Thursday, May 27, 2010

An Old-fashioned Girl - 1992

Last week I reviewed a book wherein the heroine had one of those Puritan virtue names...(Prudence Makepeace of Paradise for Two)When I realized that I'd drawn the same sort of name two weeks in a row, I was not thrilled. Last week's Prudence was not what her name implied. How will Patience stand up? Let's take a look see...

Patience Martin. The most Araminta-ish of Aramintas (her great aunt has told her that she has the most homely face she's ever seen. Way to build self-esteem!). Let's wait a bit to get acquainted - because this book starts with the hero, Mr. van der Beek (his first name is not revealed until Patience is sorting his mail on page 78). Mr. van der Beek is viewing The Martin House with his estate agent, with a view towards a six-month lease. He is taking a sabbatical to write a textbook on surgical techniques or something. Peace and quiet...that's what he's willing to shell out the big bucks for, peace and quiet. In order to insure our hero gets the peace and quiet he needs, Mr. Estate Agent suggests that Mr. van der Beek hire a general factotum. Someone to throw themselves into the breach...stand between Mr. van der Beek and the world...answer the phones and mediate between the housekeeper and the tradespeople. Mr. Estate Agent knows just the gal. He calls up his friend, Mr. Solicitor and gives him the down-low. Psst. Hey, I gotta job for our girl Patience. I can put her in the way of makin' a tidy little sum. Shhh. The Dutchman doesn't know who she is. Let's keep it that way. Patience is actually perfect for the job. She already acts as buffer/factotum to her great-aunts. If Patience is an 'old-fashioned girl' it's not surprising...she has spent the last 11 years with her very old-fashioned aunts. She spends her life contriving to keep them in as close to the style in which they were accustomed...they having succeeded in losing all of their 'capital' - which must be a family trait - since her parents also lacked any estate planning smarts. That's the reason Patience and the aunts are living in the poky terraced rental and renting out the big house so as to eke out something to live on.
Patience is a real gem, she is soon hardened to telling fibs so as to ward off unwanted phone calls and visitors...he's in the bath, he's with his publisher, he's not up yet....(this is not a skill I posess - I am distressingly honest). Warned by the butcher that the weather is turning bad, Patience tries to convince Miss Murch, the transplanted London housekeeper, that steps should be taken to prepare - because when it snows they won't be able to get out. Nonsense, there's nothing on the radio about a blizzard...Sure 'nough, here comes the snow. Mr. van der Beek, Miss Murch and Patience are all snowed in. Patience proves herself to be Wonder Woman. Her alias is discovered pretty quickly - Mr. van der Beek cottons on to the fact that she knows where everything is(candle and oil lamps, I'm looking at you), oh, and your last name is the same as the owner. The next 20 pages make for a charming domestic interlude. Not only are the three of them snowed in, but Miss Murch comes down with the flu - so she spends much of her time in her room...leaving the doctor and Patience alone to deal with chores: snow shoveling, cooking, tending the patient, carrying coals for the Aga, etc...in other words, playing house. All this boundless domesticity is bound to lead somewhere, right? Patience and Dr. van der Beek (I'm getting tired of calling him that) start to get to know each other. Patience might be quiet and plain, but she's got a lot of good sense and practicality seasoned with a dash of forthrightness. The Doctor occasionally gets his temper going.."What the h*** are you doing!" says he...Patience (in the kind of voice she might have used to explain something to a child) "I'm making sure the fire is going to burn". Him: "I shall take care of the fires in the future!" Patience (looking at him with interest) "Do you know how? I don't mean to be rude, but I would imagine that you never have to lift a finger in your house." Needless to say, there is no one that treats him like this...she is starting to pique his interest. Patience continues to treat him as if he is a child in need of patient coaxing ...you're doing nicely shovelling the snow, be careful of the little dip before you get to the greenhouse, don't let it trip you up. She even manages to reduce his learned textbook to terms that she can understand:
Her (on silently setting down the tea tray in his study): I was told to make no noise...she added kindly, "I dare say you're busy with your book - is it about surgery?"
Him (I imagine a little pompously): Of course it is. It's a learned textbook - a sort of a reference book.
Her: Like Mrs. Beeton's cookery book - full of instructions about the best way to cook food, written by an expert.
Him: Is that a compliment?

See what I mean? Oh, you're writing the surgical equivalent of a cookbook? A little dampening. There's a little taking down a notch-iness, like you would a boastful child. I have to admit right now that I love Patience. Not only does she ooze common sense, she is also kind, patient, and a hard worker. With Miss Murch out of action with the flu, Patience now gets to show her culinary abilities. Nothing fancy, chicken casserole, scones, onion soup and homemade bread. Homemade bread? The doctor consumes nearly a whole loaf at one sitting...I suspect this is where he starts falling for her. What man can resist fresh, warm homemade bread? The way to a man's heart, etc...Patience and Dr. van der Beek divide up the household tasks...the doctor volunteers to take care of the fires and help with the sick Miss Murch, Patience gets the rest of the chores (a case of art mimicking life).
Remember when I said that Miss Murch pooh-poohed the idea of getting snowed in? Yeah, they're starting to run low on supplies...Patience, with a good deal of shapely leg showing, crawls in the cupboards to take inventory of their quickly diminishing supplies...Editor: I have a bit of a bone to pick with all these Neels housekeepers who don't keep anything in the pantry. Aarg! must. climb. down. from. soapbox...The doctor comes in and stands admiring her *ahem* legs, and proceeds to tell her that she has charming legs...at which Patience blushes.
Him: do you always blush when you get a compliment?
Her (being matter-of-fact): I don't know...I've never been complimented. How's the weather?
I'm amazed at her sangfroid...sure, she blushes (who wouldn't?)...but there's no stammering or turning away, Patience meets the compliment and ensuing embarrassment head-on. A thaw finally sets in - coinciding with Miss Murch's improving health..Patience is finally able to go home and change her clothes! That evening brings reflections to Patience, Dr. van der Beek AND Miss Murch. By bedtime Patience was missing the doctor quite badly, in return, Dr. van der Beek and Miss Murch are both missing Patience.
When Patience returns to work, Dr. van der Beek starts noticing how depressingly she dresses...he imagines her dressed in blue or a soft silvery green...PAGING DOCTOR van der BEEK! PAGING DOCTOR van der BEEK! Consultation needed in room #1...Symptons:
  • noticing what a girl is wearing
  • imagining new wardrobe for said girl
  • missing said girl when she goes home for a day or two
  • realizing her worth as a general factotum
Hmmm....we'll moniter the patient and get back to you. Meanwhile, Patience answers the phone - it's a woman and she says it's urgent. Patience gives the phone to Dr. van der Beek in the study...he comes out furious with her, for disturbing his well paid for peace and quiet with a non-urgent call. As he is ranting at her, she cuts in - sounding like a kindergarten teacher calling the children to order...and tells him not to get so worked up - how is she to know what is an urgent call? It could have been his wife, children, mother, etc....Him: I have no wife, no children to the best of my knowledge (What?!? Head down, breathe deeply, count to 10....)and my family lives in Holland...Her (with a forgiving smile): I didn't know that, did I?" Patience/Wonder Woman is some kind of awesome...one of her super-powers is a defensive shield against uncalled for snubs. All this propinquity is leading us up to....Patience sorting his mail! And now we finally find out our RDD's first name. Julius. Dr. Julius van der Beek (hereafter to be referred to as "Julius") has to go up to London for a few days for a spot of heart transplanting. While he's gone, Miss Murch decides it will be a good time to clean his study. Cue Patience cleaning his study, then sitting down at his desk. Cue Julius getting grumpy when he sees her...Cue Patience ably defusing his anger. Patience keeps busy with her general factotuming...one of the duties she assigns herself is filling vases with whatever flowers she can find. After placing a bowl of primroses in Julius's study he writes a note, "I like the primroses, keep the bowl filled." Julius offers Patience a bump in pay if she will type up his manuscript( more Earl Grey for the aunties!), of course she will. A new symptom for the doctor...he instinctively knows when Patience has left a room...hmm...this is starting to sound serious. During one of Julius's increasing frequent trips to London, Patience sits in her bed (totting up sums on the back of an envelope) and thinks of him...oh dear, whatever the doctor has seems to be contagious. Meanwhile, Julius thinks of Patience. More to-ing and fro-ing from London...(must have been a boom in the heart transplant business). Patience is the answer to Julius's prayers. What was he praying for? Evidently a nanny. What? Our girl is no nanny. Julius thinks she likes children. Really? On what do you base you opinion, Dr. van der Beek? Is this yet another symptom? By the way, the great aunts can come stay at their old house while we're gone.
London Interlude:
Niece Rosy is a handful, but luckily she doesn't mind that Patience doesn't speak Dutch...Rosy is well able to go to sleep with Patience singing all the songs she knew, ending with "My old man's a dustman". (After listening to that song, I fell even more in love with Patience). Julius's symptoms seem to be getting worse (call 999!!)...he finds himself obsessed with her, he's concerned about her, he is always aware of her presence....and he has to resist an urge! (no, not that kind of urge, he wants to buy her a new wardrobe at a fancy boutique). Because of these symptoms, Julius starts acting a little aloof...Patience doesn't know what's causing the change in him, so she starts avoiding him, which intrigues Julius even MORE.
Niece Rosie has a nightmare and is inconsolable, that is, until Julius comes in and calms her...which is when Patience realizes she's in love with him (frankly, falling for a man who has a way with fussy children is pretty smart of Patience - and should come in handy...but I'm getting ahead of the story). Julius has to go off to Northern Ireland for a spot of heart surgery and when he gets back, it's time for a conspiracy of his own. He plans on taking Patience to Holland with him...just to help with Rosie for a week or two. Psst! Hey Sis - how about asking Patience to come to Holland for a week or two? Shhh...It'll be our little secret....
And Now to Holland!
Besides taking care of Rosie, Patience gets to visit Julius's house and meets the beautiful Mevrouw Plot Device. Insert gratuitous scene involving a donkey named 'Pretty'. The Mevrouw invites herself to lunch - wherein Julius pretty much ignores her and Rosy sticks her tongue out at her. Julius may not be interested in her, but when the beautiful Mevrouw tackles Patience in town a few days later, Patience is subjected to some verbal poisoning...but before that really has a chance to work, it's back to Jolly Olde England! Julius meets her at the airport and drives her back to Themelswick where dear Aunt Bessy greets her with the outrageous, "You're looking marvelous, dear - and plumper. I always thought you would be improved with a nicely rounded bosom..Hello Dr. van der Beek." Mr. Solicitor makes another appearance to inform Patience that the family house has been sold...Julius says that the aunts can stay at the family home for the time being...Patience goes back to the terraced rental to get some old photo albums out of the attic. Our hero shows up to lift her down as soon as she sticks her shapely legs out of the attic. I love you, the aunts can stay in their old house since I bought it, will you marry me? What about Mevrouw Plot Device? It was never her. It was you - you are beautiful and clever and my heart's desire. Some delightful snogging. The End.
Rating: This book really improved on re-reading. I knew that it was one that I liked, now I like it even better. Patience is just my type of heroine - calm, matter-of-fact, straight-forward, plenty of common sense and she can cook! It was awfully fun to watch the progression of falling in love - Patience and Julius had time to get to know each other and appreciate each other. The aunts didn't bother me a bit. Yes, Patience was working to support them - but not because they complained or whined - she was doing it because they had taken care of her. I give this book a solid boeuf en croute with a generous helping of queen of pudding for afters.
Fashion: pleated tweed skirt, short woolen jacket, winceyette nightie, 'useful' grey cardigan, fushia and blue pleated skirt, fushia blouse that looked silk (but wasn't), caramel and cream jersey dress, cotton jersey in a dashing shade of pink, imaginary wardrobe.
Food: Lots of onion based dishes - onion soup (twice), onion tarts, cheese and onion pasties, sandwiches with Gentleman's Relish, a couple of casseroles (one described as 'substantial' - the other is a chicken casserole), homemade bread, egg custard, treacle tart, creme brulee, tarragon chicken, apple tart with cream, mousseline of lobster, spring lamb with a garlicky sauce, petit fours, gingerbread, cheese and cauliflower soup, Paxo stuffing.

6 comments:

  1. Just re-read this, and I too really enjoyed it. (I do wish its title wasn't so similar to "An Ordinary Girl" -- I'll never keep them straight.) (Okay, so that's hardly a new complaint with respect to The Canon.)

    This may be the best of the "heroines with useful domestic duties, plus a little typing" romances. But here's the one thing that niggles: The Great Betty went through a stage where the heroine is professed (in some cases, self-professed) to be "not very clever." But Patience is very clever. I get why The Great Betty didn't want to make her heroines book smart or educated at uni, but the self-deprecation crosses the line into unnecessarily low self-esteem.

    Otherwise, it's lovely. I particularly liked Rosie as a litmus test for Who Should I Marry?, even though Julius already knew whom he wanted to marry.

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  2. Betty Magdalen--
    Thank you for articulating one of my pet peeves: the "I'm not clever" heroine. Arghhh! And have you noticed how often the mousy, not very clever heroines seem to think that RDD should want to marry the other woman, simply because she is beautiful and witty?? Double whammy of very low self-esteem. This is coupled with a strangely split view of the RDD. Heroine loves him because he is good, kind, smart, etc and yet she also believes that he is only interested in a pretty face. Arghh again!!

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  3. Betty Barbara -- I can kinda sorta understand the inclination of the heroine to believe that the RDD (or REW: Rich English Whatever) isn't interested in her, isn't attracted, etc. Part of that is low self-esteem, and a general don't-get-your-hopes-up attitude toward life. The RDD/REW rather promotes that attitude by sending, at best, mixed messages and at worst, no messages at all.

    Plus, the hero is always good looking. Always. So, on the number-theory of couples (which says that protagonists tend to pair up in the same range of looks on a scale from 1 to 10), Neels' heroines might be forgiven for thinking, "Let's see. He's an 8 or a 9, she's a solid 8, and I'm maybe a 4...")

    But there's no reason for the same heroine to think she's not smart. Not trained, perhaps. And clearly not as smart as the RDD/REW, who's invariably at the top of his profession. But not a single one of these women is dumb. Not one. Except, of course, when she tells the hero she's not clever.

    That, I think, is dumb.

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  4. I have just discovered this blog, and I'm delighted to know it exists. Who knew there were so many people who read Betty Neels?! I really thought I was the only one who appreciated a romance without either a) excessive going-to-Brighton or b) excessive moralizing.

    This is one of my favorites only because when I was reading it as a sheltered teenager, I was very confused by the line at the end about Dr. van der Nice Shoulders (as all the RDDs are called around here) being a "normal red-blooded male" but putting Diffenbachia (as all the heroines are called) down anyway. What other color should his blood have been?

    Eventually I figured out what Betty meant. It took me awhile, though.

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    Replies
    1. I was kind of a sci-fi nut, so I was trying to figure out if maybe the RDD was a Vulcan. Nope. Not a Vulcan.

      Thank you!

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