Monday, April 16, 2012

The Most Marvelous Summer - Reprise

Here in Washington we are used to rain.  Dripping, misty, sloppy, damp and interminable. Let's just say, if you like sunny, hot and dry, Washington is not your ideal retirement spot. I actually like rain - weeks of cloudy wet weather don't bother me a bit. Or, at least I used to think that.  Last year the rain just never seemed to let up.  It did finally ease up...but not until nearly the mid to late June-ish. It felt like we were never going to get to summer weather. The good news is that it did clear up and we had a marvelous summer. Eventually.
Fun fact: Did you know that Seattle ranks clear down at 44th among major US cities when it comes to annual rainfall? 
I enjoy The Most Marvellous Summer.  It helps that I can remember the title. It also helps that my copy has a more memorable cover than The Best of Betty Neels edition.
Betty Debbie

The Most Marvelous Summer has less than a marvelous title. Never mind that. It's a unique little gem of a story. It's maybe not the best but it takes our Standard-issue Brit Doctor character and peeks behind his magic curtain.When we meet Matilda ffinch (Yes. ffinch. Double ffs. No caps. Surely the folks at Ellis Island would not have let that stand.) she is already in love with the fellow on the other side of the church aisle. At 26, she is a gorgeous redhead with more than a few broken hearts behind her but that's never troubled her overmuch as Mr. Outstanding was not among them.
Her job is as social secretary to the local lady of the manor, Lady Fox, whose snobbery and pretension don't manage to squash Matilda's magnificence. She bustles and trots and sorts her way through her working day and wickedly reminds herself that if anyone has the right to be snobby it's a ffinch over a Fox.
Consultant Surgeon James Scott-Thurlow (Dear me. First double ffs and now a hyphen. Mathilda is about to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire. If she were a progressive lass would that make her Ms. ffinch-Scott-Thurlow?...I so digress.) sees her at the Fox manor and then again as he offers her a lift. Matilda isn't about to let the opportunity slip through her fingers. She interrogates him. He snubs her. She is crushed.
Oh. And he's engaged.
She must be wondering right about now if any of the men she declined to marry in the past might just be Mr. Fine or Mr. Passable or Mr. Adequate-Par.
When Roseanne, one of three pock-marked 'unfortunate nose'-ed daughters of the opinionated Lady Fox, has to travel up to London to find someone to marry it is Matilda who must screw her red hair into a French pleat and play chaperone. Lady Fox has some misgivings about sending a babe like Mathilda to engineer Roseanne's social success but there is simply no one else to be the price.
Happily, Roseanne is not so much of a snob and (with a careful make-up) not too pock-marked that she can't attract one passable male. She and Bernard fall in love over paintings at the National Gallery.
And it is in another gallery (Roseanne does like to dabble) that Matilda stumbles upon James. He looks up from his cardboard fiancee' and sees Matilda and is angry (at Fate) and cold.
Their next encounter seems worse. She is rescuing a dog in the gutter when she hears, 'Oh, dear, oh, dear, Miss ffinch helping lame dogs...' How dare she have the gall to be his ideal woman. He's as nasty as possible but rescues the dog with promptitude. In return he receives an 'emerald blaze of gratitude'. This is a fine way to avoid her siren song, he must be thinking. I was perfectly horrid to her!
On the strength of that blaze, he decides to go to a dinner party that he had refused to accompany Rhoda to, just on the chance that she'll be there. That's how it starts, ladies. Just one little gateway drug and soon you're spiraling into Reefer Madness.
The next time they meet I will call The Curious Case of the Severed Fingers. The cook...gah. I can't even say--I think I'm turning green. Anyway, the upshot is that James ends up catching Matilda's barf in a hospital bucket and she ends up cooking for a dinner party that he attends later in the evening. He's furious to find her cooking when she ought to be at the party.
Instead of telling you every little thing, I'm tempted to wash my hands and just say that if their meetings were a category on Jeopardy, this series of events would be an entire column titled: Things That Rhoda Can't Do. (I'll take "Products Rhoda Lacquers Her Hair With" for a thousand, Alex.)
We get such an interesting little detour on the part of The Venerable Betty at this point. She actually tells us WHY our rich doctor is engaged to marry an iceberg and also why he is so aloof and severe:
He had been an only child and had lost his parents in a plane crash when he had been a small boy. He had gone to live with his grandparents, who had loved him dearly but had not known what to say to him, so he had learned to hide his loneliness and unhappiness and had grown up into a rather quiet man who seldom allowed his feelings to show...
(Grab the tissues!) But he's let Matilda see some feelings, albeit unpleasant ones.
Back home, Mathilda decides to sack the inferior Foxes from her services. Roseanne trips down the historical staircase and fractures an arm and double fractures a leg. (Hey, we're going to need a consultant surgeon for that!) I guess the resignation will have to wait.
She nurses Roseanne for another couple of weeks and then is free...for a minute or two. James comes to her house and asks her to companion some random old man--his grandfather in fact. If James is disturbed by her presence (and he is), he's doing an awful job protecting himself.
A man of reserve, not given to impulse, he kissed the face so temptingly close...
And that's the dynamic. She doesn't make him feel very comfortable but he can't resist her either.
James avoids her, or tries to.
Matilda spends her time vacillating between wanting to give Rhoda tips on How To Make The Doctor Happy and having violent daydreams about pulling her hair out by the roots.
They have a beautiful row I won't ruin for you when he returns to his grandparent's house and finds her STILL there. (He'd most likely spent his time away lecturing himself about that kiss and the dangers of consorting with splendid redheads.)
Her next job is at a girls' boarding school...where a darling little poppet named Lucy loves her best. When James shows up at the end of term to collect Lucy is it any surprise? He's her godfather. Rhoda is with him and for the first time this proverb applies: When Greek meets Greek, then comes the tug of war.
Rhoda sees the enemy for what she is and the insults (instead of being a matter of bad manners) start flying in earnest.
By some slim chance, nobody slaps anybody's face.
Matilda is once more jobless but The Great Betty reaches into her knapsack of communicable diseases and pulls out mumps. Rotten luck, little Lucy. Your appearance and health are what Oscar winners would call 'the little people'.
James continues making regular trips to The Land of Cognitive Dissonance wherein the engineering he engages in to meet Matilda regularly is a train that runs on the same track as his denial that his efforts mean anything special.
As she nurses Lucy back to health, James discovers himself anew. He baits Matilda constantly and finds that he enjoys it enormously. How now, Lonely Boy?
When Rhoda, like some Evil Flying Monkey, swoops in to tell Matilda that James plans to send her to the country for further convalescence, she shouts, "I don't know why I put up with it." "Yes, you do, Matilda." And that's when we know that James finally knows the stakes of the game. He loves her. He knows she loves him. We posses our souls in patience.
The remainder comprises:
  • The cottage. (Wherein her daydreams are 'peopled by a horde of little Scott-Thurlows' and every time he leaves the kissing gets better!)
  • Leaving the cottage. (He wants to tell her something but she's sure he's playing fast and loose.)
  • The day she reads of his broken engagement in the newspaper. (And rushes off to see him. But wait. What's that in the rear-view mirror?)
  • Kissing!
The End

Rating: I really enjoy this one mostly because La Neels gives us a little more back-story to work with on the hero. He's got some baggage (no, not Rhoda) and even though she's just a clergyman's daughter with a spotty work history, she's clearly in a position to save her Prince Charming. That the Great Betty executes this upside down fairy tale in such a deft way (our hero is still doing the pursuing even if she is slaying his dragons) is a tribute to her skill as a writer. The beginning eddies around in a flotam-manner but the middle and end are...ahem...marvelous. It's not in the her very best work but I totally give The Most Marvelous Summer a boeuf en croute.

Food: Shepherd's pie, a bacon, egg and mushroom breakfast, lardy cake (I've had this!), warm cake (so much better than mucking it up with frosting after it's cooled), watercress soup, toad-in-the-hole, garlic mushrooms, fruit pie and clotted cream. (YUM.)

Fashion: Subdued grey crepe (to off-set the hair), flowery skirts, a rather Thornbirds-sounding white chemise dress that he ogles her in. Rhoda wears vivid scarlet, cherise (must google that color) and green satin. She also wears a scarlet suede jacket over black dress in the country! Lady Fox wears awful headgear, the zenith of which seems to be a floppy tweed hat.