Monday, May 3, 2010

When May Follows--1981

When May Follows was chosen to be reviewed this week because it is May. That's the kind of judgment and wisdom it takes to be a Grand High Poobah Arbiter of Everything here at The Uncrushable Jersey Dress. That's why they pay us the big bucks.

Professor Baron Raf van Tellerinck, 38, is very lucky he has a short first name. That's what Alice Bennett must be thinking to herself as she meets him at her party. Like the skilled surgeon that she isn't, she wields a very blunt scalpel and hacks away at The Unnecessarys like a cancerous mole. ("I shall call you Raf.") Like another certain Mrs. Bennett, she flags down her three daughters to meet the dashing stranger. What a fine thing for our girls!
Two of them are short--cute, but short--but the third (and oldest) sister is an Amazon. "Five feet ten inches and what's known as a large lady, no one believes I'm one of the family..." I personally don't greet new people with my figures ("5'3", size 6 on a good day but 8 when I'm bloated.") but Katrina Bennett (27, Ward Sister on Men's Medical at Benedict's) can see Raf's faint surprise.
They chat for a bit about the weather and the seasons and he quotes a bit of poetry. Here is some of it:
O, To be in England Now that April 's there, And whoever wakes in England Sees, some morning, unaware, That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf, While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough In England—now! And after April, when May follows, And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!

It's a darling one of Browning's--stuffed with longing for spring in England--but actually not that relevant to the story. Bummer. Unless you read it as an allegory for all that is bright and wonderful about Kate getting even better when May follows in which case...Betty you magnificent genius!
Katrina returns to her hospital duties in London soon following. Here we see our splendid Amazon actually dress down a subordinate (quite rare in Neelsdom--but the girl deserved it), negotiate hospital beer rations (I will never get used to Betty allowing mythical patients to drink beer in hospital), and cope admirably with slipped ligatures. Well, not too admirably. She'd really like some help as the blood is pooling rather quickly out of the bandage...Enter Raf (rhymes with strafe or laugh?). He's a surgeon!
She meets him at Honorary Uncle Ben's and then (like our heroes always do) he asks her to attend The King and I in front of a benignly ignorant observer who takes her consent for granted and asks helpful questions like, "Going all tarted up?" (yes, he does!). She agrees--only to ask, with charming frankness, "Am I to come all tarted up?" (All this tarting tempts to say in a very Inigo Montoya fashion, "I do not think that means what you think it means.")
In the mean time, Katrina has accepted (in a moment she already bitterly regrets) a date with Jack "Brighton" Bentall. He's short (!), takes her to Chinese (!) food (if you can call it that!), and bores her into a stupor that she rouses out of like she's been splashed with cold water. Bettys, I give you the Jack "Brighton" Bentall: Anatomy of a Proposition:
  • Everybody else does it these days...
  • ...and getting married seems a bit silly...
  • ...until I've reached the top...
  • ...and you're not all that keen on it, are you?
  • You can't be--you must have had plenty of chances, but after all, you are twenty-seven.
I think he hit all the high points, class. He first isolates his test subject as a freak of nature, devalues cherished institutions and aspirations, peacocks about his career prospects, follows with a flourish of understanding as to the short-term nature of her interest and then...reminds her of her advanced age! That'll get them every time.
Instead of insulting his age, bald spot, lack of inches, pretensions to sophistication, choice of eatery for the grand seduction (and I like Chinese food), etc. etc., she tells him that she's just accepted a The Gulf...she's resigning sorry.
He's predictably sulky and moody and punitive--just the sort of man for whom sexual harassment legislation was created. Still, she said The Gulf and she's got to quit her job or be plagued by this small (and I do not refer to his size) man indefinitely.
Raf corners her in an office. "Would you consider marrying me?" Hmm. Sand storms and heat stroke or...a lifetime supply of pannekoeken? Class? (Bounces on seat. Raises hand. "Me, me, pick me!")
She dithers the merest bit and capitulates without ever knowing why. He hasn't said he loves her. He's been quite frank about needing companionship but has been 'Neels-explicit' ("...take our time getting to know each other...") about conjugal relations.
The engagement, while short, has a few interesting moments.
  • She gets the idea that he's not telling her something about his debt-to-asset ratio. If father were alive, he'd sit down with the RDD, ask some pointed questions about prospects and intentions and that would be that. Sure he runs a great, socking Bentley but what does that mean?
  • She's teasing him about his 'girlfriends' and when he agrees that he has had plenty, she frowningly takes the comb she had been putting into her hair out and jabs it in again anyhow. "That comb looked very nice where it was before, why didn't you leave it there?" He took it gently out again and slid it expertly into its original place, then bent to kiss her cheek...He's tipped his hand. This intimate little interplay is the Rich Dutch Doctor equivalent of putting his proposal on the Jumbo-tron at a Knicks game. He's in love with her and she doesn't know it.
  • He gives her her engagement (Government Issue Heirloom Sapphire/Diamond) ring in the hospital consultant's room and asks (with what I image to be very rehearsed casualness) if she'd like to seal the deal with a kiss. She flings her arms around his neck very spontaneously while he (the Kiss Solicitor!) is...terse and perfunctory. But don't judge the man. He was contracting a love-on-one-side marriage and was unprepared for the amount of self-control needed to persuade her that nobody loved anybody--especially when she kissed like that!
She is married in a leghorn hat (Foghorn Leghorn is in my head too) in a little chapel in the Abbey where her father worked. Jake (with Brittania of Brittania All At Sea) is the Best Man.
The honeymoon is when things start to go South (no North, as they are in Scotland) for Katrina. Raf is lecturing for the first week and she's a bit lonely and probably wondering why he wanted companionship so much when she never sees him. She asks if she might attend one of his lectures and he snubs her ("My dear girl, whatever for? You'll be bored to tears in half an hour."). And he's right. After all, it's not as though she has spent the bulk of her adult life in the medical field, treating those same conditions he would discuss..........erm. But give him a break. He is actually saying, "Darling, there is not a prayer that I could keep my mind on end-to-end anastomosis while you're in the room. I'd tell the fellows to use the wrong suture stitch and then hundreds would die all because of your legs."
She feels hurt out of all proportion and in a delightful bit of retaliation spends his money (she still doesn't know how much he has) on ugly shoes and the kind of trouser suit that women negotiate nuclear non-proliferation treaties in. Of course, real pay-back would have been to make him take her to dinner in them but she caves and tells him all about her revenge. Duly chastened, he promises to let her come to a lecture sometime. His eyes gleam.
They drive to Holland after spending the night in his London flat. (What? He has a London flat? Sheesh. Now you tell me.) He lives 'on the fringe' of a village. Surely that's specific enough. Well, actually, he probably owns half the village and lives in the baronial seat, past the high wrought iron gates and up the sanded drive.
"It can't be.."
"Yes, it is."

Dang it. He's probably stinking rich too...With time she adjusts herself admirably to this rather sudden reversal of fortune.
Nanny and Caspel (the butler) and his wife all belong to Raf's childhood escape from Nazis. He's an orphan, you see, and utterly without close relatives of any kind. (My maternal comfort-o-meter is off the charts.)
If things are a little distant between Raf and Katrina, they're still pleasant. She becomes accustomed to driving on the right because, if you'll forgive a little personal Betty Keira cultural imperialism, that's the way Providence intended people to drive.
He takes her out for the day by the sea when he spots a yacht heading dangerously for a channel. Nothing for it but to shuck the shoes and head into the drink. Thank heavens, Katrina can swim--not that she gets any thanks for it. His only response to her swimming hundreds of meters into choppy seas (in a gorgeous nautical number), providing traction while he splints a leg and comforting a wailing toddler is to say, "You're wet--it suits you." Let's not get into an argument about whether it was his job to thank her since they shared equally in the rescue (I am inclined to think that his opinion of women was quite high since he didn't automatically assume she would be useless in an emergency--gratitude might have been condescending about her abilities). But every general has to deal with troop morale and with some positive reinforcement she would happily have charged the hill again--especially as she has just had a dawning realization on the yacht deck!
Now Katrina has a goal--whereas before she was aimless about what constituted satisfactory happiness in her marriage.
But every Eden has its viper. Raf returns one day with Beyke (the Dutch equivalent of Tammy)--an old friend lately returned from the States (and quarantine, presumably, to get the America stink off her). Suddenly green-eyed jealousy makes for a very tempestuous home life. Faked headaches, real headaches, pettishness...Not Katrina's finest hour but Raf isn't helping out at all. On the night of her very first dinner party (in her new adopted country where she knows servants and only ONE other couple), he walks in barely on time with Beyke on his arm.
I know, I know, it's part of a grand plan he has to make her jealous but he's not really thought out how awful this is. First dinner party! Doesn't speak Dutch! Doesn't know anyone! Nerves stretched to infinity! Now is not the time to teach her that she loves you. And don't you dare laugh that she's getting tight on the whisky.
To top it off, he takes Beyke home (while Kate does the dishes and a horrified Caspel looks on), doesn't compliment her on her appearance and (when he shoos Caspel off and picks up a dishrag) tells her that there was no reason for the evening to be a failure since she's a 'capable girl and... had plenty of help'. Breathe deeply, my Bettys, while I compose a letter:

Dear Teacher of Social Mores to Dutch Young Men,
Sir, you have failed. There are few Commandments of Husbanding that are entirely unbreakable but the failure to bite when one's spouse is fishing for compliments is the foremost. This, and other rules such as Outfit Noticing, Wrinkle Non-noticing and Open-handedness, should be leading the curriculum. All else is gravy,
Betty Keira
Grand High Poobah Arbiter of Everything

Happily, Raf responds with some pretty heated words of his own. Yes, I said happily.
When they go away for a weekend to his farm in Friesland (I tell you, getting a list of his properties is like wringing blood from a stone.) she is determined to have it out with him:
Why didn't you tell me about Beyke/Tammy!
Do you love me?
You probably have a tattoo of her on your chest!
No, seriously, do you love me even a little?
She doesn't stink like America too much anymore--we could divorce!
It would make all the difference in the world if you said you love me...
Well, I don't!
He actually is pretty persistent about getting her to be honest with him but she's afraid that if she is, he'll be a slave to duty and stick with her--even though his heart belongs to, Beyke.
Maybe his lectures in Austria will help him sort out...BAM!...a plane crash. (Don't mind the screams of the dead...) It's Raf's flight number and Katrina is frantic. She rushes to the airport and is nosed off the road by...his Bentley. This doesn't seem the time to bring up the obvious safety hazards of a great, socking Bentley pushing a teeny, tiny Mini off into the grass verge, but may I point out that airbags didn't become standard for luxury cars until 1987. A Mini is not a luxury car.
Raf you're not dead! I love you!
See, I told you that would fix everything!
The End

Rating: I can't say that the title rang a bell so I won't pretend that it's super memorable but I like it quite well (and, no, I am not damning with faint praise). It's not first tier material but a solid, solid boeuf en croute. It's got a plane crash and implied carnage, for pity's sake, that Betty doesn't let us dwell even a minute on. She wasn't the kind of author to waste precious ink on giving her gentle readers a brow pucker for the 100 or so strangers who have just perished on an Alpine pass just so that Raf and Kate could kiss in romantic dishevelment. And I love her for it.

Food: cheese sandwiches (not warmed over?), lots and lots of what I call 'Italics food' (wherein all potatoes are Pommes and all chicken is Poulet--for instance pommes de terre Berny and poulard Imperatrice) cavier, Welsh rarebit, apricot brulee

Fashion: Sapphire silk jersey dress, amber and brown organza with balloon sleeves (which only ever looks right on Amazons--us Aramintas had better watch how often we invite comparisons to balloons), a brown marabou stole (which seems fussy), Raynes shoes, a tawny cotton voile, her wedding outfit includes a leghorn hat and a thick slub silk dress (seeing slub silk before I die is now on my bucket list), and he wears a heavy signet ring just like pre-corpulent Marlon Brando!


  1. Smashing review! You're right, it's not a particularly memorable book, but it's my total comfort food Betty: macaroni & cheese and chocolate mousse (my idea of carb, er, comfort food heaven). This book would make my top 10 Betty list. The review pictures were awesome! Loved the reference to The Princess Bride, a favorite movie; the trouser suit (which I think is so much more descriptive than pants suit); and slub silk? I think you should trot over to JJill and see if you can find some.....thanks for the delightful review of one of my favorites!

  2. This was such a fun book to review and I can't quite figure out why. Some books I like more are positively awful to write about (and the bad ones can be fun in their own way) but this wrote itself. I loved the couple--they're so up front with each other if you disregard the fact that Raf is hiding a secret passion for her.

    And I looked up a gorgeous slub silk wedding gown here:

  3. I think you put that picture of the FLOTUS in just for me and I love YOU for it!

  4. This is strictly a non-partisan blog but I gave this pic a pass because she is a splendidly built woman who often looks stunning. This just wasn't one of those occasions.

  5. It's taken me all day to figure out what FLOTUS was. I need to get out more . . . .

  6. All I want to know is when she says she's big, does she mean she's tall and graceful or fat? I can never get a handle on Betty body types....

  7. I always read 'big' as Juno-esque. Tall and curvy.

  8. Okay, I'm slowly making my way through the May reviews, and here we are.

    I loved this book. Not 100% but it gets a solid A- from me -- uh, I'm hopeless with the food ratings (because, you know, you have YUMMY digestive biscuits below DISGUSTING beans on toast), so I'll just say it's definitely in the non-italicized comfort food pile for me.

    It loses points for the plane crash -- way too terrifying for everyone, plus it's implausible that an RDD would flaunt a former flame in front of the woman he adores but then cavil at leaving the country for two days, not to mention he said he'd go and RDDs are men of the word, etc., etc.

    But it gets bonus points for all kinds of things I loved. I loved the implication that a splendid fine figure of a woman might look disconcertingly delicious when sopping wet. I love that he wants her to wear her hair down. (I had it in my head for years that never ever ever did The Great Betty allow her long-haired heroines wear their hair down, but she did. I'm pleased.) I love that her reason for lying about how much she loves him makes sense. (He did rather too good a job with Beyke as a lure and rather too poor a job figuring out how good a job he'd done.)

    But here's my burning question: Why don't the heroines actually discuss the Real Issues in the car on the way to Friesland (or wherever)? I have always found long car trips -- regardless of whether I was driving or not -- to be excellent opportunities to discuss the Real Issues. Captive audience? Check. Long uninterrupted opportunity to talk? Check. No way for RDD to scarper on the grounds that he has rounds/surgery hours/an Adel Anonymous meeting to attend? Check. And yet somehow the trip's over and nothing has been said.

    Oh, and if you want to see what a leghorn hat looks like, here's a painting called The Leghorn Hat.

  9. How can the dead scream? Just askin'. :D

  10. No comments about the implied conjugal relations in this one? I love it at the end when he takes her off into the bushes for... ahem... a stroll and Nanny (Nanny!) is the one doing the nudge nudge wink wink with the magpies story while all the rest of the household staff are gaping and peering into the shrubbery to see if they can catch a glimpse of some undies.

    Tea in half an hour, Caspel? I suppose our RDD has already shown his proficiency in restoring women's clothing with his expert comb placement...

    Betty van den Lurkdom

    1. haha good one betty van den :-) Just finished the book and you made me er... !!!