Saturday 18 July 2015

"The Proper Place" and MY proper place

"My" Scotland"

When I first came to Scotland, it was to Edinburgh and I was almost immediately under the spell of the town. I loved the monuments, the dour nature of the most ancient buildings, the darkness of some of them, their severity and austerity, the richness of the museums and the culture... and the number of bookshops where I spent many happy hours! I disliked the drunkenness and the week-end outings in pubs with people being sick in the streets, and kept cowardly to the flat at these moments. But I understood that drinking beer or ale could be necessary sometimes under such climates; I was to find the same later in Norway and Sweden. Life is rough and hard for some.

One morning, I awoke late to find that it was still dark and thought that I had some time before getting up. I had forgotten that when autumn comes, light shows itself seldom. The day was to pass in semi-darkness and clouds. There was an area of bare land I had not visited and I spent the end of the morning and part of the afternoon there. 

There was no noise. There was short grass. There were hills. There was no one. I felt slightly frightened. It seemed I had come to the very beginning of the world when it was created and not yet populated by animals and men. It was eerie and of striking beauty.

Until today, this day spent in the hills so close to the city and yet so remote stands as one of my most precious memories and as an epiphany of the love and link one may have with one's country and roots.

Scottish literature and arts are full to the brim of this love. For the French, Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott are the most well-known of Scotland writers. But as I have started last week to talk about O. Douglas, let us return to her once more and take the story of Lady Jane Rutherfurd and her daughter Nicole at the beginning, since circumstances have led me to speak of the sequel, "The Day of Small Things", first.

What could be Rutherfurd House

We first meet Nicole in Rutherfurd Place playing guide of the house to Mrs Jackson from Glasgow. And, as in "The Day of Small Things", the explanation of the title and the development of the novel is given in the first few lines:

"In one of Hans Andersen's tales he tells how, at a dinner party, one of the guests blew on a flute made from a willow in the ditch, and behold, everyone was immediately wafted to his or her proper place. 'Everything in its proper place' sang the flute, and the bumptious host flew into the herdsman's cottage. But in the dining room, the young baroness flew to the upper-end of the table, and the tutor got the seat next to her and there the two sat as if they were a newly married couple. An old count, one of the oldest families in the country, remained unchanged in the seat of honour [...] a rich merchant and his family who were driving a coach and four were blown right out of the coach, and could not even find a place behind it, two rich farmers who had grown too rich to look after their fields were blown into the ditch. It was a dangerous flute!
Fortunately, it burst at the first note, and it was a good thing: it was put back in the player's pocket again, and everything was in its proper place."

The title of the tale is very simply "Everything in its proper place" and was written in 1853.

When watched closely, the tale as described above is twofold. From a given situation where people are living in a social sphere that does not seem to be questioned, a piper puts, by a long note, "everything (that is everybody) in its (his or her) proper place". This revolutionary act is in fact rather conservative as, apart from the "old count, one of the oldest families in the country, [who] remained unchanged in the seat of honour", the whole world turns topsy-turvy and the "nouveaux riches" climb down for their places to recover their former humble stations in life. This is quite comic as in the tale "The Emperor's New Clothes" and as chilling as "The Pied Piper of Hamelin". Only two young people see their prospects improved: "the young baroness flew to the upper-end of the table, and the tutor got the seat next to her and there the two sat as if they were a newly married couple."

However mainly conservative, the tale may sound, society takes its course again and it is reassuring for the "middle class" climbing bourgeois to see at the end that even if "It was a dangerous flute!" indeed. "Fortunately, it burst at the first note, and it was a good thing: it was put back in the player's pocket again, and everything was in its proper place."

But it leaves the reader in some quandary: which is the proper place? Is it the old order where the flute put people back or is it the new order that reigned at the beginning and is restored at the end of the tale?

O. Douglas seems very often to be writing sweet, sentimental romances formerly read by young ladies and well-thinking ladies, today by ladies nostalgic of their younger years, but this novel is more astringent that it seems at first sight, since it boldly deals under a coat of sugar of the "proper places" of people after WWI.

The cover of the first edition

The Rutherfurds are an aristocratic family, landed aristocracy, father, mother (Lady Jane), two sons and a little daughter (Nicole) plus an adopted niece (Barbara) - of not so aristocratic background. Unfortunately, WWI has killed the two sons in their prime and the father, having done his duty to his country until the end, returned to the family seat to die of sorrow for the loss of his boys. Lady Jane, Nicole and Barbara, who are young girls around twenty, are left alone and understand soon with the help of their lawyer that they cannot afford to live in this great house. The solution is to sell it and live in a small place. Their small place reminds me of an acerbic comment made once by a critic or blogger about the Dashwoods in "Sense and Sensibility""they went to a small cottage with only ten rooms". Anyway, this is evil spirit and we must remember that the conditions of life were not the same then as they are today.

The three ladies decide to leave entirely the Borders, their friends, their habits, everything that would remind them of the past and to start afresh. Nicole and Barbara go house hunting and Nicole falls in love with a house in the harbour town of Kirkmeikle, in Fife, not in the genteel area up on the hill but right in the middle of the fishermen houses, right near the sea. The deal is quickly done almost in a day. And the Rutherfurds move quickly to their new abode.

A Fife village that could be Kirkmeikle

The novel deftly interweaves various strands and while the Rutherfurds arrive in Kirkmeikle, we know more about the family who has bought their ancestral seat. This family comes from Glasgow. Mr Jackson is a self-made man who has started at the lowest rung and gone up the social ladder by his industry. He now thinks he needs to be "county" and to have a house in the country from which he will commute every day to go to work in Glasgow. Mrs Jackson, at first sight, is a vulgar woman who tries to pass as a lady. But one discovers quite quickly that she is embodied motherhood, has a heart of gold, knows clearly her limits, does her best to be up to the situation and willing to learn from the Rutherfurds and their friends in the Borders. Her whole life is devoted to "Father" and to Andy, her son. Andy is already less lower class and already middle class. He is a nice fellow and one guesses easily that, failing to be an aristocrat, he will learn to be a good squire.

Of course, the Glaswegian friends of Mrs Jackson are both envious and spiteful before such a rise from their ranks and the Rutherfurds' friends are quite reticent to accept these "nobodies" in their own ranks even if some are interested by the many changes brought for best and worst to the great house. Its backbone remains loyal because of Lady Jane and Nicole, and butler, Cook, housemaids, parlour maids and gardeners stay in the old pile to help the Jacksons to acclimatise to their new surroundings.

Meanwhile in Kirkmeikle, we observe the moving in of the Rutherfurds and their first contacts with the population. I have said in the previous blog about "The Day of Small Things"  that Lady Jane reminded me of a concoction of Angela Thirkell's characters in her "Chronicles of Barset": she has something from Lady Emily Leslie and Mrs Brandon except the flirtatious side, from Agnes Graham and Mrs Dean. But she seems more energetic in this novel than in its sequel. Barbara is ... snob. She is a good girl, a very good housekeeper, has great common sense but not much true blue blood in her veins, which makes her snob. She will seek distractions of a higher quality than that of fishermen and their wives or gentilized but hopelessly middle class population. Nicole is the true heroine, dancing like the flame of a lamp, hungry to live, laughing even when sad, putting on a brave front, good daughter, loving, born to be happy whatever the circumstances.

We are shown essentially two groups of people: the lower class with the servants, the fishermen's wives and Old Betsy; and the genteel population either resident and "professional classes" and the middle class.

The recent edition by Geyladies
(the same illustration is included in the new jacket)

The Rutherfurds have almost immediately a very good relationship with their immediate neighbours on the sea front. We are visiting with Nicole and Lady Jane, Mrs Brodie and her family of numerous children, old Betsy whose great friend is Agnes Martin, the Rutherfurds' cook. Old Betsy pines for the Borders where she has been born and raised and spent her youth before marrying a Fife man. In fact she comes from a place close to this of the Rutherfurds and a strong link is established between them. As Mrs Brodie is quite happy with her place, as Old Betsy is discontented. She is not in her proper place according to her, even with all Nicole's and Lady Jane's coaxing. The proper place can be the place where you live or don't live.

The Rutherfurds also come to visit the Kirkmeikle society. In a letter to a friend, Nicole tells her who they meet - and the fishermen wives and Old Betsy are not named: one may read condescension in the Rutherfurds' attitude to the lower class. Charity is still common and usual at that time, during the interwar: it is one of the duties of the gentry and gratitude is expected from those who receive the ladies bountiful. I was reminded there of the third trilogy of the Forsytes when Dinny wonders what will happen to her family and class who have been the backbone of England for so long a time by helping and visiting the poor, for instance. And I was reminded of my own family and my own childhood when I was taught to visit the sick and the farmers and the people in the home for the elderly and to take care of all who were less fortunate than we were. I was taught to thank God for his bounties towards us and never to complain that we could be richer: that would have been vulgar. Nowadays, at least in France, the Providence State has replaced the individual helper who has been turned into an object of derision, and charity is now almost an insult - no longer part of the LOVE in Greek as Caritas and Agape. The Rutherfurds of nowadays have no proper place here anymore.

As to the Kirkmeikle society, it is composed of the Doctor and his sister, Miss Kilgour, gruff and kind and always available; of the Reverend and Mrs Lambert (who has "a face transparent like a sea anamone") and their children who live sparingly in the manse. All do good work and if with financial difficulties and lack of intellectual congeniality with close neighbours, they may be said to be in their proper place.

A manse then

Then, on top of the hill, up over Kirkmeikle, are the villas belonging to the gentility: Mrs Heggie who asks everyone in for a meal and gossip, has a heart of gold and looks like Mrs Jackson (remember the Jacksons who have bought Rutherfurd House?) and a daughter, Joan, who writes poetry, is bored and aspires to write a "serious" novel with social issues - no need to say there are frictions between mother and daughter. In the second villa, Miss Symington and her nephew, Alastair, are different. Miss Symington is rich, very rich, a wealth acquired by her father who was a rigid churchman, for whom beauty and laugh and pleasures are sins and her house bleak and as not inhabited, lives only for the Saturdays and Sundays, when lay preachers come to talk to villagers, the Presbyterian Reverend Mr Lambert having been thought lax in reading Shakespeare. Alastair is brought up but not really loved. He finds this love with a young gentleman, Simon Beckett, who lives in a guest house nearby - more rightly in a cottage whose owner (that we never see - no class for her -) is in need of more money and rents a room. But before talking of Simon Beckett, the third villa is occupied by a retired Anglo-Indian civil servant and his wife who are obsessed by servants and the regrets of their former life in India. 

All these people are clearly climbing middle-class and not in their proper place. All are ill at ease and it will be the Rutherfurds' mission to redeem them in putting them at ease and reorganise their lives by small touches, innuendoes, and good moves.

Let us now turn to Simon Beckett. He is a mountaineer and has climbed the Everest - or almost climbed it as his friend and companion died in the last effort to reach the summit and Simon had to go back down alone. He is recording the expedition and in between times of writing, he takes care of Alastair, Miss Symington's nephew, in need of affection, with his nurse, Gentle Annie. Alastair is but six and already hurt by life as Simon has been hurt by his friend's death. They are like two wounded birds, Alastair being nicknamed "The Bat" because of his over great cloak. Nicole will find them on the shore, one day of storm and tempest and all will come to the Harbour House for a magnificent and luscious tea. From then on, solid friendship will be made between the two solitary young "men" and Lady Jane and her daughter. In a way, they can be said to have found their proper place.

Another village that could be Kirkmeikle Harbour

Barbara is not forgotten. Through common acquaintances, she has met rich and suitable people, the Erskine with whom she spends lots of time. And one day...

One day, a letter arrives for Nicole. Mrs Jackson is going to give a formal dinner and a dance at Rutherfurd House and she is badly in need of Nicole's help. Unfortunately, Nicole has a cold, is in bed and cannot go. Barbara will.

To say more, would be to spoil your pleasure of reading the novel. The plot would be unmasked and what is a comedy of manner without the plot?

But this is more than a "gentle comedy of manner". It has been written in 1926, in the aftermath of the Great War and its consequences are pregnant here. Not only because of the deaths, widowhoods, lack of young men, but also because of the changes that are happening in society. Soon, the aristocracy will not have enough money to keep its great places, industrials will take their place (sometimes in the best of cases will return to suburbia...), middle classes will grow; servants will want to work in shops or factories. The whole fabric of life is changing and no one knows where his or her proper place stands.

Nicole and a hint of the end of the novel

Therefore, under the cover of a delicate and very conventional novel, O. Douglas shows realities as in Andersen's tale. Where is The Proper place? In the new established order? In the old one? Should we go back to the old or stay in the new, as with the piper of the tale? This novel belongs to the long string of re-discovered fiction written by neglected women, in between Jane Austen and Barbara Pym, who wrote so eloquently and with such insight of the everyday life.

It has also questioned me about my proper place. In terms of geography and activities, do I belong to Paris and my former life or to the country, The Village and The Little Family? In terms of activites, do I belong to the life I had dreamt of intellectuals and senior civil servants or in the tasks of a housekeeper and loving "Big Sister"? In terms of social activities, are the days of visiting the less fortunate than me over? Has the State taken all this and is there no more Caritas to be?
I think that all readers may question their lives when the book is closed and rests in their lap. And it needs re-reading and thinking again about each of us and the society, the world we are creating.

Special thanks to Greyladies, the publishing house in Edinburgh to rehabilitate and give us such gems.

The Fife at sunrise

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