This is an extraordinary book, set in a remote part of early 19th century Lowland Scotland. What is most extraordinary is the cliché-ridden and sexist showing of some of the male characters: violent, selfish, coarse and lusty. The women endure such behaviour in subservient positions.
After the preamble we see Janet, a lovely 17-year-old girl, orphaned and working for a brutish farmer whose wife keeps bearing children. Yes, the brute lusts after Janet, so we have creaking floorboards and battering on bolted doors. The author cleverly removes the lecher with an accident, and our young virgin takes another servile position with a weakly but kind man of wealth. She agrees to marry him into a sexless marriage (a likely story!), but remains loyal until attacked by her husband’s nephew. Her husband dies fighting the off attacker. Janet is left her husband’s estate and so free to marry a young lawyer. They follow the instructions in her husband’s will to develop the house into a free school following the wishes of her late grandfather, who was a dominie.
The book details much admirable community action such as the start of a trustee savings bank and boarding schools for poor children. It is heavy on local dialect and words almost unknown to Sassenachs, with a preponderance of the adjective ‘wee’ and ‘dominie’, meaning schoolmaster. But worst is the bigotry and narrowness of attitude of some of the characters. Was life really as painful as that? Were most men either brutes or wimps? Were most women either tarts or downtrodden servants? It is refreshing to have an innocent, hardworking, never-puts-a-foot-wrong young virgin as the star of the book, but I do miss a little Class and poshness.