Reading serendipity is a wonderful thing. I was halfway through reading The Setons by O Douglas (photo from here) when, into my inbox, popped a review of the book by heavenali. I hadn’t realised that The Setons was one of the titles selected for the Librarything Great War theme read so there are probably quite a few bloggers reading it at the moment. Ali has written a lovely review which really says everything I wanted to say myself so I feel a little redundant. So, I’ll just give a brief description of the plot & a few thoughts on the attractions of O Douglas’s books for me.
The Setons are a manse family, living in Glasgow in 1913. James Seton is a well-loved minister to his congregation, a little remote but always practical & kind when help is needed. He’s a widower & his daughter, Elizabeth, keeps house for him & his youngest son, David, known as Buff. Elizabeth has largely taken the place of her mother in the house & in the parish. She is attractive, kind, opinionated, funny & devoted to her father. There are two older brothers in India, Alan & Walter. The eldest son, Sandy, died while at Oxford & his mother followed him soon after. We meet Elizabeth’s friends, the Thomsons & Kirsty Christie, also a daughter of the manse but less attractive than Elizabeth in looks or manners & less satisfied with her lot in life.
When Aunt Alice proposes that her husband’s nephew, Arthur Townshend, should visit Glasgow, Elizabeth is dismayed by the prospect. She has missed meeting Arthur on the visits she made to her aunt & the picture she has of him is not an appealing one. She imagines him as very English, stuffy, self-important, used to the best of everything & likely to look down his nose at Glasgow & their family. Luckily, Arthur turns out to be a delightful man, interested in everything & everyone. He makes an immediate friend of Buff & is fascinated by manse life. He quickly becomes a close friend to Elizabeth &, by the time he leaves, their relationship has deepened into love, although unacknowledged.
The story takes a serious turn in the final chapters as we reach 1914 & the outbreak of WWI. The Setons was published in 1917 so the outcome of the war was still unknown & this is evident in the apprehensive tone of the narrator. James Seton develops heart trouble & has to leave the ministry. The family moves to Etterick, their house in the country & they all adjust to a very different life. The book is very much of its time in the descriptions of young men going joyously to war in defence of their country. The constant fear & worry felt by those at home about loved ones serving in the war is beautifully described. These final chapters are very poignant & there is hope as well as sorrow as the book ends.
O Douglas was the sister of John Buchan. Her novels are all on similar themes – domestic stories about family & relationships with a lot of humour & always some gentle romance. Buff is another of the young boys who feature in all her novels & are based on a young brother who was killed in the war. Her books are comforting but not saccharine, always alive to the realities of life. O Douglas had very strong views on right & wrong, duty & responsibility & this is reflected in all her books as well as a melancholy that I find attractive. I love reading about a time & a place that seems so far away from our busy modern world yet is still recognisable, with characters who face the problems that everyone has to deal with, no matter where they live or at what time.