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

July 4, 2020 21 comments

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.”

 

 

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