“Hello, Betty, my old friend … ” It’s been a while, folks, since I did an update on my Great Betty Read. Not that I wasn’t enjoying Henrietta and Marnix, but with a hot summer, I tend to cool showers rather than hot baths (which is where I like to do my Betty reading). With the weather cooling off (thanks be to the weather gods), back to Bets I went and a quick conclusion to the lingering Henrietta, her castle, and her cat in a tea cosy (truly delightful!).
Sister Henrietta Brodie, after ten years as a nurse, inherits a small home in Holland, leaves her job, and moves in. I loved that work, for Henrietta, for Betty really, is a financial necessity, duty, and responsibility, but not a virtue. The important thing to Bets is to be of service to others: how you do that, as a wife, mother, neighbour, friend, nurse, volunteer, doesn’t matter as long as its the ethos you live by. Because work isn’t a virtue, Henrietta gives notice, takes her rumbly old Renault, Charlie, and herself to her neat little Dutch cottage …
where she meets the imperious Dr. Marnix van Hessel, lord of manor and village. He seems to possess feudal privileges over Henrietta’s cottage and the village (as Henrietta herself notes when she sees Marnix’s castle gates shut on the estate, across from her cottage, “Very feudal, she decided, and went home to Henry”). All this makes for many a droll scene between Henrietta and Marnix, who rub each other the wrong way from the get-go. Marnix does, however, provide Henrietta with the company of Henry, a black kitten who spends most of his time in a tea cosy!
Henrietta has the makings of a feral spinster: “Over the years of being without a family she had achieved a fine independence.” All the more reason to find Marnix’s commanding, arrogant presence annoying; her first impression is not good, as Marnix greets her upon arrival, “a large, domineering man, used to giving orders and getting his own way.”
Henrietta’s ferality doesn’t allow her to actually like Marnix, but she sure finds him compelling, ” … she wanted to get to know Mr. van Hessel — not that she liked him, domineering and bad-tempered as he was, but he was interesting … ” Betty is so good at the subtle little stab at her protagonists’ innermost feelings; she pokes fun at them gently and sharply (I love it),” ‘Oh, hullo,’ she exclaimed, and felt a surge of pleasure at the sight of him despite the shortcomings of his character.”
Honestly, even if Marnix behaves like an ass for most of the novel, who can resist his first generous, loving gesture? “He slid a careful hand inside the sheepskin and brought out a very small black kitten with saucer eyes and enormous ears, and held it out to her.” A hero’s irresistibly tender offering of warmth, companionship, and trust that Henrietta will care for Henry, named for Henry IV, thanks to the hero and heroine’s familiarity with the Bard, ” ‘I had rather be a kitten and cry mew.’ “
One of my favourite Betty moments is magnificently rendered, the moment when the heroine, for no rhyme or reason, realizes she loves the hero: “She had never known until that moment how unnerving it was to discover that you loved someone; it was suddenly and blindingly apparent to her … ” Maybe it’s because Henrietta just witnessed Marnix being tender with Henry (Betty heroes and heroines are measured according to their ability to be kind to animals, the ill, the elderly, and children): “Henry climbed onto his knee, he put out a gentle hand and scratched the little creature’s ear with a long blunt finger, smiling down at the kitten.”
Like my beloved Jane Eyre, Betty’s heroines cannot control their easily-provoked temperaments and love, their love for a hero they don’t like, is their greatest test: “She longed to be someone with a cool nature, not easily touched by emotion.” As Marnix exclaims, ” ‘Why do you vex me, Miss Brodie? Why do you stoke up the sparks of my ill temper … ?’ ” Alas, Marnix brings out the worst in her as Henrietta does in him: it means they love each other. Love upsets the fabric of their identities. But when Henrietta and Marnix have to work together to help the victims of a nearby plane crash, their work symbiosis says everything about their love and compatibility that a love scene cannot.
Marnix’s love for Henrietta is obvious when he takes her to dinner. When a man loves a woman in a Betty novel, he orders her perfect meal and the aperitif is always, always dear readers, Dubonnet.
The more Marnix and Henrietta love each other, the greater grows their antipathy, as well as a sensitivity to finding near everything irksome. They get better and better at being angry with one another and their ability to throw insults grows ever more delightfully bizarre:
She stood in the pouring rain, looking down her beautiful nose at him and loving him with all her heart as well as disliking him heartily for his arrogance. She was cold and a little tired and not happy, and there had been no need to bellow at her like that. She said, thinking her thoughts out loud: “You should have been born a couple of hundred years ago.” … She cast a smouldering eye at the leaden skies. “Your beastly Dutch weather,” she added irritably.
And Marnix’s jealous fury that Henrietta might have had a man in her home last night makes him exclaim: ” ‘We are a God-fearing people here, and very old-fashioned. We conduct our courting in the light of day.’ She was on her feet. ‘You big pompous … you — you despot … how dare you … ‘ she was stuttering with temper. ‘Anyone would think that you owned the people as well as the village.’ ” I roared with laughter at these two’s absurdity. Things looks pretty bleak for H and M, indeed. 😉
(There’s also a bitchy sneak of an OW, who was deliciously nasty. Henrietta foils her beautifully: ” ‘ … And I should be careful that your little girl act doesn’t turn sour on you, for if he gets a glimpse of the real you, it will be curtains, ducky.’ ” “Ducky,” does it get any better?)
Unlike the Henrietta’s sudden, “blinding” realization that she loves Marnix, she quixotically indulges in pathetic attempts to excise Marnix from her life: “But later, she promised herself, when the muddle had been cleared up, she would extort an apology form Marnix, after which she would never speak to him again. This resolution, which should have satisfied her, served to keep her awake for the rest of the long night.” At last, as the long-anticipated HEA approaches, it is Marnix who beautifully breaks first; seeing Henrietta from afar, trying to help a massive injured horse, he thinks before he comes to their rescues: “His tiresome, proud Henrietta was having trouble of some sort … ” Without even the final sealing kiss and proposal, I drew a sigh of relief: Marnix would always be there for Henrietta, no matter how proud and tiresome she would continue to be. He loves her after all, but he too, as we learn, had his little controlling mechanisms:
“Why did you always call me Miss Brodie?”
“If I hadn’t called you Miss Brodie, I would have called you my darling, my darling.”