‘Penny Plain’ by O Douglas – A Very Cozy Scottish Book
‘Penny Plain’ by O Douglas was published in 1920 and is the story of the young and poor Jardine family, who live in a quaint cottage in the lowland town of Priorsford, in the Scottish Borders. Jean Jardine, the eldest member of the family is in her early twenties and from a very young age, after the demise of both her parents, was given the charge of looking after her younger brothers. They are – David (off to Oxford), Jock (a fourteen year old) and Gervase Taunton – a small step brother.
For Jean, life is full of the niggling worries of having to scrimp and save, to do without and to make ends meet. They live in a delightful and unusual Scottish cottage called ‘The Rigs’ with a front room shaped like the prow of a ship and slightly elevated, so it almost looked high to the hills in the distance.
Jean and her family love The Rigs so much that they live in constant fear of their landlord demanding to turn them out and asking them to look for alternative lodging.
Despite her cares, Jean has a magnetic personality, concerned about the needs of her elderly neighbours, taking part in town activities, making calls and enjoying the small joys of life.
The town of Priorsford is astir, however, when a certain Lady Pamela comes to stay as a paying guest in the lodgings of old Bella Bathgate – the Jardine’s next door neighbour. Lady Pamela comes to Priorsford to escape the frivolity of social life in London and a boring, middle aged lover.
Lady Pamela delights in the simple yet satisfying life in small town Priorsford. She befriends all of Priorsford residents – many of them frail, retired and elderly. Some of them even grieving the loss of beloved family members in the aftermath of the War. Most of all, Pamela becomes part of the Jardine family and her interest and love for Priorsford becomes infectious and spreads to other members of her immediate family who come to visit.
In a turn of events, Jean shows great kindness to a complete stranger, a mysterious old man who turns up at their doorstep and as a result – their lives undergo an immense sea change as a result of her good deed.
‘Penny Plain’ has romantic entanglements and love interests like all the best stories. There’s also an opportunity to get to know the town’s busybody – the incorrigible Mrs Duff-Whaley, who has her finger in every village pie – be it amateur dramatics, tea parties, dinners or fundraisers.
Without giving too much way, the plot of ‘Penny Plain’ is a fairy tale. Though the plot, in my opinion is not central to the novel, the strength of this novel and of O Douglas’ writing is her ability to create realistic, believable, ordinary characters – replete with good characteristics and flaws. O Douglas also excels in weaving a compelling story around the inhabitants of a small community- it is an interesting sketch of a few families and their day to day concerns – typical of Jane Austen’s style. As the reader, we become involved in not only the concerns of the Jardine family but Priorsford at large. The book touches on subjects like wealth, fellow feeling, taking an interest in one’s neighbours joys as well as sorrows and learning to valiantly cope with life’s tragedies.
To me, reading ‘Penny Plain’ was the greatest comfort. I jumped straight into its sequel ‘Priorsford’ set ten years after the previous story. I can’t talk about it here because that would mean spoilers. It’s set over an entire winter in Jean’s life and I found reading it extremely satisfying. I’ll be returning to this pair of book soon in the future because I did love reading them. Jean seemed to have the perfect personality along with her share of human frailties and a zest for life and living. Do try and find these books of you can, in a used bookstore or as an e book, especially if you love old, cozy fireside stories.