Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Time and the Place (1958)

I'll tell you what. I'm getting worried about my rating system. We're on book three and I love them all and what are we going to do?!

(link)


Catherine Gordon, 23, is having the devil of a time managing her dog, Plot Contrivance. They're on a ramble way up in the hills above Christchurch and Plot Contrivance knocks Cathy backwards, down an embankment and into oncoming traffic. "Screech!" goes several tons of automotive engineering, stopping just short of turning her three dimensions into two.

The driver hustles around the hood, bawls her out and then stuffs her and Plot Contrivance (who we never see again for the whole rest of the book) into his car. Safety first. Then he drives her to a handy layby...
Not that handy
(Giphy)
...where he shows himself a dab hand at pulling slivers from knees. It's almost like it's in his line of work. They adjourn to a local eatery (as you do after a shattering near-death experience) where he makes few personal disclosures and she tells him everything. Topics include, but are not limited to:
  • Her professional anxieties. (She's the Rector's secretary at St. Enoch's--a boarding school for boys--and they're getting a new one on Monday. "It's a pity this man isn't married.")
  • That she has been the guardian of Beth, her 7 year-old niece, for four years. 
  • The dented setting on her brand new engagement ring (That's called foreshadowing, kids.)
  • Her age, which is twenty-three and super legal, despite looking, with her dark pixie hair and her petite frame, seventeen.
What they hadn't gotten around to was names which is a bit unfortunate since A) He is Hugh Alexander Murdoch (35), new Rector to St. Enoch's and B) He has fallen head over sensible Oxfords for his pert new secretary. She does not take his willingness to mine her for information about his new position well.

But maybe it won't be so bad. She generally approves his enthusiasm for St. Enoch's, her One True Love, and stoutly defends his innovations to Kenneth Batridge--fiance, geography teacher, Sports Master, and mopiest Blindside flanker who ever rucked a scrum*.

(*You don't actually ruck a scrum but I found the verb "forming" a scrum to be too civilized for what it looks like.)

Kenneth was a former All Black.
Even I, who know nothing of these things,
know what a big deal this would be to every boarder at St. Enoch's.
(Giphy)

When Hugh finds out that Kate (He calls her Kate which would be cute if I could ever manage to get Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes out of my head.) is to marry Ken, he is scornful. She had big ideas, she'd told him, and Ken Batridge, despite the thickness of his neck, is a little man.

Kate's problems with Ken extend far beyond his antagonism for the new Rector and his insistence for rugby over soccer. She also wonders if Ken doesn't want to make a home for little Beth, her actual adopted daughter(!), after the wedding. That suspicion came in the form of his mother, sneaking up like an alleyway tough and clubbing Kate over the head. It's unfair to Ken, she whinges, to begin married life so encumbered. Maybe Kate should send her daughter (!) to an orphanage. Worse, Ken admits he asked his mother to broach the subject. I guess his career blocking 250 pound rugby athletes made him fit only for hiding behind his mother's apron.

The contrast between Churlish Ken and Headmaster Hugh is brought into high contrast when Beth goes missing. Ken, probably hoping that a long fall off a tall cliff will solve the little problem of Who Will Pay for Beth's Eventual School Fees, doesn't even give his fiancee a ride home. Hottie Hugh? He rounds up the entire Sixth Form and organizes a search party without being asked. Sure, finding Beth had fallen asleep in an upstairs closet and having to call off the search is the Parenting Walk of Shame, but, at least "sir" understood.

Hugh is invited to take dinner with them and, as her boss sits comfortably by the fire he says, "Kate, I'm writing a book." (He just says it like being a first-time author is his superpower, with none of that insecurity that mere mortals have.) The name is dreadful--"Salute to Kate" (about Henry VIII's last wife, Catherine Parr)--and I can't get behind it at all. But as a gambit to spend more time, off-hours, with his secretary and speak words of Renaissance Romantical-ness, it's genius. Kate agrees to be his late-night typist (not a euphemism).

It is time now, to admit that she is in love with High-minded Hugh. He cares deeply about his charges, is kind to little girls and only canes the boys who really deserve it. (Yes. He is a mid-century boarding school headmaster. Though no one is actually caned in the book, caning is in his job description.)

The sign on the Headmaster's office door
raised everyone's spirits.

There's only one thing to be done. She dashes off a letter to Ken ("Dear Ken, When I accepted your proposal of marriage, I didn't know it meant I would be expected to drop my daughter off at the nearest fire station. The black emptiness of your soul gives me vertigo. Etc., etc. Never again yours, Cathy.") but decides to hold onto it until after she, Hugh and Ken travel, by ferry to a teaching conference in Wellington.

As she is wandering about the evening boat deck with Hugh, bravely keeping her hands to herself, there is an amorous clinch. Oh no. I see what you thought. How awkward. No. It's Ken's voice, desperate with longing, pledging eternal love to an unknown blonde and promising to break it off with Kate just as soon as he can. I'd bet that if the unknown blonde has a six or seven children, he will raise them all under the auspices of his compliant mother...that is the degree to which he has forgotten himself.

For her part, Kate is irritated and feeling enormously justified for wanting to kick him and his Conventional Diamonds (With Complimentary Dented Setting) to the curb. But Hugh is consoling and chivalrous. In the space of moments, he hatches a plot to have it look like it was Kate and himself carrying on in the moonlight. They'll meet the others and faces will be saved.

Sure, she agrees. Honestly, it's hard to think with Mr. Murdoch's arm around her shoulders. I mean, she could squeeze out a few tears for Caddish Ken if Hugh would hold her tighter...What? Oh yes. Let's go surprise the finks.

The finks aren't the only ones who get a surprise. The Unknown Blonde is none other than Della Penvyre. (That name is delicious. As delicious as the woodland creatures she sucks the blood of in the light of a full moon.) She and Hugh go back. Way back.

Ken is dropped, almost as unceremoniously as a hot potato, but Della gets no traction. Hugh is devoted to making Kate look like the object of his interest and does so for the rest of the conference. "I can't think why you should help me," she says and it is all he can do not to choke out, "I LOVE YOU. It's because I love love love you."

Kate makes a final break with Ken...

"Ken, you put the GAG in engagement."
(Giphy)
...and they all return to St. Enoch's older and wiser. Any sensible pair of would-be lovers would settle down to a little light wooing. (Just enough to be a human resources nightmare.) But Kate hears that Mr. Symonds (Della's step-father and former mentor to Hugh) will be taking a teaching position with St. Enoch's and the Widow Penvyre will be making a home with her parents.

Della wafts into the atmosphere of the boarding school like a cloud of poisonous gas. Her first order of business is to send Ken around to Kate's house to stir the cold ashes of their love. (Can't have Hugh's beguiling secretary unattached now, can we?) But when Kate tells him he's as welcome as a measles rash, he kisses her knowing full well the Rector, walking up the garden path for a typing session (not a euphemism), can see him do it. Cretinous Ken is the worst.

But what about Hugh? Is he jumping to Della's tune like a puppet on a string? Kate can't quite tell. He certainly seems courteous and indulgent with his old flame but Della (who you should imagine is going around to everyone's lawns each night and planting them with forks or salting them or TPing the trees) isn't the one he seems bent on escorting all over the place. Time and again the Rector hijacks Kate into going on dates (the sort of thing he needs a companion to attend) and behaves in a very unrectorish manner with her lips.

The Rector stops here.
(Giphy)
Della treats Kate like the hired help--always. If it's tea with the student's parents, Della is handing dirty dishes to Kate. (--Doubtless, she is schlepping her way to the servery, muttering, "I'll tell you who's a dirty dish.") If Hugh has to host friends over at the Rector's lodgings and asks Kate to make some womanly touches, Della swoops in with floral arrangements so elaborate it looks like Secretariat died.

Still, Kate has those nights with Hugh as they go over his book. The book is good (and thank heavens it is because I am not sure a romance could be properly launched with a manuscript you want to take a red pen to), revealing him to be passionate and eloquent. (I think that the BBC is going to pick it up eventually and do an entire series of the sort they did in the 70s--back when characters moved from one paneled room to the next and when staring out of a mullioned window was code for "I want to Brighton him, but I'm married to the king." The Murdochs are going to be millionaires.)
The series will be remade in 2020,
starring an improbably muscled Henry VIII who
takes his shirt off to scythe some fields. It's a metaphor!

(Giphy)
Kate, bless the sainted shade of Essie Summers, is no idiot and sees Della for what she is. At one point, Kate is invited by Mrs. Symonds to take tea and look at all of Della's scrapbooks. I imagine them FULL of toddler beauty pageant photos because they sure as heck don't have even one picture of Ian Penvyre, deceased spouse of the Widow Penvyre. All of this was a set-up though, to get Della some time with that Pesky Typist! (still not a euphemism)

Della looked chagrined. "I thought that perhaps what had triggered things off was your finding Kenneth in the saloon that night with me, when he'd said he was turning in early. And I've felt so conscience-stricken since."
"Have you?" Catherine knew that her voice was derisive. 

But, when she's alone, Kate wonders and worries.

Meanwhile, the Headmaster discovers trouble among the boys in the form of  "Lurid literature--very lurid--being circulated, and pornographic postcards. Egyptian stuff."

Editorial Note: This episode is going to be viewed differently for different readers. The reference to Egyptian stuff makes me want to know what the heck was going around in the mid 50s. (--but not enough to Google it. Heavens, no.) The world described in this book is no more, on a variety of levels (Specifically, I mean the scope, accessibility and acceptance of porn consumption.), and how you read this bit is going to depend a lot on how fine and not fine you are by these changes. 

Essie, from the mouth of Hugh Murdoch, has a wonderful speech about how he's less worried about the boys who are innocent but have been taught the facts of life along with the wonder of intimacy by loving parents, than he is about the boys who are ignorant of all of it. Yes, says Hugh, there are miles of difference between innocent and ignorant.

He's spilling all of this out to Kate as she sits by his fire. It's late and after locating the source (Seriously, it's tragic to me in 2017 with a whole Internet of Porn that Essie could write about a single source.) and blackening his daylights, he returns to his home to find Kate waiting with a hot dinner for him. A listening ear, warmed slippers, a hot meal...it's all very connubial.

He proposes.

"What an excellent Rector's wife you would make...I can't very well speak words of love to you...you know why..." Drat it. He doesn't finish that thought. What he was going to say was "...because of that Rugby Ball you had yourself engaged to." What she thought he was going to say was "...because I harbor a secret passion for He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named's widow." (Poor Ian is NOT Lord Voldemort but the fellow hardly gets any ink at all.)

She accepts under the famous Mills-and-Boone Clause: If the party of the first part hungers for bread, that party is legally authorized to accept a half-loaf of the aforementioned bread from the party of the second part though said gluten-related products will not only fail to satisfy the party of the first part but, forthwith, begin to canker the soft cardiac organ of the party of the first part. The party of the second part is released from any liabilities under this clause.

Hugh lets her know, right away, what sort of marriage she is letting herself in for as they take a House Tour of Love.

Kate: "In fact, I once slept in the guest-room."
Hugh: "Well, that's a room you won't occupy again."

He also reminds her that he can start dictating the more earthy scenes in his book which should make for much nicer typing. (possibly a euphemism)
Hugh wondered if she knew what he meant.
(Giphy)
If she thought she might dip her toe into this whole Engaged For the Second Time in Six Months thing, her ideas are shattered. The next night is the night of the school musical performance and the Headmaster is invited to sing a few numbers in front of all the students, staff and parents. He drops enough hints that there is a romance going on between him and his secretary to turn every neck in the place and then lays down this joint and has everyone sing along, for good measure: A Gordon For Me

A Gordon for me, a Gordon for me, 
If ye're no a Gordon ye're no use to me. 
The Black Watch are braw, the Seaforths and a' 
But the cocky wee Gordon's the pride o' them a'.


The whole auditorium goes wild and, honestly, I was about to rise and sing by the end of it. Della's rage is so incandescent that it's a wonder everyone didn't have to don fall-out goggles.

Soon, Della tells Kate to meet her out by the track.

I have been to Middle School, you guys. No good will ever come of meeting anyone out by the track. Not ever. Never.

Sure enough, Della claims that Hugh couldn't stand the thought of living of Ian's fortune but that he will always be hers. No matter what a Brazen Little Typist has to say about it. Is Kate listening? Or is she wondering how bright a mark grandma's opal ring would leave on Della's cheek?

Kate is becoming super stressed out by bottling up all that love for man who may never even bother drinking that vintage. It all comes to a head when Hugh tries to thank Kate for all that typing (not a euphemism) with a lovely moonstone necklace. She is grumpy because she did it for love and he is grumpy because he really only got the necklace because he can't say, "I love you" out loud. Angry kissing follows which in real life I do not approve of but in my mid-century romances is like the ignition switch on a backyard grill. It's the way things get cooking!

Della comes to say that she and Hugh were L-O-V-E-R-S but Kate laughs in her face. She knows Hugh too well. And maybe it's time to really air out all the difficulties. She decides to pedal her little bike up to the Rector's house and lets herself in. That's when she sees...Hugh...looking curiously like he's about to embark on a little typing (euphemism) with Della.

"Oh Della, Della!"
(Giphy)
Kate sneaks out the back and her bike is clipped by a lorry, landing her in the hospital.

Looking up into Hugh's shattered face, all she can say is something to the effect of, "Let's end this sham. Who were we kidding?" He agrees to let her go (What option does he have?) but asks her to wait until she's out of the hospital. When she's on her feet again, he's got one last gift for her. He leads her to his living room, gives her a stinking forehead kiss and pushes her through the door. Who is waiting?

The Lily-Liveredest Blind-side Flanker in the whole country! KEN! Does Hugh think that's what she wanted? Oh [BLEEP] no. This ends here.

And it does. She tears a strip off of Ken and then she tears into the Rector's office.

I'm not going to spoil it. It's too good. But her declarations of love include the line, "But of all the things I hate you for, I hate you most for what you've done this afternoon..." The Rector is an idiot but he's not a fool. He confesses that he actually dumped a pitcher of water on a hysterical Della, that night of the accident. And he's not letting anything come between them, or their typing, again.

Rating: 8/10 Digging Out the Sheep.
I think it was Betty Amanda who suggested that the Widow Penvyre is the most evil villianess in the Summers Canon and she's certainly wonderfully awful. Della snoops and sneaks, lies outright and isn't even particularly constant (I still don't get how she knew Ken well enough to have him give up Kate within hours of their reacquaintance). If there's a theme to the last several books, however, it's that our heroine gets to dish back everything she's dished out. And boy does Kate dish. At one point she feels duty bound to marry Hugh, if only to save him from the machinations of Della.
Though this book is the first one that isn't set on a country sheep station, I was impressed by Hugh's ability to prove his manly bona fides within a school setting. It's interesting to me that Essie has him propose right in the thick of the Lurid Crisis but it's of a piece. She likes her protagonists protagging and working hard and, here, they're doing just that. Essie shows us just how fulfilling the partnership is going to be and then, with the proposal, complicates and chases that dream.
Hugh is going to get his book published but will toil away molding the lives of young men because he is awesome and Kate will be at his side--the best Rector's wife that ever was.
"There are boys up to shenanigans."
(Giphy)

The Misunderstanding: Kate thinks he is in love with his dead friend's glamorous widow. He thinks she's still in love with her imbecilic ex-fiance. They both have to hide their burning passion and pretend the marriage they are about to begin is strictly business.

Location: Around Christchurch