Pink Sugar by O. Douglas

One of the shameful things about this year is realising how many books my dear friend Clare has given me over the years which I have yet to read.  Her name has appeared a few times already in my Reading Presently project (as the bestower of Four Hedges, Cullum, and possibly How The Heather Looks) and is likely to appear at least a couple of times more – but, for today, she is the provider of Pink Sugar (1924) by O. Douglas, the pseudonym of John Buchan’s sister Anna.  I’ll call her O. Douglas in this review, to make things simple.  It’s the only Greyladies edition I’ve read so far, although I’m thrilled that they have reprinted a couple of Richmal Crompton books, including the wonderful Matty and the Dearingroydes.  And, guess what, Pink Sugar is rather fab too.

Kirsty Gilmour is 30 and has made a home for herself in the Borders (so the blurb says for me), taking in an old aunt who fusses and worries, but is rather lovely, and three children Barbara, Specky, and Bad Bill. The novel opens in conversation between Kirsty and her livelier friend Blance Cunningham – Blanche was quite a witty character, and I was sad that she almost immediately departed the scene (she also said wise things like “People who knit are never dull”) but we are not at a loss for characters after her departure.

Kirsty is rather gosh-isn’t-the-world-wonderful at times, thankfully offset with some quick-wittedness; like Lyn I sympathised more with the minister’s unhappy sister Rebecca, and found the characterful novelist Merren Strang more amusing – but Pink Sugar needs someone like Kirsty at its heart, because it is neither an unhappy novel nor a caustic one.  It is emphatically gentle and life-affirming, where a cup of tea and a dose of self-knowledge are the inevitable accompaniments to evening.

The children veer a little towards Enid Blyton territory, but that’s no bad thing (especially compared to modern literature, where happy children seem such a rarity), and there is a wildly unconvincing love plot thrown in to tie things up, but Douglas’s good writing and refusal to bathe too deeply in sentiment made me able to love relaxing and reading this.

One aspect of the style I couldn’t get on board with was Douglas’s frequent recourse to Scottish dialect, for the maids, cook, etc.  It was so impenetrable that I ended up skipping forward a few pages every time it appeared, so fingers crossed that I didn’t miss anything of moment there…

And in case you’re wondering what ‘pink sugar’ has got to do with anything, as I was for quite a long while, thankfully it is explained by Kirsty in the narrative.  Excuse the rather long quotation, but I couldn’t find a neater way to cut it off…:

“I was allowed to ride on a merry-go-round and gaze at all the wonders – fat women, giants, and dwarfs.  But what I wanted most of all I wasn’t allowed to have.  At the stalls they were selling large pink sugar hearts, and I never wanted anything so much in my life, but when I begged for one I was told they weren’t wholesome and I couldn’t have one.  I didn’t want to eat it – as a matter of fact I was allowed to buy sweets called Market Mixtures, and there were fragments of the pink hearts among the curly-doddies and round white bools, and delicious they tasted.  I wanted to keep it and adore it because of its pinkness and sweetness.  Ever since that day when I was taken home begrimed with weeping for a ‘heart’, I have had a weakness for pink sugar.  And good gracious!” she turned to her companion, swept away by one of the sudden and short-lived rages which sometimes seized her, “surely we want every crumb of pink sugar that we can get in this world.  I do hate people who sneer at sentiment.  What is sentiment after all?  It’s only a word, for all that is decent and kind and loving in these warped little lives of ours…”
So ‘pink sugar’ is essentially akin to seeing the joy in life – and is, perhaps, a codified reference to any reader or critic who would sneer at Pink Sugar itself, as a novel.  Admittedly, it isn’t Great Literature, nor is it trying to be, but I think Douglas is doing herself an injustice with this sort of self-defence.  Pink Sugar isn’t a lightweight romance with no thought given to the style or characterisation.  It doesn’t stand on sentiment alone.



Others who got Stuck into this Book:


“The strength of the book is the atmosphere of village life.” – Lyn, I Prefer Reading


Pink Sugar is a lovely, sweet, frothy concoction of a novel” – Christine, The Book Trunk


“I am so very happy to have made the acquaintance of O. Douglas.” – Nan, Letters From a Hill Farm

15 thoughts on “Pink Sugar by O. Douglas

  • November 30, 2013 at 1:19 pm
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    This sounds great, Simon! I've recently joined the London Library, and I believe they have got a copy there, so I'll seek it out. They do have some of Richmal Crompton's adult fiction too. If you're a fan of her work, you may like to know that some of her supernatural short stories are soon to be re-published by the Sundial Press ('Mist' and other stories.)

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    • December 1, 2013 at 1:22 am
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      The Sundial Press looks wonderful. Just what I needed – another small press to investigate! But, thank you for mentioning it, I'm tempted by several titles…

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    • December 2, 2013 at 2:36 pm
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      Sue! Thank you so much for bringing that to my attention, I had no idea, and Mist and other stories is impossible to get secondhand.

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  • November 30, 2013 at 9:31 pm
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    Sounds lovely Simon. I have yet to read a Greyladies book – another smaller publisher to support – and I see they have an obscure Gladys Mitchell too. I'm intrigued to learn that she was Buchan's sister.

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    • December 2, 2013 at 2:38 pm
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      I really must try Gladys Mitchell – I was in a charity shop in Kendal that had about 12 of her books, so someone was obviously having a clear out. I do have one… and have, of course, forgotten its name.

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  • December 1, 2013 at 1:12 am
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    I read this a few months ago (but didn't get around to reviewing it) and I greatly enjoyed it, too. So good to read such a positive review; O. Douglas is indeed a quietly excellent author.

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    • December 2, 2013 at 2:38 pm
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      Just the sort of author who manages to get forgotten, so it's nice that someone has reprinted her (even if secondhand copies of this are actually quite freely available) and that quite a few bloggers have written about her.

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  • December 1, 2013 at 3:25 am
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    I'm so tickled you included me! :<) I am very fond of this book. As you noted, children in modern books tend to not be happy – though there are a couple authors who feature them – Jeanne Birdsall's Penderwicks series, and Maile Meloy's The Apothecary, and The Apprentices.

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    • December 2, 2013 at 2:39 pm
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      Oh good, Nan, I'm glad you spotted and liked your mention! I don't know those authors, but will note them down…

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  • December 1, 2013 at 2:04 pm
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    Bad Bill, eh? I think O. Douglas has a soft spot for mischievous and clever little boys, based on the ones I've read. I've not found Pink Sugar yet, but I am taking my time about acquiring each of her book. On deck is Jane's Parlour.

    I think I heard that the boys are based on her own young brothers. Also on my TBR shelf is her autobiography, Unforgettable, Unforgotten.

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    • December 2, 2013 at 2:39 pm
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      What a great name for an autobiography! I think reading – and loving – Richmal Crompton's William series might have given me a dose of scepticism when it comes to characterful children in books, but these ones more or less worked.

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  • December 1, 2013 at 3:51 pm
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    So glad to hear you enjoyed this, Simon! I discovered O. Douglas last year (thanks in large part to Greyladies) and, though Pink Sugar is not my favourite of her books, I've enjoyed everything I've read by her. I'd highly, highly recommend The Proper Place, Taken By the Hand, and Olivia in India.

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    • December 2, 2013 at 2:40 pm
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      I did spot your reviews last year, and it was one of many things which got me to pull this off the shelf, eventually! Thanks for those recommendations, I shall know where to turn when next I think about reading her…

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  • December 2, 2013 at 10:54 am
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    I entirely agree with your review Simon – I too was rather disappointed when Blanche departed – but, I am ashamed to say, I did get bored. I do love a story where nothing happens, but even reading this while off sick, I did find it a bit langorous. And like you I had to skip the Borders dialect!

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    • December 2, 2013 at 2:40 pm
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      Blanche was such a wonder, I wish she'd been around a whole lot more! And, gosh, that dialect. No.

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