Posts Tagged ‘O. Douglas’

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.

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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.


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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.

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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!)

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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:

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
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.

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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.

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Ann and Her Mother by O. Douglas (pseudonym of Anna Buchan) ~ 1922. This edition: Nelson, circa 1940s. Hardcover. 283 pages.

My rating: 8/10.

This is Anna Buchan’s literary tribute to her beloved mother. The story is almost completely biographical; the author has written it in the form of a fictional conversation between daughter and mother as the daughter is attempting to record the mother’s memoirs. Though a little awkward at times as one shifts between past and present, on the whole it works quite well. I found it a very moving story; the Buchans were a very close family with a strong moral sense and, to leaven that morality, a keen sense of humour.

The family had its share of tragedies, including the deaths of their adored daughter Violet at the age of 5, eldest son William in India of illness at the age of 32, and youngest son Alistair killed in action in France in 1917, aged 22. Anna’s father died suddenly in 1911 at the age of 64, leaving his widow and surviving children Anna, John and James to sincerely mourn his passing.

Ann and Her Mother takes place some years after Reverend John Buchan’s death. Nostalgic flashbacks detail the courtship and marriage of “Ann’s” parents and her father’s establishment as a respected and beloved Scottish Free Church minister, and the childhood of their five children.

A very quiet story, probably best appreciated by those already familiar with Anna Buchan’s more obviously fictional tales, though she was frank in declaring that she was an observational writer and her fictions were drawn very directly from real life and the people she knew. This gives a background setting to the life of the novelist herself, and I recognized the inspirations for many of the incidents and characters portrayed in her other works.

Anna Buchan also wrote about her father’s life in fictionalized form in her novel The Setons.

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