Matilda "Tilly" Groves, 26 and very pretty, is a nurse and works for her uncle, a doctor. They enjoy a brisk trade in a nice little village and she keeps house with Emma the Trusty at her side. She is neither particularly enjoying nor intensely suffering a pre-engagement to Leslie--he is a lawyer, son of the manor, and resides in London most of the week, coming home at the weekend to march her off her feet. For no reason whatsoever, I imagine he sports a thin, mustache and has the kind of shoulders that slope to such an alarming degree that any burden, no matter the weight, would slide off with the speed of an Olympic Luger. He also calls her 'old girl' but remarkably still has all of his teeth.
Uncle tells Tilly that his old houseman is coming for the weekend. Fine, fine, she thinks to herself. Instead of one elderly pea rattling around the pod, there will be two. Only he's not. He's a run-of-the-mill RDD whose faintly amused air is directed at her pre-semi-engagement to Leslie the Shoulderless, Leslie's mama's snobbish protectionism and all those 'old girls' landing in the air.
Rauwerd van Kempler, 34, doesn't let any faint antagonism put him off for long. He whisks her off to Oxford for the day where presumably the buildings steeped in history and the Oxford blues seem to call to her, "He is kind! He is trusty! He's an Oxford man." At the end of the weekend he leaves again.
And then Uncle dies.
Like a domino in a chain, his death sets off a myriad of consequences. Leslie suddenly wants to hurry and get married. His mama is practically measuring Uncle's house for new drapes before his body is cold in the ground. And then the will is read. Uncle, after rearing the orphaned Tilly from a wee chick, reveals himself to be a closet misogynist. Tilly gets 500 pounds and some vague assurances that she ought to be provided an allowance. Her oily male cousin gets the house and the money and the right to throw her out on her ear. Thanks, Uncle. Hard luck you don't have a Y chromosome and a five o'clock shadow, girlfriend...
If Leslie is suddenly quite cool, his mother is glacial. What a pity. "You would have been most suitable." She sighed so deeply that her corsets creaked..."It grieves us very much that this cannot be." Though Leslie is not much of a loss, surely finding out that one's chief attraction is a common boundary fence must be lowering.
So Tilly gets the first job going and takes off. I won't dwell on this episode but to say that the description of the inevitably Victorian hospital relies heavily on the terms: margarine-yellow, spinach-green, stern, dumpy, dreary, gloomy, grim and depressing. She catches the flu just in time for Doctor van Kempler to ride to her rescue.
She wakes up in his home with her faithful maidservant, Emma, at her side. Rauwerd is concerned with her health but somewhat aloof and polite. And then, when she is mostly well again, she is given a tour (not by him but with his seal of approval) of the house. Ah, beloved Bettys. A home tour. I smell a marriage of convenience in the offing, no?
She tells him that she really must be going and then, as sure as socking, great Bentley's eat up miles, he sits her down for a little confab about what he really wants. Actually, not what he really wants--only what he is prepared to admit that he really wants. Would she consider marrying him? No, no, how does he put it? I should like us to be married...
Hm. I should like us to be married. I'm trying to wring the romance out of that but it's like getting blood from a stone. To quote Gertrude Stein, 'There's no there there.' And then when he lists his assets, his reasons for marrying and the precise nature of his feelings (tepid yet well-disposed) you realize he's diving his bi-plane deep into the dreaded Mr. Collins territory. Surely he's about to be shot down.
Miraculously his proposal, nearly complete with bullet-points and pie charts, wins some deliberation. He finds her later to receive her answer. She intends to say no:
"There's really nothing to talk about," she managed. He chose to misunderstand her. "Oh good, I knew you'd be sensible."
I don't know about her but that's my dawning realization, right there.
Anxious not to appear anxious, he falls asleep (with the speed and abruptness of Betty Debbie--she is a jungle cat, my friends) while she weighs the pros and cons. 'Alright. I'll marry you!'
And you somehow feel as though she's not making a huge mistake--as though the doubtful marriage isn't so very doubtful. He 'likes her enormously' and needs a wife. Empires were forged on more slender threads than that.
She gets her G.I. (government issue) sapphire ring and quite a lovely wedding with in-laws and everything. Crossover character Sybren Werdmer ter Sane is the best man and his wife Rose (A Girl Named Rose) is also invited. You should be happy to know that they are still madly in love (whew) and their G.I. Pledge of Affection is back home with Granny and Grandad. But Rose, Gold Medallist of her year that she was, notices that something is amiss with Tilly and Rauwerd. They are too chummy.
Tilly and Rauwerd skip honeymooning in favor or heading straight to his--'our'--home in Leiden. She shops, tours the home, inspects the linen cupboard...
Interjection: I am seriously going to use the books of The Mighty Neels as a template for 'How to Go On: What to Do When Marrying Rich' as all it ever seems to entail is flower arranging, menu ordering, whisky pouring and having intimate knowledge of every scrap of fabric to cross the threshold.
They throw a dinner party and I love The Great Betty for dressing our heroine in a stunning green number with a low-cut bodice. If one is going to fight a war it always pays to come suited in armor. Rauwerd has invited Nikky who has earned my hostility already for having a made-up name. She's an old friend--the kind that can't balance a check book or drive a car or fill out even her microscopic slashed and slinky black outfits.
Tilly is surprised to find herself bothering to be catty. With good reason, as it turns out. Every time she settles by the fire with a restful spot of knitting her husband is rushing out the door to Amsterdam (22 miles away) to tutor Nikky (ugh, even her name looks like it's stabbing you in the back) about the intricacies of the international monetary fund. No, of course I kid. She's being dumb about her own stocks and bonds but in her defense Nikky is hitting her prime before Beyonce's Single Ladies so wouldn't know that a woman can be totally in charge of her business while wearing inappropriately high-cut black stretch leotards at the same time.
'I've been waiting for you to ask about Nikky.'
'...You said before we married me that we would get on well together--that's what you want, isn't it?'
'Yes. That's what I wanted, Matilda.'
What was that? Verb tenses? A little sit-down with a criminal prosecutor debating what the meaning of 'is' is and these crazy kids could get sorted out. Wanted. Past-tense. It's so tiny--such a slim thread to indicate a monster of a dawning realization in his rear-view mirror.
Interlude de Las Palmas: He has some lecturing to do in Las Palmas at some week-long convention which sounds like the awesomest waste of medical fees ever. Why doesn't she come and they could stay another week over? She doens't try and think very hard about why the thought of escaping Nikky and her rapacious 401K retirement plan pleases her so much.
In Las Palmas we have:
- Her wearing slacks which he thinks she looks H.O.T. in.
- Her wearing decorative swimwear which he thinks she looks H.O.T. in.
- Finding a wreck on a windy mountain road.
- Followed by a hard kiss!
- Followed by a dawning realization.
He's standing there holding her Gucci scarf (retrieved from a bush to warn oncoming traffic) and she's as mesmerized as some dratted bull. Shoot. Now she loves him and suddenly all this chummy hanging out isn't cutting it.
Matilda thinks some hard thoughts in her tepid bath. A new hair style (always a first on the Betty list of Captivating a Man) and maybe she should become more like Nikky--starved and sunken...She will try for him.
She does catch his eye the next morning in her skimpy bathing suit. What a pity she doesn't swim either competently or gracefully--either one would do for me but knowing she sinks like a rock after some unseemly thrashing about ruins it. The Founding Bettys come from a family that shamelessly abused the Willamalane Aquatic Center Family Pass in order to achieve both.
Back in Leiden she changes course with the suddenness of new driver at a traffic signal. Rauwerd shot off to visit Nikky the Nincompoop on the first night back and Matilda realizes that those two warm weeks of conviviality and looking at his abs (though never mentioned, I assume he doesn't swim in well-tailored tweeds) are over and done. If her husband wants to make himself ridiculous over a shallow-bosomed, middle-aged blonde tartlet then it's none of her lookout. She will be exactly what he asked of her: a social manager, a charity worker, a faithful daughter-in-law and when he wanted her company, [she would] comply willingly. Can you hear the furniture being smashed to bits in her mind?
But she hasn't sent up the white flag of surrender. She'll win him over if it's the last thing she does.
Only now, the women Rauwerd married is a slightly prickly automaton. She isn't by his fire when he comes home to tea. She isn't put out when he has to travel to Amsterdam. She's running on oiled rails. And the wonderful thing is that he can't quite catch her out. No rising blushes or guilty looks give her game away.
But she flies rather too high after the Spring Ball. Nikky has somehow managed to coax a ride from the dependable Rauwerd and Tilly, while outwardly the life and soul of bon homie, is angry enough to pay him back. She, in the most underhanded and subtle maneuver (truly worthy of Lucrezia Borgia), begs them to stay for coffee before he drives to Amsterdam and then makes pointless chit-chat for an hour or more. By the time her husband is on the road and back again it's pushing 5am.
Tears that she cried over doing it are invariably discovered and a small spat ensues. Sadly, this does not clear the air.
BOMB! (In Holland. In 1987. Did the Friesian people suddenly decide to mount a separatist movement that I didn't hear about?)
She is a first responder and when Rauwerd finds her there are some satisfying verbal exchanges as they stand over the groaning blast victim lying amongst tins of Vienna sausages at their feet and a longing look when her back is turned.
Since she's been smothered in oranges and crushed tomatoes, has a black eye and has flaked out, she's sent home to rest. Though she has to wear an eye patch, Rauwerd tells her that she got off 'lightly'. Dude. Rauwerd. Piece of advice. I don't care if you've been up to your shins in gore all day. If your wife has to wear an eye patch, make a fuss!
Nikky, wondering why her financial planner has been so difficult to contact, shows up at the house. She pours venom into Tilly's shocked ears but it is...wait for it...Gold Medallist Rose Comely with her baby carrycot to the rescue! To truly recognize the awesome bo-dacity of watching nice Rose Comely give the tart a trimming ala' Pam Grier and throw her out on her ear you have to go read her book.
Rauwerd, warned by Rose, is off to Amsterdam one last time but when he comes back to invite Tilly (who is in bed knitting feverishly) to London with him it is a case of 'too little too late'. Tilly's been stood up at her own dinner table one too many times and if Rauwerd wants to take Nikky to London he's more than welcome to!
If only Rauwerd had channeled Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk and yanked her out of bed and back to his bachelor pad, all of the remaining sturm and drang could be avoided...
He's off to London and Tilly decides to beard the enemy in her Amsterdam lair. With an implausability that destroys any consistent characterization of Nikky, the villainess admits to being pitiful ('I'm incapable of making and keeping friends so Rauwerd tosses me a bone now and then.') , manipulative, and not in love with Rauwerd one bit. She admits her motives and (angelically choosing not to gum up any more works) tells Tilly that he was never in love with her. Oh, yes, and she's going to America where she will contract some bedroom disease and die alone....well, actually to find an American husband but the upshot is the same so it amounts to the same thing. She also utters these words: American men are supposed to be good husbands.
Oh dear, Betty Neels. If only you meant it.
Tilly races to London, bursts in on Rauwerd in a hospital's consultant's room and the delight shatters him. Semi-public kissing, implied future-tense conjugal relations discussed and a promise that she can only ask about Nikky when they are very old and the grandchildren aren't around.
Rating: I liked the second half of this much better than the first half. Until it is established that she is, in fact, in love with him, we don't get very much of them together outside the lines of 'we-spent-the-day-in-Oxford-laughing-about-the-same-things-but-here's-what-we-ate-in-minute-detail' and so forth. The fireworks begin as soon as she identifies her goal. He is totally weird about helping Nikky the Nincompoop with her finances as it seems like a better way to win his wife's affections would be to hand the business card of a CPA over, gift her a copy of Personal Accounting for Dummies and start spending his evenings staring at his wife's feverish knitting. And then he acts like some over-drawn cartoonish woman and wants her to read his mind about his intentions re the tartlet. So, I dunno. I liked it okay but it wasn't her best. Treacle Tart. The second half was better than that but the first act was just so-so for me. Still, there are some wonderful lines and it's well worth the read.
Food: scones, steak and kidney pudding, Calabrese and carrots, creamed potatoes, rhubarb pie and egg custard, sausages and mash, wintergreens, apple pie, poached egg on haddock, treacle tart, iced melon, hot souffle' with chocolate sauce, Italics food, wedding cake, lobster in one way or another like three times, champagne sorbets, lemon sorbet, toasted scones and wafer thin bread that sounds suspiciously like something my grandma used to make--Nurse/Grandma Hanna was not known for her cooking...
Fashion: chintzy paper nurse caps, tweed suit, pale pink crepe dress, pleated amber crepe, a silvery-green dress that is blessedly low-cut as she meets Nikky in it, 2 uncrushable crepe evening dresses, slacks, a delicious sounding satin clotted cream dress with a wide skirt and a marabou wrap for the Spring Ball, an eyepatch. Emma wears a majestic plum colored felt hat for the wedding. Nikky goes around in sheeths, slashed skirts, and slinky black numbers.