I love thee to the level of everyday's most quiet need, by sun and candle light...I love thee with the breath, smiles, tears of all my life. --Elizabeth Barrett Browning ..........Well, Mijneer Doctor van Dutch-stein, I don't mind if you do.
So that's where the name comes from and from a woman who wrote books titled, A Dream Came True, The Course of True Love, and Marrying Mary, this is a stretch and a welcome one.
Alethea Thomas (Do we say it Uh-lee-thee-uh or Al-thee-uh?) is 27 dark, lovely (she can't be old and plain, can she?), and a cracking good nurse as Theobald's Orthopaedic Ward Sister. She has a penchant for shady characters and oily housemen and that's really a shame because...
Sarre van Diederijk is neither. He's 39 and divorced. Divorced. Divorced. Divorced. His ex-wife is not dead either which is the only instance I can think of where a Neels hero is so encumbered. She (the ex!) was happy to abandon her one-year-old children though and sail off into the Peruvian sunset with a man who is doubtless named Armando and wears solid gold pinky rings. So Sarre has two kids, a orthopaedic practice in Groningen and a Cockney houseman named Al who drops his 'aitches and was collected in much the same way as a canal puppy or an abandoned kitten. (It is surprising that he doesn't just call him Moses or Flotsam.)
Alethea is having the single worst night of her life. There she is in her fine black voile patterned with flowers, expecting a ring and a declaration of undying love from a man named Nick. Instead of wedded bliss she is asked to contemplate the age-old human question: But will you love me tomorrow? If she were any judge of character she would have watched Nick doing his round at the hospital as Seducer of young ladies/orthopaedic houseman, taken one look at his name tag and made an about face. Nicks are not to be trusted.
They'd been dating for months and this was not enough time to uncover the fact that Nick was only softening her up for "a weekend in Brighton"--which, while one step up from a proposition for "tea at a friend's flat", still amounts to the same thing.
Editorial note: Months? It took this couple months to discover that she was "the most unsporting girl for miles around" and that he was a lout of elephantine proportions? As I might be tempted to say, "That's a lotta curry dinners."
If Nick was not firmly established as a worm already, he makes some intensely lame excuse about not being able to afford a wife yet (Mijneer Nathan van Voorhees and I first set up housekeeping in a palatial basement apartment with a gusty shower and half an oven. Too poor to marry? Please. Sell it somewhere else. ) Anyway, he takes her ladylike refusal poorly. And by 'poorly' I mean that he stands up from his table at the 'nice enough to convince Alethea that seduction is a highbrow affair' restaurant and beats it. So there she is, stuck with the check, a dwindling cup of coffee and the mortification of knowing that her patterned voile was all for naught.
But Sarre comes to the rescue, paying the bill and speaking loudly enough for the patrons to understand that He. Is. Not. Picking. Her. Up. He's not the kind to make invitations to Brighton, we see. In these less romantic times, Alethea would have had a debit card with her and then taken Nick to small claims court for the balance of the bill. So, for the sake of the story, we can be thankful that the banks are closed and she was only carrying small change.
Of course she bursts into tears when they finally get out the door and I could kiss The Venerable Neels and dance around her like a maypole for allowing Dastardly Nick to catch a glimpse of his unwilling maiden and a tall stranger headed to the Nurses' Home at the end of the night. "Yes!" shouts the Neels, spiking her ball and celebrating in the end zone, "Take that, you Defiler of Innocents!"
Sarre ends up being a consultant for Alethea's ward and saves her from several nasty cracks that the Dastardly Nick is willing to let fall. (who is already dating an only child of a successful grocer! Which reminds me of Margaret Thatcher, btw.) So, though Nick would like to make Alethea suffer for being so unsporting, he can't quite land a blow.
Sarre is quick to seize an opening, whisking a half-hearted Alethea off for dinners in outfits she manages to look gorgeous in even though she is a bit of a drip. ("Nick, Nick. Nick, moan, moan, moan...ad infinitum). Still, she makes a rather deep observation that if Nick wanted her back she would probably go and would never forgive herself for it. I, on the other hand, am willing to forgive a girl a good deal for such honest dealings with herself.
Sarre proposes. It comes a touch out of nowhere but the juicy bit is that he hasn't bothered to prepare her for the fact that he has 11-year-old twins until he's popped the question. In my limited (married at 21) experience there are several things a couple gets out of the way on the first date:
- Will you ever, never, or possibly go to Brighton? Under what circumstances? How many curry dinners will it take?
- Do you have small humans living under your care that I shall have to care for, arrange visitation with, or support? Will we be required to be on a first name basis and will I have to teach him to pee in a potty?
They offer him sandwiches and beer.
Editorial note: Okay, so in the land of Neels, lady's don't drink beer and Alethea is at her grandmother's house with a female housekeeper as well. That's three ladies and they happen to have a beer. Do they keep it in food storage? Is it beer they keep in the fall-out bunker? Is it Dharma Initiative beer? Does beer even keep? "Namaste, Sarre. Have a beer."And now I will post a picture of Sawyer because it seems to be a moral imperative.
The engagement goes like this:
- Hey, since I'm divorced you don't get a church wedding. Crossing my fingers that that doesn't matter to you!
- Hey, let me slow down the gunmetal grey Jaguar XJ-5 with pearl grey leather upholstery on the M11 and chuck you the ring box filled with Standard Dutch Issue Family Heirloom Sapphire and Diamond Engagement Ring. I'm chucking it at you instead of turning into a lay by because my ex-wife killed me inside. Oh look. It fits!
- Hey, come meet my kids. No, no, Sarel and Jacomina always look like that...
- We'll be in Holland and I'll refuse to show you around the awesome house not once, but twice, because I know that showing someone around your ancestral home is code for "I *heart* you--and I wouldn't want you to get that idea.
- Hey, meet my totally intimidating semi-hot co-worker.
They get married in a registrar's office and are able to arrange a Service of Blessing. One Church of England parish website says this:
The Service of Blessing after a Civil Marriage has no restrictions around it. It is used by those who may not qualify for marriage in [the church] for...legal reasons, or who prefer to keep the religious and legal parts separate. Both are profound and beautiful services and enable you to enter into your marriage in the church.
To skip the bother of having to explain this detail ever again, The Great Neels cheerfully killed off straying brides of our long-suffering heroes for the next twenty years, leaving behind her a bloody path of destruction littered with car accidents and plane crashes. Many South American men were casualties of this policy as well.
They get to Groningen and Sarel and Jacomina look at her with "hate". She is "frightened" that they will never like her. She should have been frightened that they would put strychnine in the Earl Grey but her imagination was sadly lacking. Unforgivable things they do to her:
- Pet mouse in the bed.
- Ruination of a smashing lavender evening gown by intentionally upending a vase of flowers on it. The Soulless Nanny stares on unmoved.
- Verbal insubordination. The Soulless Nanny stares on...
- Vandalism of personal objects
- Potential man-slaughter (but let's save that for later)
Not long after this she has her moment of realization. "It's Sarre not what's-his-name!" There follows one of the nicest moments of realization in any Neels novel. She thinks (for no reason other than his haggard and sad expression) that he loves Anna. It does not, however, lead to kissing so let us not pursue it.
Sarre takes her to Romantic Hamburg! (I'm trying here to cast a pink lamp glow on Hamburg. No snickering from the peanut gallery.) There he buys her a really expensive antique music box because he forgot the cardinal rule of kids. (In unison now!) "Children Ruin Everything." (Seriously, I'm going to cross-stitch that into a sampler.)
When she gets back they...um...step on it several times on purpose. Her distress is obvious and Sarre is heartened that she cares so much about something he bought for her. A magician restores it perfectly--in one day.
They have a spat about Anna (who doesn't matter and never matters) and then her grandmother comes to visit. Grandma listens to her story about her nice little life and then cuts to the chase, "Yes, dear, now supposing you tell me all about it." Granny wins.
Sarel and Jacomina stretch their credibility by being able to sustain such a long and sustained loathing of Alethea. (Real children don't have the attention span for this.) They lure her to an abandoned house and hope to lock her inside for a bit. Instead, they finally get their just desserts by falling down a hole. Alethea shows her devotion to them by hopping in after them and playing "Three down a hole!"
Sarre rescues them by making her lift two 11-year-olds above her head (ouch!) and then sends everyone off for a hot bath which leaves me in slack-jawed admiration of his water heater.
But they're not done mis-communicating and he gives her tickets to go back home.
Meanwhile the Children of the Corn have been replaced with The. Best. Kids. Ever. No, really. It's as though there was an alien abduction down in the hole. As bad as they were they are that good now. I'm a sucker for their contrition so it sort of works for me. Nanny, however, gets a pass on all the subversive, frowny-faced behavior. I would trust the woman to hoover the ground floor of my house and I'd still shake her down for the family silver at the end of the day. But they're going to trust her with the kiddos again. (I'd set up a teddy bear-cam. Just saying.)
Sarre is sending Alethea away so she gets ready to go but not before having a go at the brandy bottle and running Sarre to ground. "He must be told," she thinks to herself tipsily. She bursts into the board room as only an Olivia can and has her say in his office.
Food: Soup with garlic (why does this sound awful?), zabaglione (?), Rice Crispies (I'll make those!), rhubarb pie (well sugared), pork pie, Dundee cakes, apple pie and ginger cake
Fashion: Sarre's brother's first girlfriend wears frizzed hair and a dress that looks like a silver tissue tent so of course they break up.
Rating: This is a bit of a Curate's Egg--excellent in parts. I'll give it a mince pie even though sections of it are really quite good and original because Nanny and the kids get off waaaaaaay to easily for my peace of mind and for the health of the republic.
Point of order: The Betty doesn't usually bring up the sexual revolution. In her later novels she just skated over any question of that and this is among the reasons her books are called anachronistic and old fashioned. A girl wandering around in clothing from the 1940s is old fashioned. Owning a collection of Neil Diamond records (ahem...whistling) is old fashioned. Drying your clothes on a clothesline is old fashioned. Ladies that choose not to go to Brighton should never be called old fashioned. Also, you've got to admire Betty for not succumbing to an icky double standard where her heroes are concerned. They weren't having any visits to Brighton either.
Okay, now I'll get off the soapbox.