On January 1st, savouring my day off work and determined to get the year off to a good start, I settled down with Still Glides the Stream by D.E. Stevenson. There is nothing quite so nice as beginning a New Year in the company of an old, dependable friend.
Published in 1959, Still Glides the Stream begins with thirty-five year old Will Hastie returning home to Scotland after years abroad in the Army, intent on learning to farm the family estate, Broadmeadows. Will settles in quickly, enjoying his time with his father and reigniting his acquaintance with the Elliot Murray family. Growing up, Will and the Elliot Murray children, Rae and Patty, had been inseparable. By the time the story begins, Rae has been dead for many years, killed in France during the war. Patty, still at home and still unmarried (though engaged) at thirty-four, is just as friendly as ever though and she and Will are delighted to strike up their old friendship.
When Patty mentions a curious letter she received from Rae shortly before his death, Will tells her not to worry herself over it. But, knowing that Rae would never have written such odd words without some purpose, he privately decides to look into the mystery. He leaves for France soon after (conveniently avoiding meeting Patty’s awful fiancé during his visit).
In France, he discovers Rae’s secret: his friend had married a French girl, Julie, and was not sure how to tell his family about her. Will tracks down Julie and discovers not just Rae’s widow but also his son, Tom. Julie’s excuses for not having made her husband’s family aware of herself or her child are rather weak but handy for plot’s sake so we won’t dwell too much on that. Conveniently, both Julie and Tom speak excellent English; Julie, knowing how much Rae loved his family home, has seen to it that Tom had English lessons so that he would one day be ready to join the Elliot Murrays’ world.
Will brings Julie and Tom back to Scotland, everyone adores them, etc, etc. Will briefly thinks he is in love with the lovely Julie but by the end of the book realises that, of course, he has been in love with the steady Patty all along. All ends well, with everyone suitably married off and young Tom happily adapting to his new Scottish home.
Julie is an interesting D.E.S. character. She is very lovely and good and, though in some ways Patty’s rival, the two become dear friends. But she is cold and cautious in a way that horrifies Will when he realises it. She wants a steady, comfortable life, not a love affair, and so is perfectly happy to marry for position rather than passion. She wants to be back among people she understands, whose customs she knows. “To me,” she says, “it seems sensible and right to marry a good kind man, to be his wife and the mother of his children.” Patty and Will, both romantics (albeit of a silent Scottish strain), are deeply disillusioned with her after this revelation. I, personally, rather admire her level-headed pragmatism.
But bizarrely, though much is made of Julie’s plans to arrange a comfortable but unromantic future for herself, little is made of her willingness to leave her son in Scotland while she returns to France. It seems in character for her to do so (as she says early on, she has always known that Tom would one day go to live among his father’s people) but wildly out of character for the family-oriented (and rather judgemental) Will and Patty to make no horrified exclamations about her being an unnatural mother
Still Glides the Streams fits neatly in among the bulk of D.E.S.’s good-but-not-great works. The plot may be flimsy and the characters one dimensional but D.E.S. had a gift of making such unpromising stuff into something really charming.