Few publishers provide as many excellent comfort reads – perfect for any season but especially the dark, cool days of autumn and winter – as the Edinburgh-based publishers Greyladies. I own a handful of their books and have reviewed some here already (Eliza for Common, Summer Term, A Young Man’s Fancy) and have many more I can’t wait to read. These are comfort books extraordinaire, the sort of reading that you long for when ill or upset, or simply too exhausted to focus on anything remotely challenging or clever. Their two newest releases – The Glenvarroch Gathering by Susan Pleydell and Under the Rainbow by Susan Scarlett – arrived on my doorstep recently, though at the time I was too busy between work and studying for an exam to read them. This week, having passed the exam and having somewhat settled into work, I read them both with delight.
Susan Scarlett was the penname used by Noel Streatfeild for her light and formulaic but still enjoyable romances. In Under the Rainbow, she writes about a young vicar, Martin Richards, who feels that it is his calling to work among the poor. Spiritually, it is work he is well-suited for. Physically, the harsh conditions in the London slums where he begins his career destroy his health. Sent by his Bishop to an idyllic corner of Sussex, Martin is aghast when he sees his new home:
He nearly had a fit when he first saw the vicarage. It was one of those enormous vicarages built in the early days of the last century, when the vicar always had a large family, when the cost of living was far lower, and when the vicar was usually a younger son with just sufficient allowed him by his father to enable him to keep a horse, officially for riding around his parish, but actually for hunting two days a week.
Longing for a dirty tenement or a simple cottage, the vicarage is not at all the home he wants. But it is the home he gets and, before long, it begins to fill up. First, he acquires a housekeeper, the invaluable Bertha. Then, an elderly and mean-spirited aunt arrives. Shortly after that, his niece and nephew are orphaned and so they too come to live at the vicarage. Finally, to take care of them and mediate the power struggles between Bertha and Aunt Connie, Judy Griffiths, a nice and extraordinarily capable young woman with a mysterious past, also moves into the vicarage.
It is a simple story and utterly predictable but I loved it. I stumbled a bit over the more religious passages – something I don’t remember from the two or three other Streatfeild books I’ve read. They are logically incorporated but still a bit surprisingly.
A little (but only a little) less cosy and altogether more energetic was The Glenvarroch Gathering by Susan Pleydell. In order to make a little more money one summer, the McKechnie family (or, more specifically, the University-aged McKechnie children) decide to take in paying guests. They have a large home by the sea in the West Highlands and, to the family’s surprise, they manage to find a group of people eager to come and stay: a good-natured American couple, a schoolboy who is classmates with the youngest McKechnie boy, a young University lecturer working on a grim novel, a schoolmistress longing for something more adventurous than her life in the Midlands, and a glamourous brother and sister from London. The younger visitors are quickly taken up by the McKechnies and a busy summer begins, full of picnics, hikes, and flirtations. But some of the visitors are not what they seem and the uncovering of sinister secrets leads to a dramatic (but relatively quickly and harmlessly resolved) sequence of events. Everyone ends up with the person they should and it is all quite excellent. Reels are danced, kilts are worn, bad guys are caught…what more could I ask for?
Though I enjoyed all of the characters in this book, I had a few particular favourites. Pat McKechnie and Jo, both schoolboys of eighteen, were each a wonderful combination of childish enthusiasm and adult clear sightedness. They admire the older girls they are surrounded by and Jo is rather taken with Fiona McKechnie but, unlike the older set, they do not get caught up in any messy flirtations, leaving them free for much more enjoyable activities. But they are useful and Jo is particularly observant. As a Trollope fan, I loved the moment when he realised who it was that one of the McKechnie’s friends reminded him of:
He searched his mind for what it was that made Maisie seem faintly familiar, and got it with some intellectual triumph. He had lately discovered the works of Anthony Trollope, and Maisie was like some of those girls, very, very pretty and neat and you noticed how good her manners were, and yet she was comfortable and full of fun.
My other favourite was Mrs McKechnie, the universally-beloved lady of the house. Though her husband, the Professor, is rather distant and spends much of the book hidden in his study, Mrs McKechnie sees all without even interfering too much. An ideal mother, really. I also loved that she was an early riser; her early morning routine, possible thanks to a husband who is a very sound sleeper, sounds most appealing:
Mrs McKechnie very rarely did anything outside herself, so to speak, during her morning solitude. She had developed a highly efficient routine, and the position of the pillows, easy accessibility of tea-tray and cigarettes, the ancient woolly, so familiar that it almost wrapped itself around her shoulders, and the replenished hot-water bottle if the morning were chilly made together a perfect, luxurious comfort in which she half sat, half lay blissfully alone and gave herself up to thought. She enjoyed thinking, and she did it well, not after the fashion of her husband’s scholarly mind, concentrating on one subject to unfathomable depths, but with a wide range and a livelier imagination than his, though a similar capacity for immersing herself in the thought of the moment enabled her to understand his detachment.
I had never heard of Pleydell before Greyladies started reprinting her books but, having now read three of them, I cannot wait to read the rest. Please, please, please let her other books be in their sights for future publication!