Monday 6 May 2013

Pink Sugar

A pink cover seems hgihly suitable for a
novel which rejoices in the title Pink Sugar.
My copy was published by Stodder nd

I may have mentioned this before, but I’ll say it again anyway: as a reader, I’m a sucker for a story with a happy ending. And I guess novelist O Douglas must have felt the same way, because one of the chapter headings in Pink Sugar is a quote from GK Chesterton which says: “The popular preference for a story with a happy ending is not a mere sweet stuff optimism: it is the remains of the old idea of the triumph of the dragon-slayer, the ultimate apotheosis of the man beloved of heaven.” So there you have it. Those of us who like slushy, mushy, happy-ever-after finales are not shallow airheads who can’t cope with reality – we’re tapping into folk memories which are buried deep within our psyche and are all about the victory of good over evil!

Anyway, Pink Sugar is a lovely, sweet, frothy concoction of a novel, offering a happy, cheerful view of life, and I loved it. Although I’ve read reviews of her work, I hadn’t come across Douglas before, and don’t really know much about her, but I gather this was her pen name, and she was really Anna Masterton Buchan, sister of adventure writer John Buchan. She was popular when she wrote her books in the 1920s and 30s, but has been forgotten since then which is a shame, because she deserves to be known in her own right rather than as an adjunct to her famous brother.

In this novel Douglas writes about the world she knew, and the small domestic concerns of her social class, where upper and middle class folk lead comfortable lives in pleasant surroundings with servants to care for them – and she does it very well. Pink Sugar may not be ‘great literature’ but it’s immensely enjoyable and very easy to read.

It centres on Kirsty Gilmour who is 30 but insists ‘you shouldn’t make me say it out loud’, and I warmed to her the moment I saw those words halfway down the first page because I know just how she feels as I’ve got a milestone birthday of my own approaching. The Big Day is tomorrow, and I’m considerably older than Kirsty, but I started the celebrations on Saturday when my two daughters whisked me off on a surprise day out to Oxford and a posh afternoon tea, and I had the most wonderful time, but I’m not going to reveal my age out loud, in print, or online. I’m a sensitive soul, and don’t want anyone except my nearest and dearest to know just how ancient I am!

So... back to the book. Kirsty has returned to Scotland after 22 years, spent first at boarding school, then in a series of ‘smart’ hotels as her stepmother wanders the globe seeking cures for her largely imaginary ailments. Following Lady Gilmour’s death Kirsty has enough money to indulge her wishes – and wishes to create a proper home of her own, with true friends rather than the hangers-on who have peopled her life in the past.

An art deco style frontispiece in my 1924
edition of Pink Sugar. 
She rents Little Phantasy, part of the Phantasy estate, decorates it stylishly, tastefully and, I assume, at great expense, then brings her maiden aunt to live with her and invites three motherless children and their governess to spend the summer with her while their grief-stricken father travels abroad. In addition she takes on a cook, a young girl who is ‘the help’, and Miss Wotherspoon, who ‘isn’t an ordinary parlour-maid’ but is a superior sort of woman who has come down the world, and would scare me witless if I met her!

As her warm, cosy house fills up with this instant family, Kirsty gradually gets to know her neighbours and determines that she will live her life with others. She’s a rather enchanting heroine, like a little girl lost, who has never had a home of her own, or felt loved and wanted, but suddenly finds she’s a fairy tale princess able to make her own dreams come true and to help others – whether or not they want to be helped. I guess that to anyone who didn’t know her well she could come across as being rather patronising, but she’s actually very vulnerable, hates to hurt people’s feelings and wants to be liked by everyone.

And if you’re wondering about a love interest, there’s the children’s father, kind, charming, good-looking Mr Crawford, and there’s curmudgeonly Colonel Home, Kirsty’s landlord, a war hero wounded in mind and body who seems to bring out the worst in his new tenant, which is surprising, since she is always nice to everyone, however great the provocation (but we all know which way the wind is blowing, and what she truly feels, even if she doesn’t realise it herself).

The novel features a host of wonderful characters that I’d love to meet. The three children, Barbara, Specky and Bad Bill, are utterly believable, while woolly-minded Aunt Fanny is delightful – she even looks like a sheep, and wears layers of fluffy shawls, and is constantly knitting. And just as I beginning to think Alice Through The Looking Glass, Bad Bill spots the connection and says she is the sheep who sat in the boat and knitted.

Despite appearances, the novel is not all sweetness and light. Douglas has a merciless way with social climbers, and beneath the surface there is poverty, deprivation and illness. The central characters may be warm, well-fed and seemingly care-free, but life is hard for many of the villagers, and some live in grim conditions. And who could fail to be moved by the fate of beautiful young Nannie Tait in her cold, damp home, dying of TB just like her two sisters before her.

Anna Buchan, aka O Douglas, at work
 in her study during the 1940s. 
Hardship is present (but hidden) even among the middle classes where penniless young Vicar Robert Brand is cared for by his plain, graceless sister Rebecca who has never had anything pretty, and has become soured by years of scrimping and saving. Even Kirsty, a glass half-full person if ever there was, has moments of doubt when she is cast down, but the bleaker side of life intrudes only rarely, and makes no impact.

Douglas was obviously aware that she could be criticised for being light-weight, for at one point she has Colonel Home tell Kirsty: “There is something to be said for the pink sugar view of life.”

And she gives us Merren Strang, a character I like to think is a self-portrait of the author, for she too is a novelist and she says she started to write because she wanted to create ‘something very simple that would make pleasant reading’, which is exactly what Douglas has done with Pink Sugar.  Merren explains: “This is a book about good, gentle, scrupulous people who live on the bright side of life.” And that’s really as good a description as any. 


  1. I like O Douglas's novels very much. Greyladies in Edinburgh have reprinted some of her books including Pink Sugar. I love books set in Scotland & her books are set in that post WWI period that I especially like.

    1. I'm glad someone is still publishing her books. I really, really enjoyed Pink Sugar, and there's something about the whole between-the-wars era that I find very appealing.

  2. O Douglas has a shelf in my bedroom, because she's such a top comfort read for me. Lucky you to have lots more to come!

    1. I am really looking forward to reading more of her novels - not sure if I have room for another shelf though!

  3. A lovely and perceptive review of one of my favourite books by O. Douglas - thank you!
    [Valerie, NZ]

    1. Thank you for visiting my blog and commenting - I like to think someone in New Zealand, way over on the other side of the world, is enjoying what I write.

  4. Just read this one and absolutely adored it - and noticed our old friend Lady Duff-Whalley popping up again - she's been in a number of these novels - Penny Plain, The House That is our Own - and I find her refreshingly snarky - a trial to our gentle heroines, indeed! Also appreciated the references to the war, and the quiet fortitude of those who have lost their loved ones and refuse to be daunted by their sorrow. Good stuff.