Monday, April 11, 2011

The Little Dragon--1977

 When Betty Debbie and I sat down to divvy up reviews there were a few titles that we fought over.  Caroline's Waterloo was hers, Winter Wedding was mine, The Little Dragon was...Elbows might have been thrown, Bettys. We both love it.

Constantia Morley, 26, has to recite the Hippocratic Oath backwards, forwards, standing on one leg, in Latin, in one continuous burp, in a house, with a mouse, here and there, anywhere...to daily prevent herself from lifting her patient, Mrs. Dowling, a gilded, diabetic butterfly earthworm, and pushing her over the ledge of the window to meet her death some three stories below.  So, yeah.  You might say the job is no peach and she escapes when she can.
It is on one of these smiling-so-hard-her-cheeks-hurt excursions into the city that she comes across Mrs. Dowling's doctor who is speaking with Jeroen van der Giessen, 39.
So, they go on a speed date.
Forest, trees, etc...
Sure, there's no timer or basket of pretzels or hoards of anxious singles but in less than two minutes she knows that he has a battered sheepskin jacket and a more battered Fiat (which all indicate that he's still paying off his student loans) and he knows that she is cheerful and charming and The One for him.
Over the course of the next couple of weeks, he manages to annex her scant half-days, filling her lonely hours with the liveliness of a houseful of children (three--on loan from his sister) and the invigorating joy of each other's company.  (That's a main vibe from this book.  They are bursting with good humor and mutual appreciation.)  They meet for tea at his house--a magnificent old mansion...owned by a relative. (Constantia paints in the details--he's an elderly Uncle with more money than sense.) In no time they are firm friends even if Constantia has a bit of a one-track mind on the subject of The Unrelenting Awfulness of Rich People (maybe she's writing a thesis).
The only doggy-doo-doo in this paradisaical garden is Mrs. Dowling--making her pungent accusations ('You're out to get him.') and biting insinuations ('Him--he hasn't any money.').
Editorial Note: Mrs. Dowling is the reason, for me, that the whole plot works.  While it is no surprise that her disagreeable nature (even in the face of outrageous luxury) exacerbates Constantia's irritations with wealthy people (thus supplying the reason for all of Jeroen's subterfuge), she is also the reason (I think) that Constantia fails to see Jeroen in a romantic light.  Over and over again she crudely twits Constantia about chasing Jeroen--putting the ugliest construction on the relationship--so that it isn't any wonder that Constantia responds by defending her good, noble and passionless FRIENDSHIP.  She is so busy insisting that it isn't the crass relationship of Mrs Dowling's fevered imagination that she fails to allow any romantic feelings to cross her mind
Finally, the caramel chocolates hit the blood stream (so much more tasty than 'the rubber hits the road', no?) and Mrs. Dowling has a diabetic tantrum (sure it's a medical possibility...) and fires her nurse.  (When she says, 'I shall go into a coma,' you really wish she would already.)  Well, you know the rest.  Constantia with the broken purse straps in the ghetto...
Enter Jeroen with a really lovely idea. 
She decamps to his house and plans to take some of the crushing work load off of his daily help.  (How does that woman keep everything clean and cook for a sizable group each day?)  She is worried that she'll be another mouth to feed.  (Okay, if you have major problems with this plot than I'll hand you a little bone:  I agree that it is silly beyond permission that she thinks he is that poor based on an old coat and an affordable car.)  She and Rietje (the cook) get along like a house afire and Constantia potters around, making beds, getting the children off to school and feeling (for the first time in a long time) as though she isn't a rootless orphan.  Sealing the deal, he teases her gently about being a kindly little dragon in his home.
Editorial Note: I know, here, some Bettys will take issue with my conclusion but I'll refer you to my handy chart.  (See right.)
Jeroen is quick to assure her that she will meet the awesome uncle whose sumptuous bounty she enjoys eventually and allows her a few details about him.  'He's a rather lonely man...'
Eventually her passport is found, causing no small degree of consternation to the Professor. (Oh, did I forget to mention that?  So did Jeroen.)  And you feel really sorry for him.  There he is with the love of his life acting like a Donna Reed-ian prop and mainstay and he's got Rietje and Tarnus (Oh, did I forget to mention him?  So did Jeroen.) ferreted away in the garret like members of the Dutch Resistance (coming out at night to scour the mansion from top to tail) and he's weaving a carpet of lies that could cover the ballroom floor.  It's a wonder that he doesn't take to smoking.
So he does what any red-blooded male would do--he proposes a marriage of friends (not of convenience--she doesn't need to stay in Holland anymore and he won't need help with the kids for long but he doesn't want to let her go and he's not going to rush her into future-tense conjugal relations).  After a remarkably short dithering time (like two minutes!) she agrees.
They travel to England.
Editorial NoteI generally don't like the tiny don't-invite-the-family weddings of Neelsdom but in this case it's enormously thoughtful.  He has a massive family (she has none) and she's in a foreign country.  He asks her to name the church and they get to skip the awkwardness of having the chapel filled with his family and his friends and no one at all for her.
While there they have a darling little honeymoon.  He takes her out to a fabulous hotel and wines and dines her and drags her into an expensive boutique.  She's terrified that it'll wipe out his bottom line while he is relieved to finally let go a little bit (restraining himself mightily from endowing her with all his worldly goods).
'And thank you too, Jeroen, for quite the nicest wedding day any girl would have.'
Her hand was in his and just for a moment his grip was so fierce that she winced...
I imagine that he had to duct tape himself to a chair leg all night to prevent himself from flinging himself at her. 

Life as a married woman is delightful and she soon meets Jeroen's sister Gina (one of the most likable siblings in the canon), mother of the kids, and more of his other relatives, all of whom are 'completely uncurious'. Things float along like this for a bit, the lies are piling up like sausages at a beer-fest and they do a spot of comradely first-responder-ing at a whirlwind-struck factory...you know, just your standard getting-settled-into-married-life faire.
And then one day, after being married less than a month, they attend a dinner party hosted by the kind of woman who only reinforces Constantia's feelings about the Dread Wealthy.  She corners the new bride and begins an inquisition.  My, how lucky you are. (Yes, she is. Constantia knows she loves her husband by now.  Being crushed by him during the whirlwind knocked some sense into her.) You have snagged a baron.  And he's a m...Gina dumps her coffee down the woman's back in a move that, to a shocked Constantia, was clearly intentional!  (I nominate her to come to every family reunion I have to attend...ever.)
You'll need a stiff drink after I tell you I'm loaded...
There isn't a fight.  When Jeroen gets his bewildered and angry wife home he takes his medicine like a man:
Yes, I am a baron.
She was going to say millionaire.
Her hurt is beyond anything a yelling match would solve and so she dashes upstairs to cry her eyes out and pack her clothes. 'You let me shop and answer the telephone and dust and put the children to bed...'
It helps that as she strives to write an appropriate 'Liar, liar pants on fire' letter the next morning he is surely busy in his surgery.
But he isn't...and don't call me Shirley.  He has a partner.  (Oh, did I forget to mention that?  So did Jeroen.)
His castle of lies comes crashing down and in the rubble a new truth rises like a phoenix from the ashes.
The Baron is occupied.
The End

Rating:  Though I understand that it doesn't find favor in all quarters, I really, really love this one.  It's got a great title and a memorable plot line.  Granted, the grand mansion of our novel is constructed on a flood plain of lies (wicked lies) but if you can swallow the fact that their relationship is built on a tissue of falsehoods and also believe the reason for them, then you're good to go.  (Which I do and I am.)
Friendly dragon?  Why, yes.
The principles have such an affection and appreciation for one another--it drips off the page practically (don't dribble)--and I'm one of those that think that his repeated use of 'dragon' is an endearment of the most personal kind.  (He can't call her sweetheart and darling so this will be the next best thing.) A very close reading bears out that she never takes exception to the name and it's always delivered with grins and smiles and good humor all around.  (So if you want to go a few rounds of fisticuffs on the grounds that it's unforgivable and always insulting to call a woman 'dragon' then I'm afraid your beef is with The Great Betty and not with me...)
Anyway, it's a great novel that rarely has to stoop to the contrivances of flinty-eyed, bony-chested tartlets flinging their arms around the hero or some flirtatious long-hair mucking up the landscape to provide drama.  (Instead, we get every moment of tightrope-walking as the well-run household has to make its machinery invisible that has all the makings of a very British bedroom farce.)
Lashings of Whipped Cream for me.  (It's easily in my top five.) Go ahead and rip away in your most well-bred way, dissenting Bettys.

Food:  Mrs. Dowling becomes very disagreeable over not being allowed to consume Vienne snitzcels and eclairs, ODs on a box of chocolates with caramel centers and is anxious to have escalope of veal ('followed by a diabetic coma,' responds Constantia...).  Constantia thoroughly enjoys the substantial teas at Jeroen's home with bread, butter and jam.  She compares Jeroen's Moselle to her aunt's parsnip wine, and enjoys (post-marriage), lobster soup, millefeuille.

Fashion: Jeroen's old sheepskin jacket and beautifully tailored suits.  Constantia wears a Marks and Spencer sweater, a brown corduroy pinafore dress with a pink woollen blouse, a sapphire velvet skirt with matching waistcoat, and her wedding dress is an 'already owned' tweed dress with a new hat (which I think she limits herself to so that she could pay for Jeroen's wedding ring--which I just adore her for), he pops for a pale coffee jersey skirt and blouse and a crepey and pleated dress (his words) in dim strawberry.  She also gets a pearl grey (I love that on this blog I don't have to remember which way American's spell grey/gray and that either way I do it will be correct.  (Yes, I know it's American/gray.)) organza dress with tiny pink embroidered flowers and a little white mink jacket.

26 comments:

  1. Well, I love it too.

    (The sound of simultaneous exhaling was...just for a moment there...deafening.)

    The way I figure it, Constantia has an irrational and unreasonable prejudice against the wealthy. We understand why she has it (Mrs. Dowling and all those unhappy, rich, lonely, sick predecessors) and so does Jeroen, but it's wrong, Constantia's wrong, and it messes up everything.

    He knows that if he tells her that it's his house, his Daimler, his servants, his title, etc., etc., she'll bolt. At the same time, he can tell she likes him, really likes him. Hence the need to lie.

    And "dragon" doesn't bother me. Context is everything. Betty Ross's nickname in school was "cow" because he responded to classmates with "hmmmm," a lot and had very long eyelashes. My nickname when we first met was Squirrel, so I gave him a stuffed animal squirrel and he gave me a cuddly toy cow. (Admittedly, I never told my family, "I'm marrying a long-lashed cow." And thankfully, he didn't tell his family, "Magdalen's quite squirrelly.")

    Here are some hidden gems (The Great Betty's version of software "Easter eggs") -- When they get married in the little church in Compton, there are two witnesses. Doncha just know that they're the retainers who maintain the pied-à-terre Jeroen owns in London? I like to picture the first trip to London when he parks the Daimler in the garage in the mews behind that place and introduces Constantia to Jolly and Mrs. Jolly and she recognizes them from the wedding...

    Also, just imagine the conversations Jeroen had to have with: 1) Rietje, 2) Tarnus, 3) Bet, 4) Regina, 5) Bram, 6) his partner, 7) his houseman, 8) his other sister(s), 9) his other relatives, etc. "Ah, yes, I've fallen madly in love, but she's prejudiced against wealthy people (she has her reasons), so I've let her believe that the house belongs to an elderly uncle in Friesland. So I need you to keep the secret. No barony, no millions, no jewels, and so forth. Can you do that? Trust me, she's worth it." Now that's an RDD who's really willing to go the distance for a happy ending.

    After all has been revealed and once Constantia gets her breath back -- I do hope he's asked his partner to cover the entire day, nudge, nudge -- I think she'll have no trouble seeing that Jeroen was trying exceptionally hard to make things nice for her.

    Yup, lashings of cream for me. If it's not in my top ten, it's only because it's not quite as angsty as the other ones I love.

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    1. Betty UndercoverJune 26, 2012 at 8:43 PM

      I just happened to read this book last week-- a week before I stumbled upon your excellent site. Reading Betty Keira's review increased my joy in this already joyFUL story.

      Gotta agree with Betty Magdalen's entire comment. As I read THD I kept imagining the energy and strategy that our RDD employed to keep his earth a secret. And so, even tho it WAS farcical, and I do NOT typically like farces either (with Betty Barbara on that), I none the less enjoyed it, BECAUSE ( as Magdalen explained) this was proof of his devotion. Chuckleworthy, not stupid screwball or foolish farce. And what a riot to have the KIDS and the staff and his whole family in on it. Too much fun!

      But I DID wonder when she would see the light...not even when she wandered up to the third floor and found the apartments?? Hello?

      A term of endearment...little dragon. (ellipse not intended to evoke Cartlandian innocence)

      Not lashings for me, but queen of puddings for sure.

      And Betty Magdalen, I hope he's asked his partner to cover for the entire day, too. Sigh. I re- read the ending a dozen times.

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  2. Betty Barbara here--
    Knowing that my poor remarks will go unnoticed, because everyone will be staring at Betty Magdalen's comments--
    I will state right up front that I am not a fan of 'screwball' comedy and my tolerance for farce is small. So you can already tell that I am not a big fan of this book and it is because I just didn't click with the set up.
    Now, I will say that it was well written and had some great scenes, but I just couldn't get over the hurdle of the story premise.
    I found Constantia's aversion to the rich to define the word 'unreasonable'. I wanted to smack her one. Jeroen gets a few props at the beginning when he tries to point out that not all rich people are like that, but she cuts him dead with the equivalent of a 'yeah, if you say so, whatever'. And then he gives up and starts with the subterfuge. It is Constantia who manufactures the old, whiskered uncle out of Jeroen's comments about 'the owner'. He never says she's right, he just never corrects her mistaken impression. I just wish he had made less of an effort to disguise his status.
    Constantia also, in my mind, bordered on TSTL for being so willfully blind to all the signs of his wealth. Talk about seeing only what she wanted to see!
    Of course she's angry when it all comes out. She feels that she has been made a fool of and if he will go to such lengths, what else is he lying about? But mostly she feels a fool. But Jeroen's motivation is also right--she would have bolted early on. I think it is going to take her a while to come to terms with all that.

    Don't have any problem with 'dragon' as an endearment, especially since he showed her the charming ornament that inspired it.

    And now to the cover--I just LOVE her disembodied head. Seriously folks! His hand is supposedly on her shoulder or is it her neck?--is that white thing her jacket? a scarf? where's the rest of her??!?!!? Is that touch of red her blouse? Just what is going on here?

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    1. It's the Sloane Ranger "I'm so cold I must wear a sweater but I wont put my arms in it I'll just button the top button and drape it over my shoulders" thing, which is not as annoying as the American preppie "Drape it over my shoulders and tie the arms in front of me because I think it makes me look East-Coast-Rich" thing...

      Betty von Susie

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    2. And is that a brown lunch bag in his hand?
      Betty Anonymous

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  3. Lashings of Whipped Cream for me too! I just love this one. I think "Little Dragon" is a darling epithet and "I shall allow you two hats a year" shall be stitched and framed and put on the mantle at Starlings this summer.

    I am honest to the fault and all the "fibs" bugged me to no end but in a I can't wait to see what happens when she finds out kind of way.

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  4. I don't take issue with the reasons this isn't a favorite of yours, Betty Barbara. (Whew!) Liking it depends rather heavily on feeling the fun of the 'farce-ness' and swallowing the shaky reasons for the premise and if you don't then it is what it is.

    Betty Magdalen! I totally missed the 'two witnesses' thing. How adorable is the scenario you've imagined!

    Also, I read it quite closely, wondering if he ever actually had to lie to her (instead of just steering her into false conclusions) and he does. So, he'll have some repentance to work out but I love it anyway...

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  5. I saw all that lying in the context of The Great Betty's rather insistent paternalism. Personally, I'd rather have someone lie to me about being poor (when he's in fact obscenely wealthy) than lie to me about how long I have to live.

    Just sayin'...

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  6. Ok. I tried. I really did. And I tried again. Even tried with Magdalen's astute "paternalistic" view. It's no use, I just don't like this one. That huge web of lies! Not just the RDD, but the family, the relatives, the servants, the partner, the CHILDREN! And although I know it was supposed to be a cute deception, it came across to me as fun at someone else's expense, and that is a deal breaker for me in anything, books TV, movies and relationships.
    I'm happy for you that see this in a different light, because parts of it are really charming, but sadly, I stand on the other side of the fence.

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  7. That's okay. We can talk in semaphore...

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  8. Hi everyone!
    This is my first post here. I discovered this site a couple of weeks ago and absolutely love the book reviews.

    I read this one yesterday and really enjoyed it mainly because it's the only one I've read in which the RDD isn't flashing his money around from the very start.

    I appreciate that we have to suspend credibility to a very great degree when reading Neels but I found it hard to believe that RDD would fall so hard in love, and go to such great lengths to hide his wealth, for someone so childish as Constantia. At their first meeting she's skipping and grinning, then there's those ooh, isn't it lovely/super to have a new friend! type of comments, not to mention the irritating language like "brace of shakes", "poppet" and other wince-inducing utterances which make her sound about five years old, or a playful puppy that speaks.

    Despite that, it stands out as one of the few where the RDD seems genuine warm and kind and in that sense they are more equal than many of Betty's other couples. In most of the other stories the heroine is the Cinderella who wins the prince, but The Little Dragon seems to me to be more of a frog-that-turned-into-a-prince (or should that be a baron?) variant.

    I think it's one I'll be pulling out for a re-read soon.

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    1. Welcome, Betty Katykins! The Little Dragon is a tough one for me, too, but one of the great things about Betties Debbie and Keira's great blog here is that it offers so very many different perspectives on the books we love, like and not-so-much. Do let us hear more from you soon.

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    2. Welcome, Betty Katykins! (I love writing that!)

      Think of TLD as a screw-ball comedy with folks running in and out of doors....Plus, Constantia has short *gasp hair--Betty must have been in the Madeira....

      I think the whole thing's cute and fun (and actually think that Constantia is one of the more grown-up of Betty's young women); Jeroen just panicked over his fear that Constantia wouldn't like him if he were rich. (Oh, silly Jeroen, she was just mouthing off....He had probably need to get used to it.)

      Does my use of all these ellipses qualify me for The Barbara Cartland Award?

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    3. Betty Barbara here--
      Betty Katykins--Welcome!

      Betty JoDee--alas, you failed to use enough ellipses to qualify. You must...use...more than...one in a...sentence to be worthy of Barbara Cartland.
      Her early books weren't loaded with ellipses, but in her later books, her heroines spoke only in sentences filled with ellipses. And that's when I quit reading her books(we are talking late 70's--so who knows how bad it got late in her career).

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    4. Wouldn't it be nicer to call it muted or soft or toned strawberry. Dim strawberry. I am picturing a little strawberry, with a goofy look on its "face", sitting on a brick wall, wearing a straw hat, the village idiot strawberry...ellipse ellipse.

      Betty dim Susie

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    5. Where is a Betty Keira graphic...when you...need...one?

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    6. Ha-ha, all this ellipsing (ellipsi?) makes you sound like William Shatner saying his lines:
      There's....some...thing...on...the...wing!
      .
      But seriously, if you or someone you know suffers from uncontrollable ellipsing, you may be eligible for compensation...call the law offices of Dewey, Cheatum, and Howe at.......

      Betty.....von.....Susie

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    7. Welcome, Betty Katykins. Agree about suspending credulity when reading Betty. One reason why I'm a Betty fan. :)

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    8. All this ellipsing/ellipsi makes me feel like I'm having an asthma attack! Where's my inhaler....

      Betty AnoninTX

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  9. Thank you all so much for the warm welcome! I usually keep my Betty addiction to myself so it's lovely to be able to find so many other Bettys out there. I wasn't sure about "dim strawberry" either - sounds like the colour of strawberries mashed into cream and left to go brown. If this picked up the colour of the heirloom rubies, then perhaps Jeroen should have taken the ring to the jewellers for a good clean first!

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  10. I have just found your Blog and love it. I too am a Betty Neels addict who has, if not all her books, most of them.

    I've read about 8 of your reviews so far and I've been howling my head off because they're so funny but spot on. Betty's stories are a step out of time but they're a nice light read that are surprisingly relaxing. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know how much enjoyment I've gotten from reading your reviews and nice to others who enjoy B Neels books too. Oh and yes, I'm going to read all the reviews but am first reading the ones for the stories I enjoy the most.

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    1. Welcome, Betty Linda! How did you discover Betty Neels?

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  11. I honestly can't remember, it's so long ago now. I think I just bought a bunch of books from a used book store and happily, one of them were hers. The book was "The Little Dragon" which I loved (thank goodness it wasn't one where I felt like thumping either the hero or the heroine, which has happened more than once, lol).

    I've been having a love affair with her books for over 20 years and although she did create the occasional clunker, I didn't give up on her as I've done with other authors for the same reason, after they wrote a few lemons.

    Question, would you like me to put my thoughts for each book against each individual review? Or should I not since they were written a couple of years ago.I don't want to upset the system so thought I should ask :-D

    Ps: I love your title, lol

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  12. Hmm. Well, since they show up later in the "Fateful Bargain" I have to assume things wound up working out ... :) (arrgh! ellipses! I wrote a piece of fanfic about that, in the fanfic universe I'm active in).

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  13. Thanks for all the great reviews here at the TUJD! I love everyone's enthusiasm and although this was def NOT a fave for me when I read it I think that now I will like it better. Still not awesome cos the lying is a little cringey but much better than the beans on toast I originally gave it. however saying that, I really like eating beans on toast!

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  14. I LOL'd at the Animal Endearments chart. Personally, I'd much rather be called a dragon than a bunny, which has the whole Playboy connotations here in the States.

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