“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
My 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
Mary 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
Miss 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.
Miss 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
When 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
Until reading Mary Burchell’s A Song Begins, Miss Bates found it hard to believe that anyone could rival Betty Neels. Yet, here MissB stands, enthralled with Mary Burchell. All she can say is, MOAR! A Song Begins is the first of Burchell’s Warrender Saga, a series of thirteen romances she wrote for Mills and Boon from 1965 to ’85. They are set in the opera world and feature harsh, closed-off heroes and heroines who hold their own against them. Burchell and Neels share the exclusive heroine POV and the mystery, which Miss Bates loves, of knowing the heroes only by their actions. The heroes’ kindness and love for the heroine are hinted at with rare near-tender gestures. Otherwise, they’re cyphers of raised eyebrows, mysterious smiles, flashing, angry eyes, suppressed frustration, and an exacting work ethic, to which our heroine’s inexperience is subject, in Neels’ case in the surgery and Burchell’s in the rehearsal hall. A Song Begins opens with Anthea Benton, aspiring singer, trying to win a TV singing spot to help pay her way to London and voice training. Anthea’s family is financially humble; while loving and supportive of her aspirations, they cannot afford to help her. This TV spot is her only chance and is foiled by one of the judges, the famous conductor Oscar Warrender. Anthea’s disappointment is short-lived, however, because she receives word, through her voice teacher Miss Sharp, that a mysterious benefactor is funding her move to London to study with none other than maestro himself, Oscar Warrender! Continue reading
As you may already know, Miss Bates is a great fan of Christmas-set romances. She anticipates them annually, with much love for publishers’ covers going all out on snow, tinsel, sparkly trees and eggnog-sipping lovers. Romance writers offer a plethora of love in the snow, under the tree, and on the slopes. But there is no romance as good as the one when our couple is snowed in. One of Miss Bates’s favourite Christmas titles is a snowed-in-closed-cabin joy (actually a truck bed, but you’ll have to read it to find out), category romance Kathleen Creighton’s One Christmas Knight. One of Miss Bates’s favourite historical Christmas romances is Lauren Willig’s The Mischief Of the Mistletoe, with its projectile Christmas pudding as THE key plot point and one of the most endearing heroes ever written. Miss B. has written of her great Christmas romance loves before and won’t bore you, dear reader, with more. Well, maybe one, because it’s a recent addition and deserving of praise: Kat Latham’s Three Nights Before Christmas. This year, MissB’s inaugural Christmas romance post is classic vintage rom, Betty Neels’s The Fifth Day Of Christmas. Because if The Divine Betty can do ordinary days well, with such warmth and wit, what will she do with Christmas!!?? Continue reading
If you scroll down this page, you’ll see that Miss Bates took part in a “Quote Challenge,” thanks to Willaful’s Three-Day Quote Challenge. Miss Bates opted to write mini-reviews based on her impressions of a romance novel’s opening line. If you follow Miss Bates on Twitter, you’ll also know she indulges in spinsterish bubble-bath romance reading every night (you can follow her musings under the hashtag #bathtubromreading). She loved the quote format and opportunity to be succinct (not too often, mind you) 😉 . Hashtag and quote review married and are ready to have babies. Thus, she’ll occasionally abandon herself to an opening-line mini-review of her bathtubromread. Her latest was Charlotte Lamb’s 1979 Love Is A Frenzy. Like most great romance novels, its opening line is simple and sublime:
She recognized him at once.
Beautiful. And mysterious. Who is she? What previous knowledge does she have of him allowing her to recognize him “at once”? And how clever of Lamb to use personal pronouns instead of the heroine and hero’s first name? Adding to the mystique. Working the reader’s curiosity, drawing her in without being coy, silly, or manipulative. Continue reading