Monday, July 26, 2010

Britannia All At Sea


Britannia All At Sea did not have a good name with The Founding Bettys. Betty Debbie called to divvy up a month's worth of reviews a few weeks ago. One by one the books were taken until...oh, did you hear something? What was that?...just the sound of Betty Keira falling on her sword. Brittania All At Sea. That one where the girl practically has to arm herself with snares and an elephant tranquilizer gun to land our hero, right? Um, not exactly. This is yet another book that upended my derision and scorn to become very well liked indeed. Does Betty Neels rock or what?
P.S. The cover art. Bikes? Okay. Interesting heroine? I grant you. Hero? While not ugly, per se, he has too much hair for a self-respecting RDD.

Britannia Smith, 24 (but carries herself like a confident 35), is a splendidly built Staff Nurse at St. Jude's. She's engaged in a spot of multi-tasking in the sluice room--comforting a shattered student nurse and directing traffic. She doesn't know who that vast giant of a man is who wants to get on the ward but he'd better come up the other stairs like all the regular riff-raff and look smart about it.
Professor Jake Luitingh van Thien is ultimately worth all the trouble it will take to write that name out on checks for decades to come. He describes himself to Brittania less than an hour into their acquaintance as 'getting on for forty, unmarried, rich and something of a hermit; I need please no one.' Well. Hello, Mr. Fussy-britches. I'm imagining Kurt from The Sound of Music stepping out from the line and saying, "I'm Kurt and I'm incorrigible." and daring Sister Maria to do her worst.
They fall promptly in love with each other and it's not just about looks either. Haven't they just colluded to save that poor student nurse from false specimen-dropping charges (Wait. Is that poo? Does she mean poo?) wherein traits like loyalty, discretion, generosity and self-disinterest were on full display? Being in love is not going to make our Brit nurse tongue-tied and giddy though. If Jake has bad manners, well then, Britannia is going to educate him in the Miss Smith School of Manners and Butt-Kickery. Britannia manages to thread the needle--neither needlessly catty nor boringly meek. As evidenced by the time she wrinkes her nose at him in church and makes a face, she's practically a master's thesis in cheeky.
Jake, not letting the grass grow, invites her to a swanky meal at the end of her very long day. Bacon sandwiches at Ned's--greasy spoons and plastic tables evidently epitomizing London romance in the same way aggressive panhandlers and street mimes spell it in Paris? Jake gives her the third-degree concerning her marital prospects and dating status then asks if she's in love. "Yes," she said briefly, and wondered just what he would say if she told him it was himself. ...He observed in a nasty smooth voice, "I suppose I am expected to say what a lucky man he is." She puts him in a half-Nelson and makes an exit. (Okay, sure she didn't but you can't get the image out of your head now.)
Shoot. Now they'll never meet again and she's wasted her chances. But Fate is in an interesting mood and she gets an opportunity to accompany a friend to Holland on her two week vacation. She asks her parents if she should go and we are treated the the most delightful three-way dialogue about the Professor's 'suitability'. It puts me forcibly in mind of the famous "Who's on First" skit.
Editor's Note: I remember thinking that this was way way more stalker-ish the first time I read it but upon...ahem...mature reflection I rather admire Britannia for it. She has met the man she wants to marry. That man is in Holland. She must go to Holland. Betty Debbie likened it to lurking around the classroom doors of the fella you wanted to have ask you to the Homecoming Dance on the principle that proximity leads to opportunity. Britannia isn't going to chase Jake...she's just going to make chasing her a little less difficult for him.
In Holland, they meet under less than ideal circumstances. She's always on a bike. The weather is always crummy. Jake is always jumping into his Rolls (after shouting at her) and tearing down the Dutch equivalent of the inter-state leaving her to pedal on without him.
"You're not fit to be out on your own."
"...You can come with me if you like...nothing like fresh air to blow away bad temper...oh well, perhaps you can't cycle anymore."
Snap.
Just when it seems like they will never make headway and that he's doomed to only see her in dumpy anoraks and sweaters for the rest of eternity, he shows up with his bike. Ah-ha! The cheekiness paid dividends. Or maybe it was calling his manhood into question...
Before you know it she's meeting his mother and Madeleine, a trendily dressed beanpole with a personality to match. And then on page 84--84, mark you! No good can come of mutual declarations of love on page 84!--he tells her that he'll never marry the beanpole because it's Britannia who makes the sun rise in the east, makes unicorns spring from baby tears and lollipops rain from the sky. Seriously though, he's quite eloquent but, though she says she returns his love, she's having none of it.
What!?
Editorial Note:
This was the other thing that nearly drove me to drink when reading this book. She spends all this time creating opportunities for him to fall in love with her and then when he tells her he has fallen 'more than a little in love with her' (a phrase which ought to be banned from proposals of marriage hereafter) she, to use a Betty-ism, funks. But upon re-reading I think Britannia had a point which, if you will grab your chair and inflatable pillow and hunker down for a spell, I will be happy to explain.
1)
He is much, much richer than she had any reason to assume when she decided to do a spot of man-chasing. Britannia is the 'jug-of-wine-loaf-of-
bread-and-thou' type and has to adjust herself to the inadequacy of her upbringing in preparing her for a life like his (which she only finds out about 30 minutes before his proposal). She has a good point.
2)
Having decided so firmly that she loved him and wanted to marry him, it looks as though her chasing (mild though it was) is paying off. Eek, she must be thinking to herself, I shot him with my tranquilizer gun and now it doesn't look like a fair fight. What if she is merely a passing fancy for him? What if she 'caught' him? Also, good points.


And so we move on to the second portion of the book which I refuse to waste a ton of time on as it in no way lives up to the truly wonderful first act. It slows waaaaaay down and gets a little dreary.
Jake continues to try to persuade Britannia to marry him and she continues to refuse. We do get some lovely spots of snogging to relieve the tedium of her monotonous refusals and a very frustrated doctor.
On the very last day of her holiday she takes a bike ride to take one last look at his castle. Cast aside the dubious sense it makes to be bike riding in Holland in December...No, don't cast it aside. It's the whole point of the next episode which leaves her with a badly sprained ankle, nausea, a concussion, facial bruising and two (not one but two!) fainting spells. Happily, Jake knew just where to look for the future Mevrouw Professor Jake Luitingh van Thien.
Faster than you can say 'convenient plot device', it is decided that she has to stay in Holland--at Jake's. Like a sherpa on his way to the summit, he carries her around an awful lot. But he is a little aloof--she did, after all, plan to abandon him entirely and he's understandably miffed (if still determined to make her his wife).
On St. Nikolaas she is allowed to come downstairs to the family festivities--dressed like an invalid. The only beanpole in the ointment is that Madeleine is there. Britannia is offered no better explanation than, "She always comes." Like hayfever and the seasonal flu, she always comes. (Sounds like it's time to take some Benadryl...)
After dinner, Jake proposes again (in a really lovely way) and this time Britannia is persuaded to accept. "That's better." He kissed the top of her head. "Now let us be sensible and assess the situation." He paused: "Well, let us be sensible presently." But it's still only page 154 and I worry about those two crazy kids...
The engagement is not to be made official for a week or so but things seem to settle down. Britannia is still worried about entertaining on a massive scale and caring for the Weesp china but as long as she has Jake's absolute and unconditional love...
Suddenly, that is cast into doubt. Madeleine hasn't wasted the best years of her life to come in second to some anorak-sporting, tea-swilling, British bumpkin. She makes one last throw of the dice by showing up at the castle with tears and evidence. No, let's go back and capitalize that: EVIDENCE!
The letter begins, 'Mijn lieveling...' and ends, 'all my love, Jake.' Madeleine is happy to translate. I know what you're thinking but while it is easy enough in retrospect to suggest that Britannia demand the letter (not just peeks at the intro) and trot over to the Dutch to English Dictionary for hours of painstaking translation, at the time she was upset.
Jake returns to find Britannia nothing more than miserable and confused (not accusing or Weesp china-throwing or anything) and he flips his lid. (And I don't blame him too much either--he was simple-minded about Madeleine's ability and desire to muddy his waters and spent a lot of time press-ganging Britannia to accept him and his millions.)
He practically drags Britannia back to England by her hair (30 minutes to pack her things!) no matter how she tries and tries to talk things out. She is dumped at her fuddled parents' house and he wipes his hands of her.
Less than a fortnight later she is thinner and pluckily working out her notice on the Geriatric ward. Up walks Jake (with an appropriate number of pages left in the book to make it stick this time) to engage the old lady Britannia is putting to bed in a spot of conversation. "I hope that when Britannia here is your age, my dear, she will be as charming as you, and yes, I have come to fetch her; she's my girl, you see..."
Gulp. They retrench to Ned's (bacon sandwiches) and he makes her agree to marry him tomorrow.
Whew.
The End

Rating: This was so much better than I remembered. I began it in such a grumpy mood ("Oh, it's the one where she has to chase him down.") and wasn't twenty pages in before it had me laughing out loud. The first 85 pages feel like something out of a Fred and Ginger musical--the kind where if they're not singing and dancing they're slanging like fishwives. The remaining 130 pages were not as good but I don't quibble with the writing or the plot (though I don't love, love it). Rather it's a pacing problem. The Mighty Neels peaked 60 pages too early. First half: Acerbic and effervescent courtship. Second half: Doubt and Anxiety and Bodily Injury. Final pages: Cute as a bug's ear. Britannia will have a interesting personality to manage in her husband but she is more than up to the task. I give this one a boeuf en croute.

Food: Speculaas , roast leg of lamb with spiced peaches, bacon sandwiches at the beginning and end of the book, cheese on toast, disguised eel (it would have to be), lemon sorbet and a pipkin (I want a pipkin!) of soup.

Fashion: Hospital nurse's cape, autumn colored tweed suit, short dark green dress, long pink dress (her go-to in Holland), a vast and elderly blue guernsey sweater that he makes her meet his mother in (Un. For. Give. Able.), a Gucci scarf and countless anoraks. Madeleine wears a red fox fur jacket and suede skirt.

22 comments:

  1. I've eaten eel before - it's surprisingly mild tasting...but I think we Hanna Bettys have a cultural thing that makes us squeamish - which is pretty funny considering our mother came from the deep south...where they'll eat anything, and our dad is a scuba diver who was not afraid to have mom try out recipes on things like octopus...which led us to have such strange dishes as octopus fritters.

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  2. Maybe I should name my house "Pipkins."

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  3. I know. Freaking adorable container size, right?

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  4. In Betty Keira-speak:
    I.Can't.Believe.You.Didn't.Want.This.Book.

    It is A Neels Classic.

    I disagree with the peak comes too early--for once, we get SIXTY PAGES of getting together and proposal and opposed to her usual (if we're lucky) page-and-a-half.

    How can you not love a book that both characters spend the entire time shooting off their mouths then think, "Ooops. Oh crap!"?

    PLUS it has one of the best lines in Neelsdom (perhaps you should have a favorite quotations page) when he rescues her (**clutch my heart**) on horseback. Jake to a concussed, babbling Britannia: "Stop issuing instructions like a demented great-aunt"--a venerated and oft-used line in the van der Hertenzoon household.

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  5. Oops, I forgot to mention that the only blemish on the book is the appearance, as noted by Betty Debbie's thread, of nasty Reilof Hasn't That Nice Little Laura Stabbed Him to Death with the Kitchen Knife Yet? No? Drat. van Meerum of "The Hasty Marriage."

    (It's fun to take advantage of Betty Keira's lack of mod cons while vacationing to take unopposed potshots at her dreadful beloved tome--see continuing feud over "The Hasty MArriage" elsewhere on blog.

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  6. I liked the book much better on a quick reread. Although Jake is cranky, once he declares himself he is consistent in his pursuit until the Madeline incident. In my opinion, about 30 pages after his declaration would have been sufficient, the read dragged some after that.
    The biggest flaw is the cover! Yuck! She is not even pretty and he isn't handsome, both look jaundiced. Like the bicycles though.

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  7. I loved this. Loved it. LOVE! Okay, maybe not Top 20 LOVED, but after Uncertain Summer (which is actually Certain Bummer in my estimation), this was a treat.

    I loved that they both caught the Love at First Sight flu! We know that's happened to her, and it was nice to see that it happened to him as well. I definitely find her Not Guilty of second-degree stalking. Instead, I think she's smart -- she's made up her mind to marry him, but she's not gone overboard. Plus, he is a bit of a pill at first, so I don't blame Britannia for playing her cards close to the chest.

    And she's not stupid for suddenly thinking, "He's so out of my league..." when he sidles up to the notion of marriage. Plus, once he's figured out where this story is ending (definitely implied marital relations just as soon as he can arrange it), he mellows considerably.

    But did anyone else think about the eerie similarities between Britannia with her sprained ankle and Marcia, the house guest from heck in The Fifth Day of Christmas. Britannia has to be carried around the house and Marcia has to be carried around the house. RDD gets a full-time nurse for Britannia and a full-time nurse for Marcia. Okay, so Marcia was a bitter crone and Britannia is a long tall drink of water, but still...

    [Quick aside -- Are all the tall heroines good looking? Seriously, I can't think of one who's plain but with richly lashed eyes... Founding Bettys, do you know??]

    And, really, I thought the rift-causing misunderstanding was, well, understandable. Good thing Jake knew he needed more information...

    And, now, the moment you've all been waiting for. Drum roll, maestro, if you please?

    brrrrrrrrrrrrr

    I agree with the rating of Boeuf en Croute!

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  8. Cassandra Darling (love the name!) from Cassandra By Chance is described as tall and plain - and instead of junoesque I believe she was a bit on the thin side. I think there might be one or two other plainish tall girls, but they are not floating up from my subconscious.

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  9. Actually, it's not clear about Cassandra -- for some reason we don't get the usual omniscient narrator telling us one way or the other. She *thinks* she's plain, but both Benedict & Jan disagree. I'm inclined to think she's normal looking...like most of us!

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  10. Why do these people keep pestering us now? Why on this page??? My red pen would run out of ink on this one. Good thing Betty Debbie has an eraser... Perhaps we should post a banner on this page:

    Spammers beware! Your spam will be deleted! So forget it! Save yourself, and us, the trouble!

    Speaking of spam... Reminds me of SPAM being the secret ingredient in the chili in one of the sequels of The Pretender. And I never new that Patrick Bauchau was Belgian.

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  14. I always thought the cover model reminded me of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger. He looks to be more built than even the "hulking" giants our RDDs usually are. It might also be the skin tone. He never wore his hair quite so voluminous, but there's just something that brings him to mind.

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    1. Arnie? I don't think so, especially not back in 1978 or thereabouts. More like John Cassavetes, methinks.
      Betty Anonymous

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  15. Re the cover: Jake is described as "a very large man with grizzled hair and pale blue eyes" when he is standing at the door of the sluice. That mousy moptop on the cover is definitely not grizzled at all... and what's with the brown eyes?

    Betty van den Lurkdom

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    1. If you enlarge the image (Ctrl + +, about six times) you can see that the eyes are blue (sort of) and the lighter parts of his hair seem greyish. But no way, no how would the Great Betty have given any of her heroes a "moptop" like that. That hairdo is a no go in Neelsdom. For the heroes, that is.
      For the life of me, I cannot like that "Britannia". She looks so... I don't know, brown (which may of course be a natural tan acquired on the island) and her eyebrows... Anyway, she has funny rounded rabbit teeth.

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  16. I have a quibble about the letter. I can see why Brittania jumped to the conclusion that Jake had written it to Madeleine. It was written in Dutch. Now, jmo, but he knows she is very new to the language so why in the world didn't he write it to her in English?
    Betty Jenne

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    1. Madeleine lied: the letter wasn't in Dutch. Because of the way the paper was folded, all Britannia saw (until she reads it for herself at Ned's Cafe) was the greeting ("Mijn lieveling") and Jake's signature.

      Is there anything more futile than a blog response 29 months later? I'm too late for the party, but I have to express my appreciation for the reviews and the Betty culture here at TUJD. I'll never hear the word "Brighton" the same way again. -- AnonyBetty

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  17. I wrote about this in one of my Goodreads reviews, but for me the early proposal plots always fall flat -- like Neels mispaced her chapters or got prematurely excited and wound up with more page count than narrative tension. While I certainly love the extra snogging that usually accompanies such stories, the women never doubt themselves or have commitments to some marriage-preventing personal ambition (a la the late-late-canon heroine of An Independent Woman) that really sell the hesitation. Thus, the doubts-about-his-love that usually fill the extra-long remainders of her early proposal novels always strike me as compensation for poor plotting. Either give us a woman with genuine or least more plausible reasons to hesitate in accepting an ardent proposal, or drum up some better delays for the Fraams and Jakes of the Neels realm.

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    1. I'm inclined to agree. Every time there is an early proposal, I always wish they would spend the remaining pages planning the hugest wedding ever.

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