Monday, October 28, 2013

The Little Dragon - Reprise

Twenty-eight years ago this morning I was lying in a hospital bed, while Dr. van der Stevejinck was holding our third child.  I scanned this picture this morning as proof.  Proof that Dr. van der Stevejinck must have been a child prodigy because NO WAY does he look old enough in this picture to be the father of three children. Also, why did I never insist on having a hairbrush on hand so that I could tart myself up a bit before pictures?  Missed opportunities, that what I say.  
I'm not missing an opportunity to post a gratuitous picture of Prince George along with his doting parents.
Kate Middleton, Prince William Bought Baby Prince George a $2,350 Stroller

Speaking of pictures, sometimes I forget to really take a good look at the awesome cover art on these older books from the canon.  Betty Barbara made a comment about this one having a 'disembodied head'...and yup, there it is.  

 When Betty Debbie and I sat down to divvy up reviews there were a few titles that we fought over. Caroline's Waterloo was hers, Winter Wedding was mine, The Little Dragon was...Elbows might have been thrown, Bettys. We both love it.

Constantia Morley, 26, has to recite the Hippocratic Oath backwards, forwards, standing on one leg, in Latin, in one continuous burp, in a house, with a mouse, here and there, daily prevent herself from lifting her patient, Mrs. Dowling, a gilded, diabetic butterfly earthworm, and pushing her over the ledge of the window to meet her death some three stories below.  So, yeah.  You might say the job is no peach and she escapes when she can.
It is on one of these smiling-so-hard-her-cheeks-hurt excursions into the city that she comes across Mrs. Dowling's doctor who is speaking with Jeroen van der Giessen, 39.
So, they go on a speed date.
Forest, trees, etc...
Sure, there's no timer or basket of pretzels or hoards of anxious singles but in less than two minutes she knows that he has a battered sheepskin jacket and a more battered Fiat (which all indicate that he's still paying off his student loans) and he knows that she is cheerful and charming and The One for him.
Over the course of the next couple of weeks, he manages to annex her scant half-days, filling her lonely hours with the liveliness of a houseful of children (three--on loan from his sister) and the invigorating joy of each other's company.  (That's a main vibe from this book.  They are bursting with good humor and mutual appreciation.)  They meet for tea at his house--a magnificent old mansion...owned by a relative. (Constantia paints in the details--he's an elderly Uncle with more money than sense.) In no time they are firm friends even if Constantia has a bit of a one-track mind on the subject of The Unrelenting Awfulness of Rich People (maybe she's writing a thesis).
The only doggy-doo-doo in this paradisaical garden is Mrs. Dowling--making her pungent accusations ('You're out to get him.') and biting insinuations ('Him--he hasn't any money.').
Editorial NoteMrs. Dowling is the reason, for me, that the whole plot works.  While it is no surprise that her disagreeable nature (even in the face of outrageous luxury) exacerbates Constantia's irritations with wealthy people (thus supplying the reason for all of Jeroen's subterfuge), she is also the reason (I think) that Constantia fails to see Jeroen in a romantic light.  Over and over again she crudely twits Constantia about chasing Jeroen--putting the ugliest construction on the relationship--so that it isn't any wonder that Constantia responds by defending her good, noble and passionless FRIENDSHIP.  She is so busy insisting that it isn't the crass relationship of Mrs Dowling's fevered imagination that she fails to allow any romantic feelings to cross her mind.  
Finally, the caramel chocolates hit the blood stream (so much more tasty than 'the rubber hits the road', no?) and Mrs. Dowling has a diabetic tantrum (sure it's a medical possibility...) and fires her nurse.  (When she says, 'I shall go into a coma,' you really wish she would already.)  Well, you know the rest.  Constantia with the broken purse straps in the ghetto...
Enter Jeroen with a really lovely idea.  
She decamps to his house and plans to take some of the crushing work load off of his daily help.  (How does that woman keep everything clean and cook for a sizable group each day?)  She is worried that she'll be another mouth to feed.  (Okay, if you have major problems with this plot than I'll hand you a little bone:  I agree that it is silly beyond permission that she thinks he is that poor based on an old coat and an affordable car.)  She and Rietje (the cook) get along like a house afire and Constantia potters around, making beds, getting the children off to school and feeling (for the first time in a long time) as though she isn't a rootless orphan.  Sealing the deal, he teases her gently about being a kindly little dragon in his home.
Editorial NoteI know, here, some Bettys will take issue with my conclusion but I'll refer you to my handy chart.  (See right.) 
Jeroen is quick to assure her that she will meet the awesome uncle whose sumptuous bounty she enjoys eventually and allows her a few details about him.  'He's a rather lonely man...'
Eventually her passport is found, causing no small degree of consternation to the Professor. (Oh, did I forget to mention that?  So did Jeroen.)  And you feel really sorry for him.  There he is with the love of his life acting like a Donna Reed-ian prop and mainstay and he's got Rietje and Tarnus (Oh, did I forget to mention him?  So did Jeroen.) ferreted away in the garret like members of the Dutch Resistance (coming out at night to scour the mansion from top to tail) and he's weaving a carpet of lies that could cover the ballroom floor.  It's a wonder that he doesn't take to smoking.
So he does what any red-blooded male would do--he proposes a marriage of friends (not of convenience--she doesn't need to stay in Holland anymore and he won't need help with the kids for long but he doesn't want to let her go and he's not going to rush her into future-tense conjugal relations).  After a remarkably short dithering time (like two minutes!) she agrees.
They travel to England.
Editorial Note:  I generally don't like thetiny don't-invite-the-family weddings of Neelsdom but in this case it's enormously thoughtful.  He has a massive family (she has none) and she's in a foreign country.  He asks her to name the church and they get to skip the awkwardness of having the chapel filled with his family and his friends and no one at all for her.
While there they have a darling little honeymoon.  He takes her out to a fabulous hotel and wines and dines her and drags her into an expensive boutique.  She's terrified that it'll wipe out his bottom line while he is relieved to finally let go a little bit (restraining himself mightily from endowing her with all his worldly goods).
'And thank you too, Jeroen, for quite the nicest wedding day any girl would have.'
Her hand was in his and just for a moment his grip was so fierce that she winced...
I imagine that he had to duct tape himself to a chair leg all night to prevent himself from flinging himself at her.  

Life as a married woman is delightful and she soon meets Jeroen's sister Gina (one of the most likable siblings in the canon), mother of the kids, and more of his other relatives, all of whom are 'completely uncurious'. Things float along like this for a bit, the lies are piling up like sausages at a beer-fest and they do a spot of comradely first-responder-ing at a whirlwind-struck know, just your standard getting-settled-into-married-life faire.
And then one day, after being married less than a month, they attend a dinner party hosted by the kind of woman who only reinforces Constantia's feelings about the Dread Wealthy.  She corners the new bride and begins an inquisition.  My, how lucky you are. (Yes, she is. Constantia knows she loves her husband by now.  Being crushed by him during the whirlwind knocked some sense into her.) You have snagged a baron.  And he's a m...Gina dumps her coffee down the woman's back in a move that, to a shocked Constantia, was clearly intentional!  (I nominate her to come to every family reunion I have to attend...ever.)
You'll need a stiff drink after I tell you I'm loaded...
There isn't a fight.  When Jeroen gets his bewildered and angry wife home he takes his medicine like a man:
Yes, I am a baron.
She was going to say millionaire.
Her hurt is beyond anything a yelling match would solve and so she dashes upstairs to cry her eyes out and pack her clothes. 'You let me shop and answer the telephone and dust and put the children to bed...'
It helps that as she strives to write an appropriate 'Liar, liar pants on fire' letter the next morning he is surelybusy in his surgery.
But he isn't...and don't call me Shirley.  He has a partner.  (Oh, did I forget to mention that?  So did Jeroen.)
His castle of lies comes crashing down and in the rubble a new truth rises like a phoenix from the ashes.
The Baron is occupied.
The End

Rating:  Though I understand that it doesn't find favor in all quarters, I really, really love this one.  It's got a great title and a memorable plot line.  Granted, the grand mansion of our novel is constructed on a flood plain of lies (wicked lies) but if you can swallow the fact that their relationship is built on a tissue of falsehoods and also believe the reason for them, then you're good to go.  (Which I do and I am.)
Friendly dragon?  Why, yes.
The principles have such an affection and appreciation for one another--it drips off the page practically (don't dribble)--and I'm one of those that think that his repeated use of 'dragon' is an endearment of the most personal kind.  (He can't call her sweetheart and darling so this will be the next best thing.) A very close reading bears out that she never takes exception to the name and it's always delivered with grins and smiles and good humor all around.  (So if you want to go a few rounds of fisticuffs on the grounds that it's unforgivable and always insulting to call a woman 'dragon' then I'm afraid your beef is with The Great Betty and not with me...)
Anyway, it's a great novel that rarely has to stoop to the contrivances of flinty-eyed, bony-chested tartlets flinging their arms around the hero or some flirtatious long-hair mucking up the landscape to provide drama.  (Instead, we get every moment of tightrope-walking as the well-run household has to make its machinery invisible that has all the makings of a very British bedroom farce.)
Lashings of Whipped Cream for me.  (It's easily in my top five.) Go ahead and rip away in your most well-bred way, dissenting Bettys. 

Food:  Mrs. Dowling becomes very disagreeable over not being allowed to consume Vienne snitzcels and eclairs, ODs on a box of chocolates with caramel centers and is anxious to have escalope of veal ('followed by a diabetic coma,' responds Constantia...).  Constantia thoroughly enjoys the substantial teas at Jeroen's home with bread, butter and jam.  She compares Jeroen's Moselle to her aunt's parsnip wine, and enjoys (post-marriage), lobster soup, millefeuille.

Fashion: Jeroen's old sheepskin jacket and beautifully tailored suits.  Constantia wears a Marks and Spencer sweater, a brown corduroy pinafore dress with a pink woollen blouse, a sapphire velvet skirt with matching waistcoat, and her wedding dress is an 'already owned' tweed dress with a new hat (which I think she limits herself to so that she could pay for Jeroen's wedding ring--which I just adore her for), he pops for a pale coffee jersey skirt and blouse and a crepey and pleated dress (his words) in dim strawberry.  She also gets a pearl grey (I love that on this blog I don't have to remember which way American's spell grey/gray and that either way I do it will be correct.  (Yes, I know it's American/gray.)) organza dress with tiny pink embroidered flowers and a little white mink jacket.


  1. Congratulations on the the milestone birthday anniversary for your offspring! Congratulations to you, the Founding Bettys and the Early Adopter Bettys for this remarkable body of work, the Uncrushable Jersey Dress. I stumbled upon the blog maybe a month ago only to soon read that it is nearing its end (except on Facebook). What I especially love about the blog is the outstanding writing, witty use of images and popular culture touchpoints, and its tone. What a triumph! The tone is appreciative, irreverent, and tart with the Great Betty's blind spots and her later fantastical writing. Put simply, the blog is smart (as in brilliant but also stylish). Thank you for the incredible effort. As for the Little Dragon, also a favorite of mine. I'd much rather have an obtuse heroine and good-hearted subterfuge that should have been easy to spot than the ridiculously oppressed and undereducated 90s gals being rescued by inscrutable aging heros. My first book was Pineapple Girl (bought when it was published and I was 14ish). I soon collected most of the previously published canon and read my way happily through the Carter administration, much of the Reagan administration and gave up on the Great Betty about 1990 with the midterm elections of the first Bush's Administration with books like Hilltop Tryst (?), darting back once or twice only to be disappointed. Have the Founding Bettys and your followers ever posted your favorite book lists in one place? Wouldn't that be a splendid way to wrap up the blog??? (If I knew how to create a profile, I would boldly proclaim myself as another Betty.) Thank you for giving me a way to return to the great comfort reading of my adolesence and 20s. Lashings of whipped cream!

    1. Welcome, anonymous Betty! What a wonderful Betty background story! Thank you for sharing. And you don't need a profile to be a Betty. If you'd left a name or nickname I could have called you "Betty ... " now instead of anonymous Betty.

    2. I'm another Betsy but I suppose I could be formal and be Elizabeth or incognito and be Bettina...

  2. Deborah lay in bed, her colourful hair in an untidy unbrushed tangle all over the pillow. ... Dr van der Stevejinck stood and looked at her from the foot of the bed and thought that she was the most beautiful girl in the world ...

    Hairbrush or no, Betty Debbie, you look adorable in the picture, your hair in a glorious tangle, or do I mean a splendid tangle? Wee pledge number 3 looks so tiny! 9 lb 10oz, well done, Betty Debbie.

    1. Thank you for the compliments! Let's go with "glorious tangle" - it sounds stunning.

      Pledge number 3 is the only one of my boys who really looks like a Neels hero:

  3. Found a fideo about Friesland, yesterday. – No, no, Bettys, that is not a spelling mistake you see. My little red pen wanted to correct me too. Fideo is the Frisian spelling. – Informative and funny.

    Fascinating Friesland 2013 in five minutes

  4. The heroine in the picture reminded me of Charlie’s Angels Kate Jackson

    Aaah! Squeeeeeeeee!

    I was going to tell you that Kate Jackson was born in Birmingham, Alabama, home of one of our Bettys, and I looked at the globe and there she was, our Betty in Birmingham, Alabama!

  5. I think this was the one voted by TUJD as the most likely to be a great screwball comedy. Servants running around behind backs, children pledged to secrecy, doors opening and closing, coffee down dowager's decolletage....
    All the players are darling or delicious....

    1. Funny you should say this, Betty JoDee. When I started re-reading the book – and I hadn't even got to the Secret Servant Scenes – I thought this book would make a great movie. The "atmosphere" at Madame le Diabetic-Très-Riche's house, Delft in the snow, all the sightseeing, the handsome, winsome, toothsome (?) Doctor... le sigh

  6. The Iron Lady – Neelsian to the Core

    Today, I have read an interview Margaret Thatcher gave in 1978, incidentally, the year The Little Dragon was published. At this point, The Iron Lady was Leader of the Conservative Party (since 1975), Leader of the Opposition. This was the year before she became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

    Just a few excerpts below to give you an idea.

    By Birmingham Mail

    At home with the Iron Lady - Margaret Thatcher's exclusive 1978 interview with the Mail

    She is feminine enough to pat the golden-blonde hair as our photographer takes pictures.
    “Is it all right?” she asks me. “I haven’t looked at it since 7.30 this morning.”

    Marks and Spencer
    popped on an apron so I didn’t splash while cooking the family breakfast

    With only a ‘daily’ to help at their King’s Road, Chelsea, town house
    the rates are dreadful, over £16 a week”

    “I bought a leg of lamb this morning to roast from our local butcher,” she says. “He’s just got married. I asked him where he’d been for his honeymoon and he said that he hadn’t been yet, but they were going to Madeira.
    “I told him ‘You’ll be all right for the next 26 years at least then – we went to Madeira on our honeymoon!”

    Twenty-seven years of marriage to Denis. What is the recipe for happiness?

    “You’ve got to have a certain companionship,” she says. “You’ve got to be a good friend, as well, for things to endure, and you’ve got to be genuinely interested in what the other half does.”

    Read the whole interview. Very Betty.

  7. I found this to be quite an enjoyable read, albeit requiring a fair bit of suspension of credibility, that the heroine could be presented with all the clues that she had, and still not recognise that Jeroen was an immensely wealthy man. The ending was a little too matter-of-fact though as Constantia forgave Jeroen so easily. It would have been more emotionally satisfying if Jeroen had suffered a bit of comeuppance before the final "all is forgiven" because after all, he did lead Constantia on for so long (I know he didn't actively lie to her but he had so many chances to correct her mistaken beliefs about his house, domestic help and cars but he didn't do so). It wasn't a nice thing to deceive her, although he had his reasons for acting as he did, and I'm not very comfortable with everyone else knowing the truth and conspiring with him to keep her in the dark, no matter how gently they treated her while they were deceiving her, especially as she was quite a likeable heroine and thus deserved better. So I kind of wished that Constantia managed to run away successfully causing Jeroen to have to search high and low for her, suffering tonnes of anxiety in the process before he found her and they made up and lived HEA!

    1. Oh, I don't think just keeping a gentle secret about being REALLY wealthy doesn't deserve much of a comeuppance--it's not, say, an I-have-a-crazy-still-living-wife-in-the-east-wing-under-the-battlements; an I-turn-into-a-wolf-at-full-moons; an I'm-actually-a-girl; an I've-been-kinda-dead-for-a-500-years; an I'm-a-fop-by-day-and-pursued-by-the-French-by-night-for-dashing-about-rescuing-my-fellow-titled-classes sort of secret....

    2. Hi Betty JoDee, well, I agree with you that Jeroen's secret was small change compared to those you mentioned, so he deserves his happy ending. I just thought he should suffer a little bit (not too much because his character is quite likeable too) to compensate for the embarrassment Constantia felt at the end when she recalled the little ways she had tried to help him such as the household chores she did, and her anxiety for his extravagances during their honeymoon. Out of curiosity, for those big secrets you mentioned, did you have a literary character in mind for all of them? I could only identify Mr Rochester and the Scarlet Pimpernel and were you thinking of J K Rowling's Professor Remus Lupin? Now I'm wondering who you had in mind for the one who's actually a girl or the one who's dead for 500 years?

  8. Correction:
    The Little Dragon © Betty Neels 1977 First Published in Great Britain in 1977, first published by Harlequin in North America in 1978

  9. After their brief honeymoon sojourn in London they were well on their way home...

    He slowed the car's race through Canterbury and when they were clear of the town turned off the road after a few miles.
    'Why are we going to a place called Pett Bottom?' asked Constantia.
    'There's an inn there—the Duck—I've been there before. I believe they'll give us tea.'
    It was a charming little place and they had their tea, sitting by a wood fire, but they didn't sit long over it; there was the Hovercraft to catch on time, although Dover was a bare fourteen miles away now.