Homespun by Annie S. Swan

Homespun cover

Homespun by Annie S.Swan was first published in 1893 and its subtitle is – a study of simple folk. The setting is the small village of Beild, supposedly the lowlands of Scotland but this was one of the two books that she got material for while she lived in the very small village of Star of Markinch in Fife where her husband James Burnett-Smith was the schoolmaster, before he left so that he could pursue his ambition of studying to become a doctor.

Beild is a typical wee Scottish place where gossip is the main occupation of the inhabitants and there are the usual village rivalries. The pub is frequented by many but particularly by four old bachelors for whom it’s a home from home. In one of their more drunken moments they decide that it’ll be a good laugh if one of them proposes marriage to a local spinster, no doubt expecting her to be outraged by the drunken man. It doesn’t go as hoped though as the spinster accepts the proposal – well, she had discovered that he had some savings and she believed she could control his boozing. He’s stuck.

This is a typical sentimental book of its day, plenty of romance, sorrow and a local cossetted son who has been away studying to be a minister packs the church out at his first sermon as a probationer. He’s so disliked they’re all hoping for a disaster of course. This book is quite entertaining in an old and coothie way.

I think that the author’s reaction to living in Star/Beild for two years as she did is summed up below.

To fully master the intricacies of the Beild character, old or young, you have to be brought up in the place; no stranger has half a chance.

You can read a bit more about her here.

My Life by Annie S. Swan

 My Life cover

Have any of you ever read any books by the Scottish author Annie S. Swan? Between 1878 and her death in 1943 she wrote over 200 novels, short stories and serials. She has been called “one of the most commercially successful popular novelists of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” but only a few of her books have been recently reprinted. She began her career writing serials for the wildly popular Peoples’ Friend which is still going although they can’t be selling nearly as many copies as in earlier times as it used to be sent all over the British Empire. She also wrote under her married name Annie Burnett-Smith and as David Lyall she wrote serious newspaper articles about politics, including the Boer War.

I’ve read a few of her books and quite enjoyed them, but she’s a bit of a local hero among some people here in Fife as for a couple of years she lived in the teeny village of Star of Markinch when her husband was a schoolteacher there. In this book she says very little about her time there but to be fair it must have seemed like the back of beyond for her as even now it’s a bit of a backwater.

Apparently she wasn’t all that keen on writing her autobiography as inevitably ‘the Ego, which I don’t very much like abounds’. But she had an eventful life, considering that she was born into a farming family near Edinburgh, but her father wasn’t a very good businessman and failed even at growing potatoes. With really no encouragement from her family Annie got stuck into writing short stories and when she got married it wasn’t only a couple of years until her husband was able to give up his teaching job and study medicine, something he had always wanted to do but it hadn’t been affordable.

Annie discovered that she was good at public speaking, addressing hordes of women, often they were keen to get a sneak preview of her ongoing serial. This talent for speaking led her to be asked to go to America during World War 1 to tell them how urgently the UK needed food that only they could supply as we only had six weeks’ worth of provisions left. After a difficult start she ended up being invited all over the place and meeting ‘high heid yins’ such as Herbert Hoover. She also met Howard Heinz and I imagine his beans were deployed against the Kaiser.

She felt most at home in Boston of course, but “wished that American history books could be more accurate in their accounts of certain events in which the British were also involved.” Hmm yes I know what she means!

The war woke her up to politics and she stood for the Liberals in the 1922 General Election, but came in last. This didn’t put her off though and she later became a founder member of the Scottish National Party. I wish they had been more careful when choosing a name for it and hadn’t stuck in that word ‘national’.

When she was speaking to one poverty stricken woman she was told “Ah, weel, I dinna understand it a’. We’ll vote for onybody that will mak’ us better.” – and that’s the problem with democracy. People believe all the promises that rarely come to fruition. Nigel Farage said as soon as the poll booths were closed that he regretted things said in his campaign, but they get away with it.

She has quite a bit to say about marriage and specifically her own as she and her husband often held very different views on things and as they both had tempers things were often fraught I think but she thought that that was much better than being a part of one of those couples who agree on everything. I agree with that, in my experience that just means that one person is always suppressing their feelings and being a doormat.

Despite having a full and successful career her happy family life ended when her 15 year old son died in a shooting accident while packing to go back to Rugby School at the end of school holidays. I always have my doubts about those teenage ‘accidents’. It’s obviously something that she and her husband and their daughter never quite got over.

When her husband Dr Burnett-Smith was working up his business (pre NHS obviously) they moved down to England and ended up in London where they moved in literary circles, in this book she does drop a lot of names, but she had lots of friends among other writers such as J.M. Barrie and Thomas Hardy. Scotland always pulled them home though and they built a large house in Kinghorn on the east coast not far from me in Fife. Annie, her husband and their son are apparently buried there so I plan to go there soon to see their graves and track down the house they built – The Anchorage.

I found this to be an interesting read but I’m not sure how easily obtainable it is, my friend Maureen kindly loaned me her copy.

Mistaken by Annie S. Swan

Mistaken cover

Mistaken by Annie S.Swan was written in 1896, it’s a very quick read but it wasn’t long before I had to stop and have a good look at the inside information, expecting to see the words Religious Tract Society as it has that sort of flavour about it, surprisingly though it isn’t an RTS book. Chapter 1 is titled DO THE DUTY WHICH LIES NEAREST TO THEE.

The book begins with two young women friends who have just completed their schooling. Maud is from a rich family and Margaret is the eldest child in a family which is much less well off, but she’s the apple of her father’s eye and he was determined to send his favourite to an expensive boarding school where she has rubbed shoulders with supposedly superior girls.

Maud’s influence on Margaret isn’t helpful to her personality. Maud thinks that they should be Christian missionaries within their own neighbourhoods, and for Margaret that means Hackney in London. Margaret neglects her family because her charitable work is more important to her, and although her mother is ailing and asks her for help with the younger children, Margaret refuses as she can’t be spared from her missionary work in Hackney. The fact is of course that Margaret is having a whale of a time lording it over the poor of Hackney and she’s dodging the drudgery of domestic work within the family home.

So spoiled has Margaret been by her father that even when his wife in desperation asks him to intervene and get Margaret to help, he ignores his wife’s pleas. Nothing is more important than his beloved daughter and her missionary work. It’s only when a doctor tells him that his wife must go to the west of Scotland for a rest cure if her life is to be saved that he takes notice of her.

All this time Margaret has been engaged to her friend Maud’s brother, who happens to be a church minister and he is unimpressed by her treatment of her mother, and also feels neglected by her. Margaret breaks off the engagement when he points out the error of her ways. Nothing is to get in the way of her good works.

The inevitable happens, Mamma dies, despite being taken to the west of Scotland to gain strength. Henceforth Scotland would no longer be only a name to them, but a dear and sacred place, because upon it’s shores was their mother’s grave.

Margaret’s life of atonement begins, taking the place of her mother to nurture the younger children. When her brother leaves school for Oxford University and eventually graduates, he’s full of gratitude to his sister-mother. So sorrow had been sanctified to Margaret Wayland, and she had come out of the deep unscathed, and was now more than ever a burning and a shining light, even in quite places.

She had learned indeed to do her duty nearest to her and her reward was not denied her.

I’ve enjoyed some of Annie S. Swan’s books in the past. Her writing is very sentimental, of the Scottish ‘kailyard’ type, but this one was just a wee bit too much for me to take. I felt like screaming when inevitably the son of the house jaunts off to Oxford to get the makings of a successful life for himself, as he was entitled to do, but his sister should be satisfied with being an enabler.

I know the book was written over 100 years ago, but that sort of attitude hung around for generations after that – in Scotland anyway, for those girls unlucky enough to have brothers. Mind you I think it was much the same in the rest of the UK too.

I read this book for the Read Scotland 2015 Challenge.

Recent Book Purchases

Recent Book Purchases

On our recent road trip down to England I bought quite a few books – surprise surprise I hear you say.

1. Film-Lovers’ Annual – 1934
2. The Derbyshire Dales by Norman Price
3. The Better Part by Annie S. Swan
4. Traitor’s Purse by Margery Allingham
5. Murder Among Friends by Elizabeth Ferrars
6. Love Among the Ruins by Angela Thirkell
7. The Provincial Lady In America by E.M. Delafield
8. Appointment with Venus by Jerrard Tickell
9. Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
10. Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

I’m only sorry that I didn’t buy even more books as I saw two old Batsford travel books and I actually thought I had bought one Batsfprd book but I’ve just realised that the Derbyshire Dales book was actually published by Warne. I’m now regretting not buying Batsford’s England and Scottish Borders. Oh well, hopefully they’ll turn up at another time and place.

I bought the Dean’s Film-Lovers Annual from 1934 for the photos in it, some of very famous film stars such as Bogart and Edward G. Robinson and an awful lot that I had never heard of so I’ll be googling them. There are interesting photos of film sets too and a photo of Harold Lloyd’s sitting-room showing bookcases full of books. I’d love to be able to see what they are.

The Guinea Stamp by Annie S Swan

 The Guinea Stamp cover

The Guinea Stamp by Annie S Swan was first published in 1892 and is subtitled a Tale of Modern Glasgow. When I worked in libraries in the 1970s Annie S Swan was one of those authors beloved of elderly ladies of the strict Presbyterian variety but when I saw this one in a local library I thought I would give it a go for the Read Scotland 2015 challenge. I don’t think that I would bother reading any others though. Swan is fond of telling you what is going to happen further on in the book, which is fair enough I suppose as I find romances to be so predictable anyway.

This is a sentimental story involving a young woman called Gladys whose father has just died, leaving her parentless and with no family at all as far as she is concerned, but her father’s estranged brother turns up to do his duty by her. He takes her away from Lincolnshire where she had grown up and takes her to Glasgow where he has a business and where her father had grown up.

It’s a harsh life for Gladys, her uncle is an old skinflint and the living conditions are bleak but not half as dire as for some of the people she meets in the city.

It’s a bit of a fairy tale really, sentimental ‘kailyard’ fiction, but it was escapist reading for a huge amount of women and although the story is unrealistic I was quite impressed that one of the characters – Miss Peck states that: Sometimes I have felt quite wicked about the inequality of the punishment meted out to men and women in this world. Women are the burden-bearers and the scapegoats always. That must have gone down well with the legions of women readers that Swan had. According to Wiki Swan was a suffragist and she was writing about the hard life which ordinary women had but she was criticised by other writers for being too sentimental. I think that it must have been of some comfort to women to read that at least some people knew about their hard living conditions.

This book is probably of more interest for its glimpses into the social history of the times in Glasgow than anything else, even although it is a sanitised version, there’s no mention of outside toilets and the like.

Swan was apparently a founder member of the Scottish Nationalist Party and I was quite amazed to read that when she first got married she and her husband set up home in Star of Markinch in Fife which is a small village a stone’s throw from where I’m living now.