O Douglas wrote about what she knew. Eliza for Common is one of the best examples of this because the Laidlaw family, living in Glasgow just after WWI, is very close to the Buchan family.The Laidlaws are a family of the Manse, not rich but happy together & sure of their place in local society. As the book begins, Jim, the eldest son, is anxiously waiting to hear whether he has won a scholarship to Oxford. Eliza, the only daughter, is very close to Jim & is just as anxious as he is about his chances. The two younger boys, Geordie & Rob, are still at school & always in mischief. Eliza feels stifled by her life, restricted to helping her mother with housework & paying calls.She’s at an age where she thinks she’ll miss out on life if she doesn’t grab it right now. She’s rather be called Lisa as she thinks Eliza a dreary name, but only Jim tries to remember.
Jim wins his scholarship & goes up to Oxford. He’s always been a writer & soon begins to have his stories placed in magazines which helps him pay his way at college. He plans to write a play, which upsets his parents as they don’t approve of the theatre. When he comes home after his first term with an Oxford accent, Rob & Geordie think it’s hilarious but Jim hasn’t changed in essentials. He’s determined that Eliza won’t be left behind even though there’s never any suggestion of a university education for her. Jim organizes trips to Oxford & London for Eliza & their mother & memorably takes Eliza on holiday to Switzerland.
Eliza for Common is a very domestic novel. The dramas of the story are domestic ones. Mrs Laidlaw, always an indefatigable worker, falls ill with a nervous complaint & completely gives way. The neighbours are kind & intelligent like Mrs Learmond or irritating & silly like Mr & Mrs Stit. Mrs Service, a minister’s widow, who visits the Laidlaws every Friday & is part of the family. Jim’s friends from Oxford, Ewan Cameron & Gerald Meade, visit the family at the farmhouse where they spend their summers, glorious summers of freedom & no responsibility.
As always, the characterization is excellent. O Douglas depicts her characters so economically but just a few touches can describe a whole life. Mrs Service movingly describes her joy at being able to marry at last when she & her husband were both in their 40s after she’d spent years looking after her parents. They only had 12 years together but, for Mrs Service, that was enough to be grateful for. Mrs Stit’s main pleasure in life is boasting that her three daughters have all married ministers so she has three Manses to visit. Eliza isn’t a model daughter. She’s prickly & resentful when she’d rather be reading than helping her mother turn out a chest of drawers but she gladly takes on the running of the household when her mother is ill. Although as she says to Jimmie, “Who else is there?”, which is true enough. The family relationships are also realistic rather than sentimental. Eliza’s fury at her brothers’ calling her Elijah & her fury at having to hold her tongue as an elderly uncle talks nonsense, are very true to life.
I enjoyed the picture of family life after the War. It didn’t feel as though the book was set in a big city, it could have been in a village. The Manse & its social circle encompassed everything except when Eliza managed to escape & experience life beyond the Manse. I enjoyed meeting the Laidlaws very much. As always, O Douglas’s small boys are delightful & very funny. Mr Laidlaw is kind & unambitious which infuriates his wife even though she has long ago given up hopes of seeing her husband as Moderator & herself walking into Church in a velvet coat. Eliza for Common is a gentle book about an engaging family. Greyladies have just published another of O Douglas’s novels, The Day of Small Things, & I’m looking forward to read it as it’s a sequel to The Proper Place which I read a couple of years ago.