This article first appeared in Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 62, Spring 2019.
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In the kind of house where books are handed down the generations, the chances are that on a spare bedroom bookshelf, squeezed between Guy Mannering and Roses, Their Culture and Management, you will find a copy of one of the eleven novels written by O. Douglas. Take it to bed to read and you will quickly become immersed in the cultured, if circumscribed, Scottish middle-class life of three generations ago. Whether that appeals to you will probably depend both on your attitude to Scotland and Scottishness and on whether you enjoy a well-told if old-fashioned story where only rarely does anything very startling happen.
O. Douglas was the pseudonym of Anna Buchan (1877‒1948), one of six children of the Reverend John Buchan and his wife Helen and the only daughter to live to womanhood. She was the sister of John Buchan, author of a hundred books of fiction and non-fiction, includingThe Thirty-Nine Steps. She lived most of her adult years with her mother and bachelor brother, Walter – lawyer, bank agent, town clerk and procurator fiscal – in a house in Peebles, the Border town that she called Priorsford in her novels. Her father, born in Peebles, was a saintly Free Kirk minister, who spent many years working in the slums of the Gorbals in Glasgow and died of overwork soon after retirement. Her mother was of local sheep-farming stock, so the children grew up to be at ease in the diverse environments of rural upper Tweeddale (God’s own country, if ever there was one), the self-sufficient, self-respecting town of Peebles and the bustling Victorian city of Glasgow.
Anna was a classic daughter of the manse, involved in every kind of church work, but she was also a talented amateur actress, well-known locally for her comedic turns and poetry recitations. It was not until after her father died in 1911, however, that she began seriously to write, her first published effort being a fictionalized account of the six months she had spent in India with another brother, Willie, who was in the Indian Civil Service.
Olivia in India, told in the first person, is the story of an unmarried Scotswoman of genteel upbringing called Olivia Douglas, who spends six months visiting her ICS brother in Calcutta. Having read Willie Buchan’s letters home, it is plain to me that Anna essentially recounted experiences that she herself had enjoyed, especially travelling ‘up-country’ with her brother, since she was notably doughty and game for anything. Olivia in India was published under the name ‘O. Douglas’ (since Anna refused to ride on her brother John’s coat-tails) by the ultra-respectable firm of Hodder & Stoughton in 1913, it having first received the blue-pencil treatment from John, who at the time was a partner in the Scottish publishing company of Thomas Nelson & Sons.
The review in the Glasgow Herald noted: ‘The author has the great gift of original observations, together with a quiet reflective turn of mind . . . She sees everything with a fresh outlook. She has good humour and a quick gift for catching and describing in expressive form the salient characteristics of persons and places. To have read this book is to have learned much of Anglo-Indian life and to have met an extremely likeable person in the author.’
Even when they first appeared, O. Douglas’s novels – of which the most readable are probably The Setons, Penny Plain, Pink Sugar, Eliza for Common and Priorsford – were advertised as ‘nice’. They are certainly innocent, uncynical and very far from knowing. But they are saved from the charge of being saccharine by her sense of humour, which could be acerbic, as well as by a percipience about human nature and a broad, but unsentimental, sympathy.
The female characters are usually principled, often well-meaning, sometimes dowdy, always class-conscious, Scottish provincial women, who delight in a luncheon party in a neighbour’s house, are addicted to performing small acts of kindness, are thoroughly at home with the Old Testament and think a good deal about their ‘latter end’. The heroines, rather fewer in number, are comfortably off but never patronizing or snobbish and they employ sharp-tongued but kindly servants, who pronounce over small happenings like a Lallans-speaking Greek chorus. (Anna had a very good ear for the cadences and picturesqueness of Scots dialect.) The most unsympathetically portrayed characters are vulgar social climbers or malicious gossips. Most of the books were written after the Great War, so the women often have sorrows to hide, and do not always rejoice with neighbours in their good fortune.
Several of the stories are romances, in the sense that the heroine accepts a proposal of marriage in the final pages, but the male characters rarely make much convincing impact on the story. Any children are encouraged by understanding, patient grown-ups, say funny things, love dogs and act Shakespeare scenes at the drop of a hat. For O. Douglas, the best kind of house is old, with white-painted panelled walls, highly polished old furniture, vases of garden flowers, bright fires and masses of books. Here modest, self-denying, charitable, hard-working people quote poetry and the Bible, sing Border ballads and enjoy afternoon tea more than any other meal. She was describing pretty accurately her own house and family.
It would be misleading, however, to say that O. Douglas’s fiction was simply and wholly an extended memoir with just the names changed, although the preface to her autobiography, Unforgettable, Unforgotten, might lead one to suppose that she at least thought so: ‘My brother John used to say that when he wrote stories he invented, but that I in my books was always remembering.’ She was a proper novelist, but she drew so heavily on her family’s experiences that it is, for example, obvious that she is thinking of John in Eliza for Common, when ‘Jimmie’, the older brother, comes back to the manse in Glasgow from Oxford after his first term, with several published articles already under his belt and with an Oxford accent, which makes his hurly-burly younger brothers laugh.
The only daughter of the house is plainly Anna herself as a discontented teenager, bullied by her dynamic mother to take an active part in church life, including visiting the poor, but happiest when curled up in a chair reading As You Like It. The Setons contains an accurate and affectionate portrait of her father, while Ann and Her Mother is a gossamer-thin fictionalization of her mother’s life. O. Douglas was keen to recreate the particular magic of her upbringing but may also have been wary of straying too far from her own experience, lest she fall into error.
The 1920s and ’30s, when her books sold best, were not safe and cosy times and, although she rarely wrote of current affairs – except, for example, to say something approving of Mr Baldwin, a friend of her brother’s – she did deal with contemporary preoccupations: the plight of unemployed miners in Fife; aristocratic families losing male heirs in the war and having to sell up; teenagers dying of consumption; slum dwelling in Glasgow. Anna knew a great deal about sorrow: her sister died in early childhood, her brother Willie succumbed to an infection picked up in India before the Great War and her youngest brother, Alastair, was killed at the Battle of Arras. Nevertheless, there is a sober optimism about her books, and many readers, beset by worries about unemployment or incurable sickness, will have been consoled when they immersed themselves in stories about decent, good-hearted people who, to paraphrase John Betjeman, never cheated, never doubted and wrote voluminous monthly letters to their friends and relations.
The novel you are most likely to come across, if only because it has been reissued in recent years, is Pink Sugar, which was dedicated to John and his wife Susie, ‘because of Bill’. The main child character, ‘Bad Bill’, a little boy of angelic looks and devilish naughtiness, was based on her nephew, William, my father. A real-life example of this naughtiness, the biting of a housemaid’s leg while he was pretending to be a crocodile, makes its way into the book. Anna promised her nephew a farthing for every copy of the first edition that was sold, and the boy made £25; even successful modern novelists would be more than content with a first print run of 24,000 copies.
Anna depended heavily on John Buchan for encouragement and advice, even after she became a well-established author with a large and international fan base. He read her manuscripts, crossing out the indiscriminate ‘quotes’ to which she was addicted and commenting that some passages were ‘incorrigibly noble’. It is a family joke that she must have forgotten that the title of her autobiography – Unforgettable, Unforgotten – was prefaced by ‘thrilling-sweet and rotten’ and referred to the river smell of the Cam in Rupert Brooke’s poem ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’.
Modernism in fiction writing passed her by completely but, as The Scotsman commented at her death, the ‘pleasantness’ of her writing was a relief to many. In Pink Sugar, the lady novelist character remarks: ‘The world is full of simple plain people who like plain things, and who are often very bewildered and unhappy. Perhaps my books are a sort of soothing syrup, I don’t know.’
Certainly Hodder & Stoughton were most enthusiastic about the syrup. Indeed, O. Douglas and John Buchan became a notable publishing double-act in the 1920s, Hodder’s bringing out their books, in a blaze of newspaper publicity, at the same time each summer, just before the book-buying public began their holidays. In 1924, the books were Pink Sugar and The Three Hostages, in 1926 The Proper Place and The Dancing Floor.
O. Douglas’s novels were particularly popular with expatriate Scots, a race famous for travelling to the undiscovered ends while remaining unassuageably homesick. During the Second World War, my father encountered a rugged, hard-drinking, Scottish tea planter in India who was thrilled to meet a nephew of O. Douglas, since his chief recreation was reading and rereading her books and writing her fan letters. In 1935, when John Buchan was appointed Governor-General of Canada, he was teasingly informed that, among Canadians of Scottish descent, he would be known as O. Douglas’s brother.
Having written her last novel, The House that Is Our Own, in 1940, Anna spent the rest of the war travelling widely to give lectures and recitations in aid of war charities. By the time she died in 1948, her star was probably already fading. Virginia Woolf’s father Leslie Stephen wrote that a ‘classic’ novel was one that was still read a hundred years after it was written. None of Anna’s novels is ‘classic’ by that standard but they mostly repay reading, if only because they reveal the authentic virtues of a provincial life, where there is a lively sense of the significance of the everyday, a good-natured acceptance of the duty to be kind and generous, and the apprehension of the imminence of judgement – whether by neighbours or by God.
Ursula Buchan regrets never having met O. Douglas, or indeed her brother John, whose biography she has recently completed for Bloomsbury.
Extract from Slightly FoxedIssue 62 © Ursula Buchan 2019