by O. Douglas (Anna Masterson Buchan)
I couldn’t take any pleasure in myself if my face were made up.” Pamela swung round on her chair and laid her hands on Jean’s shoulders. “Jean,” she said, “you’re within an ace of being a prig.
“Jean, I’m afraid you’re a chirping optimist. You’ll reduce me to the depths of depression if you insist on being so bright. Rather help me to rail against fate, and so cheer me.”
This started off fairly promisingly with the rich and fashionable but very likable and down-to-earth Miss Pamela Reston retreating to the small Scottish village of Priorsford because she has become bored with the social whirl of London and wants to rest and rediscover herself and the joy of living. Her exotic ways have quite an impact on the villagers there and vice versa. Of particular interest is the very well-read Jean Jardine, her next-door neighbor, and her little family who are genteelly poor, but very happy and delightful. Some of the initial exposition, Pamela’s description of the town and her new neighbors takes place in letters to her brother, Biddy, Lord Bidborough, who is on business in India. The tone reminded me of the letters compromising 2 Jean Webster books, Daddy Long Legs and Dear Enemy. Of course, we know that Pamela’s description of her new friend and her charming family is going to intrigue Biddy to no end and that he will come to Priorsford the first chance he gets to visit his sister and proceed to quickly fall in love with both Jean and her family. Unfortunately, the letters ceased way too soon. As the book’s focus shifted to Jean and her three brothers, It wasn’t long before it started to remind me of the children’s classic, Five Little Peppers and How They Grew.
This book was a mainstay of my childhood reading history. I read it over and over, loving it very much, although I was an adult before I could ever find the longed-for sequels to the original story, in which Polly Pepper and her family (3 brothers, and the youngest little sister Phronsie) grow up into upstanding citizens and get married. I won’t go into all of the parallels, but the main one is the utter and unremitting goodness of both Polly Pepper and Jean Jardine, the two heroines, and their self-sacrificing devotion to their brothers. But I am no longer an innocent and naive little girl appreciative of a stellar role model like Polly Pepper. Jean was just too good for me.
I was led to the author of Penny Plain by her association with a favorite “old-timey” author, D.E. Stevenson. Loving her novels, I am no stranger to lovely, kind, and good heroines. But I am afraid that Jean was just too much. I started to lose touch with her when she gave a bedraggled sad stranger a valuable and treasured book when he confides that it contains a song that his mother used to sing to him when he was a child. She pretty much lost me when she turned down Biddy’s inevitable marriage proposal because “We belong to different worlds” and also,
“My feelings,” said Jean, “don’t matter at all. Even if there was nothing else in the way, what about Davie and Jock and the dear Mhor? I must always stick to them—at least until they don’t need me any longer.”
Girl. But praise be, it turns out that the poor stranger was in fact a very wealthy but dying man who leaves his entire fortune to Jean because of her little act of generosity. Even though Jean and her little family have been living pretty much hand to mouth, she views this windfall not with joy and gratitude, but with suspicion and fear. She doesn’t want it. She is persuaded to see the value of her legacy (she can use the fortune to do good works and give to charity! Yay!) Eventually, she even buys a spiffy car and buys some nice clothes in Glasglow. Another big plus is that now she is worthy of Lord Biddy!
There were enough enjoyable things about this novel that kept me going to the end fairly happily. Most of the character sketches of the Jardines and their neighbors were well done and engaging. Most of the townspeople were very lovable and even the two flies in the ointment the snobby Mrs. Duff-Whalley and her shallow, fashionable, but surprisingly self-aware daughter were entertaining and had a few layers to their personality. I loved the wise and gentle parson and his merry big-hearted wife, Mrs. Macdonald, and their little story. She liked the place kept so tidy that her sons had been wont to say bitterly, as they spent an hour of their precious Saturdays helping, that she dusted the branches and wiped the faces of the flowers with a handkerchief. I was moved by how Jean helps Miss Abbot the dour local seamstress who is going blind but is too proud to ask for help. But sometimes the book took off on short tangents that had nothing to do with anything and added nothing to the plot or character development. Peter the beloved family dog going missing for example. It was further hampered by the use of archaic words and long passages written in the Scottish vernacular and in dialect, which unlike in most books set in Scotland that I have read, was largely indecipherable without a lot of effort and research. In addition, the book is littered with cultural and literary references that were no doubt familiar to readers of the day (World War I era) but which have since been lost to obscurity. (a song called Strathairlie, “Mary Slessor of Calabar”, Mrs. Wishart, Maggie Tulliver, Ethel Newcome, Beatrix Esmond, Clara Middleton, John Splendid, the Scylla of affectation nor the Charybdis of off-handedness, King Cophetua, and on and on. I looked up everything I didn’t “get”, or tried to. As an aside, Mary Slessor needs to have a movie made about her life.
If I had had a daughter, I would have given her this book to read as a child and been very happy if she liked it. But in the future, when I next want to read a wholesome old-fashioned novel, I’ll just stick with D.E. Stevenson or Elizabeth Cadell.
**2 1/2 stars**
P.S. In looking up Five Little Peppers for this review, I discovered that there was a series of movies based on their adventures and some of them are available on YouTube. Can’t wait! And I just may re-read the book.