My rating: 8/10
Who hath despised the day of small things?
Zechariah, iv. 10
Good things sometimes come in unpromising packages. Check out the cover illustration of this small novel. What would you think? Perhaps a children’s holiday tale? Given the Biblical-reference title, what about a religious story-tract, one of those saccharine preachy ones so distressingly common in vintage book stacks? Girls’ school story? Luckily, it’s none of the above. Instead, a delightful “character” novel following the lives and thoughts of a group of women in a seacoast town in Scotland between the wars.
I was familiar with O. Douglas only through one of her earlier books, Penny Plain, which, while a pleasant and quaint diversion, was not a masterpiece by any stretch. The Day of Small Things, published 10 years after Penny Plain, is not a masterpiece either, but it is rewarding to see how the author has refined her craft in the years between the two books. While Penny Plain is generally competently and appealingly written; Small Things is exponentially better.
This book is a sequel to an earlier novel, The Proper Place (1926), concerning an aristocratic Scottish family, the Rutherfurds, forced by circumstances to sell the family estate. Lady Jane has lost both of her sons in the recent Great War; the subsequent death of her husband and unexpected financial hardship prompts her one remaining child, a daughter, Nicole, to suggest their removal to a smaller establishment more within their new means. Accompanying them is Lady Jane’s niece, Barbara, but she has married and is back at Rutherfurd Hall at the opening of Small Things, leaving Lady Jane and Nicole in their new home, Harbour House, close by the sea’s edge in the fictional east coast town of Kirkmeikle.
I found the first few chapters rather confusing, as they continually reference people, places and events that I felt I should have known much more about; such is the nature of a sequel. However, I soon sorted it all out due to the author’s clarity of conversational “sorting out”, and I proceeded on my way, enjoying the story at hand while mentally resolving to read the earlier novel as soon as possible.
In The Day of Small Things, Nicole and Lady Jane have become more than reconciled with their new life; they have made Harbour House a refuge from the world’s storms for themselves and a varied parade of friends. Into their peaceful world comes a disruptive influence in the form of Althea Gort, Lady Jane’s sister-in-law’s niece. Child of a notoriously ill-matched and eventually divorced society couple, nineteen-year-old Althea is now an orphan, and well used to rejection. Her aunt wishes her upon the Rutherfurds hoping they will provide a settling influence, and also to remove Althea from an undesirable lover. While Lady Jane is welcoming, both Nicole and Althea bristle at the thought of sharing a home with each other – their upbringings and personalities are diametrically opposed and they resent each other even before they meet.
The transformation of Althea runs through this novel. There are many interweavings of personal stories, and a wide array of characters. Those that stand out are the matronly “middle class” (by her own description) Mrs. Heggie and her brusque but talented poet daughter Joan, and the newly widowed Esmé Jameson, seeking solace in a new home and garden, after nursing her husband through years of pain and suffering caused by his war injuries.
A theme that runs through both this novel and, to a lesser extent, Penny Plain, are the changes in social class and the blurring of societal boundaries since the war. The Rutherfurds are of the old aristocracy, but they also realize that their traditional “time at the top” has come to an end; they are gracious in their ceding to a new social order, while the strivings of the strong and rising “upper middle class” and the nouveau riche incomers are observed with a wry and humorous (but generally benign) eye. As in Penny Plain, wartime recovery, dealing with grief, and drastically changed circumstances also shadow a story mostly concerned with small doings; friends and social rivals drink tea, gossip and jockey either delicately or robustly for position among the evolving small-town cliques.
While one of the love stories in this tale resolves itself in the traditional way, another does not; the circumstances of both are well-handled by the author. There is a lot of emphasis on doing one’s duty and the importance of willing sacrifice of personal desires; again, these unfashionable moralities are handled with sensitivity and humour by the characters.
The narrative is flawed at times; some of the characters are improbably “good” in their thoughts and actions, though all are allowed to show a glimmer of human temper and weakness on occasion, saving the story from blandness.
I enjoyed this book enough to actively seek out more of O. Douglas’s titles; a number are being brought back into print, and several are available through Project Gutenberg, but as I prefer early edition hardcovers I have gone ahead and ordered several through the trusty ABE network; Priorsford, which is the sequel to Penny Plain, and The Proper Place, the prequel to The Day of Small Things.
These are just what I need right now, as in my real life there is a certain amount of emotional turmoil as friends and family deal with health problems and other life-altering challenges; we have very recently lost a dear family member to illness at much too young an age; books such as these are a diversion and something of a comfort as the characters are dealing hopefully and gracefully with similar universal problems.