Monday, May 30, 2011

Cassandra By Chance--1973


The ferry to Mull, Scotland

I love this book in just about the same way Betty Debbie does.  It goes like a bomb for the first half and then the rest doesn't quite live up to that early promise but it's really a fun departure for The Great Betty.  My favorite character is the amnesiac Polish(?) WWII refugee.  The character I feel is most hard done by?  That poor clergyman on Mull who has to endure the blow of watching his cautious, sister-approved courtship of Cassandra blow up in the face of a disagreeable blind man and then has to marry them in the end.  That's rough.  I always hopes he finds some little diamond in the rough (with great legs and a willingness to tell sister where to get off) on Mull and marries her out of hand.
Also, if memory serves, this is the post that led The Founding Bettys to their very first follower: Betty Magdalen.

I'm not sure which muse Betty Neels was channeling when she wrote this book, but I suspect that she had more than one. Why? Because Cassandra By Chance is virtually 2 books under one cover.The first one hundred pages take place in Scotland, on the Island of Mull...the next one hundred pages are in Holland.

Cassandra By Chance does not have quite the typical Neels formula...It's not love at first sight for either protagonist - partly because the hero is temporarily blind. What?!? A blind hero??!?? Yup, and a grumpy blind at that. What fun. There is so much to like about this book, so let's dig in.

The heroine's name is....wait for it.....wait.....Cassandra Darling. In Nurse Harriet Goes to Holland you get the best nickname "Haughty Harry", but in this book you get the best heroine name. Ever. Say it slow...it sounds like an endearment. La Neels penned a lot of clunky names in her time, but this isn't one of them. Love it. Physically, Cassandra is tall, but not "out-size", and she's not pretty. That qualifies her as a Betty Neels Heroine Type 3 (the Outlier). Not only is she not pretty, but she has a sharp thin nose...and the tip quivers when she lies. At one point she is described as a "jolie laide", a term that comes up again and again in Neeldom. Here's the definition (as found on Merriam-Webster Online): ...woman who is attractive though not conventionally pretty. Cassandra has a pretty even temperament (that doesn't mean she can't dish it out, when necessary), which is a good thing, under the circumstances. She's kind, sensible, matter-of-fact and willing to apologize, if the occasion warrants it.

The hero - Benedict van Manfeld, age 35. He's got the typical tall, vastiness of a Neels hero, but as I mentioned before, he starts out the book fairly blind. We never get to find out why or how he lost his sight - but he does get to wear dark blue glasses for all of Part 1. He is staying in a friends cottage, on the Scottish island of Mull, with only his Polish Amnesiac Concentration Camp Survivor Trusty Loyal Manservant Jan in attendance. Benedict has what he describes as a "vile temper"...he is prone to swearing (which Cassandra totally objects to, and calls him on). In spite of that, I like him. Yes, he's got a temper, but hey - what good is a blind Ear, Nose and Throat Surgeon to anyone? He's got a bit of an excuse for his ill temper. He also apologizes nicely.

The story (pardon the length, I know this is going to be a long one):

Part 1: Cassandra Darling, newly minted nurse, goes to Scotland to tend her sister Rachel's kids - ages 5 and 6. While taking Andrew and Penny (the kids) for a walk, Cassandra and the kids come across an isolated cottage. And now we get the best, the very best, the most phenomenal name for a house....Ogre's Relish. At least, that's the name that Andrew and Penny gave it. Andrew says, "There's a man lives there, and one day I heard Mrs. Todd telling Mrs. MacGill that he relished his peace and quiet, and of course he's an ogre because no one's ever seen him." (If I ever own a cottage, I shall call it "Ogre's Relish". Much better than "Rainbow's End", "Wisteria Lodge" or "Rose Cottage". It would be much easier to neglect the gardening around a house called Ogre's Relish, in fact it might even be a moral imperative.) Penny goes on to explain that there is an old man who lives there too, who goes shopping in town, but hardly buys anything. "Mrs. MacGill says he only buys enough to keep body and soul together." She then tells Cassandra that the ogre is blind. Andrew says that he heard is dad tell his mum, "he can't see, poor beggar." Cassandra feels sorry for him - so she bakes him a cake. Evidently his Polish Amnesiac Concentration Camp Survivor Trusty Loyal Manservant Jan doesn't do cakes or pies. The kids get acquainted with the ogre and like him and his Polish Amnesiac Concentration Camp Survivor Trusty Loyal Manservant Jan. On their way to church, Penny falls into a wee bottomless loch...and in jumps Cassandra to save her. Unfortunately Cassandra isn't much of a swimmer - but that's okay, Andrew runs and fetches the blind ENT surgeon and he can swim just fine - so in he jumps..all's well, etc..particularly well after Cassandra drinks her tea laced with whisky. Evidently that's what you put in tea, but don't worry, it's just medicinal. Cassandra then finds out the the "poor beggar" isn't so poor after all - she sees the large wooden box on the table with a Fortnum and Mason label on it - packed full of spendy delicacies...Fuller's chocolate cake, a Dundee cake, several tins of coq-au-vin, Stilton cheese and a pot of Gentleman's Relish. We all know what that means (he's not really a poor beggar). Cassandra is huffy about the fact the Benedict had told the kids that he was poor...Benedict explains to Cassandra that he is poor - in friends and affection and laughter and love. There is a fair amount of arguing on the part of Cassandra and Benedict - but La Neels balanced the fighting with matter-of-factness and the willingness to not hold grudges. Neither character is terribly angsty (I loathe angsty-ness) and there is a fair amount of laughter and light-heartedness dotted through Part 1.

Part 2: The first scene in Holland reminds me of a scene in Pride and Prejudice (chapter 59 in my copy).
Miss Bennet asks Elizabeth, "tell me how long you have loved him?"
Elizabeth, "It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberly."

Cassandra realizes that she loves Benedict as she is standing in front of his home in Holland for the first time. Yes, Benedict has a lovely house - but really the description of his faithful cook and housekeeper is the money shot..."a large woman with a massive bosom and a quantity of white hair". I'd fall in love with Benedict just to have her.
Benedict talked Cassandra into coming to Holland as his nurse. As far as I can tell, the only nursing she does for him is to put drops in his eyes. It sounds suspicious to me. I am in no way a nurse, but Dr. van der Stevejinck, is prone to the occasional eye ulcer and needs drops put in...trust me, it's not that hard. Do you think he had ulterior motives in inviting Cassandra to Holland? Maybe, just maybe, Benedict has more than a little liking for Cassandra?

Now for some action...a dredge and a barge collide in the river...there are injuries...it's icy, cold, windy...Benedict (who by now has his eyesight back) takes Cassandra along to help. He performs an emergency tracheotomy (after all, he is and ear, nose and THROAT surgeon), and then proceeds to amputate another victims leg. I don't know about you, but I'd be a little worried to have an ENT do an amputation. Oh well, it was an emergency.

Benedict finds out the his restored vision isn't guaranteed to be 100% - he almost drives Cassandra away, but then he gets the airport security guy (on whom he had previously performed a tricky operation)to escort her down a "long dreary passage which apparently led nowhere". Kiss, kiss, marry me....off to Scotland for the wedding, then fade to black as the couple walks up the hill to Ogre's Relish.

Fashion: evidently oversize Aran sweaters are the thing on Mull.
Food: Queen of puddings, Gentleman's Relish, dripping toast and cocoa, game soup, crepes Suzette.
Cars: Aston Martin DBS V8, Daimler Sovereign.
Quotable Quote: "It made it sound as though the village were some vice-ridden haunt full of desperate characters with flick-knives waiting at every corner."

Rating: Part 1 gets a lashings of whipped cream...with an extra lash. Part 2 is a little more pedestrian (unless you're a one-legged amputee) so I give it a boeuf en croute. Together it equals a queen of puddings with a dollop of whipped cream on top.