My first foray into books that were published for adults takes me very close to home. I’ve known Peebles in the Scottish Borders since I was a very little girl living in Edinburgh. It’s somewhere I have a great affection for and have made many day trips to. So I didn’t discover the town because of any books but rather, on reading some set there, I immediately recognised it.
It’s pretty well known that O Douglas was the pseudonym of Anna Buchan, sister of John and resident of Peebles for many years. Many of her characters live in and around the town which she calls Priorsford. The first of her books I read (after much pushing by my Mum) was Penny Plain, the story of the Jardine family who live in the town. It’s not my favourite of her books but it is an enjoyable story of orphaned siblings and their friends and acquaintances. Jean, the only girl, is twenty three. She looks after her younger brothers and seems much older than her years. By rights she should be unbearable – she’s dedicated, kind, thoughtful, generous, good… But she’s also an engaging conversationalist and genuinely interested in the people around her.
We meet the Jardines as David is packing to leave for Oxford, an event that occasions mixed feelings in them all. On the same evening they, and we, hear that a lodger is coming to the house next door. She turns out to be the Honourable Pamela Reston, sister of Lord Bidborough, whose late mother was from the Borders. In spite of the difference in their ages and backgrounds, Pamela and Jean become friends and it’s through the former’s eyes that we are introduced to Priorsford. Pamela and Jean each learn from the other and each finds a husband in the course of the book.
O Douglas has the reputation of having written gentle, domestic tales and certainly they are not books full of drama. But I have said before, and I’ll say again, Anna Buchan was nobody’s fool. She understood what the world was like and knew how desperate an existence many people had. She might not have chosen to write about that but all her books have that knowledge lying underneath them and there are plenty of caustic comments slipped in.
There’s a sequel to Penny Plain, called Priorsford. In it Jean and her children come back to live temporarily in the town while Lord Bidborough accompanies a friend who has been ill on a long voyage. Pamela, now married to Jean’s cousin, lives nearby and we meet again many of the characters from the first book. It has a wonderful feeling of returning home for me as well as Jean. I so enjoyed reading more about the town. We see it more fleetingly too in Pink Sugar and, one of my favourites, The House that is Our Own. As I read chapter twelve of that book, I can follow Isobel Logan in my mind’s eye as she makes her first visit to the town, so true to life is it.
One December, about ten years ago, I rented a cottage in Peebles for a week. It was on the banks of Tweed, just down the hill from the High Street. Every morning I went for a walk, sometimes along the river, sometimes to the shops, sometimes for a saunter round the more residential streets. In the afternoons I wrote Christmas cards and letters and a few of my local friends came for tea. And in the evenings, I drew the curtains, lit the fire, read favourite books and watched the snooker. Apart from that last, I felt as though I were living in an O Douglas novel. Part of me expected to meet Jean and Pamela or Kirsty Gilmour or Isobel Logan walking in the town.