As for the cover art...He's a babe (All hail the turtleneck!) but she's too glossy (are those claws?) and I don't think they could have a background that shouted, 'British lit!' more than if they were dressed as Beefeaters and touring London in a double-decker to the tune of 'Rule, Britannia!'. Love it anyway.
'Little Jack Horner sat in a corner...' Jemima Mason, 26, can't resist typing out on the abandoned typewriter in the empty office. But it's 1982, and she doesn't have an iPod (with all those ABBA songs) or a Smartphone (with Angry Birds!) to distract her and she was probably fretting over the fact that her brother is about to fly to America (!). She's looking for a job as a companion so that her next two years (until her brother can come back and save her bacon (...Silly, Jemima, no one ever comes back from America.)) can be spent in a shabby bedsit waiting for her life to begin. But then she meets Professor Alexander Cator who throws a batch of typing at her and heads to his office. (Betty Debbie points out that his name is fine in print but beastly to say aloud. Alexander Cator.) She also meets the knickerbocker-clad goddess, Gloria.
Alexander doesn't think Jemima will be much of a fit for his imperious aunt, Lady Manderly, but no one else has applied for the position.
Jemima introduces herself to the woman and becomes a textbook study in salary negotiations--whose first rule is: Always be prepared to walk.
They settle into an uneasy relationship and Jemima settles into her shabby bedsit over the newspaper stand down the street. (Meeting the charmingly colorful Shirley and her fish-cooking mother.)
Alexander pops in and out and, while there is friction, there is also a dawning appreciation on his part. 'You may not set the Thames on fire, Miss Mason, but at least you don't chatter.' Words to hug to her bosom in her twilight years, perhaps...On her part, she admits that he can be kind when he has a mind to. She witnessed his concern over a cat she rescues and then he shows enormous delicacy when he catches her in a lie about living in a flat versus a flatlet. (It turns out that a cat rather minds about the 'let' part.)
But his interesting visits to his aunt's house aren't enough to compensate for the awfulness of her job. After going through the physically harrowing and soul destroying process of planning Lady Manderly's birthday party, she makes up her mind to quit. Which is a pity as the staff are rooting for her to catch the Professor's eye. '[Gloria]'s got looks and our young lady hasn't.'
Alexander asks her to stay on until after Lady M. has a short holiday in Stratford-upon-Avon. So she does.
The town is a welcome respite from London--plays, outdoor walks and proximity to Oxford (Jemima's hometown) are its main attractions. She's lonely--more lonely than she's ever been and the professor seems to have forgotten his earlier kindnesses.'...you have the unfortunate effect of bringing out the very worst in me. You would do better to avoid me.' But even if he means it (and I very much doubt he does) then he's fighting a losing battle. Not a page later he tells her, 'You really are a treasure, you know. We must keep you in the family.' (I'd like Dawning Realizations for a thousand, Alex.)
So he's in love and we can dust our hands because surely all is plain sailing from here...Now, don't go buying confetti and streamers just yet. Jemima is convinced that Alexander doesn't like her (though she is unwillingly and unwisely interested in him) and then there's Gloria, looming over the protagonists like a golden-haired, bony-shouldered (she has to be!) gargoyle, shooting little barbs at Jemima every chance she gets.
Also, Jemima is chatted up and taken out by a New Zealander named Andrew Blake--a dead end episode that still pushes the plot along (we have such a smart Betty!):
- We get to see Jealous Alexander--green-eyed and gorgeous.
- He gets to kiss her and then shows himself to be worthy of her when, even after she says she wants to slap his face, he sends dinner up to her room so she won't be hungry.
- It underlines how desperate for company Jemima is. A reckless-driving Antipodean? Who can't even comment intelligently on Hamlet? She deems that better than the cold snubs (from whom, Jemima?) she's been enduring lately.
Or does he? After reading book after book of Neels heroes excusing all manner of awful villainess behavior with a bland bon homie, what a joy it is to read the words, 'Be quiet, Gloria!' And it's not only Gloria he's shouting at. Responding to the mild observation that she will get coffee from the cook, Alexander shouts at Jemima, 'You're not a servant!' That's not going to do his peptic ulcer any good...
Allowing herself to be got at, Jemima is persuaded to travel to Scotland (balmy, sunny Scotland) before looking for another job. Though the interlude is fantastic, I'll opt for bullet points:
- Jemima receives answers to her job advertisement. Three positions, each vying to be more vile than the last. Maybe she worded it wrong...
- A blizzard blasts the coastline leaving Jemima, Pooley (Lady M.'s maid) and Lady M. stranded with dwindling food stores.
- Pooley breaks her arm.
- They drink deeply from the brandy bottle and Lady M. is stirred to near-pluckiness.
- Alexander flies his own helicopter in to rescue them! (How very Prince William of him.)
They get back to civilization and Alexander plies her with boeuf en croute--her food fantasy while stuck in the cottage with a lot of potatoes. Lady Manderly and Alexander have a chat about when he'll get around to proposing to Jemima (That's right! She's won over the imperious old lady with her ladylike displays of moxie. And it makes me feel great that Jemima will be welcomed into the family instead of enduring the shivs in the shoulder blade that might otherwise have been her lot.)
To Lady Manderly's horrified dismay, Jemima quits her job, covers her footsteps so that a trained Indian tracker would struggle to find her and disappears into oblivion. (By that I mean to say, she is still at the flatlet over the newspaper stand and working part-time there.) What a harassed expression Alexander wears when he finally runs her to ground. 'I didn't know you were lying,' he said evenly. But he's done being mad and kisses her into a stupor.
Rating: Queen of Puddings. Easy. What makes it so great? Though Jemina and Alexander don't spend very much actual time together (Their courtship consists of a few walks, the sliver of time before Lady Manderly walks in the room and some awkward meals.), it's always to good purpose. Gloria gums things up a bit (a sticky millstone) but she serves a purpose:
- If we pretend that Alex is a real person then I take him at his word that he's using Gloria as camouflage while he's trying to get Jemima to like him. It's not a brilliant plan (If you lie down with dogs...) but Gloria keeps Alex's actions from screaming, 'IloveyouIloveyouIloveyou!' while Jemima decides if she'll give him a shot. (Because she would have refused to go out with him on a straightforward date, I think.)
- If we remember that Alex and and Jemima are merely characters in a book by Betty Neels (Breathe deeply, Bettys!), then I get that The Great Betty needed a true villainess (particularly as she made semi-evil Lady Manderly so likable) to sustain the tension and play off of. It's okay for me--not great, but understandable (and particularly forgivable since we get a very complex and nuanced Lady M. in return).
It does need a new title (Jemima and Lady Manderly, Snowbound in Scotland, Life-flight to Love! (Hey, I'm spit-balling here...)) but the rest is a dish. Love it.
Food: Steak and kidney pudding, a Potemkin trifle (Thrown together at the last minute to replace a dropped dish, it is merely superficially attractive and probably tastes beastly), awful coffee and tea (has Lady Manderly lost her sense of taste?), vol-au-vents, pate, lobster patties, a lonely risotto and ice cream. When he's so mean to her over The Kiwi's Kiss, he still sends her soup, a cheese souffle, a peach and coffee. Lady Manderly asks for chicken supreme when they're stranded in Scotland but the others eat baked potatoes and cheese, bacon, fried potatoes and treacle tart. While stranded, Jemima dreams of having French onion soup, grilled sole and boeuf en croute (which is not immediately available but he feeds her it as soon as soon as he can which is just about the most adorable thing ever.).
Fashion: Gloria is decked out in black velvet knickerbockers and plaid knickerbockers at another point and I am consoled that, even though Jemima drools over her clothes, Gloria will live to regret her fashion choices. Jemima is more often found in neat, navy blue numbers and brown dresses (one of which is a stunner ( a chestnut brown jersey with a pleated, calf-length skirt and a little jacket). Does Alex ever get to see it? Someone re-read it and tell me!). In Scotland, Jemima goes rustic and dons an old cloth cap, a well-worn, too-big anorak and woolly gloves. Lady Manderly, a reactionary if there ever was one, stuck closely to her purple satins, diamonds and furs.