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 (writing as O. Douglas) 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; 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; 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; 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, often amusing characters, and quietly intriguing situations. Though the tone is relentlessly 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 many of the characters.

Nicole and Lady Jane are most decidedly our heroines throughout; Barbara 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; she always 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; something I fully appreciated in this story.

I greatly enjoyed this book.

Another, very nicely written, much more detailed review is here, from the I Prefer Reading  blog of Lyn, from Melbourne, Australia. Lyn says everything I wanted to say, and much better!

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The Day of Small Things by O. Douglas ~ 1930. This edition: Thomas Nelson & Sons, Ltd., no date stated;circa 1950. Hardcover. 286 pages.

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.

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penny plain hc dj o douglasPenny Plain by O. Douglas ~ 1920. This edition: Thomas Nelson & Sons, circa 1950. No publication date can be found, but the flyleaf is inscribed “Christmas 1950”.  Hardcover. 380 pages.

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.”

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