumes, with the main characters in one series being mentioned in passing in other series. Her longest-running series, MRS. TIM (1932 - 1952), is also semi-autobiographical, and based loosely on diaries she kept as the wife of a British Army officer, James Reid Peploe, beginning in 1916. She grew up in, and lived in Scotland for most of her life, mainly in the small village of Moffat, and it's no surprise that the characters in her novels, wherever they start out, keep winding up in rural Scotland, either to live, or on long vacations. There are frequent opportunities for very extended, detailed and lyrical descriptions of the countryside in various parts of that scenic land of short summers and harsh winters.  At various times Stevenson also wrote quite a bit of poetry, which I have not seen.  Among the few facts about Ms. Stevenson's personal life I have been able to discover is that she was an avid and expert golfer.  However, the only novel I have read by her where golf is even mentioned is YOUNG MRS. SAVAGE, where all the characters are vacationing in the coastal resort city of North Berwick (disguised under the bland name “Seatown”), which was famous for its two large golf courses, and which was greatly loved by not only Ms. Stevenson's own immediate family, but also by Robert Lewis Stevenson himself. Ms. Stevenson was a cigarette smoker, and came close to chain-smoking when she was writing, according to one of her daughters, but again and of course there is little or no smoking by anyone in her novels, other than gentlemen partaking of an after-dinner cigar.