My Friends the Miss Boyds by Jane Duncan

published 1959  Part 1

It was another beautiful day and I had on my short white Sunday skirt, my white blouse, white socks…

‘That bairn’s skirts are too short’ [my grandmother] told no one in particular, giving her feather boa a shake, ‘especially hopping and dancing as she’s always doing.’

My gentle mother controlled my clothes and would not hear of the frills and sashes that my grandmother thought proper for Sunday, nor would she hear of the long skirts and petticoats. At that time I was the only little girl in the district who was really comfortable, who went to church and school in skirts above my knees and socks that came just to my ankles in summer and to my knees in winter.

observations: For the recent One Pair of Hands entry I was thinking about the kinds of adult books found in girls’ school libraries of yesteryear, and one author who jumped to mind was Jane Duncan. Almost completely forgotten and out of print now, she was hugely successful in the 1960s with a series of novels based on her own life, starting out on a remote croft in the Highlands of Scotland, and taking in a long spell in the West Indies. I disliked One Pair of Hands when I read it again (though my online friend and guest blogger Lucy Fisher says I should give Monica D a second chance): I was curious as to how Duncan had lasted, so I got hold of this, the first of the series.

So – well the bad news is that JD can write this in the persona of 8 year old Janet:
I went away… to the Thinking Place to give consideration to this idea of growing to be a Bigger Person every year, which made you able to go to more and more Things. By the time I was as old as my grandmother, I concluded, there would not be Thing in the Whole Wide World that I had not been to….
Now there’s no excuse for that, in any book.

But then there are also very funny and unlikely scenes – Janet going rat-killing, and questioning the adults around her about aspects of sex and relationships – as well as detailed and fascinating descriptions of life on a Scottish croft in 1918/19, and of events such as the Harvest Home. And although Jane/Janet cannot resist telling us how very superior life was then, and how she didn’t have her life sullied with the rubbish of modern children, she keeps it in check, and really does produce a sense of a distant time and place. The book wanders around, but there is an underlying story of great sadness which is very well done and very affecting, and shows an open kindness to the world. Also, the scene where the horses are all behaving oddly, and you eventually find out why, is enthralling.

I think you’d be a long time guessing who that is in the picture (from the Library of Congress). Some early child actress perhaps, so perky and informal, so striking and with such attitude? In fact it is Princess Marie Jose of Belgium, who became the last Queen of Italy. It is rare to see any child looking so relaxed in a studio portrait of the era (I write as someone who has looked at thousands and thousands of old photos in the lifetime of Clothes in Books), let alone a Royal one. Her life spanned the 20th century – her story is well worth a look on Wikipedia.


  1. No fashion tips for me here this time around, I'm afraid.

  2. Moira - Those memoir-type novels give a real sense of place and time and that's something I like about them. In a way this reminds me of Lavinia Derwent's A Border Bairn and the two books that follow it. They're terrific 'slices of life' about her childhood I think.

  3. Col: there are some Highland kilts in the book...

    Margot: I haven't come across the books you mention, I must seek them out...

  4. You might like Winifred Foley's series about growing up the Forest of Dean in the 20s. Cue scenes of home-made tube-like dresses and descending knickers. She grows up to work on a farm, with nothing to wear but an Edwardian outfit, and goes on to work in a city, shop-lifting cloche hats with a friend and unwittingly going out in a too-small and revealing knitted dress.


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