On the Betty Neels scale of perfection to meh, The Edge of Winter falls closer to perfection, except for one great big ole blip near the end. In the dramatic opening, our heroine, with the unlikely name of Araminta Shaw, is rescued from a treacherous Cornish cliff (she descended the ramparts to save a stranded child) by a mysterious sailor, who … behold, shows up as Dutch visiting Dr. Crispin van Sibbelt at the hospital where Araminta is employed as a nurse. Like my favourite Neelses, Araminta and Crispin do NOT hit it off: he’s arrogant, overbearing and teasing; she’s annoyed and peevish. She hates him and especially herself for finding him attractive. One night, after a particularly harrowing hospital day, Crispin shows up at Araminta’s flat, with supper … from Harrod’s. Is there anything to compare to a hero who appears when the heroine is too tired to deal with supper? They eat companionably enough and Crispin kisses Araminta. She’s half in love with him and in total denial, giving rise to one’s of Betty’s finest peevish-heroine passages: “He had invited himself — and he had behaved very strangely; she had been kissed before, but somehow this time she had felt disturbed by it, and that was strange in itself, because she didn’t like him. She would take great care to treat him with polite aloofness when next they met. She entered the Accident Room, carrying on a mythical conversation with him in which he came off very much the worse for wear” (40). WARNING: spoilers ahead.
They part coolly and badly. Soon thereafter, Araminta, at her father’s and aunt’s pleading behest, travels to Holland to care for a sick relative. At the hospital visit for her cousin-by-marriage, Thelma, she meets Crispin. While the Crispin-Araminta courtship dance is as good as Neels can pull off, it’s Araminta caring for her cousin’s, Thomas’s, wife that makes for the most interesting reading. Thomas is a first-class ass, alternatingly cruel or indifferent, a cheapskate and workaholic. He has abandoned the dying Thelma to her fate, gaslighting her by saying she’s over-reacting to a fatal illness. Thomas has rendered their son, Bertram, a right little snot, into a mirror image. Our Betty has outdone herself in this portrayal of cruel indifference, never mincing words how remorselessly callous one human may behave towards another. In contrast, Crispin’s reappearance in Araminta’s life, to help her with the dying Thelma, to take her to dinner, ferry her about in his slick cars, stands in contrast to Thomas, not for Crispin’s wealth and refinement, but for his kindness, consideration, and care for others. Crispin may be as arrogant and mysterious and unforthcoming as he likes because he is solicitous.
When poor Thelma dies, her last days made more comfortable by Araminta and Crispin, Betty writes one of the iconic Betty moments that I will from hereon refer to as the “white handkerchief”. This is why Betty is the ultimate romance comfort read. Because the hero responds to the heroine’s needs, emotional, physical, spiritual, with perfect words, objects, and gestures, whether they be a comforting murmur, a stalwart shoulder, a bowl of soup, or:
She shook her head again, sniffed for the third time and looked at him. “I have no idea what to do, but I’m not usually so poor-spirited — I think I’m a little tired, and it’s lonely here.”
He didn’t answer but took a very white handkerchief from a pocket and offered it to her. “I should have thought of this,” he told her, “but no matter, it can be sorted out in no time.” (82)
The handkerchief when tears are flowing, the setting to rights. Crispin takes Araminta out of the apartment where Thomas expected her to spend the night with Thelma’s corpse and takes her home with him, where the “white handkerchief” takes the form of French onion soup, turbot in lobster sauce, and Charlotte russe, a lovely bedroom, and scented soap. Nothing is sexier than being taken care of. Araminta’s ruminations are the BEST: ” … it struck her with the most unexpected suddenness that it would be nothing short of happiness to sit opposite him for the rest of her life. He would probably be a difficult husband, but she saw no reason why she couldn’t manage him” (90). No reason, indeed, Araminta. Our Araminta admires Crispin and thinks: “a resourceful man too, but once roused, of a very nasty temper. She loved every inch of him” (139).
Betty is adapt at showing the difference between temperament and heart. Crispin is arrogant, at times, standoffish, but at heart, a good man, a caring one. Araminta is quick to judge, likely to jump to the wrong conclusions, but a good person, a loving, caring person. Temperament doesn’t deter goodness; personality doesn’t determine decency. Actions do, dinner, flowers, anticipating what the other person needs and words do too, when they’re accompanied by loving gestures. When Crispin shows up at Thomas’s to take Araminta to dinner, I loved his line, seeing Araminta do all the washing up for Thomas and Bertram: ” ‘You look like Cinderella — why are you covered in an apron?’ ” (109).
Crispin is the ultimate gesture man, up there with Rule in Heyer’s Convenient Marriage. Crispin brings Araminta back to Holland from England with the express purpose of marriage. But first, he brings her to his home, courts her, giving her time and opportunity to know him, to be sure her fifteen-years-younger self wants this marriage. It’s gracious, maddening, and loveable a plan. Sadly, Araminta loses whatever IQ she seems to have exhibited since the novel’s start by making a TSTL decision to run away from Crispin. He goes after her, of course, and their tender reunion is punctuated by delightful glimpses into what their married life will really be like:
Love him with all her heart she might, but he could annoy her more than anyone she knew.
Araminta, aware that he was watching her intently, fidgeted with her coffee cup, then put it down and fell to examining her nails. At last he said: “I expected a torrent of abuse.” (178-79)
This is the stuff of a true HEA.
Another Betty read from my pile of used paperback Harlequins! Onwards to #35, A Gem of a Girl.