What if Jane Austen had been writing in the 1930s? I think it might have turned out something like Priorsford. This eponymous village in the Scottish Borders has the air of Longbourn or Hartfield. There is a small village, with the outlying estate(s) and the characters inhabiting them. In all the novels an outsider comes in to the small community of Priorsford, be it a young Scots woman who has grown up in London until she is drawn to the country of her birth (The House that is our Own). Isobel falls in love with the estate and eventually its absent Laird – sounds a bit like Elizabeth Bennett who falls in love with Pemberley. Or Lady Pamela Reston, who comes to Priorsford because her childhood sweetheart mentioned it, lodges with a village lady and is the recipient of confused looks for living beneath her station (Penny Plain). Then Pam introduces her young friend Jean Jardine to her brother Lord Bidborough and well… I’m afraid none of the novels are very good at keeping the reader in suspense.
Yet as I mentioned in a previous post, I do really enjoy social history and reading about the ways that people lived. O Douglas’s novels are mainly autobiographical and Cranford-esque. Nothing much happens but people are born, people fall in love and people die – in different times and circumstances and that is what I really enjoyed.
I have learned that this type of novel is called a novel of manners. Well, some characters might suggests that the books should be called novels about the unmannered. Yet those are the characters that are the most interesting because lovely lovely Jean Jardine is always bound to end up with the lovely lovely Biddy. But what about the wonderfully named Mrs Duff-Whalley, the social climber whose intrusions have put all of Priorsford on edge? There seems to be no solution. She must be banished to The Towers, to her own home and judged that she might have been great if she had been a man but as a woman she is unpleasant. Language like this fascinates me because at the moment we are living through another such debate. What are women ‘supposed’ to be like? Is there a ‘supposed to’? In the minds of some there is. In the minds of some, there are ‘supposed tos’ for both men and women – and any differentiation is frowned upon and, in novels, often punished by, at the very least, social ostracising. This post certainly took a little turn from my more comfortable beginning about Jane Austen and nice little Romantic towns called Priorsford. But who said nice little Romantic towns were not interesting? Just as the upper middle class lady is fascinating, so is the ‘quiet’ life of the lady in the village, the woman who is rich enough for a servant or a cook, who does not have to work but who must do something with her life. But what?