Greyladies is another of the small publishing houses I’ve discovered recently. Based in Edinburgh, it’s the publishing side of The Old Children’s Bookshelf. They specialise in books for adults by authors mainly known for their children’s books. They also publish mysteries & romances, mostly set between the wars in England & Scotland. Their authors include Susan Scarlett (better known as Noel Streatfeild), Josephine Elder & recently they’ve published a mystery by Gladys Mitchell & books by O Douglas.
O Douglas was the pseudonym of Anna Buchan, sister of the more famous John of 39 Steps fame. I’ve just read the first of her books published by Greyladies, Pink Sugar. This is the story of Kirsty, a young woman who has led a wandering life with an unsympathetic stepmother. After her stepmother’s death, all she wants to do is go home to Scotland & put down some roots. She rents a house called Little Phantasy, which is the dower house of Phantasy, home of the squire, Colonel Home. Kirsty gathers in an elderly aunt & three children, bereft by the death of their mother, while their grief-stricken father wanders the earth in search of solace. The childrens’ governess, Stella Carter, & the servants, Nellie, Miss Wotherspoon (a very superior housemaid) & Easie the cook, complete the household. This is a charming book about living in a small Scottish village just after WWI. On the back of the book it’s described as Cranford-on-Tweed, & in some ways, that’s true. It’s a female-dominated society. Except for the ministers & Colonel Home, Kirsty’s landlord, the husbands & fathers are invisible apart from an odd reported comment. Lots of calls are paid, afternoon tea is always about to be served & gossip keeps everyone on their toes. Kirsty is a little too bright & bubbly for me. She has everything she wants & nothing to strive for. I identified much more with Rebecca Brand, the minister’s plain sister, who has to scrape by with no money & is forced to listen to Kirsty burbling on about the delights of housekeeping. Of course, Kirsty sees housekeeping as delightful when she has enough money to live comfortable & has servants to warm up the house & bring her tea in bed on cold mornings. To give Kirsty her due, she does have a little realisation of this late in the book, but she wasn’t as interesting a character to me as Rebecca & Merren Strang, a novelist who also lives in the neighbourhood. Kirsty’s is the “pink sugar” view of life which infuriates Rebecca & Colonel Home, a dour man who returned lame & unsociable from the war.
The strength of the book is the atmosphere of village life. Aunt Fanny is a relic of the Victorian age, bundled in her shawls by the fire. Merren Strang is very much the new, independent woman, widowed in the Boer War & losing her son in WWI, but earning her living successfully. There’s even a socially-conscious minister & his wife, Mr & Mrs McCandlish, who have the money to live comfortably, in contrast to Robert Brand & his sister. Even more interesting is another woman who Kirsty meets at the hotel where she stays in London when she travels up on business. Kirsty spends her evenings making up the story of the woman’s life – lives in Devonshire, Tory squire husband, devoted daughter, son at Oxford etc. On the last night, they finally get into conversation & Kirsty was only right about Devonshire. The woman says, after hearing Kirsty’s speculations, “But, must I have a husband? … can’t I have a beautiful, full life without a husband & family?” All Kirsty’s conventionality is exposed in this conversation. The woman (we don’t know her name) runs a farm with a friend & provides holiday accommodation for the children of parents serving overseas. I’d love to read a novel about her life!
The setting of Pink Sugar is based on Peeblesshire in the Border country, Anna Buchan’s home for much of her life. She used a pseudonym for her fiction because she didn’t want to cash in on her brother’s fame, but she had an audience of her own for her novels of family & village life. I’ve ordered another of her books, The Proper Place, & I hope Greyladies reprint more of her books.