Let us go no further without a look-see at the cover art. Stellar job, Harlequin. She's wearing an expression that it is impossible to translate as anything other than, "Drop dead."
Meg Collins, 23, has two managing sisters, no looks to speak of, a handful of A levels (and a fat lot of good they do her), and the care of a large Georgian house in Hertingfordbury that she's been living at her whole life.
Cora, her older sister, hardly matters. She dresses 'expensively with no imagination' which is all you need to know about her.
Doreen, the younger sister, is a ward sister who wants to marry a wealthy doctor--here Betty makes this a bad thing. Just go with it and never mind the scores of novels where that was the main plot device. Doreen is the embodiment of that particularly British phrase: "Eye to the main chance". I don't get the subtleties of the idiom but it manages to encompass a cunning ruthlessness that Doreen has and Meg wouldn't be on speaking terms with.
Mother Collins has cocked her toes up (nursed in her final year by our devoted Martha...er...Meg) and the sisters (the two pushy ones) agree that the house must be sold. Meg can take up a course of shorthand typing and get a flat in London they also agree. Meg knows better than to argue otherwise. She just goes ahead and makes her own plans.
Selling the home is a wrench but Meg shows it to a variety of unsuitable people one of whom is:
Professor Ralph (thank heavens she hardly ever calls him Ralph--a slang term for vomiting which is what the name makes me do a little in my mouth--hey, this might explain the cover art) Culver is 38, a consultant radiologist with a couple of dogs and very bad penmanship. (The Betty Neels Seal of Approval!)
The Goings On:
Meg meets Professor Culver while she's peeling off her wellies and damp socks on the back lobby floor--a circumstance that amuses him and annoys her. Undaunted she shows him through the rooms with her slippers on. It's perfectly okay though. She doesn't really want to sell the house anyway. The mortgage crisis wasn't even a glimmer in her future.
A nice little old lady comes to tour the house. How do we know she's nice? She doesn't have to be told that the fireplace is by Adam. If only I had an Adam fireplace--I wouldn't have to bother weighing people's characters. I'd just trot them over to the fire and wait for it.
Before you can say 'Bob's your uncle', Mrs. Culver has bought the place and installed Meg as a housekeeper until Kate (her regular housekeeper who is absent due to toe surgery--(shudder) such an unnecessarily gross detail) comes back. Even though this is 1987, Meg purchases demure grey dresses so that she can act the part of meek housekeeper in her ancestral home. Professor Culver (yes, that's his mother buying the house) thinks this is hilarious.
Doreen doesn't like the set-up (Meg as housekeeper) as she would prefer bossing her older sister about until she's hatcheted to death by her fed-up relative. She wants to find her sister an unambitious curate or, failing that, a semi-basement (Ala Laverne and Shirley) where Meg's soul would be sucked from her hourly as she spent her life staring up at the barren pavement through net curtains. Gold-digger Doreen does like the Professor, though.
Meg is very good at the housekeeping gig. The Professor pops by from time to time to upset the even tenor of their lives but he's not always nasty or anything. They just don't click and he unnerves her. And then the Professor rescues a dog. They name him Lucky and she thinks for the first time that he might be someone she would like to know. He thinks that she might grow on one. (This is page 41 and they've still got a lot of ground to cover before the kissing.)
On a tangential note, I wonder if animal rescue produces pheromones.
Mrs. Culver gets the flu. She is a rotten patient but the Prof comes regularly and begins a staring campaign. If red hot lasers instead of pondering gleams shot out of the Professor's eyes, Meg would be a little pile of ash. But he admires her for her heroic work and even after he overhears her calling him a fool he kisses her on the cheek and calls her 'little Meg'. What a nice consultant radiologist!
The spectre of Housekeeper Kate of the Hammer Toes, like a looming flock of Valkyries, is lurking on the horizon and Meg is brought to see that she must at least go to London and find a home. She has a third of the proceeds from this Georgian manor house so ought to be able to find something she likes, right?
Oh dear. What has Main Chance Doreen found for big sis?
It's as though a veteran of the India uprisings, upon returning to the sceptered isle, had a left over bit of The Black Hole of Calcutta wheezing about in his hip pocket that rolled out and took up permanent residence in Stamford Street--or as near as makes no difference. It's a dark airless pit. There's even a spider scuttling down the bath drain pipe and a tube of left-over brilliantine in the cupboard. (So of course I had to link to Put on Your Sunday Clothes--the only song to my knowledge ever to work brilliantine into its lyrics.)
In a word--it stinks. Meg is moping in the Pit of Despair when in walks the Professor (I'm not going to call him Ralph no matter how much you beg). She promptly bursts into tears with the sniffled admission that he, "made the flat look so dreadful". That's because you're in love with him, you idiot.
He can't let her live there (That's because you're in love with her, you idiot.) so offers her a job with him as a receptionist. He has a lodge at the gates of his home (in Much Hadham) that she can use on the weekends and a Dear Little Flat (DLF) at the top of the consulting rooms is also hers for the taking.
Editorial Note: The receptionist she is replacing is a hot little number. She's leaving to get married (this is the only reason hot little receptionists leave their jobs--they never have an unrequited passion for the doctor and leave for jobs down Brazilian coal mines). Everyone else in the office (nurse and secretary) are comfy and middle-aged. When our heroines are finally replaced they are never replaced with hot little numbers--only the comfy variety.
In offering the job, he drops a clanger. If you want to go out--but I don't imagine you will--the caretaker will take over. I sense a challenge...
She's actually quite good at her job and must be amassing significant wealth since she lives rent free, never sees anyone socially and has her real estate profits marinating in the bank.
One night she's taking out some trash and hears a sound. Hark! If one rescued pet didn't hit the Neels quota then surely two...She names the cat Nelson because (I heart you Betty!) he's battered and only has one eye.
During her duties at the office, the doctor elicits her help with a highly-strung mother. "I shall want you to cope with her--you have phlegm and common sense..." Meg took a sip of coffee. Compliments, if one could call them that, were flying. He's still not in love but he's getting there.
The trips down to Much Hadham each weekend create a tension most easily defined within the concept of the "Sphere of Influence". The Professor is to Japan during the height of WWII as Meg is to Taiwan. He can't help but interest himself in her goings on even though he's living it up at the manor house, passing the lodge with an Unexplained Blonde Tartlet and watching her grub around in the garden. It utterly ruins his weekend.
Betty, in casting about for a suitable plot device, decides to have her hero ask her heroine to go to Holland with him and his mother. Will she housekeep for them when they visit Elderly Outspoken Granny's?
She is swamped with love. Ah. At last. A reason behind her interest in her employer--her flatness when he's gone. It is this next bit that makes me love Meg. She decides to "present him with a picture of serenity and meekness. The meekness would come hard but she noticed that it puzzled him; at least it had made him aware of her." Sure she has to stem the sharp retorts but she's got a campaign--a plan. Ralph is the Maginot Line and Meg is a demure row of German Panzers. It's only a matter of time.
Before the Dutch vacation that isn't, they head down to Much Hadham. Unexplained Blonde Tartlet bursts into the lodge to 'slum'. "Ralph said you were a pre-war paragon with no ambition. Domesticated too..." Which makes it sounds like she wears a pinny when she does her business on the Times of London. This statement is never really explained away. I'm just hoping that Unexplained Blonde Tartlet, like in a game of telephone, got it wrong. What he really meant to say was that Meg is trained in martial arts and could go Daniel-san on ambitious blondes.
She's a bit tearful (don't worry, it's rage) but the Professor is gentle with her and so apologetic--unaware that with Meg's black belt in TaeKwonDo she was within a hair's breath of severing the thorax of the UBT.
When the Professor's weekend is over he's more testy than ever. I wonder what could possibly be bothering him? She responds to his bad humor by turning the screws and becoming even more meek. You don't have to be so d***ed meek about it!
Honestly the poor man is floundering, wondering what it is that makes him keep thinking of her, and she is doing her demure best not to offer him a rope.
Holland, as I mentioned, is really just an excuse to employ the nuclear bomb of Frank-Speaking Granny. Meg is ordered to have dinner with the family (after cooking it and running the house all day) in no uncertain terms and Meg is treated to having her appearance studied by Granny and the Prof. 'Small and neat' pronounces Granny. Professor Culver keeps his own counsel.
He is jealous of her time, miffed when she breaks dates (what am I saying, Neels women never date--I meant "sight-seeing excursions with a view to matrimony") with him and is really, to quote Benedick, 'horribly in love' with her. She maintains her meekness and for her pains is kissed soundly and called 'prim'. That's what they call in the horse selling business a fair trade.
Back in England she visits the lodge one more time--I ought to say, one last time--and wakes in the night to clanking and noises. Mrs. Pitt is delivering her baby in a broken-down car and Mr. Pitt is desperate. Meg should have turned them out immediately when she realized what a fine name for future loyal servants they had. Instead she gives them her bed and speeds off to the great house.
A baby is delivered and then Meg begs the butler to send the Professor off to bed as soon as he comes back. There it is. The moment when he realizes she loves him. You might miss it if you're not looking and it explains the upheavals which come next:
- The Pitt's are offered jobs and the lodge. The Lodge. Her lodge. (And in fairness, she probably wouldn't want to use the bed again.) She can no longer visit on the weekends and the Professor, sharing the news with a fine disregard for her feelings, is ebullient about it.
- Doreen has a flat warming party. The Professor only shows up long enough to say "Sayonara sister" and collect Meg from some plum-jacketed long-hair.
- She kisses him back. (Which ought to make her thumb the listings for Brazilian coal mine jobs but doesn't.)
- He sacks her---What?! Just like that? Yes, just like that. She's to be replaced by some comfy Mrs. Loftus (Pointless Digression: the only Mrs. Loftus I ever knew made me feel like I hadn't flossed my teeth enough every time I saw her) and has to move out of the Dear Little Flat.
Yes! Say yes! The Unexplained Blonde Tartlet gets knocked off even the back burner and they head up to the DLF presumably for a spot of post-engagement snogging.
Rating: I love this one. They are tepid about one another for a long, long time but instead of it making the Dawning Realizations feel abrupt, it gives you a feel for how humbling a course reversal it must be. I'm all for that. I loved that she had a plan for her eventual happiness (no thought of running off to Brazil to work in a coal mine for Meg!) and kept plugging away at it.
He was a delight--disturbed, confused, hesitant, rash. The first name (so sorry if our Bettys have Ralphs they know and love) was just awful but I think that's what endearments are for. The end was a little rushed but I probably only felt that because it was so awesome. I give this an unqualified queen of puddings.
Fashion: Lots of scrubby working-in-the-garden clothes, a sack apron tied anyhow, those notorious wellies, Doreen's up-to-the-minute cashmere numbers, Meg's receptionist-looking navy blue dress with a demure white bow, an old rose silk jersey two piece that she has to wear so many times that she vows never to wear it again.
Food: a winter salad (I must know how this differs from the other kind), her imaginary dinner of steak and tomatoes and courgettes and creamed potatoes, creme au chocolat