The Great Betty Read: THE EDGE OF WINTER, #34

Edge_Of_WinterOn 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. Continue reading

The Great Betty Read: Esmeralda, #33

EsmeraldaWhen you’re in a pandemic, what can you do but pick up your GREAT BETTY NEELS READ from where you left off, victim of neglect and ennui? Sigh. So glad I’m back on my epic quest to read all 134 of her oeuvre. It was a comfort to return to a world where the tea is good, the sandwiches are better, there’s always a pudding, the hero is enormous and ethical, as is the heroine, and everyone receives rewards commensurate with their qualities. A warning to readers: our eponymous heroine had a childhood accident, which left her disabled in one foot. The novel’s first half is dedicated to her encounter with the hero, Dr. Thimo Bamstra, a renowned Dutch surgeon, who will “fix” her foot. This may be offensive to some, that Esmeralda needs “fixing” in any way and, indeed, I don’t think the hero feels compelled to “fix” her. It’s Esmeralda herself who has crawled into a hole of shame, aided and abetted by a society that sees disabled people as less than (pub. date is 1976). I can’t say I embraced Esmeralda when I started reading because of this. But I can’t help but say how much I ended up enjoying it. Continue reading

The Great Betty Read: COBWEB MORNING, #32

Cobweb_MorningBetty Neels’s Cobweb Morning reaches peak Other Woman over-the-top-ness. And in reaching this apex of romance-tropish-goodness, our Betty spotlights Neelsian values with an intensity borne of ethical conviction. Oh, it’s all typical enough: Nurse Alexandra Dobbs happens to be on duty when an amnesiac is brought to emergency by Dutch doctor Taro van Dresselhuys. Sparks fly: Taro is arrogant, officious, and cruelly teasing; he provokes Alexandra into fits of temper. Despite bringing out the worst in each other, he’s as good a man as she is a woman. I especially loved Taro’s remark when he sees Alexandra in a temper and notes, ” ‘ … you walked down the street as though you hated – er – whatever his name is. You have a very eloquent back.’ “Isn’t that “eloquent back” marvelous? Taro asks Alexandra to help him care for the amnesiac, “Penny,” first at his aunt’s house in England, then, in his own home in Holland, and she accepts. Penny is manipulative and meretricious, playing pathetic, hurt victim to Taro and simultaneously Delilah-like in her come-hither-babe routine. Alexandra nurses Penny with gentleness care, but sees through her damsel-in-distress act. While the romance is typical-Betty enough, aloof, mysterious, impenetrable hero and gah-all-feelings-out-there heroine with no hope of their return, it was Betty’s contrast between the two women I enjoyed most. (Be warned, dear reader, there be plenty of spoilers beyond this point.)
Continue reading

The Great Betty Read: A STAR LOOKS DOWN, #30

Star_Looks_DownAfter the magnificence of Henrietta’s Own Castle (the cat alone sent me into paroxysms of reader-joy … Henry in his tea cosy), I was ready for a gentler, quieter Neels and found it in A Star Looks Down. It’s so quiet and gentle, there’s an absence of OW (Other Woman, for those not used to rom-lingo) and the villain is a hardly-villainous ten-year-old. But there is really something quite lovely about the story of heroine Beth Partridge of the plain face and violet eyes and the laconically mild-mannered, patient Dr. Alexander van Zeust. Indeed, if there’s a nasty, it’s Beth’s brother, who takes advantage of her good nature, impeccable house-keeping, generous heart and hand, as he’s constantly asking for a fiver. He’s in medical training and Beth is paying his and her way on her nurse’s pay. But a generous offer comes from Alexander, who recognizes Beth’s nursing and personal worth and offers her a great sum to nurse his sister while she recuperates from an appendectomy and to care for her four young ones (while their father is away).  Continue reading

The Great Betty Read: HENRIETTA’S OWN CASTLE, #29

Henrietta_Own_Castle“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 … Continue reading

REVIEW: Mary Burchell’s UNBIDDEN MELODY

Unbidden_MelodyMy goodness, Miss Bates loves Burchell. Is there a better writer? A more nuanced, interesting one? Unbidden Melody contained elements that Miss Bates and other romance readers scorn: an ingenue heroine; dense, uncaring hero; nasty Other Woman; a capitulation of the heroine’s will to the hero’s “genius”. And yet. By the end, Miss Bates had that heart-clenching-hold-your-breath response the best romance novels elicit.

Here are the plotty particulars. Introduced by one of those older, machinating, wise, charismatic characters, like the mercurial, adorably-arrogant prima donna, Gina Torelli (who makes a compelling, delightful appearance here), impresario Dermot Deane, the romance focuses on his secretary, Mary Barlow, and tenor, Nicholas Brenner. Like most of Burchell’s heroines, Mary is modest, efficient, competent, and a music-lover. She has barely started working for Deane, but loves every moment of it. Indeed, she’s the one who suggests Deane coax Nicholas Brenner to London for a production of Carmen. Deane is delighted with Mary’s idea and soon thereafter, Brenner is rehearsing Don José. Brenner hasn’t performed since his wife died in an automobile accident and a wistful sadness clings to him. He and Mary are immediately attracted, however, and she brings him out of his shell. As he confesses to her, his wife Monica had driven him mad with her jealousy and mistrust and her death brought grief, but mainly guilt-ridden relief. With Mary, he can finally embrace love and life again. At the novel’s half-point, Nicholas proposes; Mary accepts. What follows could be construed as a Big Mis; except in Burchell’s capable hands, it turns into the story of two people, obviously in love, without the acquaintance and comfort that make for commitment and stolidity. Love, says Burchell, must come with trust, understanding, and communication to build a life together.  Continue reading

REVIEW: Mary Burchell’s CHILD OF MUSIC

Child_Of_MusicMary Burchell’s 1970 Child Of Music is the Warrender Saga’s fifth book. Though not MissB’s favourite (see A Song Begins and The Curtain Rises reviews) Burchell is unrivalled in her acute psychological penetration and articulation of character. And this is as evident in Child Of Music as any other Burchell romance.

Burchell’s heroine, Felicity Grainger, is a music teacher with a child prodigy-student in eleven-year-old Janet Morton, orphan and violinist, overshadowed by a hateful aunt. Felicity wants very much to get Janet into the Tarkman Foundation School, a musical foundation nurturing musical prodigies. Sadly, hateful Aunt Julia also happens to have set her sights on Stephen Tarkman, the handsome chief administrator of the Tarkman Trust, which administers and funds the foundation, wealthy himself and possessed of a talent for discovering and nurturing musical genius. Of course, nothing could be more wonderful than getting Janet into Stephen’s school, but Janet suffers from blocks to her playing when Auntie Dearest is around. And, Aunt Julie makes sure she’s around when Janet, with Felicity’s accompaniment, auditions, BADLY, for Stephen. When Stephen expresses an attraction for Felicity, “Aunt” Julie’s enmity and anti-Janet-and-Felicity campaign intensifies.  Continue reading

Reading: Theology in Eva Ibbotson’s A COMPANY OF SWANS (1985)

A_Company_Of_SwansMiss Bates read one of the best romances ever and it was Eva Ibbotson’s A Company Of Swans. Woven into Harriet and Rom’s magnificent romance is Ibbotson’s notion of what faith constitutes: how it calls us and how we enact it. Religious references are threaded throughout Harriet and Rom’s great love.

To set the scene: Harriet lives in 1912 Cambridge, England, under her father’s and aunt’s puritanical, stringent, miserly, dour thumbs. Her singular joy: ballet. Her love of dance leads to her escape from her father’s house to join an eccentric company of dancers and prima ballerina, Simonova, slated to dance in the Amazon rainforest. There, she meets Rom, a wealthy, generous, darkly good-looking, self-exiled ex-pat. Rom falls in immediate love, as does Harriet, but they, for individual reasons, bide their time. Eventually, they become lovers. Another Woman, sundry parties’ nasty machinations, including Harriet’s father, aunt, and ex-fiancé, conspire to destroy Harriet and Rom’s love affair. Rom plays shiny-armor knight, in a scene reminiscent of one of MissB’s favourites, the ending of Hitchcock’s Notorious. All’s well that end’s well, as is the Bard’s wisdom and the romance genre’s. MissB will, in a most unscholarly fashion, pen what struck her about Ibbotson’s theology in A Company Of Swans. Read it for the romance, remember it for how love is our most vital calling.
Continue reading

REVIEW: Mary Burchell’s THE CURTAIN RISES

The_Curtain_RisesMiss Bates ran a gamut of reactions to Mary Burchell’s Warrender Saga. She adored the first and loathed (DNF-ed) the second and third. And yet, the first, A Song Begins, was so good, she get kept trying to read one after another. Well, fourth time’s a charm because The Curtain Rises is masterful. There is much in it that Miss Bates usually dislikes, but it totally totally swept her away with its emotional intelligence. To set the scene for MissB’s reader: Nicola Denby, possessed of looks, sound judgement and reasoning, and a doting, country-life-middle-class-respectability English family, goes off to London to earn her living as a secretary. Family connections see her become assistant to her prima donna aunt (who must never be referred to as “Aunt”) Gina Torelli (Torelli is a fascinatingly machinating character: a mercurial, temperamental fairy god-mother, vain and sharply intelligent, one of romance’s greatest secondary characters). Nicola was engaged to a brilliant viola player, Brian Coverdale. When Brian was on tour in Canada, he took ill and yet rushed to Toronto from Montreal at the conductor’s, Julian Evett’s. Brian, sadly, died of some consumptive-like illness and Nicola is left with great enmity towards Julian, who soon turns up to direct her aunt’s Covent Garden production.   Continue reading

REVIEW: Mary Burchell’s THE BROKEN WING

The_Broken_WingWhen Miss Bates read her first Burchell, A Song Begins, the 13-volume Warrender Saga introductory romance, she waxed adoring and enthusiastic. With the second title, The Broken Wing, as her mama would say, she had to put a little water in her wine. Burchell remains, in Miss Bates’s estimation, one of the finest writers in the genre; her prose is refined, elegant, clear, polished, and yet still tugs at the heartstrings. An appreciation of Burchell’s writing will ensure that Miss Bates reads to the end. She has too much respect for fine prose to DNF, even when narrative elements prove problematic, or personally unappealing.

The Broken Wing is set in the opera world that was so dear to Burchell’s heart and provided one of her most vivid settings. Oscar Warrender and now-wife Anthea Benton, A Song Begins‘s hero and heroine, play a part in Quentin Otway and Tessa Morley’s romance, yet another element Burchell handled well. Oscar and Anthea aren’t in the narrative for a reader’s glimpse of wedded bliss. They play an interesting role in nurturing Tessa’s talent and providing support and friendship, respectively. Tessa, Quentin’s “Mouse” and “Angel”, is the artistic director’s irreplaceable secretary. Quentin and conductor Oscar Warrender are the key figures and driving forces behind the Northern Counties Festival. The novel takes place during the hectic weeks of preparation that precede the festival, throwing the volatile, charming, and rogue-ish Quentin into closer and closer proximity to Tessa, his right-hand women, tea-steeper, and mercurial moods’ soother, “selfless devotion would not have been much good on its own, of course. But fortunately Tessa was remarkably efficient too.”    Continue reading