Author: O. Douglas aka Anna Buchan
Publication: Kindle, originally published 1926
Setting: 1920s ScotlandDescription: The Rutherfurds were an energetic and happy family not long ago: Sir Walter, a pillar of the neighborhood; his quiet but much-admired wife, Lady Jane; two splendid sons; daughter Nicole; and niece Barbara Burt, who has been part of the family since childhood. However, Nicole’s brothers were killed in the war, and Sir Walter took their loss badly, faded away and died three months ago. There is no longer enough money to support the ancestral estate so the lawyer has persuaded Lady Jane to sell and move somewhere smaller and more manageable. As the story begins, the wife of a self-made prosperous businessman from Glasgow has come to inspect Rutherfurd with the idea of acquiring a country estate. Mrs. Jackson is sure her husband will like it, and she is charmed by 24-year-old Nicole’s tour and friendly demeanor.
The purchase goes forward and the Rutherfurds downsize to a small seaside town in Fife where they can have a fresh start, away from painful memories. The town of Kirkmeikle provides a new home and acquaintances for the three women, as well as a home they can furnish charmingly. Lady Jane is gracious to all while Barbara yearns for the family’s former status and friends of their own class. Nicole’s natural vivacity allows her to make friends with their quirky neighbors, enjoying people her cousin disdains. Mrs. Jackson eventually asks for help coping with the new neighbors she longs to impress, and the decision to visit her is life-changing.
My Impression: I found this book delightful – my first five-star book of 2021! I had picked up The Day of Small Things by O. Douglas in Cardiff nearly three years ago and someone recently told me I would enjoy it more if I began with The Proper Place, also about the Rutherfurds. It was good advice. I couldn’t decide what the book reminded me of: some of the descriptions of the inhabitants of Kirkmeikle were reminiscent of L.M. Montgomery and Nicole’s gallantry reminds me of Anne Shirley when she decides to stay in Avonlea to care for Marilla. It is not as lively or humorous as D.E. Stevenson’s books although there are some similarities. I liked the descriptions of house-hunting, how the Rutherfurds make their home inviting to guests, and how a thoughtful Christmas gift from Nicole (“I’m determined she will have at least one pretty thing in her possession”) to brusque Miss Symington leads to a complete makeover.
Nicole admits that leaving Rutherfurd is “so tragic that the only thing to do is to try and laugh. Mr. Haynes says we can’t afford to live in it, and our lawyer ought to know. It’s the Jacksons’ turn now, and we must go down with the lights up and the flags flying.” Of course, reduced circumstances in this type of book still include a lovely home with water view and three servants! Nicole and Barbara have £500 a year, apparently the equivalent of about £31,000 today so they are not destitute, plus Lady Jane has whatever the Jacksons paid for Rutherfurd. (On Goodreads, I have a "poor but honest" category but I really can't call the Rutherfords poor and Nicole would disdain the label.)
Hiding her sorrow at the loss of her former home, Nicole throws herself into making new friends locally, while Barbara yearns for the family’s old status and prefers to socialize with a smart family several miles away. Barbara has always suffered from being the niece instead of the daughter of the house but she has always been loved and treated as part of the family, unlike many poor relations, so it is hard to sympathize with her. Nicole makes her own happiness, which sustains her during difficult times.
Query 1: How could the Rutherfurds have brought themselves to sell the painting of Elizabeth of Bohemia along with their home? I suppose the title’s message of everything being in its proper place is that heirlooms belong to the house, not to the family, and that each member of the family belongs where she ends up but I could never have given it that painting! That was the second saddest part of the book!
Query 2: Mrs. Jackson takes her tea strong: “Servants’ tea, they tell me I take, when I laugh at the weak washy stuff people drink nowadays!” Is it low class to like your tea strong? Maybe because only the upper class could afford cream and sugar?
Source: Library. The Proper Place is also available via Project Gutenberg. Note that Douglas based the Kirkmeikle house on a real home in Fife and Katrina from Pining for the West includes a picture in her review of The Proper Place.