here) is the final Mrs Tim book. It's the early 1950s & Hester Christie has been living in Kenya with her husband,Tim, a Colonel in the Army. They decide that she should go home to England to spend time with their children, Betty & Bryan, & make a home for them over the summer holidays.Hester has arranged to rent the Small House, near the village of Old Quinings where Hester & Tim's former servants, Annie & Fred Boilings, now own the inn. Family friend, Tony Morley also lives nearby & between them, they have arranged everything.
Hester flies back via Rome where she spends a few days to break the journey. On the flight she meets Rosa Alston, an irritating woman (well, I found her irritating but Hester doesn't seem to at first) who takes Hester under her wing as she hasn't done much flying. It seems strange to us now, when air travel is so much more common, but in the 50s it was much more expensive & rare. In one of those typical Stevenson coincidences, Mrs Alston grew up near Old Quinings & remembers going to parties with Tony Morley, who she didn't like at all. Luckily, Mrs Alston has plans when they reach Rome & Hester has booked herself in to a pensione run by Signora Scarlatti, so they part &, although they make plans to meet the next day, Hester expects to have little to do with her new friend in future.
Tony Morley turns up at the pensione as a surprise & whisks Hester off for a couple of days sightseeing. The Signora is convinced that they're carrying on an affair & nothing Hester can say in her imperfect French (the only language they share) can convince her otherwise. Unfortunately Hester forgets her appointment with Mrs Alston & that lady, speaking perfect Italian, soon hears all about Hester & Tony from the Signora.
Hester arrives in England & finds herself travelling down in the train with her new neighbour, Miss Crease, a disagreeable, quarrelsome woman who knows all about Hester already & is eager to know more. Hester is relieved to get to the inn & be pampered by Annie Boilings. She is soon settled in to the Small House. It was owned by Mrs Stroude & now that she's dead, her stepdaughter has rented the house while she goes on a cruise. Lorna Stroude was much loved & respected but her stepdaughter seems to be her opposite in every way. Olivia Stroude was unkind to her stepmother & is disliked by everyone Hester meets in the village. She seems to have no redeeming features, something which Hester discovers when, after a peaceful few weeks of solitude, she suddenly descends on the Small House & tries to bully Hester into leaving early.
Olivia claims to be searching for a valuable letter, written by Byron to her stepmother's grandfather, & intimidates Hester into letting her search the attic for it. Why Hester doesn't just wave the lease, a legal document, in the woman's face & tell her to go away, I don't know, but it isn't until her cleaner, Mrs Daulkes, advises ringing up Tony Morley because, of course, only a man could sort that woman out, that peace is restored. Tony says all the things Hester should have said & sends Olivia Stroude off with a flea in her ear.
Rosa Alston has also turned up again, asking Hester for help in finding somewhere suitable for her to stay with her son, Edmond, who is studying & needs peace & quiet. Hester arranges with Annie for them to stay at the inn & although everything Hester has heard about Edmond leads her to imagine him to be a priggish, spoilt horror, he turns out to be a delightful young man who talks to Hester about Trollope & couldn't be more unlike his mother.
Hester's children arrive for their holidays & the house comes alive. Bryan, Betty & Bryan's schoolfriend Perry soon make friends with Edmond & Susan Morven, an attractive young woman who lives in the local big house. Hester indulges in some matchmaking while the young people go on picnics, play tennis & race around on Perry's motorbike. Tony Morley gives a ball & he & Hester make a discovery in the Small House that will change the life of another of Hester's new friends. Meanwhile, Hester worries about Tim's short, distant letters from Kenya & wonders if he has somehow heard about the rumours spread by some of the old cats in the village about her & Tony in Rome.
This is a lovely, comforting book just like all the other Mrs Tim books. As always, I loved the descriptions of the countryside & the Small House, although not old, is a charming, comfortable house where Hester is perfectly happy until the doubts & worries about her family & friends begin to overwhelm her. One of my favourite scenes was when Bryan dismisses Scott & Trollope as "such small print and much too long". I did have a sneaking sympathy for him though when he had to read Trollope's He Knew He Was Right, "... it was the most awful tripe - all about a man who thought his wife was carrying on with another man, and of course she wasn't at all. The whole misunderstanding could have been cleared up in a few words, but He Knew He Was Right so it went drivelling on until he'd wrecked everything. A ghastly book." Bryan also thinks Scott's Redgauntlet would be improved if a modern thriller writer got hold of it & made it go quicker "and put some pep into it."
I hope someone reprints the Mrs Tim books one of these days. I think they would be perfect for anyone who has enjoyed the Miss Buncle series which has been reprinted twice in the last few years- by Persephone in the UK & Sourcebooks in the US. Why couldn't one of them have chosen the Mrs Tim books instead? Fingers crossed someone else does it one of these days.