My rating: 7.5/10
I picked up this title many years ago and regularly re-read it but I did not realize until just recently that the author, O. Douglas, still has a popular following, with a number of her books still in print and more planned for re-issue.
O. Douglas is the pseudonym of Anna Buchan, sister of John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps et al.) While their works are not at all alike it is perhaps not surprising that a writerly talent would run in the family. O. Douglas was a bestselling author in her own right, as John Buchan was in his.
Penny Plain is a rather innocuous little story, but none the less enjoyable for its quietness; in fact, that would appear to be its intent. Its heroine is a 23-year-old Scottish woman, Jean Jardine, who lives in the small fictional Scottish town of Priorsford. Jean and her two brothers were orphaned at a young age and were brought up by a strictly religious aunt; Jean in particular has had instilled in her a strong sense of morality and duty which balance nicely with her natural exuberance and generosity. The aunt has gone on to her greater reward, and Jean is now the head of a lively household of siblings.
As the story opens, Jean is preparing to send her 19-year-old brother David off to his first term at Oxford. Money is very tight and Jean worries that he will find it a challenge to move as an equal with other students from much wealthier backgrounds. Jean worries a lot, and for a valid reason; she is of a naturally maternal bent, and besides David her responsibilities include another brother, 14-year-old Jock, and an adopted brother, 7-year-old Gervase.
A new neighbour is about to sooth the pain of David’s departure by giving new life to the small community’s social circles. The Honorable Pamela Reston, 40 years old and facing a serious life-altering decision, has decided to make a retreat from the social whirl of her bust London life to quiet Priorsford, to sort herself out and settle her mind with some musing time. She and her cheerfully outspoken maid Mawson have taken rooms with Miss Bella Bathgate, who, finding herself financially struggling since the war (the story is set several years post-Great War, about 1919-20) has decided to let rooms in her large house. The interplay between dour Scotswoman Miss Bathgate, Cockney Mawson, and English aristocrat Pamela is amusingly presented, and comes off well. O. Douglas bravely tackles several dialects, and the various voices come through loud and clear, though the reader will need to shift mental gears and pay close attention to the Bella-Mawson interchanges..
Pamela and Jean become fast friends upon their first meeting; Pamela is attracted to Jean’s sincere and gentle nature and Jean finds much to admire in Pamela’s outgoing and affable personality. They find they have many tastes in common, though Jean refuses to be patronized by her much wealthier friend and holds her own when her strongly conservative beliefs are challenged. The story progresses at a leisurely pace, describing the society of Priorsford, the tea parties and social encounters and continual interplay between the classes, with glimpses into the strivings, pleasures and pains of each set of characters.
This is what this book does so well. It is a true period piece; a story set in the time it was written, with happenings and emotions drawn from the real experiences and observations of the author. The Great War – World War I – is just over. Many of the characters are dealing with devastating loss – the actual loss of fathers, sons, brothers to the fighting; the loss of peace and emotional security as post-war adjustments are struggled with; and the loss of financial security as the war has affected investments and increased taxation. An undercurrent of grief and longing runs under the happy-go-lucky storyline, and we never lose sight of the gallantry of everyday people putting on brave faces and doing the best they can with what they have left. Few bemoan their fate; it’s all very stiff-upper-lip, but there are many poignant moments to keep the lightheartedness in balance.
The slender plot of the story itself is predictable to the extreme. It is simply boy-meets-girl, part ways, and come together again. Pamela happens to have a younger unmarried brother, Lord Bidborough, who comes to visit her in her self-imposed exile. He is immediately smitten by gentle Jean. Jean is smitten in turn, but her strong sense of duty to her brothers, combined with her fastidious morality which looks askance at the idea of a poor girl “running after” a rich man nips their relationship in the bud, at least temporarily. The Jardines themselves have an older unmarried cousin, Lewis Elliot, who happens to be a childhood acquaintance of Pamela’s; they renew their relationship with predictable results. Add in a mysterious visitor , and the unexpected rewarding of Jean’s good deeds and giving nature, and you have the outline of what could be a saccharine and preachy tale, but which somehow transcends its genre and results in a very likeable little feel-good tale. The author stays true to form and provides an unashamedly happy ending.
This is not an “important” book, but it is surprisingly attractive in its simplicity. I do believe the author succeeded in what she set out to do; to tell a pleasant tale about likeable people coping with difficult times and overcoming their personal challenges. There is no hidden meaning or deeper agenda; it is very much what it appears to be; a few hours of pleasure for readers, to allow them to escape into a fictional world that could very well be real, but where problems are happily resolved and virtue is rewarded; where tragedy is present and recognized, but where people overcome and cope, and where life very much goes on.
I have just come across another O. Douglas novel, The Day of Small Things, and I am looking forward with mild anticipation to reading this, and to exploring this writer’s works a bit more as circumstances allow.
Cover images supplied of two early issues courtesy ABE, though not my own copy, which is a small “austerity” edition with badly damaged black boards. I suspect my copy is wartime (WW II, that is) or immediately post-war issue; there is a list of other books of note and this statement from the publisher: “It is regretted that, while the present paper shortage persists, your bookseller will not always be able to supply the book you want.”