The Proper Place – O Douglas

The Proper Place is the second novel I’ve read this year by O Douglas. The first was Pink Sugar which I’ve reviewed here. Both books have been reprinted by Greyladies, a publishing house based in Edinburgh who specialise in between the wars middlebrow novels. “Between the wars” & “middlebrow” are two of my favourite adjectives so I was very excited to discover Greyladies about a year ago. O Douglas was the pseudonym of Anna Buchan, sister of John Buchan of 39 Steps fame. Her books couldn’t be more different from her brother’s adventurous spy thrillers. O Douglas writes of middle class women living quiet, domestic lives in small towns & villages. But, those of us who love middlebrow fiction know how much drama can lurk beneath the respectable facade of village life. The books I’ve read so far have been set in Scotland & Douglas obviously has a great love for the Scottish countryside.

In The Proper Place, Lady Jane Rutherfurd, her daughter Nicole & niece Barbara, have to leave their ancestral family home in the Borders. The book is set just after the Great War, & the feeling of melancholy, grief & loss is obvious in many of the characters who have lost loved ones. The Rutherfurds lost two sons in the War & Lady Jane’s husband died not long after, leaving her without the income she needs to stay on at Rutherfurds. Nicole & Barbara couldn’t be more different in outlook & temperament. Nicole is enthusiastic, interested in everyone & everything. She is heartbroken about moving but puts her mind to the task of finding a new home. Barbara, who has lived with the Rutherfurds since she was a child, resents the move & is determined to stay true to her friends & the home she loves. She’s a prickly character, not as immediately lovable as Nicole & maybe she’s always felt a little overshadowed by Nicole’s sunny nature & good looks.

Rutherfurds is sold to the Jacksons, a nouveau riche family from Glasgow. Mrs Jackson is a wonderful character. Bold, honest, garrulous, with absolutely no dress sense, she doesn’t really want a country seat. But, her husband thinks it’s the next stage of their rise in prosperity. Mrs Jackson is very happy in her Glasgow suburb but she decides to throw herself into county life when the move to Rutherfurds is inevitable.

Nicole eventually finds a house in a seaside town in Fife. Called the Harbour House, it’s right on the quay, in sight & smell of the fishing boats & squawking seagulls. The house itself is wonderful, I loved the descriptions of the rooms & the way the Rutherfurds blend some of their own furniture & possessions to make themselves a new home. Nicole throws herself into this new life, making friends of the neighbours & refusing to let her regret for her old home blight her life. Barbara is harder to reconcile. She yearns after her old friends & finds acquaintances among the local county families.

The new neighbours in Kirkmeikle are an interesting lot. Miss Symington, a wealthy spinster, living in a comfortless house & living only for cold duty. Her little nephew, Alistair, who becomes friends with Nicole & leads to her friendship with Simon Beckett, a young man who has returned from an expedition to Everest & is writing a book about his experiences. Mr Lambert, the minister & his wife who loves reading. Mrs Heggie, a kind, outgoing, inquisitive woman with a sulky daughter, & the Bucklers, who have returned to Scotland after 30 years in India.

Meanwhile, Mrs Jackson is nervously finding her feet among the gentry & taking on some of the duties that Lady Jane used to perform. There are some wonderful scenes when she decides to invite Nicole to visit & give a dinner party & dance in her honour. She has an ulterior motive because she wants Nicole to marry her son, Andrew. Nicole catches a chill & Barbara takes her place with unintended consequences for Barbara, Andrew & Mrs Jackson.

This was such a readable book. It reminded me of the qualities I love in Dorothy Whipple’s books. Unputdownable & with characters I care about. I loved the feeling of gentle melancholy that is evident in so many books of that post-war period. As well as the grief there’s also a quality of stoicism in these women. So many men gone & the women left behind to get on with living & they do get on with living & find some compensations in the changes that life brings. Greyladies also publishes Eliza For Common by O Douglas & I can’t wait to get my hands on that. Douglas wrote quite a few novels according to the list inside my copy of The Proper Place & I hope Greyladies keep reprinting them.

24 thoughts on “The Proper Place – O Douglas

  1. I haven't read any of the Susan Scarletts, Verity, although I've got Murder while you work on the tbr shelves. I really need to read a few more of the ones I already have before I place another order but I'm very tempted by Eliza for Common!

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  2. You must read “The Day of Small Things” by O. Douglas which continues the story of Nicole and Lady Jane Rutherford and their life in Kirkmeikle.

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  3. Thank you Jeanne, I didn't know there was a sequel. Hopefully Greyladies will reprint it. Nicole's life was left a little unfinished in TPP & I'd love to know what came next.

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  4. I found this when I was googling for O Douglas. I've been lucky enough to find most of her novels in hardback, either as reprints not long after they were first published, or first editions. (Thank heavens for secondhand bookshops!) I'm currently re-reading them again. I love the way that she added the characters to later novels. We can read of the Rutherfurds and their friends in the “Penny Plain”, “Pink Sugar” and “Priorsford” series (about Jean Jardine). The characters are wonderful, even Mrs. Duff-Whalley! LOL!!

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  5. I live only 20 miles from Edinburgh but I didn't realise that O. Douglas had been reprinted by Greyladies. Thanks for the info. I've just enjoyed reading Penny Plain, an old one from a second-hand bookshop but they aren't easy to get here either.

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  6. Katrina, I have Penny Plain on my e-reader & I'm looking forward to reading it. I also bought Eliza For Common from Greyladies so that's on the tbr shelves too.

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  7. I have already read Penny Plain and The Day of Small Things, and am about half-way through The Proper Place. Yes, very readable! I also have Anne and Her Mother waiting once Proper Place is finished. These small “period piece” novels are a nice diversion, aren't they?
    ~Barb

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  8. They are, indeed. I like the quiet melancholy of novels written just after WWI & I love Scottish novels so O Douglas has been a lovely new discovery.

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  9. Hi Lyn. I've just posted my review of The Proper Place on my blog, and have included a link to your post as well. You said very much what I wanted to say, and did it so well.

    I hope this is all right? New to the blogging world (since April 2012) and still working on figuring out all the etiquette, but from what I've seen I'm thinking linking is a good thing? I know I love following links to discover new bloggers and great posts!

    ~Barb

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  10. Hi Barb, thanks for linking to my review & for your kind words! Linking is fine, it's always good to see what someone else thinks & it introduces us to new blogs. Maybe some of your readers will enjoy my blog as well. Greyladies are reprinting Day of Small Things next month so I'm looking forward to reading it.

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  11. I too love them and have gradually collected all of them second hand, or “pre-loved”. One of my absolute favourites is “The House That Is Our Own” – I forget how many times I've read it!

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  12. I have just read The God of Small Things – an old second-hand copy – and discovered, disastrously, that the copy is incomplete and ends on p318 with the words 'A maiden aunt….'. Can anyone tell me how many pages I might be missing please?!

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  13. If you mean The Day of Small Things (!), my Greyladies edition has 33 chapters & 338 pages. I haven't read it so don't want to start looking at the end of the book. Hope that helps.

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  14. Anonymous – you haven't missed a great deal, it's half a little page, plus another half on the next. If by this time you still haven't read it, let me know and I will type it out or photograph it and forward it to you.

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  15. I have been reading these books again, in fact one of them I have read about 4 times, they are the kind of books to read when you want to relax.

    I do find it strange that these 'poor' people, still have money for cooks, housemaids and personal maids, although I still love reading.

    Has anyone read any of the Olivia books?

    I used to look at this blog and then for some reason lost it. I'm so glad to have found it again.

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  16. I'm glad you rediscovered the blog! I haven't read the Olivia books. I think wages were much cheaper in this period & “poor” was a relative term! Lower middle class people could afford at least one housemaid/cook & it wasn't expected that a woman of that class would do her own cooking, let alone housework. House-Bound by Winifred Peck (Persephone) is an interesting read on that very topic.

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