Xmas family presents


Every year I do a series of Xmas entries on the blog, helped and encouraged by suggestions and recommendations from my lovely readers. You can see some of last year’s pictures in this entry, and find (endless!) more Xmas books via the tags at the bottom of the page.


Penny plain by O Douglas

published 1920

Penny PlainToys O Douglas

As is the way with most things, the looking forward and preparing were the best of it. It meant weeks of present-making, weeks of wrestling with delicious things like paints and pasteboard and glue. Then came a week or two of walking on tiptoe into the little spare room where the presents were stored, just to peep, and make sure that they really were there and had not been spirited away, for at Christmas-time you never knew what knavish sprites were wandering about. The spare room became the most interesting place in the house.

It was all so thrilling: the pulling out of the drawer, the breathless moment until you made sure that the presents were safe, the smell that came out of the drawer to meet you, an indescribable smell of lavender and well-washed linen, of furniture polish and cedarwood. The dressing-table had a row of three little drawers on either side, and in these Jean kept the small eatables that were to go into the stockings – things made of chocolate, packets of almonds and raisins, big sugar ‘bools’. To Mhor a great mystery hung over the dressing-table. No mortal hand had placed those things there; they were fairy things and might vanish at any moment. On Christmas morning he ate his chocolate frog with a sort of reverence, and sucked the sugar ‘bools’ with awe.

commentary: This is a comfort read for a lot of people, and I can understand that, though it didn’t quite do it for me. I found it just too much.

It tells the story of the Jardine family in a small town in Scotland: Jean, in her early 20s, has long been raising her two brothers and an adoptive brother. They have little money, but a very comfortable home and they all love books and are kind and good, although the younger boys are full of mischief and have a dog. They are very well-respected in the town, and we meet many of the other families there. Into this happy scenario comes the Honourable Pamela, lodging inexplicably in the house next door. Much later her brother Lord Bidborough, and also a wealthy businessman in bad health, will arrive. All these people will have their effect on the lives of the Jardines.

There are some nice moments: I loved the long discussion on how the minister’s wife should be. The one who is coming is ‘English, and smokes, and plays golf, and wears skirts near to her knees.’ There is a fear that this will mean she is no good at a missionary work party or a prayer meeting. Whereas what they really want from the minister’s wife is ‘a little money and a strong constitution and able to play the harmonium.’

A sugar bool is, apparently, a round sugar plum. The book is full of these words – and a lot of the conversations are written in a phonetic form of dialect, which is no doubt a brave attempt to show real speech, but makes it quite difficult to read. Apparently the book came at the tail end of a small genre called ‘kailyard’ novels – described as ‘typically sentimental in style and focused on rural domestic life’ in Scottish settings.

It was an easy enough read, but not one that will be added to my list of comfortable books. It made me miss the sharp tongue and much more acerbic tones of my great love-hate object Jane Duncan, also writing about Scotland.

But the chapters on Christmas were the best part of the book.

The picture is Toys in the Corner by Carl Larsson, from the Athenaeum website.


  1. It does sound a little sentimental, Moira. Not sure that's exactly my thing, to be honest. But the setting sounds good, and I can see how people would find it a comfort read. Interesting you mention that about the dialect. That's always such a challenge for authors, I think. How do you convey authentic speech without making the dialogue hard to read at times. It can be a challenge...

    1. I think it probably isn't for you Margot, but as you say, many people love it. And always a question-mark about dialect, indeed.

  2. I loved that first sentence in the extract: "As is the way with most things, the looking forward and preparing were the best of it." That is the way it works for me.

  3. I've always found that sentiment works best when it's mixed with a little vinegar. This all sounds a little too twee. The James Herriot books worked because they mixed any sentimentality with large dollops of physical discomfort, rudeness from clients and some hard edged reality. If you feel that you have to work for it, the sweetness feels more satisfying.

    1. Yes I think you're right - and a vet has an advantage there, seeing a different side of life! It's certainly true of the other Scottish books I mention, the Jane Duncan books - much more to my taste because they included strong opinions, harsh judgements and general annoyingness amid some sentiment. But exactly as you say, the overall result was more satisfying.

  4. I find Douglas' books soothing. Particularly now.


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