‘Penny Plain’ and ‘Priorsford’ by O Dougas – A Cozy Visit to the Scottish Borders

‘Penny Plain’ and ’Priorsford’ by O Douglas

‘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.

‘Carrie’s War’ by Nina Bawden

Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden

‘Carrie’s War’ is the story of a young evacuee’s personal struggles

‘Carrie’s War’ by Nina Bawden is a story about a young girl’s personal struggles, adjusting to a strange new life as an evacuee in the home of Welsh family during World War 2. The book is an evocative picture of life on the home front, especially the stirring account of transplantation of so many young British school children, at a very young and impressionable age. 

The Setting of Carrie’s War

Life for young Carrie Willow and her younger brother Nick, undergoes an enormous upheaval when they are put upon a train in the company of a trainload of London evacuees, a group of young children in the company of their schoolteacher, towards an unknown destination in the heart of Wales, far away from the scare of sudden wartime bombing. 

They arrive in a sleepy Welsh coal-mining village and are billeted to the home of a curmudgeonly Welsh shopkeeper, who lives with his spinster younger sister – Auntie Lou to the children. Mr Evans is extremely controlling and miserly. The children must creep about the house and they are not allowed to even use the upstairs bathroom during the daytime, in fear of trampling on and spoiling the carpeted staircase. An outdoor lavatory, at the end of the garden must do the job, even in cold weather. Homelife is extremely oppressive and I think, would have been intolerable, if not for the love shown by tender hearted Auntie Lou, who is scared of her brother.

The children visit Mr Evan’s elder sister’s home- Druid’s Bottom- a mysterious, secretive place, magically located in a secluded grove by the train tracks. 

Mr Evan’s elder sister, Dilys Gotobed, is a widow, confined to her bed and looked after by a woman called Hepzibah Green. Hepzibah Green is not only a caregiver and housekeeper, she also takes care of the Gotobed’s nephew – a young boy with a disability – Johnny Gotobed. Hepzibah envelopes Druid’s Bottom with such an air of warmth and comfort, that it is a joy for the children to visit there. There is always the promise of good home cooked food, a roaring fire and a friendly face telling all sorts of mystical tales at Druid’s Bottom. 

Some of these mystical tales are fraught with terrible curses and tales of superstition that haunt Druid’s Bottom. 

Carrie in particular feels that it is her calling to heal the rift between Mr Evan’s and his elderly sister and in trying to do so – she does something that will haunt her for the rest of her life. 

When Carrie revisits the sleepy old mining town many years later with her own children, will she able to forgive herself and be able to reconstrue events that happened many many years ago?

‘Carrie’s War’ was a good book, well written with an interesting plot but for me the point of main interest was the event of the evacuee children being sent to far flung corners of the country to escape the threat of bombs. As a parent it seems rather a hard pill to swallow, to resign oneself to being separated from one’s children to strangers – and what struck me as extraordinary was the calm with which Carrie’s mother let go of her children. However, we are well aware given the events of the past year, of how extreme events can lead to extraordinary decisions and modes of living life. From my perspective, it seems an unacceptable form of separation in the here and now, but perhaps being a Londoner with the threat of the Blitz hovering over my head, I would have convinced myself to put my little children on a train to the far reaches of the country. One can only hope that a person like Mr Evans would not have been the caregiver at the end of the line. 

Carrie’s War is a book well worth reading. The characters, sometimes larger than life are well crafted. There is an absorbing plot. The social and period details and the time and place of the novel are well done and there are pockets of coziness, warmth and so many descriptions of good food to lift one’s mood. 

Ultimately it is the tale of Carrie’s personal struggles, in a new environment and hostile territory that make this book so compelling to read. 

Best Books of 2020

Top Books of 2020
Top books of 2020

A month or so late, but here nevertheless, are my best books of 2020. It’s been hard to narrow down my top books of 2020 and I’ve chosen them based on how much I enjoyed and will choose to re-read them over any other form of merit. Do let me know if you enjoy any of these books yourself.

Here in no particular order are:

My Top 10 Books of 2020

 1)Business as Usual by Jane Oliver

‘Business as Usual’, is told in the epistolary format from the point of view of a shopgirl working in the Book department of a major London departmental store (modelled after Selfridges). Due to her use of initiative, education and common sense the young shop girl rises through the ranks of the store, much to the wrath of her peers and delight of the reader.

The book is set in the time of the Great Depression and is told in a witty, charming style. The book reminded me a little of my favourite Diary of a Provincial Lady and Mrs Tim’s Diaries. This is just a lovely, lovely book. So endearing and just what I needed during this year. A lovely publication from Handheld Press.

2)The Proper Place by O Douglas

What an astonishingly beautiful book and one that is relatively unknown!

‘The Proper Place’ by O Douglas was a soft, soothing book, full of romance and the appreciation of everyday life and things. 

A landed aristocratic family are rooted from their family homestead and are transplanted to a small house overlooking the sea in a Scottish seaside town. The village has lots of ordinary people and this is the story of the new friendships made and comforts drawn from kindness and fellow feeling. The protagonist of the book, young Nicole has an optimistic, sunny and kind personality. She befriends each and everyone of the village residents. This almost feels like a small Jane Austen novel. The formula of a small village and a handful of characters applies here.

This is a sunny, warming and moving read.

3)Vittoria Cottage by DE Stevenson

‘Vittoria Cottage’ by DE Stevenson was such a joy to read. The book was the first in the Dering trilogy.

Vittoria Cottage tells the story of widowed Caroline. She leads a simple but contented life in the Scottish Countryside. She has two daughters and a son who works abroad.

It would seem she has everything in life but love. A newcomer, a man called Robert comes to stay at their quiet Scottish village and his past is shrouded in mystery. Slowly Caroline  learns that she is not as contented as she thought she was with her quiet life.

The descriptions of Caroline’s life, home and garden and her love of finding joy in the small things were my favourite things about the novel. 

4)Fell Farm Campers by Marjorie Lloyd

This book reminded me somewhat of an Austen novel. A few people in a small village and a few probable couples. What it does lack is Austen’s sparkling dialogue. I found Stevenson’s style of writing to be more mellow in this book (as compared to Miss Buncle and Mrs Tim). But I don’t mind this mellow style of writing with a lack of  intricate plot either.

I fell in love with this little book set in the Lake District. The stories are a little reminiscent of the Arthur Ransome stories in that the location is similar. The children here have land adventures rather than adventures in sailing. This reminded me a little of Swallowdale and Pigeon Post in this respect. A group of children who are all part of one family – two sets of twins and a singleton, take advantage of their holiday time and camp near Fell Farm, rigging tents, cooking meals and enjoying countryside activities like races and hiking. One of the chapters describes a long hike across Bowfell and Langdale Pikes. One of the children is a bird enthusiast. The adventures are simple and describe the terrain using the actual names in great detail. A great treat to read for someone who is wanting more Arthur Ransome like adventures!

5)Miss Mole by EH Young

Miss Mole is a middle aged woman, a bit down on her luck and finding herself out of a job, all of a sudden. She accepts a job as a housekeeper/governess to a vicar’s family – the vicar being a widower. There are two girls and one boy under Miss Mole’s care and they all have troubles of their own. As Miss Mole tries to solve the troubles of the young family we learn more and more about Miss Mole herself, a few of her prospective love interests and a few surprising things about her past.

At once, this book is a funny yet tragic novel. It lays bare all of Miss Mole’s insecurities, her losses and the reason behind her leading such a sorry life. 

Miss Mole is a quirky character in the style of the Provincial Lady, the protagonist in The Lark, Cassandra in I Capture the Castle, Mrs Tim and a host of other lovable characters.

Slightly humorous, slightly quirky, slightly Mary Poppins- ish, and very sad – this is a wonderful, wonderful novel.

6)Nella Last’s War by Nella Last

I’ve read ‘Nella Last’s War’ (edited by Broad and Fleming) during July and can’t tell you how much I loved reading it. I read a lot of WW2 diaries but this one struck me as being very special.

Perhaps the reason was that the lady behind the diary, struck me as extremely vulnerable, stating quite clearly her hopes and fears, worries and ambitions.

She also struck me as a very down to earth woman, a woman who appreciated the little things in life. One of her most favourite things was to visit Lake Coniston every Sunday and enjoy the peacefulness there. She was extremely resourceful, working tirelessly at the Woman’s Voluntary Service, the canteen and a Red Cross Shop. She was also very thrifty – making the best of wartime rationing. Her pride and joy were her two sons – one of whom was in active service. 

Nella Last was incredibly prolific as a writer. She wrote these diaries as part of the government’s Mass Observation project. Her diaries are one of the most detailed and useful to this day. She talks about a gamut of social issues, she talks about her pets, War shelters, sex and her difficult relationship with her husband. I find the editing in this edition to be wonderful – full of useful foot notes about political events in the war.

Highly recommend as one of the best WW2 diaries I have read.

7) Drawn from Memory by EH Shepard

Drawn from Memory’ features a year in the life of eight year old EH Shepard (famous illustrator of the Winnie the Pooh books among others) – a halcyon age in a terraced house in London with his siblings and loving parents. Shepard spent his spare time riding his wooden horse with wheels – ‘Septimus’ on the flagstone path in front of their house and observing the buzz of London life around him. It was the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and the festivities are wonderfully captured, both in Shepard’s words and images. A holiday at a Kentish farm, descriptions of Christmas celebrations at home, school life and much more make this book particularly delightful. It is a charming period piece, bringing to life Victorian traditions and customs, made particularly poignant by the knowledge that Shepard would soon lose his beloved mother. On each and every page, there are glorious illustrations which bring Shepard’s musings to life. 

8) O, The Brave Music by Dorothy Evelyn Smith (Best Fiction Book of 2020)

Probably my most favourite book of the year goes to ‘O, The Brave Music’ by Dorothy Evelyn Smith. 

O The Brave Music’ is a coming of age novel about a young child who experiences a number of losses, early on in her life. Despite the extraordinary and quite oppressive  circumstances of her childhood, this is a joyous novel which is rooted in the firm and deeply devotional love for a boy, five years her senior. A have a more in depth review here.

9) Sally’s Family by Gwendoline Courtney

Gwendoline Courtney was a new author to me, discovered partly from my interest in the Girls Gone By Publishing backlist and partly from reviews from several enthusiastic Bookstagrammers.

It’s a story about a family of young children, orphaned and separated during the War, who are brought together by their eldest sister, who takes care of them in a house in an English village. The reason I had wanted to read this – is special Christmas chapter. In fact one of the earlier vintage editions of this book had a gorgeous Christmassy cover.

A really heartwarming, cozy family story, extolling the values of compassion, care, hard work, family and much more. 

10) Black Hunting Whip by Monica Edwards

Another discovery from the GGBP backlist and a fantastic read for me was Monica Edward’s ‘Black Hunting Whip’. 

My last read of 2020 was Monica Edward’s ‘Black Hunting Whip’. I’d been searching for this title for a few years and my brother sent it to me as a Christmas present. It is set around Christmastime which makes it an appropriate read too! 

It turned out to be one of my favourite books of the year. Cozy, charming, part mystery, part countryside book with lots of animals I just loved the writing and fell in love with the characters. If you are interested in reading a major spoiler free review – you can read more here.

‘Cider With Rosie’ by Laurie Lee

Laurie Lee’s wonderful evocation of his childhood, in a small Cotswold village in ‘Cider With Rosie’ was a memorable recent read. 

The book starts in the wake of the First World War. Lee was at the time just a small boy of three. There is a quite mesmerising description of Lee being handed down from the cart that brought them to their crumbling Cotswold cottage, and him standing in the grass in a field in front of his house – grass so tall in the month of June that it towered over his head – ‘each blade tattooed with tiger-skins of sunlight’. 

Each recapitulation is so vivid that it really set’s the reader’s imagination ablaze with heady imagery. The prose is packed with descriptors that really bring to life every sensory detail. Laurie Lee takes us down memory lane. One by one the people, places and incidents of his childhood are recounted but in a way, that immerses us in the landscape- to witness the peculiar activities of the elderly old ladies who are their close neighbours (Granny Trill and Granny Wallon), to hear and feel the rush of rain, clap of thunder of a great storm that practically submerges their low lying cottage, and to breathe in and taste the heady flavour of cider from the bounty of apples from the valley. 

It is not an entirely bucolic evocation of a perfect childhood. There are plenty of disturbing stories of village incidents, criminal activities, death, poverty and decay. Some of them are harrowing to say the least. But I would say, that one takes away a rather sunny, if realistic, snapshot on the whole, of childhood in the Cotswold village. 

Some of the people we meet in ‘Cider With Rosie’ seem larger than life. Granny Trill and Granny Wallon are the family’s neighbours – and Laurie Lee certainly conjures them up as having slightly spooky, witch-like characteristics – Granny Wallon distilling fine wines from the wild growth of the surrounding fields and hedges – cowslips, dandelions, elderflower and more. Granny Trill on the other hand followed a weird and wonderful primitive schedule – breakfasting at the crack of dawn and going to bed at 5 pm. Granny Trill also told weird and wonderful stories and took snuff out of a snuff box that the boys surreptitiously stole. 

Lee’s Mother was an extraordinary, slightly eccentric woman who took care of her husband’s children from her first marriage and those of her own marriage, singlehandedly. It is true that there were a number of older step sisters who took care of the young brood- of which Laurie Lee or ‘Loll’ as he was affectionately called was one. Their Father left the family and never came back. Their Mother, started life as a housemaid and served the gentry for several years in various country houses before accepting a position as a housekeeper to their Father’s household. She frequently recalled the fine details of the serving dishes, silverware, food and customs of the gentry. She later retained this affection for beautiful things and would often haunt auctions and sales for bargain treasures, which would grace their ramshackle Cotswold cottage – strewn with arts and artefacts, plants and flowers . Always short of money, the children would be sent to their neighbours for a bit of salt or some spare change to make ends meet. 

Lee’s Mother had a keen eye for beauty, a love for poetry, music and nature. She was a true romantic and spent her entire life waiting for her husband to come back to her. 

The chapter describing the tradition of carol singing by the young boys of the village is a classic extract, gracing many of the best Christmas anthologies. I was delighted to read it within the context of Lee’s memoir. Just as memorable, is the description of summer, the harvesting of apples, the making of cider, the long walks and picnics through the valley. The change of seasons and the beauty that accompanies them are described evocatively in the book. 

There are many other intimate moments, too numerous to describe in this review that make this book very special. The people, sense of place and incidents are remarkable but the whole is lifted to another plane of excellence by Laurie Lee’s exceptional gift for prose – poetic and uplifting. ‘Cider With Rosie’ is a little gem of a book – to be re read ever so often – to glean new and wondrous details. 

My edition of ‘Cider With Rosie’ was a press copy from Slightly Foxed but all opinions are my own.

‘Rhododendron Pie’ by Margery Sharp

‘Rhododendron Pie’ is the story of young Ann Laventie, the youngest child in the artistic and well to do Laventie family, who does not fit the artistic mould of the rest of the family. The book addresses her internal struggles of whether or not to break off from the family ideal or to embrace a life and attitude, more fitting with her disposition. 

The Laventie family are outsiders in the small and sleepy village on the Sussex Downs, where the family and is predecessors have lived for many years. There is a touch of snobbery in this dissociation, in that the family choose to separate themselves from the village folk and see themselves as a class apart from everyone else. Hence, friendly fellow feeling with neighbours has never really been advocated – rather artistic people from London circles and beyond inhabit ‘Whitenights’ – the Laventie home – and provide intellectual succour to its inhabitants.

There are three Laventie children. Elizabeth, the eldest (25 at the beginning of the story) is a literary critic, Dick the middle child, a sculptor, and Ann – the youngest Laventie child (aged 20 in the story) has no evident talent – except for a deep appreciation of life and what makes life more interesting.

When the children were young, they struck upon a tradition of having a pie filled with flowers for their respective birthdays. The idea was Elizabeth’s but it soon spread to Dick and in turn to Ann. Dick’s Pie had heliotropes and it fell to Ann’s lot to have rhododendron pie for her birthday.

Although the other two children thrilled at the sensation and whimsy of having inedible flowers in their birthday pies, Ann fought hard to suppress her feeling of disappointment in the contents of her pie – she wanted nothing more than cloves and the sweetness of apples to savour and enjoy. 

When the story starts in earnest, the children are all grown up and are ready to spread their wings into the world. Elizabeth flourishes as a literary critic and takes up a flat in London to mix with the literary set. Dick is a sculptor having many female admirers and Ann befriends Gilbert Croy, a up and coming film maker who stays at Whitenights for months on end – ‘for inspiration’. 

One should mention the children’s mother. She is a quiet industrious woman who is sadly disabled. Unknowingly to the family and the whole world, she is the one who looks into the smooth running of the Laventie household, the hundred and one tedious domestic details that create such an appealing atmosphere at Whitenights. Without her ministrations the Laventie’s would not enjoy the comforts of the home and feel inspired to be so creative. 

Ann is the only member of the Laventie family who has a close friendship with other people in the village. Since childhood she has a close friendship with the members of the Gayford clan. Elizabeth and Dick turn down their noses at their company but Ann rather enjoys spending time with the friendly and homely family, particularly John Gayford who is clearly besotted with Ann.

Things come to a head when Ann must decide whether or not she must embrace a bohemian, artistic attitude to life or follow her heart and enjoy life in the style she see’s fit. 

I really enjoyed this novel and I thought it was a remarkably well constructed debut novel for Margery Sharp. Apart from the writing, and touches of whimsy that we expect from Margery Sharp, I thought Sharp developed quite a succinct theme for her book. I particularly enjoyed how we saw the beauty of the world and the simple enjoyment Ann gleaned from everyday life – be that in the appreciation of nature, the home, simple pastimes or time spent with friends and family. Ann didn’t have the quirky charm of Cluny Brown or the whimsical appeal of Martha – but she was a finely created Sharp protagonist.

There’s an incident in the book where Ann disappears into a secret spot of hers on a window seat in the attic with a large puzzle and two bananas. This is the way that Ann likes to spend time by herself. There’s a description of how Ann likes to approach doing a puzzle that for some reason just really appealed to me – perhaps because I like doing puzzles in the same way. Sometimes the smallest of cozy ordinary details about living – really add enjoyment to the book. Similarly, Ann spends time on the Sussex Downs with John, or an afternoon at a seaside town or in a London with friends – ans I found all these descriptions very enjoyable.

I look forward to reading the other Furrowed Middlebrow- Margery Sharp releases soon. 

I received an e book Press copy of ‘Rhododendron Pie’ from Dean Street Press but all opinions about the book are my own. 

Black Hunting Whip by Monica Edwards

I’ve been collecting Monica Edward’s books for a few years now. I hit upon a stack of Armada paperbacks at a used book sale one year and didn’t realise till much later what a treasure they were. 

When I wanted to start reading the books, I researched the book titles and found there were two main series – The Punchbowl Farm series and the Romney Marsh books. I also understood that there was a degree of crossover between the two series – with characters from one series being found to crop up in the other. 

So I looked for the first title in the Punchbowl Farm series – and found that ‘Black Hunting Whip’ was a good place to start, with ‘No Mistaking Corker’ being a prequel to the series set on Punchbowl Farm. I also found out from many sources that ‘Black Hunting Whip’ was a good book to read at Christmastime, being set in and around that season. I’ve been searching for a fair few years for ‘Black Hunting Whip’ and this year my brother was able to send me a copy published by Girls Gone By Publishers for Christmas. It arrived just after Christmas of 2020 and the days in between Christmas and New Year were pleasantly spent reading this little gem.

‘Black Hunting Whip’ is a children’s story set in the location of a farm, nestled deep in a Surrey valley. Surrounded by apple orchards and built of quarry stone, the foundations of Punchbowl Farm harked back to Tudor times. On a whim, after bidding the final price at an auction, Mrs Thornton finds herself the owner of this derelict farmhouse, with its surrounding fields and meadows. The entire family, Mother, Father and four children relocate to the English countryside, to this very old farmhouse and overgrown land. 

While digging the old foundations of the house for artefacts, the eldest boy Dion comes across a notebook, telling the tale of a young boy of his age, whose dream it was to wield his black hunting whip, a present from his deceased father and ride to victory at the local Guildford Show. Dion is determined to find the ancient hunting whip which is buried at a specific location on the farm. It’s a treasure hunt of sorts. Part history, part mystery and there are many clues along the way. 

The story is also about how the family adjust to living in a rundown farmhouse with no conveniences like running water or electricity. The book written after WW2 has many period details which are charming, details of village life that are interesting. There are of course horses and then cows and other farm animals. All the children love to ride and so there are smaller stories related to the care and well-being of the animals. The book is set around Christmas time – so that too is lovely to read. Preparations for Christmas, details of Christmas presents and food eaten are enjoyable.

This book is so much more than a pony book. Horses play a smaller part in this particular book. The main plot centres around the black hunting whip and its history and the quest to find it. Family, animals, nature all play a part in making this such a good read. The characters are well fleshed out and I believe many of the incidents are based on real life events that occurred in Monica Edward’s own life although things have been modified. She did indeed purchase a farm, similar in description to Punchbowl Farm.

The illustrations were particularly charming. The picture of Punchbowl farm nestled down in its valley helped me to visualise the beauty of the location. Fireside, candlelit pictures of the entire family sitting down to their meal were endearing. There was one particular illustration that depicts the funny incident of the children trying to spy in the upstair’s bedroom of a neighbour of theirs (I promise you there’s a reason for this) by climbing atop a horse and then the shoulders of a sibling – and then being caught in the act by a village person! I like the character of Mother and that of Dion and Lindsey. Most of all I liked the feeling of family closeness. 

I look forward to reading more books in this series and by Monica Edwards. Let’s hope I find the next book in the series sooner! Thank goodness I

‘O The Brave Music’ by Dorothy Evelyn Smith

‘O The Brave Music’ by Dorothy Evelyn Smith is a coming of age novel about a young child who experiences a number of losses, early on in her life. Despite the extraordinary and quite oppressive  circumstances of her childhood, this is a joyous novel which is rooted in the firm and deeply devotional love that she feels for a boy, five years older than her.

I wanted to write about this novel a day or two after I finished. I always find that it is hard to talk objectively about a novel that you strongly connect with, leaving you tongue-tied in instances. I become so involved with the characters and the story that it is difficult for me to talk about the novel constructively and I don’t want to merely gush about how much I adored the novel. However, I will try to put down my thoughts on paper…

The story of her life is told to us by Ruan Ashley in retrospect and she tells her tale in quite a sentimental, emotional voice. Although she relates the events of her life starting from the time when she was seven years old there are instances in which she jumps forward and reveals which turn her life takes in the future. For instance, quite early on in the novel, Ruan reveals the story of how she first met the love of her life. Rather than take away the surprise element of the story, I found these revelations to quite build up the emotional tension in the novel.

Sylvia and Ruan are the daughters of a non-conformist minister. They have an infant brother who has some kind of disability – we are not told about this clearly – but baby Clem cannot talk or walk like other children his age. The children’s mother is a beautiful woman, a skilled equestrian from a wealthy, landed family. However, by picking up the mantle of being a minister’s wife, in a run-down Manse, which is part of an impoverished neighbourhood. She misses the comfort, affluence and leisure of her previous life and after a few years her love for her husband is dimmed by a life of perpetual denial and hardship. The marital discord between the couple is quite evident, forming an uncomfortable shadow over the family.

Sylvia, the older daughter is beautiful like her mother and her only ambition in life is to marry a rich man and have many children. Ruan, only wants to read and write books and to spend time with her one true love – a boy called David.

David, an orphan, is the ward of a wealthy businessman and they live in a modern house on the extremities of town that is on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. A large part of Ruan’s childhood is spent in David’s home under the care of his older step-sister, especially during holidays. For Ruan, David’s house becomes a second home. They roam freely on the wild Yorkshire moors, make friends with the local village folk and it is here that David and Ruan forge their strong bond of friendship. The love that Ruan feels for David is one of great devotion and it is this love that lends her strength despite all the debacles that life places in her path. For life does present tremendous sorrow to Ruan and it is her love that is her salvation.

It’s quite hard to discuss this novel without giving away too many spoilers so I’ll refrain from revealing too much about the plot twists. 

‘O The Brave Music’ is a coming of age novel and the novel has been compared to ‘I Capture the Castle’ and ‘Guard Your Daughters’ by Simon David Thomas who is also series consultant for this excellent series. Certainly all the young female narrators in these three books have strong personalities, all of them with quite original voices and a way of very candidly expressing emotion, which is quite endearing. However, I would say that the feeling of melancholy pervading ‘O The Brave Music’ was quite deep – sometimes I was reminded of the hardships of Jane Eyre. Some of the descriptions of the Yorkshire moors was certainly reminiscent of ‘Wuthering Heights’, along with its pent-up passions. Another theme of the novel was that of loss and abandonment and it was particularly hard to see Ruan cope with these emotions so bravely during her young life.

Another emotion that is described most evocatively is that of Ruan wanting something very badly in life and then delaying the gratification of fulfilling her wish. She consoles herself with the thought that prolonging the realisation of certain dreams at least allows her to dream of them and hold on to them, rather than have them destroyed by unavoidable circumstances. These tender moments of philosophy that touch this book make it ever so special.

The topic of childhood love was dealt with great sensitivity in the book too. At no point in the novel do we feel that the love between David and Ruan is inappropriate. This is often quite a tricky topic for authors to address and Smith manages to convey the feeling of great love without any sexual undertones in her story.

I particularly enjoyed Ruan’s rather feminist character. Born at a time when marrying well was considered an achievement for women, Ruan is cast in a very different mould. Here is a heroine who cuts her hair short, wears boyish clothes and wants to educate her mind with books. I’ve always enjoyed bookish references within books. The multitude of books that Ruan received and collected was another lovely little detail of this novel. 

At the heart of the story, ‘O The Brave Music’ is a story about love. Ruan’s great love for certain members of her family, David, her books and the Yorkshire moors. But I think it  is quite an original love story and one I will remember for many days. Dorothy Evelyn Smith mingles intricate  social detail along with domestic detail and weaves an elaborate and often heart wrenching story. This will probably be my most favourite novel of the year and I’m still struggling to articulate why. Perhaps the best and most emotional novels do that to us. 

‘O The Brave Music’ by Dorothy Evelyn Smith was a gift from British Library Publishing and is part of the British Library Women Writers series, directed at shining a light on works of female writers that were popular in their time. As always, all opinions expressed about the book are my own.

‘Miss Plum and Miss Penny’ by Dorothy Evelyn Smith

Yesterday I finished ‘Miss Plum and Miss Penny’ written by Dorothy Evelyn Smith and republished by Dean Street Press as part of the Furrowed Middlebrow Collection. The e-book has been sent to me for review.

First of all I want to alert everyone that this particular book is the perfect one to read in the lead up to the Christmas season. The book starts two months before Christmas Day, on the day of Miss Penny’s fortieth birthday and most of the major events happen around and after Christmas. This is hence the perfect festive read.

The story introduces us to the world of Miss Alison Penny, unmarried and leading a comfortable life in the small Yorkshire village of Greeth, in a house, romantically called ‘The Laurels’ bequeathed to her by her parents. Alison Penny wants for nothing in life, except a suitable romantic interest. On the day of her birthday, her most pressing problem is with whom she shall while away the few hours of the evening, in front of the television. Will it be her faithful maid of many many years, Ada, the retired and slightly hypochondriacal bachelor, Stanley Hartley or the village vicar – the widowed Hubert Sturgess? 

All things come to a pass however, when Miss Penny steps into the village park on her birthday morning and thereby rescues a suicidal woman from drowning herself in the duck pond. Unsure of how to deal with the situation, kind hearted Miss Penny, decides to bring Miss Victoria Plum home. Since, Miss Plum has no relations, no friends and no place in the world- this seems to be the best option to her.

Miss Plum is brought home, much to Ada’s consternation and Miss Penny and Ada help her to regain her health and strength in a long convalescence. However, in the lead up to Christmas, Miss Penny doesn’t have the heart to turn Miss Plum out, or help her find a job at the local employment agency. Everything is postponed till after Christmas, especially as Miss Plum seems likely to have hysterics whenever the future is mentioned.

Ada and Alison both fall ill simultaneously and in that instance, Miss Plum nurses them back to health. Though her efforts at housekeeping aren’t up to Ada’s standards, she does seem eager to please and certainly seems aware of where things are kept and how the house is run. Everyone wonders about the new member residing at The Laurels. Hubert and Stanley are asked to help in resolving Miss Plum’s future but everyone’s plans are disturbed when a mysterious stranger from Miss Penny’s past, knocks on her doorstep on Christmas Eve and threatens to disturb the delicate balance of things at The Laurels and in the village, in general. 

Though the book is centred around Miss Penny’s simple life in the small Yorkshire village of Greeth, it is noteworthy that the title of the story is ‘Miss Plum and Miss Penny’ and not the other way around. Definitely, the character of Miss Plum is at the centre of affairs in the book. The reader’s sympathies wax and wane for Miss Plum as the story progresses. She certainly seems very alone in the world but is she more manipulative than is apparent at first glance? Why is it that the interests and sympathies of the entire village menfolk are aroused by Miss Penny’s predicament? What quality does Miss Penny possess, that makes her the centre of attention in Greeth?

I won’t say much more because this would reveal too much about the plot but suffice it to say that I thought that the writing and the character development in this book were excellent. Each individual character was beautifully fleshed out and seemed so real. I loved the quirks of character in the old-aged bachelor Stanley Hartley. So pernickety and used to having his comforts arranged ‘just-so’, it was a delight to read about his life and his domestic arrangements. At the other end of the spectrum was the widowed vicar and his estranged teenage son – in dire need of home comforts. Even minor characters were so well drawn. 

I found Miss Penny’s predicament most interesting – to give up the comforts of hearth and home or lead a more adventurous, exciting life abroad with a rakish character? Luckily, for Miss Penny, she was a woman of independent means, and she didn’t need to resort to the path of marriage as her only salvation, like many others.

On the surface, Miss Plum and Miss Penny is a delight of a story. Set in a charming Yorkshire village in the autumn and winter – there are idyllic chapters of night time carol singing, skating on frozen lakes in the depths of midwinter. Below these layers though, this is a more serious story about women and their struggle for financial independence. It is a story about homelessness, loneliness and the choices that women make in life to secure their future. It is a story of personal worries, anxiety, the need to do good but also the conflicting emotion of not wanting one’s life rearranged to please someone else. 

I’m so pleased to have read this heartwarming story. In my opinion, one of the best from the Furrowed Middlebrow publications so far!

10 Ways I Plan to Keep My Child Preoccupied During Times of Coronavirus Induced Social Distancing

Noel Streatfeild - Laura Ingalls Wilder

I have an eight year old daughter and whilst she is a bookworm – it can be hard to keep her engaged during long periods of isolation, like those required during the Coronavirus social distancing recommendations.

I’m going to share ten tips on how I plan to keep my daughter engaged during these long periods of indoor time and I hope it will be helpful to some of you:

 

1) Read Books

It helps that my daughter is a bookworm and is happy reading for hours on end but I know that not every child is in the same situation. My daughter is still at that happy stage that she likes to enact scenes from her favourite books through her menagerie of soft toys. I could write a whole blogpost about her favourite books and will probably do so at one point. Some of her current favourite are : The Laura Ingalls Wilder Series, Chronicles of Narnia, ALL the Enid Blyton’s, Roald Dahl and so much more.

 

2) Make Puzzles

My daughter recently finished a large 250 piece Winnie the Pooh puzzle. Making puzzles can happily engage children for long stretches of time and also tests their problem solving skills. I helped my daughter with some hard bits. Having someone do the puzzle with you – is encouraging to them.

 

3) Listen to Audiobooks Together

I’m a big Arthur Ransome fan and have a beautiful hardcover set of his ‘Swallows and Amazons’ series. My daughter has her own paperback set too. A lovely way to spend some time is listen to chapters of the audiobook together whilst reading from your own editions.

 

4) Practice Your Drawing Skills via YouTube Videos

There are many lovely YouTube videos that share how to draw animals, cartoon characters, birthday cakes and so much more. Set kids up with drawing supplies and the video and they can hone their drawing skills all by themselves. This activity is SUCH a favourite with my daughter.

 

5) Give Kids a List of Chores

My daughter takes great pride in doing things by herself. Some of the chores she enjoys are – tidying her room (I might need to give her a bit more encouragement on this one), making herself a snack (sandwiches), watering the plants, folding clothes etc. Make a fun chores list with stickers and stars when they get the job done.

 

6) Play Boardgames

Our favourites are Ludo, Snakes and Ladders and Junior Scrabble. I still haven’t embarked on the endless game of Monopoly with her.

 

7) Have Afternoon Tea Together

Sharing the ritual of making and eating afternoon tea together can be fun. Make some sandwiches, have some small cakes and a cool refreshing drink at hand.

 

8) Make a Fun Playlist of Songs that Make You Want to Dance

My daughter loves all the current dance tracks (Maroon 5 and Ed Sheeran are some current favourites). Letting them dance off all that extra energy can be a good thing. I’m looking into sourcing some cool indoor strobe lights for added effect.

 

9) Provide Some Structure to Their Day

I find, at least for my child, that unless I give her day at home some structure – things can get a bit out of hand. I’m afraid I’m one of those mums who gives their child homework every day, even during the summer holidays. I find that without some feeling of having done some ‘work’ my child is unable to appreciate or give value to her ‘play time’.

Some learning activities that I think my child has benefited from have been learning poems, learning a new language (Bengali in her case), writing short essays, practising spelling, practising mental sums, writing short book reviews and learning from the atlas.

10) Screen Time

I do let my child have some screen time during holidays  but it’s always limited. Some of her favourite things to watch are still Disney classics, Winnie the Pooh, BBC Dramas, Swallows and Amazons, The Chronicles of Narnia and The Parent Trap.

I realise that not all children are the same and some of these points may not work for your child, but I do help that these tips can help you create alternative ideas to suit your child.

I’d love to hear your tips of keeping children occupied indoors.

February 2020 Month in Review

My February Diary

February was a very busy and challenging month but a good month overall. My parent’s both had minor surgeries so I was pre-occupied with that. The 8 year old had school sports and to her great joy actually won a silver medal in the Class 2 relay race. She displayed her medal the next day on the dresser with a hand written plaque in front of it – ‘Mehuli’s first medal’.

The highlights of the month included watching ‘Little Women’ at the cinema – oh so good! Reading ‘William’ by EH Young – do read it ! And having an article accepted for publication in an Indian magazine (I’ll share more soon).

I also got to meet up with a school friend visiting from San Francisco and it was great catching up. The weather changed into beautiful sunny, balmy weather. I was gifted three rose plants that are still alive and I made the husband buy me a Valentine’s present (of course a book). Read on, to discover more! Much love and hope you had a great February.

 

This is my month in review :

The Books I read in February:

1)The Chalet School in Exile by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Chalet School in Exile - Elinor M.Brent Dyer

I re-read ‘Chalet School in Exile’ after many years. It stills remains my most favourite Chalet School book with the thrilling flight from Austria at the outset of WW2 forming part of the plot line. What made reading the book even more special was reading in this unabridged Girls Gone By edition that contained a chapter I had never read before. What a treat!

 

William by E.H. Young

William by EH. Young

My first time reading an E.H. Young novel did not disappoint. Dealing with the topic of parental expectation and differential reactions to the news of a child’s decision to leave her husband and live with a lover, the book ‘William’ has discourses on morality that are deep and meaningful. Definitely going on my list as a contender for Best Books of 2020.

The Duke’s Children by Anthony Trollope

I was able to complete ‘The Duke’s Children’ by Anthony Trollope in the space of one calendar month. Yay! This was another book about the reactions of parent’s to the decisions their children make in choosing their life partners. I thought it was a fitting ending to the concluding book in the Palliser series.

Ichigo Ichie by Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles

Ichigo Ichie by Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles

‘Ichigo Ichie’ by Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles was my non-fiction pick of the month. The book describes the Japanese concept of Ichigo Ichie- or the art of cherishing each and every moment in life. I found it a helpful and comforting book.

Mixed Media in February

Podcasts

I listened to ‘Reading Resolutions’ – the January podcast from Slightly Foxed. Also Episode 81 of ‘Tea or Books’ – Style vs Plot and Living vs Loving by Henry Green. Though I haven’t read Henry Green, Simon and Rachel’s discourse didn’t leave me overly enthusiastic to put Henry Green’s novels on the TBR, any time soon.

Movies

I actually got to see Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’ at the cinema. I’ve written about it in the blogpost listed below. I absolutely loved it!

As I enjoy watching old black and white movies the most and don’t have the ability to concentrate on movies for protracted periods of time anymore, I’ve resolved this issue by watching movies in short bursts – whenever I have some downtime during the day. This month I watched ‘Meet John Doe’ by Frank Capra and I highly recommend it. The story is so heartwarming and the acting very good.

I’m looking forward to watching a few more next month as I easily get bored of many of the Netflix dramas.

Music

Our song of the month was ‘Senorita’ by Camilla Cabello and Shawn Mendes. This is a song that definitely makes you want to dance. On YouTube I’ve been watching the channel ‘Our Stupid Reactions’. A group of Americans react to videos on Indian culture. I find the videos very entertaining and enjoy the appreciation of our rich Indian culture, especially those on Indian Classical music.

What I Bought or Received in February

Book Haul - February 2020

Here are the second-hand books I bought or received in February. Some of course are my daughter’s but we always agree to share.

1) The Full Colour Edition of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘The First Four Years’ and

2) The Full Colour Edition of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘On the Banks of Plum Creek

3) ‘The Vicar’s Daughter’ by E.H. Young

4) ‘The Runaways’ (alternative title ‘Linnets and Valerians’) by Elizabeth Goudge

5) ‘White Boots’ by Noel Streatfeild

I also asked my husband for a Valentine’s Day present (shameless, I know!) and his gift was

6) ‘Bookworm’ by Lucy Mangan

Books received from publishers included:

7) ‘Ichigo Ichie’By Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles (gifted review copy)

8) ‘Business as Usual’ by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford (Handheld Press e-book gifted for review)

Posts I Published in February

I published three posts in February. The first – January Month in Review. The second post was an ode to watching the new Little Women movie. Lastly, a book review of the magical, fairytale – ‘A City of Bells’.

Diary of the Ordinary Happenings of a Kolkatan Lady – January 2020

Love and Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women’

Little Women - Louisa May Alcott - Love

Elizabeth Goudge’s Magical ‘A City of Bells’

A City of Bells - Elizabeth Goudge

The Highpoint of February

The high point of February was meeting up with a schoolfriend on her annual visit to Kolkata. She lives in the USA and five of our friends met up for a Valentine’s Day brunch and we did a gift swap. I came home with a lot of good memories, essential oils, face masks, body cream and tea.

 

Favourite Book Quote of February

“In my experience when people once begin to read they go on. They begin because they think they ought to and they go on because they must. They find it widens life. We’re all greedy for life, you know, and our short span of existence can’t give us all that we hunger for, the time is too short and our capacity not large enough. But in books we experience all life vicariously.”

~ Grandfather from ‘A City of Bells’

 

Ichigo Ichie was received as a review copy from Hachette India but all opinions are my own.