Monday, December 27, 2010

A Christmas Proposal--1996


What's in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet...
Let's go test that theory, shall we?

Bertha Soames' parents had a chip on their shoulder. They had to have. Who looks at the miracle of a tiny defenseless newborn and thinks to themselves, 'It is never too early to begin blighting a life. Bertha it is.' I will allow that the name sounds infinitely better with a British accent but there is a reason (see right) that the popularity of the name resembles a precipice you'd need crampons, an ice pick and a Sherpa guide to conquer.
Professor Oliver Hay-Smythe is one of those handy unattached bachelors--the demand of which always outpaces supply. So when his friends tow him along to a socialite's birthday party he is sure of a ready welcome.
He sees an abominable outfit--elaborate and ill-fitting shrimp-pink. And then he sees the girl in it.
Maybe he's sorry for her--there's a lot of compassion in his make-up (your average lame-dogs-over-stiles fellow) and she's having a dire night. Persuading her that he's hungry and bored, he spirits her out of the house and off to a pub.
Editorial Note: Other than not believing for a minute that Oliver would have nothing better to do than hang about with strangers for a cocktail and un-filling bits and pieces, the meet-cute is very...er...cute.
Clare, the indispensable step-sister, appropriates Oliver, puts a premature notch in her lipstick case and awaits his eventual proposal.
Oliver, meanwhile, wants to help little Bertha (you're imagining a bosomy Teutonic lass, now aren't you?) get a job. He asks her to read to Mrs. Duke who likes romances. (I wonder if Mrs. Duke liked the racy stuff. Reading that aloud would be a job...)
Meanwhile, Bertha takes every opportunity to display her awesomeness. Street thugs mug an old woman? She descends like a Fury. Clare takes the credit? Bertha holds her tongue and lets Clare hang herself. (Oliver invites them down to his house in the country on the strength of their trauma. Poor Bertha has to wear a vile acid-yellow get-up. And after a while you really have to wonder if Clare is buying such unsuitable sartorial abominations just to pass them on.) Child nearly flattened by the wheels of a speeding car? Bertha pushes little Timmy out of the way and earns a concussion and shredded leg for her pains.
That last one lands her in the hospital (in one of Oliver's beds! Marinate on that a while...). Clare and Step-mommy-dearest can't come. Clare is so sensitive to pain and distressing scenes. (cough*pansy*cough)
They aren't earning any points with Oliver who sends Bertha flowers and makes those middle of the night 'Oh, Sister, I'm just on the ward to check on one of my patients...the one with the empurpled eye...I'll just be looking at her for twenty minutes or so in the dark without taking a pulse or anything...' visits. For her part, Bertha finally realizes that she's in love with the generous professor. ('So that's why I wanted to bawl the steps out when they wanted to hand-me-down more wretched clothes.' (smacks head))
On the very next page we get the long and complete history of Oliver's love. It started in the shrimp pink, continued in the lime green...he's loved her all along.
Editorial Note: He unpacks the story of his dawning realization in all the hurry of a man with no clean clothes and a business trip in the morning. I take issue with this as this story would have been marvelous if The Great Betty had sprinkled his feelings a little more liberally throughout the earlier pages. As it stands, many of his actions appear perilously similar to pity. In contrast, he makes it clear enough that he hates her clothes which got me thinking. At The Church of the Founding Bettys (that does sound official) we have a lay clergy (leaders are chosen from congregations and hold down full-time jobs in addition to their church-y duties). A few years back, when the Stake President (head of a group of 5,000 or so) was called, there was an audible gasp of dismay in the audience. See...he's my OB/GYN (delivered most of my kids, in fact) and the OB/GYN of hundreds of other ladies in our area. (He's a brilliant delivery doctor.) I won't pretend that the idea of him having seen...(gulp)...everything was potentially mortifying. Thank heavens, he seems to have a happy knack of mentally segmenting every woman he meets at the neck. At his offices he's a genial and folksy professional, walking you through a breast self-exam with a matter-of-fact aplomb. At church he can't see anything below the Clavicle. Oliver has that happy knack as well...I think he keeps his chin well up so that lime-green and putty-beige dresses fade into the unimportant periphery.
Oliver invites her to his mother's for Christmas and she's all set to go when the steps engineer a sudden emergency at Aunt Back-of-beyond's. There is no emergency, of course, but Aunt is happy to see her anyway and effect a much-needed make-over. (Bibbity-bobbity,boo!) And when Oliver finally shows up there is nary an acid or electric or abrasive hue in sight.
Kisses, proposals and hopes for a hasty marriage!
The End

Rating: Hm. It did no good that this one was so memorable by reason of those hideous outfits because, while on one hand those outfits make this book, on the other hand, I had remembered this as a shade better than it turned out being. So, I think if I'm a wee bit dissatisfied it is just because the re-read didn't quite come up to expectations. I generally love La Neels' shorter stories--she really shines at a hundred pages--but this needed a little more self-awareness (by our hero) earlier on.
Still, it is pretty good.
Clare was enjoyably nasty and step-mama, though predictably horrible, did the thing with verve. I mean, if you are troubling to make Cinderella comparisons I'd say she holds up.
And the clothes. Great Cesar's ghost they were awesome. The Great Betty surpassed herself. Brilliant! Acid-yellow! Shrimp pink! My retinas are burning.
So, anywho, I'm waffling on this but I'll give it a dollop of Treacle Tart and a dash of Mince Pies and take my licks like a Betty.

Food: Bangers and mash and some 'old and mild' (which I think refers to some beer), tonic water, tea and meat paste sandwiches, orange cream souffles, miniature onion tarts. A breakfast comprising bacon (Up with bacon!), mushrooms freshly picked, fried bread, a sausage or two, egg garnished with tomato, which Betty describes as 'a meal to put heart into a faint-hearted man.'

Fashion: Where to start? He falls in love with her while she's wearing an 'elaborate shrimp-pink' number. We get a 'brilliant' thin linen dress, a lime green dress with too wide shoulders, a jersey two-piece in a 'ghastly color' (this is the acid-yellow one). Clare, meanwhile swans about wearing high-heels and perfectly-fitting blue and white gowns and, if Oliver hadn't shown up, I wonder if Bertha could have had those sooner or later.

7 comments:

  1. Betty Barbara here--
    The only Bertha I ever knew was my husband's grandmother. She was born in 1899--while Bertha was still a popular-ish name.
    I can't really argue with your rating--I would have given it full Mince Pies, on the strength of the clothes.
    But Our Betty naming the heroine Bertha is on par with her naming the heroine of Mistletoe Kiss Ermentrude. Alas, there are no cute nicknames to go with Bertha. Ermentrude was thankfully called Emmy.
    While some of La Neels short stories are great, there are others that suffer from pacing problems. This story was one, and so was The Proposal. I think that Betty forgot she was writing a short piece and then had to rush to fit it all into the shorter length.

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  2. I found myself wondering if it wasn't pronounced Berta, the way some British Anthonys are pronounced Antony.

    Anyway, I liked this story although inflicting the poor girl with an evil stepmother and stepsister *and* an absentee father (a lawyer -- didja all see that?) seemed a bit harsh.

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  3. Funny about your not liking "Bertha". I was reminded of "Rilla of Ingleside" so I tripped over to Project Gutenberg, bless 'em and found the quote I was reminded of:

    "She had been named after Aunt Marilla of Green Gables, but Aunt Marilla had died before Rilla was old enough to know her very well, and Rilla detested the name as being horribly old-fashioned and prim. Why couldn't they have called her by her first name, Bertha, which was beautiful and dignified, instead of that silly 'Rilla'?"

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  4. Edit needed: I believe you meant Bertha, not Clare, saved the boy and landed n the hospital.

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  5. What’s in a name, indeed! Why is this book called “A Christmas Proposal”? The only mention of Christmas in the whole thing (other than the title) was Matron saying that Bertha said she’d “come back after Christmas.” Methinks TGB had this one in her back pocket and whipped it out when she realized she owed Harlequin a Christmas book. No festive paper chain crafting, no snow or mistletoe, no handkerchiefs and pocket diaries purchased as thoughtful gifts. This title is false advertising!

    The other odd thing about this book is how the faithful family retainer instantly picked out The Girl in the Ugly Acid Yellow Dress as “The One” for his “master.” Ok, also, does Bertha have Covid-19? Seriously, not even a nostril flare for cat pee and cabbage fumes?

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    1. Oops. One other Christmas mention. He asked her how she felt about Christmas Eve for a wedding date. Still not enough to justify the title.

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  6. a great example how to make a Betty's classic three times shorter than usual, without loosing all the elements required ;-) short, simple - and a very nice Christmas reading :-)

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