Archive for the ‘O. Douglas’ Category

The Proper Place by O. Douglas (Pseudonym of Anna Buchan) ~ 1926. This edition: Nelson, no date, circa 1940s. Hardcover. 378 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

This has been a week for seeking out “comfort reads”, and who better to provide such than the low-key Scottish writer, Anna Buchan. She wrote under the pseudonym O. Douglas, in order to modestly distance herself from her more prominent brother, the renowned thriller writer (and Governor-General of Canada from 1935 to 1940, when he died in office) John Buchan, a.k.a. Lord Tweedsmuir.

I am therefore dusting off and slightly editing this old post from July of 2012, in which I talk about one of my favourite O. Douglas novels, The Proper Place.

This is my favourite of Anna Buchan’s  books which I’ve read to date. The first time I read this, I had already read the sequel, The Day of Small Things, so I knew what had happened to a great extent before the characters did, if that makes sense. But I think it enhanced rather than detracted from my reading experience, for I came to the story with a pre-existing knowledge of and fondness for the characters and greatly enjoyed expanding my acquaintance with them.

As the story opens, the sole surviving offspring of the aristocratic Scottish Rutherfurd family, Nicole, is showing the family home to a prospective buyer. Of its twenty bedrooms, “twelve quite large, and eight small”, only three are now occupied, for with Nicole’s two brothers perished in the Great War and her father dead soon after, the family now consists only of Nicole, her mother, Lady Jane, and a orphaned cousin, Barbara Burt, who was raised by Lady Jane from childhood.

The three women are finding it impossible to carry on financially, and have reluctantly but sensibly decided that their only option is to sell the Rutherfurd estate and establish themselves in more modest accommodations. Lady Jane has retreated into a gently passive acceptance of her fate, Barbara is resentful but more or less compliant, and Nicole is very much making the best of things and looking hard for a silver lining in their cloud of sorrow and difficult circumstances.

The prospective buyers, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson of Glasgow, having attained great wealth after many years of striving, are ready for the next step in their social advancement, and hope with their purchase of Rutherfurd Hall to establish their son Andy as a “county” gentleman.

This is where the story departs a bit from the expected norm. One would expect the nouveau riche Jacksons to be portrayed as interlopers and figures of mild scorn, but instead we find that the author takes us into their world for a bit and gives an insight into their motivations and intentions that puts us fully on their side. Nicole herself, after her initial, well-hidden resentment, finds herself viewing out-spoken Mrs. Jackson first with quiet humour and soon after with sincere affection, with interesting repercussions further along in the story.

The Rutherfurds find a new home in the seaside town of Kirmeikle, and rent the old and stately but much more reasonably sized Harbour House for a year to see if they will adapt to the life of the town dweller, and to give themselves a bit of breathing space to ponder their futures. They are still very well-off, with sizeable incomes coming from their investments, and they enter easily into the upper strata of Kirkmeikle society.

For a story in which not much really happens, the author packs it full of likeable, amusing characters, and quietly intriguing situations. Though the tone is continually optimistic, somehow this tale escapes being “too sweet” by the pervasive presence of loss, grief and hardship resulting from the war, and by the occasionally pithy observations of some of the more astringent characters.

Nicole and Lady Jane are most obviously our heroines throughout, while Barbara plays a slightly secondary role. She is perhaps the least likeable character due to her deep-seated snobbishness and condescending attitude, but we get to know her well enough to understand the basis of her sometimes negative outlook. O. Douglas is a very fair-minded author, and she generally allows her characters the grace of a deep enough glimpse into their lives and thoughts to allow us to place their words and actions in full context, which was something I fully appreciated in this story.

A gentle, genuinely moving, small-in-scope novel with a stalwart strength to it; a very Scottish sort of vintage story, in the best possible sense.

A more detailed, equally favourable review is here, from the I Prefer Reading  blog of Lyn, from Melbourne, Australia.

http://preferreading.blogspot.ca/2010/09/proper-place-o-douglas.html

Read Full Post »

I have just spent several days immersed in writings from – what an incredible thought! – a century ago. Three books, as different from each other as can be imagined, each written with deep care and sincere emotion, and expressing the writers’ fervent beliefs along with a sober (and on occasion somber) recording of their experiences.

O. Douglas/Anna Buchan’s semi-autobiographical novel The Setons, 1917,  is the gentlest and at the same time perhaps the most disturbing, for reasons which I hope to make clear below. Rose Macaulay’s also-autobiographical novel, Non-Combatants and Others, 1916, is a fascinating combination of emotionally heart-rending and curiously impassionate, while Robert Graves’ pre-war, wartime, and post-war memoir, Goodbye to All That, 1929, is utterly compelling. If you haven’t read Graves’ book  yet, you should, if only for its historical details.

All of these writers are genuinely accomplished in their various ways, and these books are exceedingly easy to read for their “entertainment” value alone, if one may use that innocuous term with regard to wartime-focussed writings. Ratings are going to be very high – I think I can safely say each more than fulfilled my readerly expectations to the highest degree, though they can not be classed together genre-wise.

Good books, all three, which deserve preservation. In particular the Rose Macaulay book, which languished out-of-print for many decades. Robert Graves’ memoir has already received much publicity and is, I believe, frequently used in schools and colleges. Don’t let that discourage you – it’s not at all a “boring school book”, and it is very much worth reading for the highly opinionated voice of the author as much as for its historical context.

As usual, these “mini-reviews” got ridiculously long. I should really take another go at these and edit ruthlessly, but as you all know, that process would take a tremendously long time in itself – it’s so much easier to meander on than to write short and sharp! The long quotations are also not in the accepted pattern of “professional” book review brevity, but to my mind they serve as useful samplers of writing style to interested readers, and that is how I hope they will be received.

*****

the setons o douglas 1917 001The Setons by O. Douglas ~ 1917. This edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1922. Hardcover. 315 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Based strongly on Anna Buchan’s memories of growing up as a “minister’s child”, this early novel – only her second, after 1912’s Olivia in India –  is her tribute to her beloved father, and is strongly autobiographical in its most telling details, much as her later 1922 tribute to her mother, Ann and Her Mother, was to be. Comparing these two books, I feel that The Setons is possibly the stronger. I found it a very easy read, utterly charming and deeply sincere.

The Setons follows the activities of a Glasgow family-of-the-manse: a slightly elderly, widowed father, grown-up daughter, young schoolboy son, and two live-in household helps. There are also two adult sons in India, who appear in the novel only by reference when a letter is received.

Reverend James Seton is the shepherd of a rather “poor” church – “Not even an organ!” as another character comments disapprovingly – but he quite literally lives to serve God, and is a sterling character of intense devoutness leavened with abundant good humour. Reverend Seton’s fondness for old Scottish ballads, good literature, poetry, and “fairy tales” enlivens life in the family circle – it’s definitely not all prayers and sober good works, though these have their prominent place in daily affairs.

Elizabeth Seton, the 28-year-old daughter of the family, who has largely taken over her mother’s role as mistress of the household, helpmeet to the minister, and surrogate mother to her young brother, is a creature of contradictions. Personally devastated by the untimely death of a brother away at college and then, shortly thereafter, her mother’s death, Elizabeth hides her personal pain and most sensitive emotions under a well-constructed façade of outspoken good humour. Elizabeth performs the many duties of a pastor’s female counterpart exceedingly well, though her occasionally outrageous statements and evident sense of humour excite comments from the more sober-minded of her father’s parishioners. Elizabeth knows this and disregards it, for she has chosen to accept occasional derision over pity from those outside of her intimate group of family and close friends.

Young Buff, as the small son of the household is nicknamed (he was christened David Stuart), is a gloriously boyish character, with all of the expected eccentricities and passions of an imaginative, much loved child. Modeled on the childhood characteristics of Anna Buchan’s own brother who died as a young man, Buff and his literary counterparts show up in every one of the O. Douglas novels, a sort of composite portrait of her beloved childhood companion.

The Setons is one of those utterly peaceable books where nothing really happens. It chronicles the day-to-day goings-on of the Setons and their friends and parishioners, mild anecdote by mild anecdote. A nicely pithy sense of humour and a good deal of Scottish sensibility keeps the whole from being too indigestibly sweet, even when romance enter the picture, in the persons of two personable men who cast speculative eyes on the apparently unimpressionable Elizabeth.

Events take on a sudden seriousness in the final quarter of the story, as Reverend Seton develops a potentially fatal heart ailment and must leave the ministry. The family uproots itself from Glasgow and settles in the village of Etterick. Shortly thereafter, war is declared, and the-world-as-they-know-it turns upside down.

I was reading along quite happily until the onset-of-war chapters, when everyone (at least from my ten-decades-later perspective) seems to lose their collective minds. “Off you go, my lads!” (most of) the women exhort the men and the boys, “If you die in battle you will be rewarded with eternal life in Heaven!” Or words to that effect. And off the young men go, quite cheerily leaving sweethearts and young wives and baby children with the sentiment that even though gruesome death looms, it will all be all right. Right? Right?

“But seriously, Lizbeth—if I never come back to you, if I am one of the ‘costs,’ if all you and I are to have together, O my beloved, is just this one perfect afternoon, it will still be all right. Won’t it? You will laugh and be your own gallant self, and know that I am loving you and waiting for you—farther on. It will be all right, Lizbeth?”

For those of sincere religious faith I suppose this is some consolation, but I found that the scenario utterly sickened me. I have no alternate suggestion as to how one should send one’s nearest and dearest off to war, so my criticism is without much useful merit, but there it is.

In the other two books I am about to discuss below, this fervently patriotic-religious attitude comes in for some brutal discussion, and I have to admit that I fully concur with those who feel that an entire generation was wantonly slaughtered with, at least initially, the enthusiastic compliance of the at-home civilians who then lived on alone to later mourn their many “glorious dead.”

As a family memoir and a piece of domestic fiction, The Setons succeeds most well, and even the declaration-of-war and with-your-shield-or-on-it bits had merit as a documentation of the sentiments of the time, at least among the members of the population with a strong belief in the rewards of the hereafter, which naturally would include the author, devout daughter of a Scottish Free Church minister as she herself unapologetically was.

Last word to O. Douglas/Anna Buchan:

You know, of course, Gentle Reader, that there can be no end to this little chronicle?

You know that when a story begins in 1913, 1914 will follow, and that in that year certainty came to an end, plans ceased to come to fruition—that, in fact, the lives of all of us cracked across.

Personally, I detest tales that end in the air. I like all the strings gathered up tidily in the last chapter and tied neatly into nuptial knots… But, alas! as I write (May 1917) the guns still boom continuously out there in France, and there is scarce a rift to be seen in the war-clouds that obscure the day…

…It is useless to tell over the days of August 1914. They are branded on the memory. The stupefaction, the reading of newspapers until we were dazed and half-blind, the endless talking, the frenzy of knitting into which the women threw themselves, thankful to find something that would at least occupy their hands. We talked so glibly about what we did not understand. We repeated parrot-like to each other, “It will take all our men and all our treasure,” and had no notion how truly we spoke or how hard a saying we were to find it. And all the time the sun shone.

It was particularly hard to believe in the war at Etterick. No khaki-clad men disturbed the peace of the glen, no trains rushed past crowded with troops, no aeroplanes circled in the heavens. The hills and the burn and the peeweets remained the same, the high hollyhocks flaunted themselves against the grey garden wall; nothing was changed—and yet everything was different.

non-combatants and others rose macaulay 1916 001Non-Combatants and Others by Rose Macaulay ~ 1916. This edition: Capuchin Classics, 2010. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-9562947-0-8. 204 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Rose Macaulay was already a published author when World War I commenced in 1914, of well-received novels and poetry, but Non-Combatants and Others, with its nervously high-strung and  desperately “non-patriotic” heroine, and its strong pacifist message, was not a commercial success upon its publication in the third year of the war.

It is April of 1915. The story opens with a vignette of the daily occupation of Alix Sandomir.  25 years old and an artist – she has no other interest or apparent occupation – Alix is the daughter of a brilliant and politically active Polish father – dead now some years in a Warsaw prison – and a highly energetic and forward-thinking English mother.

Daphne Sandomir’s interest in many things had always been so keen that before the war you could not have picked out one as absorbing her more than a score of others. She had been used to write pamphlets and address meetings on most of them: eurhythmics, for instance, and eugenics, and the economic and constitutional position of women, and sweated industries, and baby crèches, and suggestion healing, and health food, and clean milk, and twenty other of the causes good people have at heart.

Daphne is now off touring the countries of those involved in the present conflict, interviewing government members and civilians and promoting a pacifist organization she has been instrumental in forming, the S.P.P.P., the Society for Promoting Permanent Peace.

Alix and her older brother Nicholas view their parents’ attitudes and activities with more than a tinge of benevolent cynicism; their own approach is to lay low, as it were, and laugh things off when they get too serious. A younger brother, Paul, just 18 and a brilliant student with a scholarship to Oxford awaiting him, has gone off to France to fight, and has found the experience overwhelming to his highly imaginative sensibilities.

Alix desperately wishes she could also be involved in the war in some sort of truly practical way, but due to a physical infirmity – she is lame due to a hip infection in childhood – extremely nervous disposition – she vomits uncontrollably if under intense stress, a characteristic young Paul is also afflicted with, with the imagined results in the trenches – and, of course, her sex – females being allowed limited roles in the actual conflict – she turns these wishes inward, and presents a cynical, ever-laughing face to the world.

Alix refuses to undertake any of the normal, socially accepted wartime jobs. She won’t knit comforts for the soldiers, roll bandages, volunteer in hospital, or go to work on the land. Instead she pursues her artistic inclinations, drawing and painting and eventually going off to London to continue studies at art school, while all around her friends and relations engage in a flurry of ceaseless activity.

In answer to an invalided-home brother’s comments that all of his at-home womenfolk look thinner than when he went off to France, Alix’s cousin Margot exclaims:

‘Well, we’re not in the trenches…We’re leading busy and useful lives, full of war activities. Besides, our food costs us more. But Dorothy and I are fairly hefty still. It’s mother who’s dwining; and Alix, though she’s such a lazy little beggar. Alix is hopeless; she does nothing but draw and paint. She could earn something on the stage as the Special Star Turn, the Girl who isn’t doing her bit. She doesn’t so much as knit a body-belt or draw the window-curtains against Zepps.’

Alix, who has been staying with these cousins in the country, flees the atmosphere of friendly familial disdain which her non-activity inspires, and takes a room in a respectable suburban London villa, which is occupied by a middle class mother and two daughters, also “doing their bit” in the war effort.

Alix turns her back on anything having to do with the war, and for a while succeeds in pretending everything is going on as normal, until she receives word that her young brother Paul is dead, “of a bullet wound”.

Alix completely breaks down at the news, for the two were very close, and Alix knows full well what her brother suffered mentally in the trenches, let alone physically. She tries to console herself with the thought that his suffering is now over, but she can’t escape the conviction that this is a false consolation – Paul loved life with such an intensity that to have it end in such a way is completely unthinkable to her. She finds herself unable to keep up her façade of cheerful dismissal towards war affairs, and allows herself to be drawn into intellectual discussions of how this situation could ever have developed, and how the people at home in England – the non-combatants – are reacting and how their reactions (or non-reactions) will affect the course of history.

A soldier friend, home on leave, muses on the reactions of the majority of civilians he has observed, in the following long passage, which I’ve left unedited so you can get a sense of Macaulay’s style in monologues:

‘The fundamentally untouched…Superficially, of course, they are, as you put it, flustered. They read the papers, of course, for the incidents; but the fundamental issues beneath don’t touch them. They’re impervious; they’re of an immobility; they’re sublimely stable. The war, for them, really isn’t. The new world, however it shapes, simply won’t be. What’s the war doing to them? All the beastliness, and bravery, and ugliness, and brutality, and cold, and blood, and mud, and gaiety, and misery, and idiotic muddle, and splendour, and squalor, and general lunacy … you’d think it must overturn even the most stable … do something with them—harden them, or soften them, or send them mad, or teach them geography or foreign politics or knitting or self-denial or thrift or extravagance or international hatred or brotherhood. But has it? Does it? I believe often not. They haven’t learnt geography, because they don’t like using maps. They’ve not learnt to fight, because it’s non-combatants I’m talking of. They’ve not even learnt to write to the papers—thank goodness. Nor even to knit, because I believe they mostly knew how already. Nor to preserve their lives in unlit streets, for they are nightly done in in their hundreds. Nor, I was told by a clergyman of my acquaintance the other day, to pray (but that is still hoped for them, I believe). The war, like everything else, will come and go and leave them where it found them—the solid backbone of the world. The rest of the world may go on its head with ideas, or progress, or despair, or war, or joy, or madness, or sanctity, or revolution—but they remain unstirred. I don’t suppose a foreign invasion would affect them fundamentally. They couldn’t take in invasion, only the invaders. They remain themselves, through every vicissitude. That’s why the world after the war will be essentially the same as the world before it; it takes more than a war to move most of us…. We all hope our own pet organisation or tendency is going to step in after the war and because of the war and take possession and transform society. Social workers hope for a new burst of philanthropic brotherhood; Christians hope for Christianity; artists and writers for a new art and literature; pacificists for a general disarmament; militarists for permanent conscription; democrats say there will be a levelling of class barriers; and I heard a subaltern the other day remark that the war would ‘put a stopper on all this beastly democracy.’ We all seem to think the world will emerge out of the melting-pot into some strange new shape; optimists hope and believe it will be the shape they prefer, pessimists are almost sure it will be the one they can least approve. Optimists say the world will have been brought to a state of mind in which wars can never be again; pessimists say, on the contrary, we are in for a long succession of them, because we have revived a habit, and habit forms character, and character forms conduct. But really I believe the world will be left very much where it was before, because of that great immobile section which weighs it down.’

And in conversation with a Church of England minister, her brother Nicholas’s flatmate:

‘If we could go out there and try,’ said Alix, ‘we shouldn’t feel so bad, should we?’

He shook his head.

‘No: not so bad. War’s beastly and abominable to the fighters: but not to be fighting is much more embittering and demoralising, I believe. Probably largely because one has more time to think. To have one’s friends in danger, and not to be in danger oneself—it fills one with futile rage. Combatants are to be pitied; but non-combatants are of all men and women the most miserable. Older men, crocks, parsons, women—God help them.’

Alix then finds out, while in casual conversation with a soldier-on-leave who turns out to have shared a trench with Paul, that her brother died of a self-inflicted wound. Add to this absolutely understandable angst a love affair gone quietly and irretrievably wrong.

Alix has long been in love with a fellow artist, Basil Doye, and he has returned the passion, glorying in Alix’s intellectual equality and their meeting-of-minds. Now Basil has been seriously wounded in the right hand, and his artistic future is ruined. Basil turns away from Alix and her too intellectually and emotionally demanding mindset, and instead becomes infatuated with one of the daughters of the house where Alix lives. Evie is physically lovely – appealing to Basil’s artistic eye – and sweetly natured – once she realizes that Alix is still in love with Basil she immediately offers to turn him away – but she is of very mediocre intellectual ability, and has no idea most of the time what Basil is going on about.

Basil doesn’t care; all he sees is healthy normalcy, and in it a relief from the overstimulation of the war. Despite the respite in England and his dalliances with Evie – who is eventually put off by Basil’s intensity, preferring instead the more comfortable, “traditional” courtship of a hearty (and wealthy) young sprig of the minor nobility – Basil feels compelled to go back to France, which he eventually does once his hand with its amputated finger is superficially healed, and after a scene in which Alix confesses her love for him and he refuses to acknowledge it, acting as though she is merely assuring him of her continued “friendship”.

Much inner examination follows. Alix seeks enlightenment through religion – she has always been an atheist and is now starting to wonder if there is indeed “something more” in Christianity – but though she gets a glimpse of something there she can’t quite yet embrace it. She decides to join her mother’s Peace Society, to at last do something with regard to the war, and the book closes with every character in limbo, as indeed their counterparts were in real life.

The year of grace 1915 slipped away into darkness, like a broken ship drifting on bitter tides on to a waste shore. The next year began.

Bleak? Yes, this book is desperately bleak. But not to the degree which one would think, and there are many moments of relief from the bleakness, for it is Rose Macaulay, and she has a likeably sardonic sense of humour which even the seriousness of the setting cannot damp down.

Therefore, instead of leaving you with that poignant ending line about the broken ship on the bitter tide, I am going to backtrack to an early episode between Alix, Nicholas, and the clergyman flatmate.

‘It’s awkward,’ West added, lowering his voice and glancing at one of the shut bedroom doors, ‘because we keep a German, and they can’t meet.’

‘What do you do that for?’ asked Alix unsympathetically.

‘Awkward, isn’t it?’ said West. ‘Because they keep coming to see us—the Belgians, I mean (they like us rather), and he’—he nodded at the bedroom—’has to scoot in there till they’re gone. It’s like dogs and cats; they simply can’t be let to meet.’

‘Well, I don’t know what you want with a German, anyhow.’

‘He’s a friend of ours,’ explained Nicholas. ‘He was living in the Golders Green Garden City, and it became so disagreeable for him (they’re all so exposed there, you know—nothing hid) that we asked him here instead. If they find him he’s afraid they may put him in a concentration camp, and of course if the Belgians sighted him they’d complain. He means no harm, but unfortunately he had a concrete lawn in his garden, about ten feet square, where he used to bounce a ball for exercise. Also he had made a level place on his roof, among Mr. Raymond Unwin’s sloping tiles, where he used to sit and admire the distant view through a spyglass. It’s all very black against him, but he’s a studious and innocent little person really, and he’d hate to be concentrated.’ (‘It would make one feel so like essence of beef, wouldn’t it?’ West murmured absently.) ‘He’s not a true patriot,’ went on Nicholas. ‘He wants the Hohenzollerns to be guillotined and a disruptive country of small waning states to be re-established. He writes articles on German internal reform for the monthly reviews. He calls them “Kill or Cure,” or, “A short way with Imperialism,” or some such bloody title. I don’t care for his English literary style, but his intentions are excellent…

Good reading, this book. Especially recommended if you are already familiar with Rose Macaulay. Shades of The World This Wilderness, and the ethical and religious musings of Macaulay’s last and perhaps best-known work, The Towers of Trebizond.

A note on the Capuchin Classics edition I read. It contains a forward by Macaulay’s biographer, Sarah LeFanu, which seems to have been prepared for another edition of Non-Combatants, as it references in great detail a 1942 short story, ‘Miss Anstruther’s Letters’, which does not appear in this edition of the book. There are also numerous typographical errors, mostly in punctuation, which I found slightly troubling, as it broke the flow while reading. Neither of these issues should deter you from acquiring this book; I am very grateful that Capuchin has republished it, as it is much too good to be lost.

goodbye to all that robert graves 1929 001Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves ~ 1929. This edition: Penguin, 1977. Revised edition, with text amendments, Prologue and Epilogue added by the author in 1957. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-001443-8. 282 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Oh, where to start with this one?

I think I will give a bare-ish sort of overview, because I am quite sure (though I haven’t actually looked) that the internet abounds with excellent, in-depth, analytical reviews.

Robert von Ranke Graves was born in 1895 to a mother with connections to the German nobility (hence the von Ranke), and an Anglo-Irish father, the respected Gaelic folklorist and scholar Alfred Perceval Graves. This made him just the right age to head off to war as soon as he exited his prep school (Charterhouse) in 1914.

Graves served as an officer on active duty for the entire duration of the war, though he almost didn’t make it through. He was wounded so horrifically at one point that his commanding officer, assessing the bloody mess of his officer draped upon a stretcher with a gaping and presumably fatal chest wound, wrote and sent off a letter of condolence to Graves’ mother, telling her of her son’s brave and “mercifully swift and painless” demise.

Graves pulled through that episode, and later had the pleasure of being able to read his own prematurely-published obituary, and to grimly chuckle over fulsome letters of condolence sent to his parents by certain bosom enemies of school days.

Goodbye to All That was the result of Robert Grave’s bitter disillusionment with the horrors of the Great War, and with the society which bred the “good sportsmen” who perished in their wasteful thousands. Supremely sensitive and articulate – Graves was a published poet while still in his teens – he communicates his disgust at the whole British system – the “All That” of the title – which not only allowed but which actively encouraged (in his mind) the kind of blindered thinking which allowed this to happen.

Goodbye to All That details Graves’ youth and school years, the war years, and his unconventional 1918 marriage to the just- eighteen-year-old Nancy Nicholson. The narrative reads like a Who’s Who of Big Names of the time: Siegfried Sassoon, T.E. Lawrence (late of Arabia), and John Masefield (whose garden cottage Robert and Nancy and their four young children gratefully occupied for some years), among many others.

There’s a whole lot Graves doesn’t tell in this memoir, including the details of his marriage breakup and his subsequent decision to scrape the dust of England off of his feet with bitter finality. Robert Graves moved to Majorca in 1929, a week before the publication of Goodbye to All That, and from there he shrugged off the numerous shouts of dismay his then-controversial tell-all work engendered. Graves lived in Majorca until his death at the age of 90 in 1985. His life-work was an astounding 140-plus volumes of poetry, biography, personal memoir, and novels.

Full of questionable truthfulness as some bits may be – accounts of others-who-were-there occasionally vary – Goodbye to all That is superb.

Very highly recommended.

A note: Robert Graves edited the 1929 edition of Goodbye to All That in 1957, replacing pseudonyms with real names, and adding to and tightening up many of the details. He later said that nobody noticed that he had essentially rewritten the book, and that readers reported themselves surprised by “how well it had held up” since its original publication. Since the 1957 edition is the one we are most likely to encounter (my own copy is of that vintage) it might be rather interesting to at some point to also read an earlier version, if one were so inclined.

 

Read Full Post »

olivia o douglas dj 001Olivia by O. Douglas ~ 1912. Original title: Olivia in India: The Adventures of a Chota Miss Sahib. This edition: Nelson, 1950. Hardcover. 281 pages.

Provenance: Shepherd Books, Victoria B.C., September 2013.

My rating: 7/10

The first published work by Anna Buchan, written under her pen name O. Douglas.

This slight epistolary novel is based on Anna’s own 1907 voyage to India to visit her younger brother William; the characters “Olivia” and “Boggley” are obviously very lightly veiled depictions of Anna and William, and there is even a reference or two to another brother, “John”, who is a highly regarded novelist. John Buchan – of The Thirty-Nine Steps fame – was of course a very real person, and though “Olivia” throughout refers to her family name as “Douglas”, we can’t help but draw the simple conclusion that this is mostly autobiography, presented as fiction.

India in the years of the Raj has been so often and thoroughly documented both in fact and fiction that it exists in our readerly imaginations as a defined time and place with expected characters, settings and situations. Olivia does nothing to further illuminate any of this, merely laying down another layer of sepia-tinted varnish on an already-finished picture.

I found the book enjoyable enough in a mild way; in common with all of the author’s other novels the people are very believable, being a mixture of good and not so good, and the situations are realistically described. It differs from most of O Douglas’s later novels which have a traditional plot structure in that in this one nothing really happens, aside from the expected incidents of domestic adventure and foreign travel.

Olivia journeys about, sightseeing and marking time, all the while writing to an unnamed correspondent back home, whom we are able to identify early on as a person of potentially romantic interest. The nearest thing to a climax occurs at the very end of the book, when the correspondent is given a name, and Olivia commits herself so far as to accept his apparent proposal of an enlargement and formalization of their “friendship” when she returns to England.

Though it sounds as if I were damning this quiet book with faint praise, it wasn’t actually all that bad. The scenes throughout are engagingly described and occasional vignettes stand out, as when Olivia sees the Himalayas for the first time, after a less-than-comfortable train journey.

Here is a snippet from that journey, with these pages being representative of the style of narrative of the whole. (Click on image to enlarge.)

olivia o douglas excerpt 001

And there are enough references to the political situation and dreadful things going on all about – the poverty of much of the native population and certain of the lower class Europeans and Eurasians, the constant occurrence of sudden death from misadventure and virulent tropical diseases, the occasional “throwing of bombs” by radical demonstrators – to keep the tone from being at all saccharine.

Olivia herself has a rather snobbish attitude to anyone not of her class, race and religion – these being upper, Scottish, and Presbyterian – but she does recognize this tendency in herself and occasionally puts herself out to overcome her prejudices, though to the end of her travels she remains fastidiously suspicious of the natives of the country.

Very much a first book, but, to be fair, quite a good one. It held my interest throughout, though I am sure most of it will fade away quite quickly to join the rest of the era’s Anglo-Indian accounts of chirpy young Great Britain-ites off to visit the exotic Colonial Outposts, before it all fell apart.

 

Read Full Post »

pink sugar o douglas anna buchanPink Sugar by O. Douglas ~ 1924. This edition: Hodder and Stoughton, 1936. Hardcover. 312 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

A rather sweet book, but not mawkishly so in the way the title suggests. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one, but I came away feeling beautifully contented, in an “all’s right in that fictional world” sort of way. The heroine sorted herself out nicely, and we have high hopes for her future if she can just retain that hard-won sensibility to the absurdity of playing Lady Bountiful to an oblivious populace!

I guess I should backtrack a bit, and summarize the plot for those of you not already familiar with this gentle novel.

“Spinster without encumbrances” Kirsty Gilmour is thirty and a free woman for the first time in her life, after the recent death of her stepmother, a woman described as “sweet and friendly and quite intolerable”. The second Lady Gilmour was an absolutely selfish creature whom Kirsty has stuck with from charitable impulse and deep inner goodness – Kirsty is the inheritor of her late father’s fortune, and has financially supported and accompanied her stepmother through that woman’s preferred social whirl in the years since Sir Gilmour’s death.

Kirsty’s older friend, Blanche Cunningham, reminisces about the unregretted Lady Gilmour.

Thinking of Lady Gilmour, Blanche was conscious again of the hot wave of dislike that had so often engulfed her when she had come across that lady in life. She remembered the baby-blue eyes, the appealing ways, the smooth sweet voice that could say such cruel things, the too red lips, the faint scent of violets that had clung to all of her possessions, the carefully thought out details of all she wore, her endless insistent care of herself and her own comfort, her absolute carelessness as to the feelings of others…

‘Kirsty,’ Blanche laid her hand on her friend’s arm. ‘However did you stand it all those years? What an intolerable woman she was!’

Kirsty sat looking in front of her.

‘She’s dead,’ was all she said.

‘Well,’ Mrs. Cunningham retorted briskly, ‘being dead doesn’t make people any nicer, does it?’

Now, freed of the superficial social whirl, Kirsty has joyously fled to the country, her true emotional habitat and the place of her birth, to the Borders of Scotland, to the little village of Muirburn, just outside of Priorsford.  (O. Douglas aficionados will recognize the reference.) Here she has rented a house, “Little Phantasy”, on the grounds of a larger estate. The manor house itself, rather quaintly named “Phantasy”,  is the abode of curmudgeonly bachelor Colonel Home, forty-ish and set in his ways, by all accounts. Kirsty doesn’t expect to see much of him, and is rather glad of that.

Kirsty has decided that she will now embrace the country life, and that she will devote herself, in true “good spinsterish” fashion, to “living for others”. Sensible Blanche rolls her eyes at this, and tells Kirsty not to be silly, but Kirsty means this in the very best way, taking under her wing as soon as possible a number of  dependents. First comes elderly Aunt Fanny, mild and gentle and perpetually knitting, and then the three motherless children of Blanche’s sister, for an extended rural stay while their recently widowed father travels abroad “to forget his grief”.

Kirsty’s foray into country life is not as smooth as anticipated, and she soon finds that people don’t necessarily like to be “lived for”; some of her most well-meant patronages are soundly snubbed, but there is enough encouragement that she soldiers on. Her tenacity and truly well-meaning sweet nature win over the most resentful of those around her. Kirsty was initially viewed as a frivolous bit of a thing, merely playing at enjoying her new role as householder and surrogate mother to the adorable Barbara and Specky, and the wickedly appealing “Bad” Bill, but as the months go by it is apparent that Kirsty’s innate inner goodness and staunch Scottish good sense will see her settled down and competently filling an important niche in Muirburn society, though not the role that she initially saw herself in.

There are some lovely character portraits in this appealing tale, and I will pass you along to several other reviewers, who also found much to admire in this pleasing novel. Please visit and read these excellent reviews, if you are at all intrigued by what I have said above. (And browse around the blogs a bit while you’re there – there are many more authors and titles highlighted worthy of rediscovery!)

The Book Trunk – Pink Sugar

Letters From a Hill Farm – Pink Sugar

I Prefer Reading – Pink Sugar

Pink Sugar was republished by Greyladies in 2009, and though that edition appears to be currently out of print, it should still be fairly easy to acquire through the second hand book trade. The novel was very popular in its day – my own copy is a vintage 1936 edition, stating that it is the twenty-first printing – so there are many still circulating around at reasonable prices.

Read Full Post »

the house that is our own o douglas 001The House that is Our Own by O. Douglas ~ 1940. This edition: Nelson, 1951. Hardcover. 314 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Absolutely charming!

And I’m adding a whole point for the glowing descriptions of the Canadian foray which rounds off the book. I’m all proud and patriotically glowing now, after reading about how wonderful my native country was in 1940 or thereabouts, in every aspect. The author is absolutely right – Canada is really big. And it is still stunningly beautiful, and the people are really nice. Hurray for us!

Those of  us already under the quiet spell of O. Douglas’s story-telling charm will have no trouble in understanding the appeal of this gentle domestic tale. Those unfamiliar with her may be bemused a bit at what there is to get excited about, in which case I can only recommend that one dip into one to see for yourself, preferably something like The Proper Place, which will let you know if this sort of thing is for you.

Here we have the tale of two friends, Kitty and Isobel. Kitty is well into middle age, and has recently been widowed after several years of travelling abroad with her seriously ill husband, seeking treatment for his unspecified condition. Her furniture is in storage, and she has taken rooms in a London residential hotel, where she is befriended by a younger fellow resident, Isobel (all of twenty-nine, and financially independent due to a well-invested legacy), who has been living there for the past six years. Some months have gone by, and Kitty is starting to emerge from her deepest mourning, and she has started to yearn for a quiet place she can truly call her own, a place to rebuild her life along its new lines.

Encouraged by Isobel, Kitty leases an flat, and goes about getting herself all set up, with delightfully homely details.

“This,” said Kitty, “is going to be my book-room. I think the long bookcase will get in along that wall. The writing-table in the window. A sofa in front of the fire – it’s so nice to lie with books piled all around you – and an arm-chair, if I can get it in. My ‘Peter Scott’ above the mantelpiece. This is the room I’ll sit in most, and I want my wild geese beside me. I’ll get the electric man to put a light over it. We had that at Hampstead, and we used to sit in the gloaming, and look up at the lighted picture, and think we heard the geese honk-honk – ”

Peter Scott - 'The Wash At Dawn' - wild geese

Peter Scott – ‘The Wash At Dawn’ – wild geese

Kitty settles contentedly into her new digs, hiring a live-in housekeeper, the widowed Mrs. Auchinvole, whom the two friends then hold up to gently snobbish ridicule from time to time – the most jarring note in the book, to me. Kitty feels she must continually snub “The Auchinvole”, as she calls her employee to Isobel, finding in her an inclination to over-familiarity and a “We’re both widows together” attitude of emotional kinship, which Kitty finds vaguely distasteful. A vignette of class-conscious attitudes of the times, perhaps, and yet another small clue as to the resulting dearth of women willing to enter “service” in just a few years time, post-WW II.

Isobel, inspired by her friend’s nest-building initiative, decides to look about for new surroundings too. In her case, the country appeals. Through Kitty’s connections in the Border area of Scotland, Isobel rents rooms in the Scottish village of Glenbucho, in the farmhouse of a sadly diminished estate, whose young laird has had to sell up most of is land, and who has since moved to Canada, leaving his family home sadly vacant. Though she hasn’t come away an her retreat intending to purchase a house, Isobel finds herself doing just that, and she becomes effortlessly absorbed into Glenbucho’s feudal society, in which she dons the mantle of “Lady of the Manor” with effortless ease and total acceptance by all and sundry.

Much discussion ensues about the arrangement of the rooms in her new home, and the hiring of a married couple (complete with adorably realistic small boy) to look after things; the descriptions of the inner workings of the new society Isobel finds herself in is a gently fascinating interlude. And when Isobel ends up making the acquaintance of the young laird himself, one Gideon Veitch, engineered by the author most ingeniously and involving a marvellously luxurious, all-expenses-paid trip to Canada (with another adorable small boy as the raison-d’être), things play out most predictably and heart-warmingly well.

A happily feel-good little story, saved from too-saccharine “niceness” by the frequent self-examinations of the heroines – they see their own flaws and mourn them, though sometimes they chose not to remedy such, which I like – so true! – and by the sourpuss and opinionated characters who pop up here and there, to add a dash of vinegar and spice to the narrative meal.

World War I is a constant backdrop to the story; many characters have had their lives turned on end by it, and are still in recovery mode; World War II is looming, and the “situation in Europe” is discussed throughout with sombre foreboding. Though the characters refuse to let themselves dwell on such negativity for any length of time, one can sense them steeling themselves for the bitter times to come; the author makes it very clear that the gentle people of her narrative have an inner core of toughness which will see them through trial and tribulation, though they spend these peaceful days concerned with societal trivialities and creature comforts, and “What’s for tea?”, and the colours of their drawing room walls.

I enjoyed this small novel a lot. So happy to have found it; our recent foray into the used book stores of that most “English” of Canadian cities, Victoria, B.C., resulted in four new-to-me O. Douglas titles to add to my “comfort reads” bedroom shelf. Next up, Pink Sugar. With Olivia and Eliza for Common waiting in the wings. Perhaps I will save those for winter reading, though it’s so tempting to just gobble them all up right now!

(A book-room with a sofa and an arm-chair in front of a fireplace – wouldn’t that be grand? That is the image I am clinging to with wistful longing after reading this cheerful tribute to the joys of making yourself a comfortable home!)

Read Full Post »

Farewell to Priorsford: a book by and about Anna Buchan (O. Douglas) ~ 1950. This edition: Hodder and Stoughton, 1950. Hardcover. With 5 photographs. 253 pages.

My rating: 10/10. Succeeds perfectly in its stated purpose, as noted in the Preface:

This book has been compiled at the request of the many who wish to know more about Anna Buchan by those privileged to enjoy her friendship.

This commemorative volume is presented in the hope that it will give to all who enjoy Anna Buchan’s books a share in the fun, the courage and the inspiration she gave to all who knew her.

*****

This book was published two years after Anna Buchan’s death, and is composed of several short biographical sketches, with the remainder a few collected short stories and anecdotes. There is also the fragment of the last novel Anna was working on, eight chapters of another Rutherfurd book, The Wintry Years.

This is a fascinating and enlightening glimpse into the world of this quiet yet eloquent author, and there are no surprises here for those who know the author through her fictional words, merely a confirmation of what we had hoped to find; that the author’s writings do indeed reflect her real life and her views that many people are indeed “good, gentle and scrupulous.” If this sounds too meek and wishy-washy, I hasten to add that Anna had a strong streak of cynical Scottish clear-headedness about her as well, and there is a leavening of wry humour and keen insight in her works to balance the goodness and gentleness.

The more I read of this author, the more I like her, both her works and the person she herself must have been. Farewell to Priorsford is a lovely memorial, and very much worth seeking out for O. Douglas fans. The eight chapters of The Wintry Years are an absolute treat to fans of the Rutherfurds, giving us a fleeting glimpse of their lives during the years of the second World War, and touching on many of the characters we came to know so well in The Proper Place, The Day of Small Things, and Jane’s Parlour, as well as teasingly introducing us to some new characters. Such a shame that Anna Buchan died so relatively young, at 71, and still very much at the peak of her writing years.

Here is what Farewell to Priorsford contains:

ANNA BUCHAN OF PRIORSFORD
 
I. A Biographical Introduction by A.G. Reekie
II. Anna by Susan Tweedsmuir
III. Olivia by Alice Fairfax-Lucy
IV. Author and Friend by Christine Orr
V. A Peebles Player by William Crichton
 
 
STORIES BY ANNA BUCHAN
 
I. Introductory Note
II. A Story for Young and Old:
          Jock the Piper
III. Broughton and Two Broughton Stories:
          An Upland Village
          An Echo
          Miss Bethia at the Manse
IV. Two Long Stories:
          A Tea-Party at Eastkirk
          Two Pretty Men
V. The First Eight Chapters of a Novel:
          The Wintry Years
 

*****

Highly recommended for O. Douglas – Anna Buchan fans.

Read Full Post »

Jane’s Parlour by O. Douglas (Anna Buchan) ~ 1937. This edition: Thomas Nelson & Sons, circa 1940s. Hardcover. 381 pages.

My rating: 9/10. Because I am now completely in thrall to Anna Buchan’s small but completely believable literary world, and I so greatly enjoyed spending time with the Rutherfurds and their ever-widening range of acquaintances.

*****

There was only one spot in the whole rambling length of Eliotstoun where Katharyn Eliot felt that she could be sure of being left at peace for any time. That was the small circular room at the end of the passage which contained her bedroom and Tim’s dressing-room; it was called for some unknown reason “Jane’s Parlour.”

No one knew who Jane was. There was no mention of any Jane in the family records: Elizabeths in plenty, Elspeths, Susans, Anns, Carolines, Helens, but never a Jane. But whoever she was Katharyn liked to think that she had been a virtuous soul, for there was always a feeling of peace, a faint, indefinable scent as of some summer day long dead in that rounded room with its three narrow windows (each fitted with a seat and a faded cushion), its satiny white paper, discoloured here and there by winter’s damp, on which hung coloured prints in dark frames. A faded Aubusson carpet lay on the floor, and in one corner stood a harp beside a bureau, and a beautiful walnut settee – these were Jane’s. A capacious armchair (Tim’s) was at one side of the fire, and opposite it, a large writing-table which was Katharyn’s. There was also an overcrowded bookcase, and a comfortable sofa: that was all there was in the room.

(…)

It was here she worked, for in the infrequent quiet times of a busy life Katharyn wrote – and published: it was here she read the writers she loved best, old writers like Donne and Ford and Webster from whom she was never tired of digging gloomy gems…

When Caroline was born Katharyn had made a rule that children and dogs were not to be admitted into Jane’s Parlour, and when Tim protested, replied with steely decision that there must be one peaceful place in the house. Before ten years had passed there were five children at Eliotstoun, and an ever-increasing army of dogs, so that, as Tim acknowledged, it was well to have one place where people’s feet were free of them.

And, because it was forbidden territory it naturally became the Mecca of the family, to enter it their most ardent desire…

This book interweaves a number of lives, most of which we are familiar with from The Proper Place and The Day of Small Things; Jane’s Parlour is very much a continuation of what has come before versus a stand-alone story; the three books belong together to give an ever-widening view of the living tapestry created by the author from her ever more intricately twined strands of individuals’ lives.

Here are Katharyn and Timothy Eliot, and their five children; Alison Lockhart and her beloved nephew George; Barbara and Andrew Jackson, Barbara in the role of antagonist and Andy smoothing down the feathers his wife continually ruffles; a cameo or two by Lady Jackson herself in all her vivid glory; Nicole and Lady Jane Ruthurfurd; and many more.

The main strand of this novel concerns a fairly typical love story, but there is much quiet activity going on at the same time, and we are treated to a series of interconnected vignettes which keep us up to date on what has happened since we last spent time in this lovingly created world. Virtue is rewarded, the wicked are put – for the most part – sternly in their place, joy is embraced and grief accepted. As usual, not much happens, but at the same time everything happens; much like most of our lives if we are lucky enough to live them in a peaceful country in between-great-events times.

The First World War is now long past, and is not often referred to, but the gathering clouds of what will be the Second World War are very much in evidence; this novel was published in 1937 and is a clearly and sensitively drawn period piece which captures the mood of those last few sunset years of relative peace before darkness once again descends.

If you enjoyed The Proper Place and The Day of Small Things, this is a definite must-read. The three novels belong together, and if you can get your hands on the posthumously published anthology-biography-memoir Farewell to Priorsford, you will find therein the first eight chapters of a fourth book, The Wintry Years, which follows the same characters into World War Two. Sadly, Anna Buchan died before that last novel was finished, but those chapters are perfectly composed, letting us turn away from our fictional friends with the feeling that their lives will continue somewhere even though out of our ken; truly the mark of a good author’s skill in world building.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »