Jane Duncan: birthday of a bestselling author

On 10th March we commemorate the birthday of the author Jane Duncan, the pen name for Elizabeth Jane Cameron (1910-1976). Katharine Woods, who is researching a PhD at the University of Glasgow on ‘Affective Presence in the Archive’ has been cataloguing Jane Duncan’s papers as one of her case studies. Here she sets out some of the fascinating details of Duncan’s life and the significance of her work.

“Jane Duncan achieved an unprecedented and unequalled publishing coup in 1959, when, amidst a huge publicity splash, it was announced she had had seven books accepted by Macmillan, prior to the first being published. Jane Duncan’s subsequent writing career took her into the bestseller lists, a writing career that comprises: nineteen novels in the ‘My Friends’ series (sometimes known as the ‘Reachfar’ series, after the fictional name that she gave to her grandparents’ croft), in which the life of her narrator, Janet Sandison, parallels her own; a quartet of novels, published under the name of Janet Sandison, set around and in Glasgow of the 1920s and 1930s, including the University; a series of five children’s adventures stories named for the Cameron children who feature in them; three children’s picture books, illustrated by Mairi Hedderwick, now known for the Katie Morag books;  and an autobiographical volume, ‘Letter from Reachfar’.


Jane Duncan’s published books (collection and photograph: Katharine Woods)

Perhaps surprisingly, Jane Duncan’s books are now mostly out of print.  Her books are only given brief mention in accounts of Scottish books, writing and writers.  There are no references to her work in the most recent guides to Scottish Literature.  There might not be room for this woman’s writing in the Scottish literary canon, but she commanded a devoted and international readership. Jane Duncan’s writing develops far beyond the couthy, the pawky, and the cosy, nostalgic, domestic idyll so frequently ascribed to it.  Her books remain worth reading for their felicity of style and character development, and for their contemporary resonance in their exploration of, for example, the relationship between marriage and prostitution, mental and physical disability, depression, genderqueer presentation, lesbian and gay relationships, and the Scottish contribution to the British imperialist and colonialist legacy.

Elizabeth Jane Cameron was born on the 10th March 1910, in Renton, Dunbartonshire, a policeman’s daughter who spent her holidays on her grandparents’ croft on the hill above Jemimaville, on the Black Isle, near Inverness. She attended Lenzie Academy and then the University of Glasgow from 1927-1930 where she gained her MA.


Matriculation form of Elizabeth Jane Cameron (the author Jane Duncan). (Glasgow University Archive Services, R8/5/11 ‘Matriculation Women A-D’, 1927-1928)

During the 1930s she held a succession of secretarial and companion jobs. At the outbreak of the Second World War, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), was commissioned and sent to work in Photographic Intelligence at RAF Medmenham. After the war, she moved to Biggar, working for Cuthbertson’s engineering firm, where she met her partner, Alexander (Sandy) Clapperton. They did not marry as Clapperton was unable to obtain a divorce from his wife. Despite this, the two of them joined their lives together and Cameron recognised their union by changing her name by deed poll to Elizabeth Jane Cameron Clapperton. In 1948 they left Scotland to live and work in Jamaica. Clapperton died in 1958 and Jane Duncan, as she had become known, formally, using the name on her passport, returned to Scotland in 1959, where she settled in Jemimaville.


Press cuttings collected by Jane Duncan (MS Gen 1770/C)

Access to Jane Duncan’s life is now available, not only through the fictionalised version in her novels, but also through her personal archives, now in Special Collections (MS Gen 1770), currently in the process of being catalogued. The brown paper packages tied up with string and tape have been untied and unwrapped to reveal that her personal archives include: manuscripts, published and unpublished for novels, short stories, articles and radio broadcasts; correspondence; press cuttings, assiduously pasted onto loose leaf pages and annotated with the name of the paper and the date; journals and personal mementoes; and legal and financial matters.


Wrapper from manuscript of ‘My Friend Monica’. The word count of 84,000 is dated 19th Sept 1957 and the wrapper is stamped ‘Montego Bay, Jamaica’. (MS Gen 1770/A)

Unpublished manuscripts and related correspondence demonstrate, despite the press stories to the contrary, that Jane Duncan wrote and attempted to be published prior to her success in 1958, spending many years learning and honing her craft. Some letters describe events and people that have parallels in her novels, but, no matter the similarities between her life in novel form and the life she lived, Jane Duncan’s art is in dissecting and re-assembling life, not in just copying it. Correspondence between her and Marjorie and Eric Linklater (arts campaigner and writer respectively), Ian Grimble, the Scottish writer and historian, and Francis Russell Hart, the one Scottish literary critic who awarded her a place within the Scottish literary canon, shows her connections with the literary world. Carbon copies of some of Jane Duncan’s own letters mitigate the one-sided nature of the epistolary conversation found in personal archives. One carbon letter confirms the existence of a twentieth manuscript for the ‘My Friends’ series: ‘My Friends the Ladies from Sussex’.

During the month of March, we celebrate Women’s Week, International Women’s Day, and Women’s History Month. Jane Duncan is part of these celebrations because she dared to assert, under her multiplicity of female pen names, that a woman’s life was worth writing, worth reading, worth explicating, in not just one, but breathtakingly in nineteen or more novels, and not because that woman was a queen or a prime minister, or a well-known pioneer of science or equality, or married to or the mistress of a more famous man, women hailed by those who create a nation’s cultural hegemony, but simply because she was there.
Watch this space for further updates relating to this archive, but in the meantime: Happy Birthday, dear Jane!”
Katharine Woods (email: k.woods.3@research.gla.ac.uk)

The Library is planning to add to our existing holdings of Jane Duncan’s books, which currently include My Friend Annie. You may also like to know that Millrace Books have recently republished My Friends the Miss Boyds and My Friend Monica, the first and third books in the original sequence. The Janet Reachfar picture books are available from Birlinn Press.

Categories: Special Collections

Tags: , , ,

2 replies

  1. So happy to make this wonderful connection. I have read the Reacher novels so often that I know them by heart. My own Grandmother came from Cromarty and on a whirlwind visit to the Black Isle in 1986 I saw Jemimaville but did not have the nerve to stop and be a Lady from Sussex.


  1. World Congress of Scottish Literatures « University of Glasgow Library

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: