Wednesday, August 26, 2015

DORITA FAIRLIE BRUCE, The "modern" Colmskirk novels (1945-1955)

One of my favorite subgenres of middlebrow fiction is that dedicated to stories about young women finding careers. It's either a surprisingly small genre or I'm just missing out on a lot of the works that fit the genre, but it's always nice to come across one. [Hmmmm, one wonders if a list of such titles would be a possible goal?]

I wrote very briefly about Dorita Fairlie Bruce's The Serendipity Shop (1947) after I read it on our trip to Italy last year. It got me through my jetlag, for which I was very grateful, and I enjoyed it a lot and immediately bought two more of Bruce's Colmskirk novels for my TBR shelves.

The Colmskirk novels, for those who don't already know, and according to the Girls Gone By intros, were a series of nine novels Bruce wrote in the 1930s to 1950s, all set in or around the same Scottish village of Colmskirk. Four of the novels are truly historical in nature, set well before the 20th century, one more—Wild Goose Quest (1945)—is classed as historical by Girls Gone By because it seems to have been written and be set in the 1930s, and four were "modern" (i.e. set in the late 1940s and early 1950s when they were written). The novels all stand on their own and feature different main characters, though there are both some "guest appearances" by characters from one novel in others of the series and occasional loose connections between modern characters and those from the earlier historical volumes. It's a charming concept, and Colmskirk itself (apparently fictional though based on Largs in North Ayrshire) makes one yearn to visit and perhaps even take up residence. (Admittedly, though, I would take up residence just about anywhere in the U.K. at the drop of a hat—if only immigrating were easier…)

The first of my Colmskirk acquisitions after The Serendipity Shop was Wild Goose Quest, which I confess I was a bit luke-warm on. It had such a promising plot—a sort of treasure hunt involving, among other things, a girl who has lost her memory due to a completely far-fetched personal trauma—but just never really took flight for me (no pun intended, should you be familiar with the plot…). It's entertaining enough, however, and if you find yourself interested in the Colmskirk series, then you'll certainly want to check it out.

After that, I was my usual slow self about getting round to the other book I'd picked up, but when I finally did, any reservations that Wild Goose Quest had inspired were promptly dissipated. Triffeny (1950) is about a spoiled girl yearning for an artistic career in London, who finds herself instead discovering a possible future in the family's pottery studio. I've long known (and you've surely figured out by now) that I'm more likely to get excited about novels with women as main characters than I am about stories featuring men. Go figure. But that might have something to do both with my luke-warm response to Goose, which focused more on male characters, and on my eager enjoyment of Triffeny, which has not only a female lead but several important supporting actresses as well. Plus a "finding a career" plot.

The introduction to the Girls Gone By edition of Triffeny notes that the heroine "must be one of the most quickly reformed teenagers in fiction," and it's true that Bruce's portrayal of Triffeny's recovery from being spoiled is rather blithely unconcerned with realism. But then, I wasn't exactly seeking realism when I picked up the book, and you shouldn't be either, but it was a hugely enjoyable read from beginning to end.

After which, naturally, I had to pick up the remaining two modern Colmskirk novels, The Debatable Mound (1953) and The Bartle Bequest (1955). And The Debatable Mound instantly became my favorite of the series so far. (By the way, GGB hasn't reprinted any of the historical volumes from the series yet, though there was a hint that they might be thinking of it. Fingers crossed that they do.)

The Debatable Mound is all about the arrival of an eccentric archaeologist, his children, and their wonderful middle-aged cousin, Miss Pennycuick, to take possession of a house located next to a mysterious ancient mound. He has purchased the house with the specific intent of digging on the mound and determining its history and purpose, but it emerges that the owner of an adjacent house, the crotchety Admiral Majendie, believes that the mound is his property. The subsequent conflicts and the ways in which family members and other characters both complicate and help resolve the issue are the structure on which the plot rests.

But undoubtedly the principal pleasure of the novel for me is Miss Pennycuick herself, who, although she certainly helps to maintain and watch over the family in the absence of the children's dead mother, also has her fair share of spunk, independent thought, and a tell-it-like-it-is sensibility, setting her apart from the standard "maiden aunt/housekeeper" stock character she at first seems to represent. Her personality and spirit inform the entire plot, even if she is not a constant presence. Here, for example, is Miss Pennycuick telling one of the girls about the car she purchased for herself for the move, and her experiences in learning to drive it:

'I believe,' replied Miss Pennycuick, with modest pride, 'I must have a natural flair for driving; it was no trouble to learn—no trouble at all. Only once did I make a really serious mistake, and that was a week ago, when I put my foot on the exhilarator going into the garage, just as my instructor was opening the door.'

'And was he very much exhilarated?' asked Lalage wickedly.

Miss Pennycuick eyed her with severity.

'Nobody was hurt,' she answered coldly, 'and the door was only slightly damaged.

And here, in a scene at the mound excavation site, is her no-nonsense reaction to the unpleasant use to which the site may have been put:

"I have found undeniable traces of their activities to-day. That stone on which you are sitting, Miss Pennycuick, has undoubtedly flowed over with the blood from human sacrifices.'

Cousin Pen settled herself more comfortably on her seat.

'Very disagreeable, indeed,' she assented, 'but it happened a very long time ago and has been well washed by the rains of several thousand years, so I'll just stay where I am.'

Added to such exchanges, her ongoing conflict with the Admiral about his complete inability to recall her name— and his substitution of such alternates as "Pennyfeather" or "Pennyfarthing"—adds humor to each development of the plot. In fact, of the Dorita Fairlie Bruce novels I've read so far, The Debatable Mound is undoubtedly the funniest and the one most obviously infused with high spirits and energy.

Although Bruce is clearly most famous for her school stories, and although even the Colmskirk novels were likely aimed at (or at least marketed to) a readership of teenagers or young adults, in the case of The Debatable Mound I feel like any fan of humorous village stories would get quite a lot of enjoyment from it. This might also be true of The Serendipity Shop and maybe even Triffeny, but The Debatable Mound in particular reminded me just a bit of Miss Buncle's Book or The Stone of Chastity and other village tales that are among my favorites.

All the more disappointing, then, to proceed eagerly to the final modern Colmskirk novel, The Bartle Bequest. Although this novel again features young working women as central characters, as well as some prominent cameos by characters from the earlier novels, and although it certainly has an entertaining enough plot—involving the establishment of a local museum, the young woman who becomes its first curator, the 16-year-old orphan girl she adopts as her companion and household help, and the sleazy young man who nefariously profits from the new curator's misguided trust—I also found it irritating in a couple of ways.

After I mentioned The Serendipity Shop last year, a reader emailed me and mentioned that she had enjoyed the whole series except for the sexism of The Bartle Bequest, and I think I know what she meant. Without giving too much away, let's just say that these novels, which are otherwise so intriguingly concerned with young women finding career fulfillment, mostly end with them giving up those careers in favor of being wives and mothers. Now, I can take that with a grain of salt, since that was indeed the way things often unfolded for many women in the middle decades of the 20th century, and it may even have been an improvement on their grandmothers' lives, where even a year or two of career fulfillment might have been impossible. But somehow, in The Bartle Bequest, it all just seems a bit more condescending and insulting than in other books in the series.

What's more, there's the case of Miss Pennycuick, whose praises I've already sung above and who appears in a supporting role here. When she first appeared in The Bartle Bequest, I was delighted to encounter her again, but that delight dissipated quickly. By the time this novel begins, Miss Pennycuick is a married woman herself, but more importantly, she seems to have had some sort of psychotic break. We learn, for example, that she has developed a sort of superstitious phobia of Egyptian artifacts such as some of the ones in Professor Crawford's home. What? The woman who shrugs off sitting on a stone where human sacrifices have been performed is now so frightened of the headdress of a young Egyptian woman that she can't bear to have it in the house? This seems quite ridiculous, and one wonders if all the overlapping characters didn't just finally get the best of Bruce, so that she forgot how vividly independent and no-nonsense Miss Pennycuick had been in the earlier novel. Regardless, the affection I felt for Miss Pennycuick in TBM was nowhere to be found while reading TBB. And Professor Crawford himself—a kindly, absent-minded father and scholar in the earlier novel—here appears only once, flying into such a rage that the museum curator tries to lure him into the office so she can lock him in and call the police.

Despite my obvious annoyance at these (mis-)characterizations, I do hasten to mention that these two characters appear only briefly in The Bartle Bequest, so for many readers they may not weaken one's reading experience very much. (And of course if you haven't read The Debatable Mound, then you won't mind them at all.) The novel is quite entertaining otherwise, and certainly worth reading if you've enjoyed the other Colmskirk novels. But while I can imagine re-reading The Serendipity Shop and The Debatable Mound, and quite possibly Triffeny as well, I believe I've finished with The Bartle Bequest for good.

I should note, for fans of Bruce's school stories, that the young curator of the museum in this novel is none other that Primula Mary Beaton, who apparently appears briefly in Bruce's Springdale series. At one point, too, Primula mentions her wartime service as a Wren, during which she became friends with Dimsie, the main character of that series. Among the other guest appearances here are Julia Lendrum, who was introduced in The Serendipity Shop and who seems to be quite a mover and shaker in Colmskirk, as she figures prominently in all the subsequent books. Julia's sister Merran, along with her Serendipity Shop, appear briefly, as does Susan from The Debatable Mound, and Triffeny is mentioned but does not appear in person.

On the whole, I'm very happy to have been introduced to the modern Colmskirk novels, even if I have a few reservations about them. Now, of course, I'm curious about the four historical novels from the series—The King's Curate (1930), Mistress Mariner (1932), A Laverock Lilting (1945), and The Bees on Drumwhinnie (1952). As luck would have it, a random Abe Books search has resulted in an affordable copy of A Laverock Lilting setting forth on its merry way toward my overcrowded shelves even as I write this. The other volumes are either virtually nonexistent (the first two) or prohibitively expensive (the last), so here's hoping that Girls Gone By will come through with new editions of all of them.


  1. Oh, Tom, What a delightful review of interesting sounding stories. I must see if I can locate a copy of The Debatable Mound, at the very least. Not that I don't have a huge pile of other books on my To Be Read Pile, and lots of work I should be doing toward my biography of DEStevenson.


    1. Opps, why did I call you Tom? I know you are Scott. Probably because I have met Tom in person and he also comments often on this blog. So sorry.

      My copy of The Debatable Mound is on order from The Book Depository.


    2. I am happy to be confused with Scott, and even bask in the credit of all his hard work, while I just loll around and read some of his finds.......................

    3. I used to have a co-worker who kept calling me Tom, and I always assumed it was because of some confusion with my last name. So I'm surprisingly used to being called that, for whatever reason. And I do hope you enjoy The Debatable Mound as much as I did, Jerri!

  2. I should really stop reading your blog... I have 3 unread Colmskirks on my tbr shelves but I've just bought a copy of TDM from Abebooks. You're a very bad influence on weak minded booklovers, you know.

    1. Oh, Lyn, I'm afraid I've always tended to take being called a bad influence as a compliment! Besides, book-buying stimulates the economy, and the book will look lovely on your shelves...

    2. I've given up worrying about how many books come into this house (6 more arrived today). I'll be retired a long time (I hope) & I'll need them all then. So really, you've done me a favour!

  3. Laverock Lilting is probably the commonest of the historical Colmskirks, and the only one I've read - I will be interested to hear what you think of it; to me it is very different from most of the modern ones ... I have read a story - I think in a Mrs Strang/Oxford Girls' Annual, have you come across them? - which was later developed into Mistress Mariner, one of the other historicals.
    I agree with you about the 'pecking order' of the modern titles. I get very angry about Bartle Bequest. Primula has been set up throughout the Springdale school series as an independently thinking girl who would be well capable of doing the job here in question. And no way would she as previously written fall foul of such a creep as turns up here... and then to - no, I won't spoil it for anyone else, but that book makes my blood boil!

    1. I haven't read the Springdale stories, Ruth, but it sounds like Primula, as well as Miss Pennycuick, is almost a different character here than in her earlier representations. Very odd. It makes me wonder if something was going on in Bruce's personal life that affected her writing.

  4. Sue Sims came to dinner at my house once - we were so busy talking about our favorite books we neglected to eat very much.

  5. I just ordered these four modern Colmskirk novels from a lovely GGB and Greyladies distributor, Gill Bilski Books. I now wonder if Bartle Bequest was a mistake but perhaps I will read it first.
    Thanks for the recommendation of The Serendipity Shop which gave me the idea!
    I'm also currently in the process of rereading all the FM Molly Claverings which are even better second time around. I am frantically intrigued by the other listed titles in the front of the books but will try to avoid getting my hopes up.

    1. I think you'll enjoy the Colmskirk books, Rhiannon, with just those small reservations. And so glad you're loving the Molly Claverings. I hope we'll be able to do the rest if we can get hold of them--that has been the challenge!


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