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O Douglas was born Anna Buchan, the daughter of a Scottish minister and sister of writer John Buchan. I don’t know why she chose to write under a pseudonym though I can understand her wanting to make a name for herself. Eliza for Common is just the third O Douglas novel that I have read, she writes novels of Scottish domestic life, often set in villages near the Scottish Borders. In this novel we find ourselves in Glasgow, London and Oxford as well as in the Scottish Borders, however the Glasgow of this novel doesn’t really feel much like a city. These novels do seem to reflect aspects of the author’s own life, and I wondered whether in the brother sister relationship depicted in Eliza for Common, we get a glimpse of the relationship between Anna and John Buchan.

Eliza Laidlaw is the only daughter of a Glasgow minister and his wife, Eliza is around sixteen as the novel opens, in the winter of 1919/1920. She has three brothers; Jim (sometimes Jimmie), Rob and Geordie but it is Jim who Eliza adores. Jim is waiting for news of his Oxford scholarship – a nervous wait for the telegram, that will take Jim away to another world. Jim is twenty, the last year of the war – he had gone to France just before the Armistice – having interrupted his education. Now he has his chance.

The Laidlaw family live in a house named Blinkbonny, and Walter Laidlaw is the minister of Martyrs’ church in Glasgow. The house in Glasgow is a little shabby and unchanging, beginning in time to look old fashioned – especially to the younger members of the family. The Laidlaws spend their summers at a family owned farmhouse in the Scottish Borders. Life is one of domestic routine, the mischief of boys, evening meetings at the church, tea-trays by the fire and sick calls. Rev Laidlaw is committed to his church, a quiet slightly sad man, he is never really as happy as when he is out of the city and back in his beloved borders.

“The day at Blinkbonny began with breakfast at a quarter to eight. The two boys had to be at school at nine o’clock, and it took them half an hour to get there. It took, also, constant prodding on the part of their mother and sister to make them eat steadily and not stray into arguments with each other. After breakfast the one servant, Mary-from-Skye, came up, and they settled down more or less reverently to listen while Walter Laidlaw read a chapter from the bible and prayed.”

eliza for common

Mary-from-Skye was my favourite peripheral character, the Laidlaws one maid, she is woman prone to convulsive, silent laughter, particularly when showing visitors in. Mrs Laidlaw runs her home competently with only Mary to help, she is a busy, active little woman, and expects her daughter to be happy to play her part too. That means, going to parties and not dancing, or playing bridge, as it’s not seemly in a minister’s daughter – Eliza isn’t really sure that’s fair. There are times when Mrs Laidlaw is pretty hard on her daughter, who nurses her mother when she falls ill for months, taking on the responsibility of getting her mother back on her feet.

The next few years pass with Jim at Oxford, returning during the holidays with stories of that legendary city, introducing his family to the friends he makes. It is Jimmie who opens the world up a little to Eliza, taking her to Oxford, and London and bringing people into her life she might not have met otherwise. For Jim, Oxford really is the city of dreaming spires, it changes his life, the place from where he starts to write, and produces a successful play. Talking to his sister of Oxford as he comes to the end of his time there, Jim says:

“‘I’ll dare say I’ll come across lots of good things in life, but I can’t expect anything quite so perfect again as my last summer term at Oxford. It has laid its spell on me for good and all. There are some things you can’t forget – the way the sunlight falls through the great chestnut in Exeter gardens, the reaches of the Cherwell on a June afternoon, coming in late after a gorgeous day to eat bread and cheese and drink ale… my word, I wish I were just beginning my three years!’”

As Eliza starts to get older, she decides she would rather be called Liza – and the title begins to make sense. Eliza is frustrated by the narrow world she grows up in, she criticises her parents, and is instrumental in making changes to two rooms in Blinkbonny – changes her mother secretly hates. This is very much a quiet, domestic old-fashioned kind of novel – in which not a huge amount happens, I found it quite a slow read, certainly very enjoyable, although I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as my last O Douglas, Pink Sugar. There are definitely times though when such books are perfect, undemanding allowing an escape, and I have Penny Plain tbr which I think I will enjoy too, as like Pink Sugar it is set in Priorsford again.

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pink sugar

A few years ago, I read The Setons by O Douglas an author I had heard about from other bloggers. It has taken me a long time to get around to another. Pink Sugar was a delightful read, my little 1940 hardback (no pretty dust jacket alas) is quite fragile, and just about survived my reading it as I carried it around with me last weekend, including a train journey to London.

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O Douglas was born Anna Buchan in Pathhead, Scotland, the younger sister of John Buchan and I understand that most if not all her novels are set in her native Scotland. Pink Sugar takes place in the fictional Scottish locations of Muirburn, Priorsford, and the delicious sounding house of Little Phantasy. O Douglas books are of a domestic type, vintage escapism, where nice things largely happen to nice people in nice places – and virtually nothing of the reality of the outside world is allowed in. However, do not let the title fool you, although an unashamed feel good read, this is not as syrupy and sweet as the title may lead you to think.

Our heroine is Kirsty Gilmour a young woman of thirty (though she fears she is now dreadfully old) returned at last to her beloved Scotland after years abroad with her manipulative step-mother. Kirsty had hated the endless round of society that hotel life abroad had brought her, a life her step-mother had revelled in. Now returning to the Scottish Borders of her birth, she is free for the first time in her life, with a good income to live on, and no one to tell her what to do. Kirsty is determined to ‘live for others’ her good and charitable personality making her long to bring happiness to others – or at least release them from trouble or unhappiness. Her attitude to life is the Pink Sugar of the title – an attitude so called by her landlord – the apparently grumpy Colonel Home.

“Surely we want every crumb of pink sugar that we can get in this world. I do hate people who sneer at sentiment. What is sentiment after all? It’s only a word, for all that is decent and kind and loving in these warped little lives of ours.”

Kirsty is perfectly genuine and nothing like as irritating that truly good people can sometimes be. Kirsty runs her new home with the help of Nellie and Miss Wotherspoon a housemaid who insists on being called ‘Miss.’

In time we meet Kirsty’s neighbours, a society which includes two vicars; one rich with a wife given to hosting elaborate garden parties, the other poor, living with his sister Rebecca; whose narrow, disappointing life has left a mark of bitterness. Lady novelist, Merren Strang is a delightfully independent woman, who befriends Kirsty. The society is made up of far more women than men, and so it is the women who drive the society. Naturally, there are a couple of terrifying society types – and as the local habit seems to be for calling regularly on one another in time for tea, we soon get to know them all.

Kirsty has taken the house of Little Phantasy – in the grounds of Colonel Archie Home’s estate. The Colonel is only recently returned himself, carrying an injury from the First World War, he lives a largely reclusive life – to the irritation of some of the local society ladies. Kirsty invites an elderly aunt to come and live with her. Aunt Fanny is a comfortable, traditional old lady, quite happy to sit by the fire knitting, she very much enjoys the companionship of her niece.

As the novel opens Kirsty is chatting happily to her older, married friend Blanche – who herself is about to set off abroad with her husband. Blanche tells Kirsty about the sad fate of her niece and two young nephews following her sister’s tragic death in India. The children’s father – prostrated by grief have left the children with a relative in Clapham, though the Scottish born children would much prefer to be home in Scotland. Kirsty rashly says that she would love to have them stay for a few months while their father gets himself together. Soon it is all arranged – and Kirsty excitedly prepares the house for their arrival. The children’s father pays a flying visit to check Kirsty and her house out – and Aunt Fanny prepares to have her peace shattered.

“Then the door burst open and a tall young woman got out, hurriedly followed by a tall girl with two long plaits of shining hair, and a boy struggling with a fishing rod and basket and other impedimenta of the sportsman.
‘Come on, Bill’ she heard the tall young woman say, and she saw standing, half in and half out of the carriage, a small figure in a blue jersey and short blue trousers. It was a very small figure, but there was something oddly commanding about it.”

On the appointed day, Kirsty waits nervously at the station, terrified that they won’t turn up, but they do, Barbara (10) and boys Specky who loves nothing more than to fish, and Bad Bill (5). Kirsty is instantly smitten, as the children are with her. Miss Stella Carter; the children’s governess accompanies the children, and Carty becomes another very happy resident of Little Phantasy, destined to find romance – with a little help from Kirsty.

The children are a delight, and soon Kirsty can’t imagine the house without them. While not all her attempts at doing good yield the results she would like – or indeed the appreciation of the receiver, Kirsty is very happy in her Scottish Borders home, and starts to dread the day that their father will return to take the children away. Kirsty’s relationship with the children is quite adorable, the energetic trio managing even to get under Archie Home’s skin too.

There’s a particularly nice moment when Kirsty meets, and chats to an older unmarried woman, and the two talk quite happily about how an unmarried woman can be both happy and useful, enjoying a perfectly fulfilled life. O Douglas may well have believed that, but her novels are I suspect far more conventional than that – with everything and (nearly) everyone tidied up at the end.

O Douglas shows us an enviable world of old fashioned manners, great kindness, romance and friendship, though one where illness, poverty, grief and disappointment lies just beneath the surface. I really rather loved this book, and I am determined – when I am buying books again – to get myself a couple more by this author.

o douglas

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thesetons

The Setons is my second read for the ongoing Libraything Great War theme read. O Douglas (the pen name for Anna Masterton Buchan 1877–1948) is an author who I have wanted to read for a while having seen some good reviews by other bloggers. The Majority of the story is set in 1913 – and so the Great War doesn’t actually feature until the end of the novel (approx. The last 20% or so of my Project Gutenberg version on kindle) but when it does occur it is appropriately shattering.

Elizabeth Seton is the twenty eight year old spinster daughter of a Scottish minister in Glasgow. Since her mother’s death Elizabeth has run her father’s household with diligence and love, taking charge of her much younger brother – the adorably impish Buff – who is rarely separated from his friends Billy and Thomas from across the road. Mr Seton’s church is in a poor area of Glasgow – and Elizabeth works hard among their neighbours and at the Sabbath school. A tall golden haired woman, with a lovely singing voice, Elizabeth is a popular member of the community, an intelligent lively young woman often given to giggling irreverence. In the company of the Setons we meet the Thomsons, with their socially ambitious daughter Jessie, Kirsty Christie, Elizabeth’s great friend, another spinster lady – who becomes engaged to a young minister, much to Elizabeth’s delight and surprise. Stewart Stevenson an artist who quietly admires Elizabeth, realises his admiration is useless and turns his attentions elsewhere. The Seton family is relaxed and happy, James Seton a wonderfully calm presence devoted to his flock. Elizabeth navigates her way through the duties and social obligations of being a minister’s daughter with apparent ease, but it is not an easy life.

“It’s more difficult than you would think to be a minister’s family. The main point is that you must never do anything that will hurt your father’s ‘usefulness,’ and it is astonishing how many things tend to do that—dressing too well, going to the play, laughing when a sober face would be more suitable, making flippant remarks—their name is legion. Besides, try as one may, it is impossible always to avoid being a stumbling-block. There are little ones so prone to stumble that they would take a toss over anything.”

The Setons are visited by Arthur Townshend – the nephew of their Aunt Alice’s deceased husband in London – a man they have never met. Elizabeth expects a swell – a man she will find it difficult to spend time with and who will find little to like in the Glasgow home she loves. Instead Arthur proves an instant hit – instantly loved by young Buff finding a great companion in Elizabeth, even accompanying her on some of her visits during his all too short visit. Arthur pledges to visit the Setons at their country home the next year; however by then the world will have plunged into war.

“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 burn and the peewits remained the same, the high hollyhocks flaunted themselves against the grey garden wall; nothing was changed – and yet everything was different”

The war changes everything for so many people – and O Douglas shows that brilliantly. Written in 1917 by a woman who lost two brothers during the war – there is something of the patriotic fervour that swept Britain about the end of this novel – one could even call it propaganda like. The noble sacrifice of men off to war is much lauded – the suggestion that to die for one’s country a better kind of death than any other. I must say that despite this slightly uncomfortable militaristic fervour I found the last quarter of this novel to be almost unbearably poignant. Not for the first time, when reading a book about the beginning of this terrible conflict, did I wonder how the spoiled youth of today with their sense of entitlement would react to such a call. The world is a different place however; the young men who made that noble sacrifice helped to make it so.

I loved this book – and finished with a tear in my eye – and a definite desire to read more by this author.

ODouglas2

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