The Scottish Set
EJO'S Scottish Books

by Clarissa Cridland

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Updated 19th May 2004

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The Twins of Castle Charming is said to be one of Elsie Oxenham’s rarest books – the only known copy to come on the market last year sold for £450 without a dustwrapper, which seems to bear this out. It is also generally supposed to be one of Elsie’s less good books, and comments I have heard include: "It is a dreadful book, one of her worst." "Quite terrible, I don’t want it at any price." "Utterly ghastly, how could she have written it?"

In January 1997, Ann and I were lucky enough to be given a copy of The Twins of Castle Charming which completed our EJO collection. We were overwhelmed by such generosity, and since then I have been wondering whether the book is really as bad as is made out.

Looking at Ruth’s invaluable The Books of Elsie J Oxenham, I saw that The Twins of Castle Charming was listed as number 6 of the Scottish set, although not set in Scotland. Several years ago, I had read – and very much enjoyed – Schoolgirls and Scouts and I decided to re-read this, and read all the others, in the order that Ruth gives them which is:

Goblin Island
A Princess in Tatters
A Holiday Queen
Schoolgirls and Scouts
Finding Her Family
The Twins of Castle Charming

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Goblin Island was EJO’s first book, published in 1907. I found it somewhat awkward in style, being written in both the first person and the third person (and I was thoroughly confused by the number of characters, most of whom seemed to be known by more than one name, introduced in the first chapter) but once I had got into the book, I found myself being carried away by the story, so that the change from first to third person didn’t worry me too much. In the book, we are introduced to the Colquhoun family, as well as The Author and The Author’s daughter, Jean (clearly EJO was thinking of herself, since it is the story from Jean’s point of view which is written in the first person). The story is a family one, set in Scotland, with a good romance, ending in an engagement, thrown in for good measure. I enjoyed it a lot, but looking at it from a slightly critical point of view, felt that it was fairly obviously a first book.

Such was certainly not the case with A Princess in Tatters which I could hardly put down. (When I got to page 304 I had to put it down as the next page was 321. Luckily I was able to borrow a complete copy from Hilary Boulton the next morning, and so finish the story. Looking at the book, though, one could not tell that anything was missing – it must have been bound missing a signature – [section].) True, once again I found the first chapter (set in London) a bit confusing, but almost immediately the scene moves to Scotland and the descriptions of the scenery made me really feel I was there. I shall be discussing the plot in more detail later, but it is in this book we first meet Eilidh Munro (pronounced Eily), Larry Avery, Mollie Raby, Mr Kerr and the Babies at the Farm, all of whom are to feature later on in the series.

From reading the chapter headings in A Holiday Queen I thought I was not going to enjoy this so much, but I did. Set again in Scotland, not too far from her first two books, we meet ‘Queen’ Lexa Stewart, ‘Prime Minister’ Jim Macfarlane, his cousin Monica Howard and the rest of the Band. A good plot, some wonderful descriptions and fascinating interaction between characters all meant that I rushed through the book to get to the end.

Following Ruth’s list, I read Schoolgirls and Scouts next, but here I must take issue with Ruth, because it became apparent that I should have read The Twins of Castle Charming before this. I almost stopped, but in the end carried on and finished Schoolgirls and Scouts before moving on to Finding Her Family and The Twins of Castle Charming. However, this was a mistake and I shall talk about Twins next, in its proper place. The first three books are all completely independent of one another, although set fairly close to each other in Scotland, but it is in Twins that some of the characters reappear.

Briefly, it tells the story of two sisters, twins, who have been separated more or less since birth, one growing up in England, the other in Italy. Although he travels a lot, their father’s home, where they were born, is Castle Charming in Switzerland. The story opens in England at Melany’s boarding school, where we find that two of her fellow pupils in the Fourth are Jill Colquhoun (Goblin Island) and Monica Howard (A Holiday Queen). Melany is to leave school and travel to Switzerland with the aunt with whom she has lived. Her main reason for wanting to go is that she will be able to run away and go to Castle Charming to ask her father if her sister can join them so they can all live together. When she, together with her maid, arrives at the Castle they are told her father is away, and so they go to an hotel for the night. Staying in the hotel are Eilidh Munro and Larry Avery with Mollie Raby and Mr Kerr (A Princess in Tatters) to look after them. At the same time Melany’s twin, Zanne, has also come to the Castle on the same errand (except that she, also travelling with her maid, has come with her Italian grandparents’ blessing). Melany and Zanne meet, and although there are some difficulties in getting their father to be ‘charming’ the book does end happily. Not only did I enjoy the story, I found EJO’s descriptions of Switzerland utterly magical, far more so than any others by any other author which I have read (I have not yet read EJO’s Swiss set).

It is in Schoolgirls and Scouts that all the main characters in the previous four books are brought together. Once again, we start at Miss Johnson’s school, where we are introduced to Elspeth Buchanan. Elspeth has two brothers, Rob and Jock, who are at another school and a younger sister, Sybil who is at home with the uncle and aunt with whom they all ‘live’, their parents having died four years ago. In fact, the elder three have spent all their time, including holidays, at school, and at the beginning of the book Elspeth has not seen the boys for two years, and none of them has seen Sybil since she was a baby. Now, their uncle and aunt are not so rich as they were, and have wished all four children onto an unknown cousin who lives in Scotland. Elspeth is the Lower School swimming champion, Jill Colquhoun (Goblin Island and Twins) being the Upper School champion. At the school Sports Day Elspeth races against Melany Merrill (Twins) who is coming back together with her sister for this very purpose. At the end of term, Elspeth and her brothers, together with Jill Colquhoun and Monica Howard (A Holiday Queen and Twins) go north to Scotland. During the course of their holidays there Elspeth meets not only Monica again but also Eilidh Munro and Larry Avery, Mollie Raby and Mr Kerr (A Princess in Tatters and Twins), Lexa Stewart, Jim Macfarlane and the Band (A Holiday Queen), Melany and Zanne Merrill (Twins and of course the beginning of this book) as well as the Babies from the Farm (A Princess in Tatters). There are two engagements, one between Elspeth’s cousin Janie and a previous unknown, and the other, long awaited between Mollie Raby and Mr Kerr. At the end of the book, money having been found, Elspeth returns to Miss Johnson’s school where she finds not only Jill, Monica and the twins but also Jill’s young sister, Sheila (Goblin Island).

Finding Her Family is a different sort of book altogether. Its only connection with the rest of the set is that Monica Howard appears in it as a very minor character, and whereas I would say that the first five titles make a good series to read, even though they do not really become a series until the end, I would say that this last title is really only a connector, fairly remote at that.

However, it was when reading Finding Her Family that I realised that all of this set have the similar theme of abandoned children, albeit to varying degrees, and luckily all with happy endings. The Colquhoun family in Goblin Island have been orphaned for some while, although the elder brother and sister are old enough to take care of them. However, their father’s solicitor, who has had care of their affairs, has muddled them considerably and at the beginning of the book we learn that there is not enough money for them to continue to live in their home, nor to send Jill and Jack to school. The older brother is away at college, but the others go to live in a small cottage on an island and let their house, hence the ‘abandonment’ theme, although it is rather slight in this case. By the end of the book, Peggy, the older sister, is engaged (to the Author’s son), and their affairs have been straightened.

In A Princess in Tatters Eilidh Munro has been abandoned by her father after her mother died. Her father goes to America and makes his fortune, whereas she is left with her mother’s sister, and when her aunt dies she goes to live at the farm, where although happy, she is incredibly poor, living in ‘tatters’, and spending most of her time nursing the babies. When Bernard Raby goes to paint a picture for his newly married sister, Rosamund, he discovers Eilidh and it turns out that she is the daughter of his very rich, not liked, half brother-in-law (the husband of their half sister, Isobel). [Interestingly, EJO refers to these ‘half’ relations as ‘steps’.] Bernard determines that Duncan Munro shall do his duty, and he is to provide some money so that the third sister, Mollie, can look after Eilidh and turn her into ‘a lady’. After a lapse of a year, the wicked father Duncan is suitably killed in an off-stage shooting accident, and Eilidh becomes properly rich.

The abandoning in A Holiday Queen is nothing like so dramatic, but the theme is still there. Lexa’s parents have gone off to explore the South Pole three years before the start of the story, leaving her with her grandfather. Although they are never believed killed or missing, Lexa does feel abandoned, but happily they come home towards the end of the book. Continuing with the abandoned theme, in Twins the girls have been definitely abandoned by their father and in Schoolgirls and Scouts the Buchanan family – or at least the elder three – have been abandoned at school by the uncle and aunt with whom they were supposed to live.

The plot of Finding Her Family almost beggars belief. Hazel has been brought up in London by her ‘mother and father’, Mrs and Mrs Brander. However, her ‘mother’ dies when she is 14 and her ‘father’ has been offered the chance to go to New Zealand. At this stage, he decides that he no longer wants Hazel, and that she may go back to her ‘real’ father and stepmother. We then learn that she was apparently the daughter of a Mr and Mrs Allerby. Mr and Mrs Allerby had had four children: Alfred, Osmund, Audrey and Hilda. When Alfred was five, there had been a boating accident and Mrs Allerby and Alfred had been drowned. At that time Hilda was just two months old. Mr Allerby’s sister came to look after the children, but felt she couldn’t cope with a baby. Since Mrs Allerby’s sister was longing to have a baby, but had none, she offered to adopt Hilda. Later, Mr Allerby, who was away at sea for most of the time, married again and he and the new Mrs Allerby had more children. When Mr Brander wrote to Mr Allerby to say he wanted to send Hazel (as Hilda had been renamed) back, Mr Allerby was at sea and so Mrs Allerby 2nd, wrote to say yes. Audrey is thrilled at the thought of having a sister near to her in age (Osmund has a job away teaching and the others are much younger). When Audrey tells her best friend, Brenda, the news Brenda is not so keen, since she feels that she will be left out. However, she agrees to go and meet Hazel at the station, and takes to her at once. Indeed, Hazel looks remarkably like Brenda…. It turns out that Brenda, too, had had a baby sister who had died, together with her mother. There had been a fire in Brenda’s house, and her mother and sister were taken to the Allerby’s house where lay Mrs Allerby and baby Hilda. The nurse, though carelessness, allowed Hilda to die, and was scared to tell Mrs Allerby. However, she told Mr Allerby who agreed it would be a good thing to change the babies’ clothes so that Hazel, not actually dead, became Hilda and the dead Hilda became the now dead Hazel. Hazel’s mother had just died, and obviously her father didn’t look at ‘his’ dead baby. We do not of course learn of this immediately, and at one stage Mr Allerby comes home from sea and is appalled to find his ‘daughter’ Hazel. Fortunately, due to all being in quarentine for measles, Hazel and Audrey are sent to stay with Brenda’s family and so Hazel is got out of the way of the second ‘father’ who has rejected her. Needless to say, there is a happy ending and her real rather does truly love her. But what a plot!

In fact, I found all the plots somewhat obvious. But I suspect this is because I read the books first as a middle aged adult in 1997, rather than as a roughly thirteen year old in the early part of this century. I am quite sure that we have no member who read any of these titles when they were first published, but I would be very interested to know of any older members’ reactions if they read them as children.

Elsie’s ‘Lower Class’ Scottish characters all speak with what are to me very endearing Highland accents, for example ‘iss’ and ‘ferry’, and indeed not only Eilidh but also Jill Colquhoun use this mode of speech which the grown-ups try to stamp out of them (in Eilidh’s case after she is ‘rescued’). How true to life this, and their speaking Gaelic, would have been, I am not sure, but it is interesting that Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Macdonald family (Highland Twins at the Chalet School 1942) used exactly the same mode of speech, and I expect she was certainly influenced by EJO in this.

 

Goblin Island, A Princess in Tatters, A Holiday Queen and Schoolgirls and Scouts were all published by Collins in 1907, 1908, 1910 and 1914 respectively. Like all the Collins titles, they were reprinted fairly often and can be bought not too expensively. However, the first editions are really lovely. They are gorgeous fat books, with beautiful decorated boards, full colour illustrations and title pages and at least one has decorated ends. We have a photocopied dustwrapper for A Princess in Tatters and attractive though it is, it seems almost dull by comparison. They are well worth splashing out on, if you can afford it (but only after we have upgraded our copies, please!) Finding Her Family was published next in 1915 by SPCK. It was clearly reprinted since our edition, undated but inscribed 1920, is much thinner than that belonging to Hilary Boulton. It is an attractive book, with three colour plates, decorated boards and a dustwrapper which reproduces two of the inside illustrations on the front and spine. The Twins of Castle Charming was not published until 1920 when Swarthmore Press brought it out. To the best of my knowledge, it was never reprinted (that it is so rare would seem to back this up). I do not know Swarthmore Press and checking The Writers and Artist’s Yearbook from 1941 (the earliest edition I have) see that they were not listed. Were they an early casualty of the war, or did they go out of business before that? The book itself is plain, with no decorations on the boards or illustrations inside, which is certainly unusual for 1920. The dustwrapper (we have a photocopy) is by Harold Earnshaw, and is not only attractive, but extremely accurate. Oddly, the price of the book was printed on the spine – it was published at 7/6 which seems rather expensive for an unillustrated book in 1920. [Interestingly, the price for A Princess in Tatters was also printed on the spine of the wrapper – at 3/6. These are the only two examples I have ever seen like this.] Three other children’s titles are listed on the back cover, ‘Illustrated in Colour, handsomely bound in cloth [can’t read next word], Picture Jackets, 6s net per volume’ which seems to show that Twins was treated rather shabbily, being less well produced and more expensive than their other titles.

Irrespective of its publication date, I am convinced that Twins was written before Schoolgirls and Scouts. Not only does it not read as though it were written retrospectively (and we all know what EJO’s retrospective books were like, even though those ones were written from 1938 onwards!) but it reads very much as though it were written prior to the Great War. At a guess, I would say it was written around 1910-1911, and that EJO had intended it to be published in 1911-1912, years in which she had no other books published. Was it submitted to Collins? If so, did they reject it? Did no other publisher want to take a book which was obviously part of a series? Did it take EJO all those years to find a publisher who would take it? We shall probably never know the answer, but I should love to find out.

Since starting this article, I have inspired Ann to read The Twins of Castle Charming and she also enjoyed it (and is embarking on some of the others). I hope I may inspire others to read – and love - the series as well. Copies of all the titles are available from the Chronicle Library, so there is no excuse if you do not have copies of your own.

This article was provided by Clarissa Cridland and is ©copyright to Clarissa Cridland and may not be reproduced elsewhere without the written author's permission.

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