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The Setons (1917)

by O. Douglas

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474409,928 (3.17)16
This gentle classic, set in Glasgow in the last happy days of 1913 before the outbreak of war, follows the lives of a Scottish minister, his exuberant family and his motley parishioners. O. Douglas perfectly captures the delightful Seton family; the vivacious minister's daughter, Elizabeth whose outspokenness in turns charms and exasperates her patient father; Buff, her spirited younger brother whose innocent mumbled remarks always hit on some inapppriate turth; and the quiet widowed minister himself, who drinks far too much tea for his own good.… (more)
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After a recommendation I first read "The Setons" many years ago, and remembered it as a daughter of the Manse tale, largely set in Glasgow. I had forgotten the story was set at the time of the First World War. Reading it for a second time I was astonished by the end, the fearless way in which the author remorselessly kills off characters, the contrast between daily life in Scotland before and during the slaughter of war seeringly highlighted. "The Setons" was published in 1917, when there was no end in sight to the fighting, the outcome of the First World War unknown; its declaration of the human cost of war seems very brave. The author, real name Anna Masterton Buchan (1877-1948) was the sister of John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir (1875-1940),celebrated for novels of patriotic daring-do, such as the spy story, "The Thirty-Nine Steps" published in 1915. I wish I could have witnessed a discussion between these two.
  Roarer | Dec 30, 2019 |
I finally got around to this one, which I'd started in 2014 as part of the Virago Modern Classics group's WW1 read but then laid aside and didn't finish. It's a sweet book – a bit too sweet for my taste, but that's just my taste, and at least it's not slobbery like Louisa May Alcott. Its sweet-but-not-saccharine quality reminds me a bit of Richard Llewellyn's How Green Was My Valley. ( )
  CurrerBell | Jul 17, 2015 |
The Setons is my second read for the ongoing Libraything Great War theme read. O Douglas (the pen name for Anna Masterton Buchan 1877–1948) is an author who I have wanted to read for a while having seen some good reviews by other bloggers. The Majority of the story is set in 1913 –and so the Great War doesn’t actually feature until the end of the novel (approx. The last 20% or so of my Project Gutenberg version on kindle) but when it does occur it is appropriately shattering. Elizabeth Seton is the twenty eight year old spinster daughter of a Scottish minister in Glasgow. Since her mother’s death Elizabeth has run her father’s household with diligence and love, taking charge of her much younger brother – the adorably impish Buff – who is rarely separated from his friends Billy and Thomas from across the road. Mr Seton’s church is in a poor area of Glasgow – and Elizabeth works hard among their neighbours and at the Sabbath school. A tall golden haired woman, with a lovely singing voice, Elizabeth is a popular member of the community, an intelligent lively young woman often given to giggling irreverence. In the company of the Setons we meet the Thomsons, with their socially ambitious daughter Jessie, Kirsty Christie, Elizabeth’s great friend, another spinster lady – who becomes engaged to a young minister, much to Elizabeth’s delight and surprise. Stewart Stevenson an artist who quietly admires Elizabeth, realises his admiration is useless and turns his attentions elsewhere. The Seton family is relaxed and happy, James Seton a wonderfully calm presence devoted to his flock. Elizabeth navigates her way through the duties and social obligations of being a minister’s daughter with apparent ease, but it is not an easy life.

“It's more difficult than you would think to be a minister's family. The main point is that you must never do anything that will hurt your father's 'usefulness,' and it is astonishing how many things tend to do that—dressing too well, going to the play, laughing when a sober face would be more suitable, making flippant remarks—their name is legion. Besides, try as one may, it is impossible always to avoid being a stumbling-block. There are little ones so prone to stumble that they would take a toss over anything.”

The Setons are visited by Arthur Townshend – the nephew of their Aunt Alice’s deceased husband in London – a man they have never met. Elizabeth expects a swell – a man she will find it difficult to spend time with and who will find little to like in the Glasgow home she loves. Instead Arthur proves an instant hit – instantly loved by young Buff finding a great companion in Elizabeth, even accompanying her on some of her visits during his all too short visit. Arthur pledges to visit the Setons at their country home the next year; however by then the world will have plunged into war. “It is useless to tell over the days of August 1914. They are branded on the memory. The stupefaction, the reading of newspapers until we were dazed and half-blind, the endless talking, the frenzy of knitting into which the women threw themselves, thankful to find something that would at least occupy their hands. We talked so glibly about what we did not understand. We repeated parrot-like to each other, “It will take all our men and all our treasure,” and had no notion how truly we spoke or how hard a saying we were to find it. And all the time the sun shone. It was particularly hard to believe in the war at Etterick. No khaki clad men disturbed the peace of the glen, no trains rushed past crowded with troops, no aeroplanes circled in the heavens. The hills and burn and the peewits remained the same, the high hollyhocks flaunted themselves against the grey garden wall; nothing was changed – and yet everything was different”

The war changes everything for so many people – and O Douglas shows that brilliantly. Written in 1917 by a woman who lost two brothers during the war - there is something of the patriotic fervour that swept Britain about the end of this novel – one could even call it propaganda like. The noble sacrifice of men off to war is much lauded – the suggestion that to die for one’s country a better kind of death than any other. I must say that despite this slightly uncomfortable militaristic fervour I found the last quarter of this novel to be almost unbearably poignant. Not for the first time, when reading a book about the beginning of this terrible conflict, did I wonder how the spoiled youth of today with their sense of entitlement would react to such a call. The world is a different place however; the young men who made that noble sacrifice helped to make it so. I loved this book – and finished with a tear in my eye – and a definite desire to read more by this author. ( )
  Heaven-Ali | Feb 23, 2014 |
Tells the tale of people in a Scottish community in the period leading up to the war, with a brief final summing up of how they were affected by it. Written in a lively style but definitely of the times - 1917 publication. ( )
  annejacinta | Jan 28, 2014 |
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This gentle classic, set in Glasgow in the last happy days of 1913 before the outbreak of war, follows the lives of a Scottish minister, his exuberant family and his motley parishioners. O. Douglas perfectly captures the delightful Seton family; the vivacious minister's daughter, Elizabeth whose outspokenness in turns charms and exasperates her patient father; Buff, her spirited younger brother whose innocent mumbled remarks always hit on some inapppriate turth; and the quiet widowed minister himself, who drinks far too much tea for his own good.

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