Monday, December 3, 2012

Christmas Caroling with Caroline’s Waterloo

So here’s the list of finalists, again, for the upcoming TUJD Best Christmas Ever (2012 version) vote:



Damsel in Green (1970)
Caroline's Waterloo  (1980)
A Girl to Love (1982)
When Two Paths Meet  (1988)
The Mistletoe Kiss  (1997)
A Christmas Romance  (1999)

Caroline’s Waterloo holds at least two distinctions in this group: one is that it’s the only volume with a MoC; the other is that it’s the only volume in which we don’t actually celebrate Christmas.  But regardless of how Professor Baron Radinck Thoe van Erckelens feels about holidays in general, patient, staff nurse and ideal wife Caroline Tripp Thoe van Erckelens believes in celebrating in style, and is happy to prepare for the festive day, as you may recall...


The book opens with an October bike tour in which Caro injures herself.  While recuperating from concussion and a deep leg wound in the Professor-Baron’s luxurious home, “it suddenly seemed very important to [Caroline] that the Professor should enjoy his Christmas,” and she plans to contribute by playing piano for the six household staff so they may learn a Christmas carol or two.  As she explains to butler Noakes, “Look, Noakes, everyone loves Christmas – if you could just take him by surprise, it might make it seem more fun. Then perhaps he'd have friends to stay – or something.”
 
She returns home to England to celebrate, one assumes, Christmas in her bedsit with her cat.  However, Radinck has other plans, tracks her down and marries her – this seems about mid-November.  The choral sessions begin again, and she buys wool and begins to knit him a sweater she doubts he’ll wear.  As she takes sensitive control of Huis Thoes, she envisions a houseful of guests, “all laughing and talking and dancing in the evening.”  And, of course, attendant on a wealthy Husband of Convenience there’s a “great sapphire in a circle of rose diamonds,” a mink coat and several shopping sprees for clothes, price-tickets no object.

And so the days unfurl: learning to ride, listening intelligently, rescuing donkeys.  In the spirit of Christmas, there’s a birth in a stable (baby donkey Prince), a beautifully-wrapped gift of a spectacular new dressing gown to replace the one bespoiled by donkey afterbirth, generations-old jewels, and a spate of pre-Christmas and New Year’s social events, like the burgemeester’s reception, a few drinks parties and the hospital ball (for which Caro has ‘flu and Radinck has a trip to Vienna, but still, it hovers festively in the background).

I believe this is the passage that makes for the best Neels Christmas ever for some of you:

“They were all a little shy at first.  The room was grand and they felt stiff and awkward and out of place until Caro said in her sparse, excruciating Dutch: ‘Sing as though you were in your own sitting-room – remember it’s to give the Professor pleasure and it’s only because this is the best place for him to hear you.’



“They loosened up after that.  They were well embarked on ‘Silent Night’ with all the harmonies just right, when the Professor unlocked his own front door.  No one heard him.  Even Rex, dozing by the fire, was deafened by the choir.  He stood for a moment in the centre of the hall and then walked very quietly to the drawing-room door, not quite closed.  The room was in shadow with only a lamp by the piano and the sconces on either side of the fireplace alight.  He pushed the door cautiously a few inches so that he could look in and no one saw him.  They were grouped round Caro at the piano, her mousy head lighted by the lamp beside her, one hand beating time while the other thumped out the tune.  Radinck closed the door gently again and retreated to where he had cast down his coat and bag and let himself out of the house again.  The car's engine made no noise above the sighing and whistling of the wind.  He drove back the way he had come, all the way to the airport on the outskirts of Leeuwarden where he parked the car, telephoned his home that he had returned earlier than he had expected, then got back into the car and, for the second time, drove himself home.

Caro had received the news of Radinck's unexpected return with outward calm. ‘We’ll find time to rehearse again tomorrow,’ she told them all. ...

“She closed the piano and went to sit in the sitting-room by the fire, her tapestry in her hands. She even had time to do a row or two before she heard Radinck open the door, speak to Noakes, on the watch for him, and cross the hall to open the sitting-room door.

“‘What a nice surprise!' she smiled as he came into the room. ... 

“‘You are feeling better, I can see that, and being sensible, sitting quietly here.’  ‘Oh, I’ve been very sensible,’ she assured him. ... ‘What have you been doing with yourself?’

“‘Oh, almost nothing – the flowers and catching up with my Dutch, and showing Marta how to make mince pies...’  ‘I surprised you playing the piano before we married,’ he said.  ‘Do you remember? Don’t you play anymore?’

“Caro's red face went pale. ‘Yes – well, sometimes I do.’

“He sat back in his chair, relaxed and at ease, and watched while Noakes placed the coffee tray at Caro’s elbow.  ‘Have you any plans for Christmas?' he asked idly.

“She stammered a little. ‘I understand from Noakes that you don’t – that is, you prefer a quiet time.’

“‘I am afraid that over the years I have got into the habit of doing very little about entertaining – I did mention the party which I give, did I not? Is there anything special you would enjoy? A little music perhaps?’

“‘Music?’ Caro’s needle was working overtime, regardless of wrong stitches.  She took a deep breath.  ‘Oh, you mean going to concerts and that sort of thing; Becky was telling me ... but you really don't have to bother.  We did agree when we married that your life wasn’t to be changed at all, but you’ve already had to go to these parties with me and you must have disliked them very much.  I’m very happy, you know, I don’t mind if I don’t go out socially.’

“‘I thought girls liked dressing up and going out to parties.’

“‘Well, yes, of course, but you see I don’t enjoy them if you don’t.’  She hadn't meant to say that. She stitched a whole row, her head bowed over her work, and wished fruitlessly that the floor would open and swallow her up.

“‘And what precisely do you mean by that?' asked Radinck blandly.

“‘Nothing, nothing at all.’  And then, knowing that she wouldn’t get away with that, she added: ‘What I meant was that I feel guilty because you have to give up your evenings doing something you don’t enjoy when you might be in your study reading ... and writing.’

“‘Put like that I seem to be a very selfish man. I must endeavour to make amends.’  Caro gave him a surprised glance. He wasn’t being sarcastic and his voice held a warm note she hadn’t heard before.”

After which, we have confusions and reconciliations, ending back in that sitting room with a suddenly very conveniently, and happily, married couple.  Christmas, unmentioned now, is still at least a few days away, and I'm guessing the not-so-surprise-but-the-surprisers-don't-know-that carol-choir goes over a treat.