Archive for the ‘O Douglas’ Category

Mount House and Garden, Alderley, Gloucestershire, England - Marianne North

Mount House and Garden, Alderley, Gloucestershire, England – Marianne North

Every so often, I wonder what it would be like to leave the city behind and go live in a country village.  To a place where you could thrown open French doors onto a beautiful garden, where you can’t hear construction noise from dawn until dusk, where cars aren’t clogging the streets, and, ideally, where entry level housing costs are less than the $2.5 million it would take for me to buy in my neighbourhood (a pleasant but simple 1940s bungalow down the street from me has just been listed for $3.7 million, in addition to the tear-down around the corner going for $5.5 million, so I am feeling even more fed up with Vancouver than usual).

But then I remember that all my fantasies about country homes come from books set in England or my travels in Europe, where there really are charming small towns where you can live in easy proximity to civilization, and not in Western Canada, where, with the possible exception of some very expensive island communities, village life is non-existent.

So, as usual, I turn to books to sate my desire for country life.  Especially the lovely, everything is cosy and wonderful type of village life that I expect is particular to fiction (as opposed to the everything is stifling and all my neighbours as nasty gossips who know all my business type of village life, that I suspect is more realistic – see Leadon Hill by Richmal Crompton).

Now, my reading is never short on the sort of books where people buy/inherit lovely country homes but this summer seems to be even more overwhelmed by them than usual.

1947433_120304105728_odThe weakest of my recent sampling – and the only one where the heroine actually purchases a house with her own money – was The House That is Our Own by O. Douglas.  After helping her friend Kitty, a charming middle-aged widow, find a flat in London, twenty-nine year old Isobel decides she needs a change of setting.  On Kitty’s recommendation, she goes to stay in the Scottish Borders and falls in love with a house there, put up for sale by its young owner who has recently moved to Canada.  Isobel throws all caution to the wind and purchases it.  My financially responsible self shuddered whenever Isobel blithely commented that she didn’t really have the money to keep the house going in the long run but I read on regardless.  It is classic O. Douglas, with lots of lovely, sensible tea-drinking, Shakespeare loving characters of Scottish extraction being lovely together en masse, but I found it numbingly dull.  The final act, with a journey to Canada and the inevitable romantic conclusion, was a little more fun but overall not a keeper.

The Scent of WaterI had been a little hesitant picking up The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge because of its religious overtones but was delighted to discover a beautifully-written story with interesting, developed characters.  When fifty-year old Mary Lindsay inherits a country house from a distant relative, she decides to embrace her inheritance recklessly.  She retires and sets out, after a lifetime of town living, to enjoy country life.  And along with rural quiet and rich new friendships, she finds herself reflecting on the relationships she has had, learning to love even more deeply those who have now passed out of her life.  A really lovely book.

The LarkThe best by far, as will come as no surprise to those who have read Simon and Harriet’s reviews of it, was The Lark by E. Nesbit.  When Jane and Lucie are mysteriously withdrawn from school and directed to a small country cottage by their guardian, they imagine all sorts of wonderful possibilities.  Instead, they learn their guardian has made unwise investments with their inheritances and regretfully fled the country, but not before doing his best to see that they are as well set up as possible.  Between them, they are left with a charming country cottage and an annual income of £500.  Jane is determined this is to be an exciting new chapter in their lives, the start of a new adventure – a lark, in fact.  Lucie, a delightfully skeptical and level-headed foil for Jane, is not so certain but she is young and hopeful and soon just as excited as Jane about possible ways to improve their lot in life.

First, they settle on a flower stall, before moving on to running a boarding house – all out of a large house located near their cottage.  They charm the owner, an eccentric world traveller, into giving his consent to their activities, but cannot shake his nephew John, who hangs round being, in Jane’s eyes at least, irritating despite his usefulness.  Flawless businesswomen they are not but the results are perfection.  This was written in 1922, two years before Nesbit’s death, and it the sort of book that screams out for a companion volume – one that, sadly, never came.

All in all, a well-chosen trio to meet my desire for stories of country living.

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2012 is apparently my year to aggressively delve into the world of intensely domestic, monotonously cosy, Scottish-set second-rate light romantic novels.  There has been a lot of D.E. Stevenson but I have also been sampling the works of O. Douglas (Anna Buchan).  My first few encounters with Douglas (Eliza for Common, Penny Plain and Priorsford) did not wildly impress me but I still enjoyed her writing.  I had decided she was nice, occasionally even clever, but not for me.  And then I read Taken By the Hand, published in 1935, and fell completely head over heels.

Taken By the Hand is the story of Beatrice Dobie, a rather quiet young woman who is used to living in the shadow of her outgoing mother.  But when her mother gets sick, Beatrice must face the idea of a future without her:

It had been so delightful to have a mother who did the work and the talking, leaving her to dream.  Beatrice quite realised that she was an anomaly in this age of competent young women.  She liked to look on at life, and the very thought of driving a car, or gliding, or indeed doing anything on her own, terrified her.  But what was to happen to her if she lost her bulwark?  If this mother so big and strong and dear was going to leave her she was lost indeed – but this was not a time to think of her own plight; she must try to calm her mother’s fears.

Sadly, her mother does die.  All of their friends – really her mother’s friends – worry about Beatrice, knowing how ill-prepared she is to face the world on her own.  What she really needs, they decide, is someone to take her by the hand and guide her through life, as her mother had done.  But Beatrice is not entirely alone in the world and moves to London to stay with her elder brother and his family.  Though she gets along rather well with her much older brother, the rest of his family is awful and Beatrice feels perpetually out of place.  It isn’t until she makes friends with the cheerful Sellars family that she really starts to be happy again.

Honestly, it has been quite a while since I read this and it is not the sort of book where every detail sticks in your mind.  What does stick is the wonderful warm feeling I got from reading it.  Beatrice is one of those quiet, good heroines who manages to be entirely wonderful rather than insufferable.  And the Sellars family is, to a man, delightful, though some are more delightful than others: my Angela Thirkell-conditioning to view all struggling young schoolmasters as potential love interests helped me warm to Christopher, the eldest son, particularly quickly.  If there was any doubt that they were a right-thinking family, just witness this conversation about Jane Austen:

When she closed the book, Christopher turned to Beatrice and laughing, remarked, ‘What a dangerous neighbour Miss Austen must have been!  ‘Round-cheeked, preternaturally capped, sedate!’… Isn’t it Chesterton who says that Jane Austen may have lived in towns where women were protected from the truth, but there was precious little of the truth protected from Jane Austen!’

‘But,’ said Beatrice, ‘she only laughed at people who deserve to be laughed at, like the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse, and the terrible Mrs Elton; and Mr Collins and Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.’

‘Mrs Bennet,’ said Christopher, ‘I can’t believe in.  She was too utterly foolish to be the wife of Mr Bennet and the mother of Elizabeth.’

Any time characters progress from reading Austen (aloud! En famille!) to discussing her, I cannot help but love them.

This is really a charming, heart-warming novel.  I have read two more of O. Douglas’ books since Taken By the Hand (Olivia in India and The Proper Place) and found them both wonderful but this remains my favourite.  Greyladies has been reprinting O. Douglas’ books in recent years and I can only hope they are planning to reissue this too.

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As we settle into autumn here, with the days growing shorter and the rain falling all day and all night, it is undoubtedly the time to start picking up cosy books to be read by the fireside.  Penny Plain by O. Douglas, if you haven’t read it yet, would be a perfect choice.

At twenty-three, Jean Jardine is entirely responsible for her two teenage brothers and one younger, adopted brother.  She keeps their tiny cottage in the small Scottish town of Priorsford as warm and as welcoming as you could wish a home to be, despite their limited funds.  Though she hardly considers it, hers is a life of duty: she always puts others before herself, patiently and generously giving her time and energy to her family and neighbours.  When Pamela, an aristocratic Englishwoman in her early forties, comes to stay on holiday near Jean, she immediately recognizes the younger woman’s sterling qualities and strikes up a warm friendship with her.  Pamela quickly identifies herself as worthy of our respect after proving that she shares her new friend’s passion for reading:

‘I needn’t ask if you are fond of reading,’ Pamela said.

‘Much too fond,’ Jean confessed.  ‘I’m a ‘rake at reading’.’

‘You know the people,’ said Pamela, ‘who say, ‘Of course I love reading, but I’ve no time, alas!’  As if everyone who loves reading doesn’t make the time.’

Pamela dreams of using her own wealth to help Jean see more of the world and to give her a bit of pleasure after years of necessary servitude.  And when Pamela’s brother Lord Bidborough arrives he is even more entranced.

There is something very old and staid about Jean – far too old for a girl of twenty-three – that makes her unusually appealing.  Yes, I admire an energetic do-gooder brimming with happiness and optimism as much as the next person but Jean is better than that: she is steady, reliable and deeply responsible.  This is exactly what her brothers need her to be but she has not made herself over for their convenience: this is who she is.  As she complains to Pamela,

‘I never know why people talk so much about youth.  What does being young matter if you’re awkward and dull and shy as well?  I’d far rather be middle-aged and interesting.’

Jean isn’t precisely charming nor is she winsome (those are adjectives I’d probably reserve for Pamela) but, better than that, she is sensible.  There is something very refreshing about a heroine who you can respect, of whom you can think “yes, this is someone I would trust completely.”  And she is very, very good without somehow being insufferable.  Anyone who she encounters is sure to be met with kindness, from the lowliest beggar to the loftiest millionaire.  This is precisely how Jean finds herself with a large and very surprising inheritance that changes her circumstances dramatically.

Penny Plain is a sweet book in the very best sense of the word.  It is not challenging or ground-breaking and the characters are not original or even particularly memorable.  But as you read you feel wrapped up in their world, in the cosy but occasionally cloying community of Priorsford and, more specifically, in the close-knit Jardine family.  Jean’s fairy tale is quite straightforward – there is an upright hero as well as a mysterious benefactor and a sort-of fairy godmother – but it is immensely satisfying.  As much as I love witty quips and sharp satirical observations, sometimes a sentimental story simply told is just what I need.   This is an ideal comfort read, the perfect book to be read next to a fire on a cold, wet night, curled up under a blanket, with tea close at hand.

The sequel, on the other hand, is less impressive.  Priorsford came out in 1932 and picks up the story of Jean and her family a decade after the events of Penny Plain.  With her husband out of the country for an extended period of time, Jean (now living in England) packs up her children and heads north to Scotland.  It has been a while since I read this and I can remember absolutely nothing about it.  Actually, that’s not true: I do remember a surprising amount about Jean’s husband’s travels but that is far from the focus of the novel.  What goes on in Priorsford has completely faded from my mind, though I’m sure it was very pleasant and inoffensive.  Suffice it to say, the sequel doesn’t exactly improve on the original.

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It is the Thanksgiving long weekend here in Canada and I have been putting it to good use.  Errands have been run, rooms have been cleaned, volunteering hours have been logged, walks have been taken, pies have been baked (and consumed at Sunday’s family dinner), and, most importantly, books have been read.  There was an unintentional theme to my reading this weekend so that even as I was enjoying the stunning weather here in Vancouver, my thoughts were in Scotland keeping company with the characters in my books.

I started with Katherine Wentworth by D.E. Stevenson.  I have officially decided that I am a D.E.S. fan but I find her books vary widely in quality and this one did not impress me.  Published in 1964, it is the story of a young widow (Katherine Wentworth), living in Edinburgh and raising her two young twins and teenage stepson.  I really, really wanted to like this book but whether it was the clumsiness of the first-person perspective or just the dullness of Katherine herself, I could not find it in myself to care about the heroine.  She was nice but, for a book that is written from her perspective, strangely distanced from the reader.  There is a predictable love story between her and the brother of an old school friend that is complicated only by his sister’s bizarre behaviour.  Still, the reader is never in doubt that Katherine will end up with her “solid and sensible” suitor, even though Katherine is remarkably mute about her feelings towards him for most of the book.  The only real tension in the story comes from a decision Simon, Katherine’s stepson, has to make about reconciling with his father’s family and, for that reason, Simon comes across as the only really interesting character as he struggles to figure out where he belongs and what he wants.

On the other hand, I loved Stevenson’s Listening Valley, which I read next.  Growing up in Edinburgh during the 1920s and 1930s, Antonia Melville lived happily in the shadow of her elder sister, Lou.  But when the teenage Lou elopes (with, it must be said, a very nice and quite unobjectionable man), Tonia is left alone and insecure.  She finds happiness and confidence in a marriage to a much older man who adores her but she is left a widow a few years later.  Still only in her early twenties, she is horrified when her husband’s relatives try to bring her under their control and so runs away to an old family house she inherited in the small Scottish Borders’ town of Ryddelton (one of D.E.S.’s favourite settings).  Here, in the house where her great-aunt Antonia had lived, Tonia begins to settle down and create her own life.  She becomes friends with Celia Dunne (of Celia’s House) and with a number of the R.A.F. officers stationed nearby, including one whom she had known as a child in Edinburgh.  The romance is well-handled and satisfying but the real pleasure of the story comes from seeing Antonia grow in confidence.  This begins with her marriage but she really blossoms once she takes over Melville House and realises how well she can manage on her own.  Published in 1944, Listening Valley is recognizably a wartime novel.  Most of the time it is relatively subtle: there is a detailed description of an air raid during Tonia’s time in London and the war becomes even more present once she arrives in Ryddelton and comes to care for the flyers who visit her home.   But there is also the most laughably awful spy I’ve come across in a while, whose dastardly plans are uncovered by Tonia’s vigilant housekeeper/neighbour.  That particular part of the story I could have done without.  Still, it is a lovely, cosy read and a perfect example of why I am drawn to D.E. Stevenson’s work.

I then moved on to Sunshine on Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith , the most recent installment in his never-ending Scotland Street series.  This was a real disappointment.  I felt that he rambled more than usual, at the expense of character development.  Even Bertie, frustrated to still be six when he feels that he has been that age for years and years now (as he has), failed to delight in his usual manner.  Oh well, better luck next time.  That said, I was charmed by the idea of Big Lou becoming an overnight internet sensation after a Danish documentary filmmaker discovers her.

I am quick to recover from disappoint though and  am now half-way through The Proper Place by O. Douglas and loving it.  My reactions to O. Douglas’ books have been all over the place (which you would already know if I’d gotten around to reviewing the ones I’ve read in a timely manner – bad Claire!) but the delight I get from her good books far outweighs my frustration with the less impressive ones – rather like my feelings about D.E. Stevenson, really.  This, the story of Lady Jane Rutherford, her daughter, and her niece, who have to relocate after her husband’s death and the sale of their family home, definitely counts as a good one.  How could I not love a book that has characters who share my own literary tastes?  When, among a small gathering of friends, Nicole Rutherford proposes that everyone share an amusing story or joke, one of the guests won my approval by remembering a piece by A.A. Milne (one, as it happens, that I haven’t yet come across in my reading):

‘But I do remember one thing, Miss Nicole,’ Simon said, ‘one of A.A.M.’s Punch articles on how to dispose of safety-razor blades.  The man had been in the habit of dropping worn-out blades on the floor, and his wife protested that the housemaid cut her fingers and dropped blood on the blue carpet.  ‘Then’ said the husband, ‘we’ll either have to get a red carpet or a blue-blooded housemaid…’ I always think of that when it comes to discarding a razor-blade, and laugh!’

It has been a busy weekend, especially when you consider that I’ve only had a few hours each day to read between all my other activities.  And I still have a few hours of freedom left to enjoy this evening before it is back to work tomorrow – plenty of time to finish off The Proper Place!

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Every so often,a mention of O Douglas (the pseudonym of Anna Buchan, sister of John) pops up on one or another of my favourite book blogs.  Not with any real regularity, but enough to intrigue me with promises of cosy domestic stories, frequently set in Scotland.  Now, as we all know, there are few things I love more than cosy domestic stories and though most of what I read is set in England that is only because not enough writers were intelligent enough to please me by writing about Scotland (except D.E. Stevenson – bless her).  So I have read reviews of Douglas’s books with interest when they appear – Lyn is a fan and Barb has recently been reading O Douglas too – and determined that I must try her for myself.  I started, back in June, with Eliza for Common, published in 1928 and reissued in recent years by Greyladies (though mine was an old library edition).

Eliza for Common is the story of Eliza Laidlaw, beginning in the winter of 1919/1920 when Eliza is a callow schoolgirl of sixteen.  Eliza is the only girl in a family of boys.  She is utterly devoted to her elder brother Jim but there are also two delightful younger brothers – Rob and Geordie – and one dead, fondly remembered brother, who was only a couple of years younger than Eliza.  And then there are the ever-dependable Reverend and Mrs Laidlaw.  The Reverend comes across as a bit of a sad figure, devoted to his work in Glasgow’s poorer neighbourhoods but never so happy as when he’s out of the city, holidaying in the Borders.  Mrs Laidlaw is a bit harder to define.  She is reliable and esteemed by all her friends but seems almost spiteful towards her daughter, beyond the reasonable reaction to the arrogance of youth.

Eliza herself is a handled quite unsympathetically, which is impressive given how autobiographical this book is about Anna Buchan’s own family life.  She is ridiculous and pretentious, and can be thoughtless and unsympathetic – like most young people.  She hurts her parents by criticizing their ways and trying to impose her views over theirs in their own house.  She does not do it maliciously, just out of a longing for a different kind of life, one her mother cannot even begin to understand.  Eliza is dutiful and loving but she has a mind and a temperament ill-suited to the gloomy Glasgow house.  She reads her brother Jim’s letter from Oxford enviously, desperate for the glamour of his surroundings.  She wants adventure and has the blessing of a good sense of humour and child-like wonder that allow her to make the most of any experience she gets.

Eventually, Eliza does get to leave Glasgow and see at least a little bit of the world.  She visits England, getting to see the long-dreamt-of beauties of Oxford, and goes with her brother to Paris and Switzerland.  And what she finds delights her.  Growing up, Eliza had always felt that she would be better suited to more sophisticated surroundings and companions and finally as a young woman in her early twenties that is exactly where she finds herself, finally able to feel at home though she is miles away from her family.

I have now read four of Douglas’s books (Eliza for Common, Penny Plain, Priorsford, and Taken By the Hand) and I have to say that I think this is the weakest.  The style is appealing – light and cosy, like a second-rate D.E. Stevenson – but the story and characters are lifeless.  The personality clash between Eliza and her mother intrigued me, since the challenges of adult daughters living at home are all too rarely addressed when the daughter is anything other than a doormat or the mother anything other than an invalid, but it remained subdued throughout the book.  The romantic entanglements (though entanglement seems too active a word for these tepid pairings) were mind-numbingly dull.  There is no sense of romantic tension between Eliza and her future husband and there was certainly no dialogue to show the progression of the relationship.  I finished the book with really no clear idea of his personality but, since I did not particularly care about Eliza, I was not overly worried.  Though I could sympathize with some facets of Eliza’s character, she never crossed the line from sympathetic to likeable.

Despite my quibbles, this is still a sweet book and served as a nice introduction to Douglas’s work.  It is just not particularly memorable.  I was wracking my brain to remember enough details to write this review and it has only been two months since I read it.  Douglas writes charming, unchallenging prose that would be perfect for the sick room or certain lazy moods but, if taken in large doses, could quickly feel insipid.

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