Home > 1920, 20th Century, Beach and Public Transports Books, British Literature, Douglas O, Novel, Sugar without cellulite > Penny Plain by O. Douglas – “This says tea, and a fire and a book and a friend—the four nicest things in the world.”

Penny Plain by O. Douglas – “This says tea, and a fire and a book and a friend—the four nicest things in the world.”

Penny Plain by O. Douglas (Anna Buchan) 1920 Not available in French.

This says tea, and a fire and a book and a friend—the four nicest things in the world.”

I’d never heard of O. Douglas before reading Ali’s post about Penny Plain for the 1920 Club. I decided it was a good book to have on hand for lockdown times or for days with little book concentration. I was happy to find it on my e-reader on a headachy Sunday.

Penny Plain is a romantic comedy set in Priorsford, Scotland, in 1920. Jean is 23 and lives with her brothers David, Jock and their adoptive brother Mohr in a rented house, The Rigs. Their parents are dead and Jean raises her brothers. She struggles to make ends meet. When the book opens, two events change her routine: David is leaving home to study in Oxford and Pamela Reston settles in Priorsford.

Pamela Reston is from English aristocracy. She’s almost forty, single and tired of her superficial socialite life. She decided to come to Priorsford to enjoy a simple life. Her brother, Lord Birdborough is in India. She calls him Birdy and they are close. In a nutshell, Pamela is having what we call now a mid-life crisis. Her arrival makes waves in Priorsford…

“I do wonder what brings her to Priorsford! I rather think that having been all her life so very ‘twopence coloured’ she wants the ‘penny plain’ for a change. Perhaps that is why she likes The Rigs and us. There is no mistake about our ‘penny-plainness’—it jumps to the eye!

But Pamela soon befriends the locals, especially Jean. In appearance, they are total opposite. Jean is the kind of virtuous character you only find in novels. She’s rather mousy and here she is, seen through Pamela’s eyes.

Jean dried her eyes and went on with her darning, and Pamela walked about looking at the books and talking, taking in every detail of this girl and her so individual room, the golden-brown hair, thick and wavy, the golden-brown eyes, “like a trout-stream in Connemara,” that sparkled and lit and saddened as she talked, the mobile, humorous mouth, the short, straight nose and pointed chin, the straight-up-and-down belted brown frock,

(Trout fishing really follows me everywhere, eh?)

It’s a romantic comedy, there’s no great originality in the plot but the characters are well-drawn. Jean’s brothers are funny, especially Mohr, the little one, only aged seven. He’s full of mischief. The crew of servants is also quirky, even if they tend to speak with Scottish accent and that was a challenge for me. Sentences like this require a bit of attention:

He couldna veesit his folk at a wise-like hour in the evening because he was gaun to hev his denner, and he couldna get oot late because his leddy-wife wanted him to be at hame efter denner.

You can’t forget you’re in Scotland. Going to England seems like crossing a border and venturing into a foreign land. And what it is with Scotland and religious intricacies? Catherine Helen Spence mentions it in her Autobiography and it went over my head. Her family was Calvinist and it weighed on her vision of life. Jean’s aunt, who raised her, was also a Calvinist and was frightfully religious—a strict Calvinist—and taught Jean to regard everything from the point of view of her own death-bed.

There are different churches in Priorsford and any newcomer must pick one. That’s already strange for a French for whom things are rather clear-cut. In the 1920s, you’re Catholic, maybe Protestant and there’s only one church of each. The real debate would have been between the churchgoers and the anti-clerical folks. Here, since there’s a wider offer of religious services, there are puzzling passages about the merits of a clergyman or the other, peppered with remarks like Episcopalians are slightly better fitted for society than Presbyterians. I read this and thought “?????”

This brings me to the other nice side of Penny Plain, O Douglas’s witty prose and clever observations. It counterbalances well the obviousness of the plot. It can be in descriptions of people:

Mrs. Jowett is a sweet woman, but to me she is like a vacuum cleaner. When I’ve talked to her for ten minutes my head feels like a cushion that has been cleaned—a sort of empty, yet swollen feeling.

Don’t we all know people like that whose conversation is one-sided and leaves you baffled? It’s also in little notes..

January is always a long, flat month: the Christmas festivities are over, the bills are waiting to be paid, the weather is very often of the dreariest, spring is yet far distant. With February, hope and the snowdrops begin to spring, but January is a month to be warstled through as best we can.

I’ve always felt like this about January. Some things don’t change, even a century later.

This is a perfect Beach-and-Public-Transport book, and with a little wave to Bill, I’d say a perfect one to listen to while driving a truck. I’ll leave you with a last oh-so-true little quote:

“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 time.”



  1. July 4, 2020 at 7:56 am

    That last quote about not having time to read. So true. The many times I hear people say they don’t have time but happily watch TV for hours.
    Sounds like a very entertaining book. I must have missed the review on Ali’s blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    • July 4, 2020 at 8:10 am

      My standard answer to the question “How do you have the time to read so many books?” is “I don’t watch TV”

      Liked by 2 people

  2. July 4, 2020 at 1:35 pm

    I agree, the plot is perhaps obvious, but it is a good cosy read for times when we need books like this. I noted that reading quote too, so often people tell me they don’t have time to read, er so, make time.


    • July 4, 2020 at 8:39 pm

      It was a lovely read and I always find things to learn in books. As long as I learn something new, I’m happy.


  3. July 4, 2020 at 3:30 pm

    This does indeed sound lovely – and that last quote is of course spot on. Reading comes first, always…


    • July 4, 2020 at 8:40 pm

      I knew this quote would resonate with many of us.
      That’s how we feel about reading, don’t we? As essential as breathing.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. July 4, 2020 at 3:53 pm

    I wave back – truckie wave, I lift one finger from the wheel as you fly past in the opposite direction. I’m not sure about having to listen to Scottish accents, but yes I enjoy a light romantic comedy. I enjoy romance full stop. Australia imported all those versions of Protestantism, and a few others besides, Lutheran for example and I’ve read of early Scots settlers having their services in Gaelic.


    • July 4, 2020 at 8:41 pm

      I know that you enjoy romance, that’s why I thought about you. The Scottish dialogues are only between the servants. There aren’t too many passages like this, thankfully.


  5. Dorothy Willis
    July 4, 2020 at 11:32 pm

    I think the comment about « society » refers to class. When girls of this class are introduced to society, they are better trained for it if Episcopalian.


    • July 5, 2020 at 9:52 am

      Thanks! It makes sense now. (That’s the beauty of blogging even one’s silliest thoughts)


  6. July 5, 2020 at 3:33 pm

    Great quotes – this does sound very enjoyable!


    • July 5, 2020 at 9:47 pm

      It’s entertaining.


  7. Vishy
    July 7, 2020 at 9:41 am

    Beautiful review, Emma! Looks like a wonderful, entertaining book! Loved the quotes you shared, especially the last one about making time for reading and the one about January. Your comment about trout fishing made me smile 😁 Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂


    • July 8, 2020 at 9:07 pm

      Thanks Vishy.

      This quote about making time to read resonates with all of us.

      Re-trout fishing: it’s becoming an inside joke in our family.


  8. July 8, 2020 at 5:53 pm

    That last quote resonates with me too.

    Crossing the border from England is venturing into a foreign land! There’s different legal systems, different church, there are some very distinct identities.

    The best book for Calvinism is Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which is brilliant (I may have written it up at mine). Calvinism can still be a big influence – it’s an incredibly dour variety of faith though with a belief that one’s destination in the afterlife is predetermined and can’t be affected by one’s works on earth. Presbyterians are a stricter group than Episcopalians I think, so there’s more forbidden.

    There’s some parts of Scotland where even today you can’t dry underwear on a washing line on a Sunday as it’s offensive. Remote parts, admittedly. In Glasgow you can do what you like.

    Sorry if you already knew all that!


    • July 8, 2020 at 9:17 pm

      Thanks for all the info and I knew nothing about what you wrote, so it’s welcome.

      About the difference in legislation: does a lawyer need to take a different Bar exam if you want to move from England to Scotland?

      About religions:

      CH Spence says that her Calvinist education gave her a depressing vision of life.

      This Calvinist / Presbyterian / Episcopalian differences are a different world to me, really. Same with churches in the US, I never understand the nuances.


      • July 9, 2020 at 3:02 pm

        Yup, back when I was a lawyer I was qualified for England and Wales (same system). I wasn’t qualified for Scotland. The Scottish administration has a fair bit of power too, which is why they have different lockdown policies to England at the moment.

        I don’t know that much about Episcopalianism, as far as I’m aware it’s a fairly mainstream form of protestantism but it’s not something I know much about.

        Calvinism though, that got pretty dark in some parts of Scotland. Nothing you did could save you, but living a godly life might be an indicator that you were one of those who were predetermined to be saved, so you lived as virtuously as you could forever in the fear it made no difference and you were damned anyway. It became pretty censorious in some areas.

        I’ve no idea if there’s mainstream forms today that are much healthier – I’m only really familiar with it historically and in the more rural parts of Scotland where it can be pretty forbidding.


        • July 12, 2020 at 9:28 pm

          Fascinating. I didn’t know there were so many differences between the laws in England/Wales and Scotland.

          That’s what I caught about Calvinism in CH Spence’s autobiography. She says she felt doomed all the time.


  9. D. Martin
    July 15, 2020 at 11:11 pm

    I’m not an expert on different flavors of Protestantism, but from what I’ve gathered in just reading fiction, Episcopalians seem more formal, (and within that, « High » and « Low » church perhaps referring to elaborateness of « ritual », High sounding to closer to Catholicism « pomp & ceremony ». Perhaps class level associations harks back to days of England’s Catholic royalty?
    Novels which might appeal to readers of O. Douglas which touch on choosing Episcopal church include beloved Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace, based on author’s girlhood in early 1900’s Minnesota. She & her sister a (future opera singer) opt to join E., tho raised as Baptis’s; their father seems very open-minded about religious choice (tho someone commented her rown library didn’t carry the book in 1950’s, apparently due to this « changing of religions ».

    Cozy English series by Miss Read set in villages of Fair Acre and Thrush Green also signal social class by where people attend church or « chapel » (the later more working class », like the school cleaner as opposed to more highly educated teacher/narrator…


    • July 18, 2020 at 11:19 am

      Thanks a lot for this very informative comment.
      I’ve never heard of Maud Hart Lovelace or Miss Read but I will check them out.


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