A semi-autobiographical series which moves from Scotland to the Caribbean

The joy of libraries is that you can try any book at no cost. When I was younger I used to take full advantage of this and read widely from virtually every section of the shelves. There was no financial risk in this and because you could take out many books and bring them back when you wanted to get more I didn’t even inconvenience myself if I gave up on a book. It was this freedom which allowed me to read outside the genres that my parents favoured and to try authors such as Kipling. It was also very useful because there is no other way I could have funded my voracious reading habit when I was a teenager.

Many years ago, and I am not exactly sure when, I came across the books of Jane Duncan in a libarary. I have never seen these books in any shop, even when they were in print, and none of the volumes I own are new as I have purchased them from various second hand book websites over the years and from sales at local libraries. I have never read any reviews or blogs about them either but nevertheless I have continued to reread the books over the years and am doing so again at present.

These books are semi-autobiographical and each title begins “My Friend” or “My Friends”. Over time they tell the story of the life of Janet Sandison, born in a small Scottish village in 1910 who lives on a croft and has a strong connection to the Scottish Highlands and the place of her childhood which is important in all the stories. Eventually Janet moves away, marries and lives on a Caribbean island (fictionalised as St Jago) where her husband is an engineer in the sugar industry in the 1950s. Each story concentrates on a friend or friends of Janet’s, although some of them cannot truly be described that way, and tells how they link in with Janet at various times of her life. Some of the books stretch over many years and some tell just about one incident. As you read through the books, and there are nineteen of them, you come to know Janet and her family and friends very well and also to watch them change and adapt to new circumstances over time.

My Friend Flora is the seventh of the series. It starts with Janet on her first day of school and how she takes notice of the local Smith family and especially the daughter Flora who is a little older than she is.. The book then re-enters Flora’s story at various eventful points when Janet or her family are involved in some way. Flora has to leave school when her mother dies, becomes the housekeeper for her terrible father, deals with the difficulty of having a sister who is severely learning disabled and then has to cope with the death of various family members and the prospect of bringing up a new generation. At every time in her life Flora’s circumstances are compared with Janet’s as she leaves home and takes jobs, and with Janet’s young Aunt Kate who also feels that she has to stay to look after the family and who bitterly resents it. The book is desperately sad in places but explores family expectations for women over the twentieth century in a subtle way.

Jane Duncan is a writer of her generation and the words and attitudes used to describe the learning disabled sister are not what we would use. They are, however, very true to their time and to the upbringing of the characters. In later books when she explores the relationships between white and black people in the Caribbean the same thing applies although I think that this author was probably questioning received opinion more than others.

I enjoy these books a lot. They are well structured and the author obviously knows and understands the locations and communities about which she writes. The books are amusing in places although the author does try and tackle real life issues – Flora, for example, actually has a terrible life because of the brutality of her father and her brothers have it even worse. Janet is an engaging person to spend time with and all the books are written in her voice. I don’t think that these are overlooked classics but I do think that they have a lot to offer the reader.

5 thoughts on “A semi-autobiographical series which moves from Scotland to the Caribbean

  1. This is so interesting Anne – I have two of these books on my shelves (My Friends the MacLeans and My Friend Monica – no doubt both picked up in charity shops) but have never actually read them and had no real idea what they were about. I’ve just looked at the synopses on Fantastic Fiction, and now, thanks to you, I will give them a try.

    There wasn’t much information there about Jane Duncan – I’ll see what else I can find as she sounds like she had a colourful life.

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    1. I once found Jane Duncan’s autobiography in my library. Sadly I have never found a copy for sale at a price I am prepared to pay. She actually grew up in the city where her father was a policeman which isn’t reflected in any of the books. Her family owned the croft but the rest of the story more or less mirrors the books although obviously reordered for artistic reasons. I saw a web page a few years ago which identified the village and the croft – some people even remembered her although I think she was perceived as a bit standoffish.

      I hope you enjoy the books when you do get to read them.

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      1. Thanks Anne. I could not resist looking for this in the Aberdeen Libraries catalogue, and was amazed to find they do have a copy in the reserve stock. So – with only several hundred unread books on my sagging shelves – I had to request it. Thanks for the tip off, and I hope you find a copy one day.

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  2. Hi again Anne – I just wanted to let you know that I have just finished ‘Letter from Reachfar’. I enjoyed it a lot, though I read somewhere that it’s not wholly reliable.

    Whilst the details of life on her beloved croft were fascinating (and put me in mind of Ian Stephen’s A Book of Death & Fish, which is fiction but fundamentally autobiographical, about his character’s/his own life on Lewis from the mid-20th century onwards – it’s not at all cosy, and shows what life is like there, warts and all, but it also describes how everyone keeps everything ‘just in case’ – bits of old cars, boats, pots and pans, are eventually found a new purpose) I was also very interested in her stories of her childhood in Glasgow. The scene with the lice-infected baby will certainly stay with me.

    I see there is another publication ‘Reappraising Jane Duncan: Sexuality, Race and Colonialism in the My Friend Novels’ by Rita Elizabeth Rippetoe. It gets mixed reviews, but as my library doesn’t have it and a copy on Amazon starts at £25, I thiink I’m unlikley to read that one – it does sound quite interesting though!

    Thank you so much for putting me on to this. I always enjoy finding out about a lesser-known author (though I suppose in her day she was quite famous.) I can imagine that she would have been a bit ‘stand-offish’ – I don’t envy that editor of hers.

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    1. I remember the lice !

      I suppose none of us appears to others as we would like to remember ourselves and I do think that the books show us how Janet/Jane can be difficult. I am also aware that there are problems with racism and some of the views expressed (although that hardly makes the series unique at this time). In the end though they have given me a lot of pleasure over the years and I have enjoyed reading them.

      I always love it when I talk about books and someone discovers a new author – the same as I love finding new favourites from the recommendations of others.

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