Monday 13 July 2015

Small things

Once again, I wanted to blog about the books I had prepared last week and once again I have switched (slightly) my purpose because of small things.

One member of The Little Family has her birthday on 21 July. And for as long as she has been born, the wheat has been reaped on this very day. The noise, the dust, the scent of the cut straw has always been linked with her birthday cake, the scent of the wax and smoke of the candles, the rustle of the paper covering her presents being torn apart and crumpled, the little cries of delight, and the rush to hug and embrace as she is happy before her discoveries. There is a kind of harmony between these so-different noises, scents and movements Something that binds nature and humanity.

Therefore, I was surprised to hear the noise of the combine yesterday evening, then the dust of the ears shorn and cast down, then the scent. And as it was evening, we were in the sitting room watching TV with our hands folded in our laps, not at all in a festive mood. The smell was the most disturbing element: it was gasoil.

Now, in the past years, the scent of the reaped wheat was of earth, of frost, of days of rain, of mornings of dew and mist, of noons of blaze and sun, of afternoons of doze, of evenings of warm straw long in the air after the first stars, melting with the tang of the river and the heady wine perfume of the roses.

Yesterday, the smell brought no history and no story with it as there was no story nor joy at home.

Small things.

Small things like the sequel of the book about which I had decided to talk. So it will be odd to talk of this follow-up and of the first book afterwards but let's make the unusual step. 

I have read 'The Proper Place" in the re-edition by Greyladies when it came hot from the press and, as the few books by Olivia Douglas, I have enjoyed it straight away. When the sequel was published I bought it almost immediately and became the happy owner of "The Day of Small Things".

The title is a quote from Zechariah - 4:10 and runs thus ( in the King James Authorised Version):  

"For who hath despised the day of small things? For they shall rejoice and shall see the plummet in the hand of Zerubbabel with those seven; they are the eyes of the Lord which run to and fro through the whole earth."

I grant you that out of its context, this is rather enigmatic (and even more for a French Provincial Lady who turned to her own Bible in French and found it as enigmatic but for the copious notes that were added for undersanding and clarification).

Fortunately, after having read the book, I decided that the first sentence only was relevant and it is clear enough:
"For who has despised the day of small things?"

For those of you who would happen not to know Olivia Douglas, here is a link to a very short (too short) biography:

Scottish, like D.E. Stevenson who wrote Miss Buncle's Book about which I talked some weeks ago here:

As well acquainted than D.E. Stevenson, with literary connections most prominent and still well-known today thanks to Alfred Hitchcock's' movie even if purists do not agree ... And John Buchan was one of these rare writers for middle-class gentlemen about which Kate Mac Donald, one of my favourite academics in this particular field, has written.

When I re-read both books, "The Proper Place"and "The Day of Small Things", I had more mixed feelings. Perhaps I have read too many middle-brow novels for middle-classes of the inter-war. I am less immediately enthusiastic and more moderate in my praise. But this fiction is worth reading, thanks to Greyladies printing and publishing house, today.

A sequel is always something difficult to write and to read. We know the characters - or most of them - and we know the pattern of the first book that we have loved.  How to keep readers interested while renewing oneself? Are the characters thick and full enough to resist to a protracted life? Can the pattern be renewed and yet sustaining the attractive traits that were cherished by the readers?

Whatever was in "The Proper Place", the theme and topic of "The Day of Smal Things" is clearly stated in the second chapter - right at the opening of the nove by Nicole, one of the main charactersl:

"I am absurdly pleased with life. Of course things are different now, but once you accept the fact, it's all right. To you and to me is the day of small things - Who said that? Someone in the  Bible, wasn't it? And the small things keep you going wonderfully: the kindness of friends; the fact of being needed; nice meals; books; interesting plays; the funny people in the world; the sea and the space and the wind - not very small, are they, after all?"

Lady Jane Rutherfurd and her daughter Nicole have lost almost everything during and after the Great War of 1914-1918: husband and sons, father and brothers and, for lack of money, the ancestral seat of Rutherfurd in the Borders.

Not wanting to stay close from their former home, former friends, former landscapes, and former station in life, they have decided to leave the Borders to another area of Scotland, the Fife land.

There, there have elected to live in "small" house in the harbour of Kirkmeikle, on the sea front, far from the genteel villas built recently on the hill up the fishing town and they have mingled (they say "made friends") with fishermen and fisher wives, their children and the elders. They have also made friends with the inhabitants of the genteel villas and with the more permanent and older residents of the town: the reverend and his family, the doctor and his sister. 

In The Small Things, we find them again in the same environment endowed with the same characteristics as before. For Angela Thirkell readers, lady Jane will be some sort of Lady Emily Leslie and Mrs Brandon in even less energetic frame of mind and absolutely no flirtatious manners (some sort of Agnes Graham and Mrs Dean, perhaps). She is tired, melancholic, resigned, lamblike, always on the brink of tears but never shedding them, delicate, and full of compassion. Her daughter who has been badly treated by life has the energy her mother has not, tries very hard to be happy and to make others happy according to her views, walks, admires landscapes, reads, talks, arranges little tea parties and luncheons or dinners and allows herself brief moments of dream and melancholy as well.

She describes their lives in the quote made higher: "I am absurdly pleased with life. Of course things are different now, but once you accept the fact it's all right. To you and to me is the day of small things."

However that would make no novel. Therefore, they are soon saddled with a "young bright thing", fresh from London, a bad set and a jilt, by a cousin of theirs who is the aunt of said "bright young thing". The connection, if there is a connection, is extremely tenuous. The whole topic will be to tame the "bright young thing" named Althea and demonstrate the small things are the best. 

Add little boys, permanent and less permanent (Olivia Douglas is very fond of little boys and of children in general: her books are teeming with them) going to school, asking for treats when back home, delighted by "small things", decent suitors, meals with new and old friends, holidays in the isle of Mull:

a return to the Borders:

and a happy ending mixed with some sadness or resolution à la Lily Dale taken from the Chronicles of Barset by Trollope.

To say more more would be to take away the bittersweet taste of the novel and of the tenor of life. There could many ways to analyse this book: I shall try my hand at it when reviewing the first volume "The Proper Place" but this one is too fragile to sustain critics be there positive or negative. Here is the stuff with which our lives are made: births, deaths, friendship, love, dreams... Small things that make our days.

Should one of them come to miss and we are confused, lost. I felt very strongly for Lady Jane and Nicole and all the other protagonists of this novel when the combine came yesterday evening to reap the wheat not at the proper time at all and there was but the smell of gasoil and noise of the machine without the story of the ears and of the straw and of the whole countryside mingled with the family joy of a birthday.

Yes, I am silly as all this will come to pass and life will go on. However, I, for one,  need to remember that " the small things keep you going wonderfully: the kindness of friends; the fact of being needed; nice meals; books; interesting plays; the funny people in the world; the sea and the space and the wind - not very small, are they, after all?"

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