O. Douglas, Penny Plain

For the out of copyright books column I do for Kindle magazine, I chose last month to write about O. Douglas’ Penny-Plain. Douglas gets rather overlooked despite (or because of?) being John Buchan’s sister – her writing is never spectacular, but it’s charming, and gentle, and generous. I’d previously mentioned on this blog her Olivia in India – remarkable for being set in India, written during the Raj and still not annoying.



Anna Masterton Buchan was the sister of the author John Buchan, who was famous for his adventure tales, particularly The Thirty-Nine Steps. His sister was considerably less famous, but published a number of books as O. Douglas, most of them novels of life between the wars.

Penny-Plain is her third book, set in a small town in Scotland. The Jardine family are well-educated but very poor. They live in a house filled with books, offer hospitality to anyone who looks like they’d enjoy it, and are all that is good and saintly within this tradition of novels. The head of the family (the parents are dead) is the oldest sister, Jean, who is also (predictably) unusual and attractive.

Two important people visit the town (on, predictably, the same train). The first is a rich, jaded old man with a terminal illness. Having spent his life accumulating wealth, he now realises that is has no one to whom to leave it. He resolves that it should go to the first person to unselfishly do him a good turn. He meets the Jardines – and then disappears for a good chunk of the book. Anyone who has ever read a book knows where this is going.

The second visitor is the Honourable Pamela Renton who, sick of town life, has taken lodgings in the cottage next door. Naturally she befriends Jean. Matters follow their natural course – Pamela’s titled brother falls in love with Jean, who nobly rejects him because of the disparity in wealth. The old man dies and Jean inherits his fortune; her suitor convinces her that he still loves her, and everything ends happily.

What makes Penny-Plain enjoyable is not its mundane plot, but the sheer warmth of the book. Only a few of Douglas’ works are in the public domain (her Olivia in India, an epistolatory novel, is particularly good) but in those that are accessible, no amount of cliché is enough to stop them from being likeable. She reminds me of no one more than L. M. Montgomery (the author of Anne of Green Gables) for her quiet humour and her feel for the intersecting lives of characters in a small community. And where even Montgomery could be cruel (see The Tangled Web, for example), Douglas is always charitable. Even the loud, annoying woman with vulgar tastes, who comes closer than anyone to being the villain of the piece, is rendered sympathetic.

Penny-Plain may on the whole seem completely apolitical, but the war is all over the book. Written in 1920, it is presumably set around the same time. This is made clear by the many characters who have lost someone – a husband, a son. Characters frequently discuss how the war has changed their lives and the ways in which they think, act, even the ways in which they read certain books. There may not be much space given to European power games, but the idea of how personhood itself is affected by an event so epochal is as least as worthy. Douglas is a marvellous writer, and it’s surprising that she should be so obscure.


3 Responses to “O. Douglas, Penny Plain

  1. Where can i find books by O Douglas ? I loved Penny Plain , but she really seems obscure , for i haven’t found her in any of the popular book stores .

    • There are a few on project gutenberg, but I think for the rest you’d have to look at online secondhand bookshops. Unfortunately, she really is quite obscure.


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