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