There are those who love The Hasty Marriage and those who loathe it. Betty Magdalen referred to it as 'emoporn'...with some justification - there's a whole lotta angstiness going on here. I fall into the 'love it' camp - but only when I'm in the mood. I really like Laura - I don't see her as wimpy - she's got her very own brand of grit - which enables her to suggest marriage to the man she loves (perhaps the only Neels heroine to do so???). Reilof(f) is a bit thick (Great Wall of China thick, Dagwood sandwich thick), but I like to think he spends the next 40 years or so paying off his debt to Laura (he owes her BIG TIME for saving him from The Zombie Bride). Here's a handy link for the accompanying discussion thread (complete with awesome illustrations).
This week Betty Debbie and I chose two of our favorites to review. No this isn't my favorite favorite but, as I'm fond of telling her, I won't be able to review that one (Winter Wedding) until I've been to the mountain, so to speak.
Betty Neels wrote 130-odd novels and among them there are only a few outliers--sticking out like a cactus at a flower show. The Hasty Marriage is one such. It's dark, near-tragic and fraught with moments that (as silly as I feel doing it) make my throat thick with the sorrow of surrogate mortification. War and Peace it isn't, but don't let that stop us.
Laura Standish is 29--looking thirty in the face (what an expression!)--a Ward Sister at St. Anne's on Men's Surgical. She's clever, wonderful at her job, gets on well with pets and children, is a good little housekeeper/cook, has a pretty voice, is liked by everyone, is not pretty but is not plain either. She might be an Araminta and long in the tooth but her sterling qualities could have landed her a staid fellow named George with a flat and an elderly Morris some time ago. But she's not in love with a George with a flat and a Morris so she won't marry one. Laura is my daughter's name. I love it and I love her.
Reilof van Meerum is 38. He's 6'3" and has dark eyes and hair (silvered at the temples in much the same manner as Minjeer Nathan van Voorhees, I think). He drives an Aston Martin which I take as a sign of an impulsive nature and emotional instability. But he also drives a silver grey Rolls-Royce which means that he'll settle down like the Rock of Gibraltar in the end. He was once married to a girl named Esme who died of leukemia. Don't feel too bad though. He recognized long before her death that they were ill-suited. She was a gay young thing that liked dancing and parties. And he was a doctor.
Laura has the rotten luck of falling in love with Reilof at first sight. There he is, the man of her dreams, standing in her sitting room...captivated by her sister. Hey wait! That's not how it's supposed to go. Betty Neels writes our heroes as indifferent or skeptical or secretly in love with the heroine but never, ever does she let them be genuinely bowled out by another woman.
Joyce is 20 and blond and blue-eyed and a gay young thing that likes dancing and parties...stop me when this starts sounding familiar. She's like Zombie Esme raised from the grave. Only now she has a moral black hole where her heart's supposed to be and it's sucking Reilof into it. Instead of employing his warp drive to blast off in the opposite direction, Captain Reilof is piloting his Good Ship Smitten into the heart of darkness. All engines go, full steam ahead! You can imagine him elbowing Laura down in his haste to get to Joyce's side as though he's learned nothing in the dozen or so years since his first disastrous marriage.
Joyce, who never does anything when Laura is around to pick up the slack, makes a decent show of being human...for a zombie bride. She offers to do the dishes and, er...that's it. That's the entire foundation for Reilof's good regard.
Laura, however, has to cook meals and entertain two old men (her father and godfather), as well as rescue a puppy and assist in putting the dog's legs in plaster (using her connections in the Casualty area of her hospital shamelessly) for Reilof to even acknowledge her existence. Ponder the unfairness of life.
Here Laura suffers the pangs of the damned. That's her traveling the digestive track of a demon...
What follows is a really sad chronicle of our fearless heroine making up reasons to avoid going home if there's a chance that Reilof might be there. (And I'm not kidding. It makes me feel sad.) If she does go home, no one will bother to meet her at the station or be at home and she'll feel duty bound not to make Joyce look like a heel (because she's gone off with her Dutch boyfriend and left cold soup on the stove and dismissed the daily help for the day) in front of Reilof so will say something like, "So sorry I popped home without telling anyone..." All along she has to watch the man she loves looking like "he won the pools" over her silly twit of a Gucci-scarf-stealing sister. Ponder the inscrutability of love.
And then the day comes, as Joyce predicted it would, when hard-working Laura gets the call she's been dreading. If this were written today, Laura would have received this text:
It's worse when Reilof hops on the phone and asks for congratulations and then sounds bored with her when she summons the courage to give them.
I know what you're thinking. He's awful. He's a putz. He doesn't deserve her. Well, true enough but it's hard not to feel for the guy when you know what's coming. His relationship with Joyce is...er...unsustainable. He bought her a solitaire in a modern setting and if that isn't a recipe for a failed relationship in the land of Neels then nothing is. Also, he's been pretty stand-up throughout--treating Laura with unfailing, if casual, kindness. He's a jerk but he doesn't know he's being one.
Then it all blows up. Laura comes home early (to avoid seeing Reilof with Joyce) and finds the zombie bride packing. At first, Laura assumes that they want to elope and then Joyce utters the irrevocable curse: American. (Sound of screeching tires)
Larry the American (an invective comparable to "Ivan the Terrible" or "Vlad the Impaler") is young, short, plump and wears heavy glasses (don't worry Larry, you can get that fixed in a couple more decades!) so of course she throws Reilof over for him. See, being American, you can already assume several things about him. He'll be garish and splashy and talk too much about his wealth. He'll also stoop to dirty tricks like snatching a corpse bride from the well-cared-for hands of a Dutch doctor.
Zombie Joyce leaves Laura with a letter for Reilof explaining that he was old...blah, blah, blah...old-y, old, van old-stein. What she really meant to say was:
I am the un-dead. I walk the earth prowling for rich men, hoping to steal their souls. Larry is always talking about how rich he is and as far as I know you might only have that one good suit and an Aston Martin. Your discretion worries me. Anyway, you know what they say, better the devil you know... Regards, Joyce
In walks Reilof on the shattered Laura who hands him the note, withstands his very personal nastiness and, before anyone knows what happened, is offering him a tentative proposal. That's right, she has to sort of propose to him because (and this is genuinely difficult to read) he says, "...she wouldn't need to be pretty; anyone will do after Joyce, there couldn't be another like her...I might just as well marry you." Seriously, that's how big a hole he's digging for himself and I give her a lot of credit for not chucking the side table at him and storming off to Mexico where the Minjeer van Voorhees are thick on the ground and they know how to appreciate mousy-haired short girls.
But I digress...
At their wedding she wears a turban which I don't even know how to forgive The Great Neels for. But it's a cheerful affair even though her headgear does its level best to damper things.
They vacation at Corfe Castle near The Blue Pool which is supposed to be lovely and at which she says something about how if she ever wanted to run away from anything really dreadful that this is where she would go. This is called "The Clue". Now, I've never been to the actual Blue Pool but here's a picture. I have been to the Canadian Rockies though and if I say anything about this picture it would be damning with faint praise.
In Holland she meets Reilof's partner Jan who is slightly younger than Laura. Reilof didn't bother to tell Laura much of anything about his house or his work or his life or his finances or his taste in herbaceous boarders...She gets it. She isn't Zombie Joyce. He didn't care enough. But Jan is nice in a My-relationship-with-him-will-be-totally-misunderstood sort of way.
Still, Laura is not one to mope. Even though Reilof is totally neglecting her (she takes up petit point--need I say more?) and being cruelly nasty ("A new Fiat? For me? You must love me, Reilof!" "Think nothing of it as I should probably have gotten one for the cook and the under-gardener out of common decency.") she swallows a lot of pride and becomes a success with his family and his friends and running his home.
But when he leaves for Brussels he is a bit high-handed in telling her not to drive the new car. So, like any normal woman, she stews about it for three days and then hops in the Fiat and heads downtown. Of course he sees her driving by (where happily he finally falls in love with her--the dingus), she saves a victim of a car smash, he finds her on the side of the road slitting open a trouser leg with a pen knife and is furious. A lovely row (British word alert!) follows in which he is almost certainly in the wrong and she is almost certainly in the right. (My favorite!) They agree to start over and things settle down for a time.
But dead zombies always come back from the dead and one day when Laura is thankfully fortified with a "not-off-the-peg" denim dress, in walks Joyce--which is the biggest leap of logic Betty asks us to take. Laura is supposed to feel glad that a denim dress, circa 1977, is making her look her best.
Joyce is a tad dismayed to see that Reilof is loaded and that Laura has him. Forgive the particularly American analogy, but Joyce was like the Number 1 Contestant in the Showcase Showdown of The Price is Right, viewing the showcases (read: men) with the privilege of first refusal. True, she had gambled on the fact that she was passing on the lesser showcase in favor of the car and the 7-day trip to Europe but after Larry turned out to be merely a pudgy millionaire she wanted what Laura had. Nastiness ensues.
Reilof comes home and Joyce runs to kiss him. Laura looks away but, here I have recreated what she was unable to describe.
Waters are muddied (mostly by zombies). Reilof thinks Laura has a thing with Jan and Laura thinks that Joyce has her hooks into Reilof. In an act of desperation, Laura buys a ticket to England and leaves her husband with a letter. Bridges are burned and she runs to The Blue Pool...because he'll never find her there. When he does (almost a week later) we get one of the most lengthy and satisfying of all Neels conclusions. Implied future-tense conjugal relations are hinted at. After what we've been through, we deserve it. I like to think that they will vow never to let zombie's ever visit them again.
Lashings of whipped cream. I haven't bestowed this signal honor on any other book thus far but this one deserved it, I felt. It isn't the happiest or most romantic of La Neels' canon but if you're in a particular frame of mind (feeling put-upon or under appreciated) this would be a lovely book to sit down with and wallow. It is a dark subject matter for Betty but it could be worse. In the hands of a Brontë sister, for instance, Laura would have been suicidal throughout and Reilof would have found her body floating lifeless in The Blue Pool at the end.
It says much for our heroine that she is handed such a lorryload of lemons and keeps churning out lemonade. That's the reason I love this. With all the reason in the world to moan and whine and weep, Laura puts her shoulder to the wheel and pushes on.
"A providential head of celery" is found when Reilof comes unexpectedly to dinner which might mark the first time in history that celery has ever been referred to as providential, cheese souffle, sole au gratin and macaroons.
Joyce snatches Laura's Gucci scarf, the wedding outfit is a clotted cream crepe suit with a turban(!!!boo!), Charles Jourdan sandals, she wears a pearl-grey chiffon with a high bodice and a low neckline to meet her sister at a restaurant (that's what I call fortifying), she wears a blue shirtwaister to run away from Reilof.