Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Master of Tawhai--1959


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Rowena Melisande Ainsley Fotheringham (23) has First-World Problems, as they say. The difficulty is that she is loaded. Her unwieldy name is enough to assure us Poors that she is more pedigreed and pampered than a blue-ribbon shih-tzu at Westminster.

But she is running away to New Zealand with twenty pounds to her name and the promise of a job at Tawhai Hills being an old lady's companion. Reason? She was thrown over by ex-fiance Geoffrey because he fell in love with someone named Josie (whose name suggests she might take her once-yearly vacations...lowers voice to whisper...at caravan parks). Geoffrey's parting shot was to also tell Rowena that he was only sort-of interested in her because of her wealth and connections. Which is a weaselly way to break up with someone you're cheating on. Like, just do the pro forma song and dance. "It's not you, babe. It's ME."

She leaves everything...cough...behind.
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On her way to her job, a series of unfortunate events finds her walking across muddy paddocks and treed by a raging bull. Rescue comes in the guise of a hunky horseman who nevertheless bawls her out. Enter our hero, the deciduously named Forrest Beechington. He wastes no time telling her that his aunt's companions all threw themselves at him and he, for his part, did not play catch. He does not want Rowena to get ideas about lacing up her cleats and playing ball either.

The warning makes her bristle even though there must be a whole chorus of clanging bells going off in her head. Someone is being sought after for their wealth and position? How terrible! Who could that possibly remind her of? But The Fire Engines of Empathy never switch on the sirens and peel out of the station. Instead, she gets busy inventing a vague semi-engagement with an itinerant artist she met on the boat coming out. (Does that seem oddly specific to you?) That will convince His Lordship, Master of His Shabby Antipodean Fiefdom that she isn't interested in him.

There is an 'occupied' sign on the lavatory door of her heart.
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Tawhai Hills IS unfortunately down-at-heel on the inside. And the only extended family are:
Nearly-blind Aunt Lavinia who is "useless"--her words, not mine and certainly not because of the near-blindness. She's daffy in a way that Essie thinks I am going to find charming and don't quite.)
Nephew Tony, 17, who exists for no reason at all.
and nieces
Penny, 17, who is waiting to be old enough for Farmer Nicholas and a follow-up book full of misunderstandings.
and Lindsay, 20-ish, who has a weakness for mopery, sulks and itinerant artists.

Rowena throws herself into the task of restoring Tawhai Hills like a privileged rich girl, confident that training cotton-headed village girls is her birthright. In fairness, she does a good amount of hard work herself, acts as Aunt Lavinia's companion beautifully, calls Forrest "Mr. Beechington" and even condescends to give Village Girl a makeover.

Forrest comes upon them, cutting hair in the sunshine and says, lighting a fuse on a bomb he didn't even know was live, "...if I'm too busy come harvest to get to Geraldine to get mine done, you might attempt to cut mine." Oh my hotness. The image of her fingers in his hair... (Pardon me as I fan myself vigorously.) Village Girl is very lucky she didn't accidentally get shorn bald.

But, for all the flying sparks, Forrest and Rowena are running on different tracks. He is superior and baiting. She is meddling and has lied about a LOT of things. Here's the working list: her economic status, her relationship status, her middle name, and her ability to ride a horse like a professional.

Rowena hates lying so much, you guys.
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While visiting town, Forrest catches young Lindsay keeping company with Itinerant Artist Dirk Sargison. (The Dirk Sargisons of this world are handed their cad credentials at birth. Not all of us as so blessed to find their vocation so easily. Dirk is to be envied.) Forrest, with very little actual evidence, labels him a bounder and Rowena (who knows that he for sure is one and has a mini freak out that her mythological semi-fiance has painted her into a tight corner) tells him, in her meddling way, that it's best if Forrest doesn't forbid the relationship outright. Though she knows it means she will be exposed, Rowena suggests that Dirk should be invited up to Tawhai Hills where he will look like a plastic picnic spork next to John Macrae's sterling silverware.

Editorial Note: John Macrae is mooning after a disinterested Lindsay and is described as dependable and dishy and possibly headed into politics. I do not buy for a minute that he is that desperate for the Lindsay we've seen thus far. Boyfriend doesn't need to settle. Boyfriend can have his pick.
Having looked over every eligible maiden in
both the North and the South island, the petulant sad-sack with
daddy issues is definitely the one for me.

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In the midst of these domestic upsets, Rowena's Tower of Lies begins to crumble. She show-jumps her way to an outer paddock and Forrest is upset to find that she pretended not to know which end of a horse was the fertilizer factory. He uploads his rage right into her lips and then has the cheek to say, "Don't bottle things up. You could always slap my face! They do it in all the best films."

She takes his advice and drops some truth bombs on him. Her list of grievances is long enough to form the better part of a Declaration of Independence.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that you are a Scoundrel of the Highest Order. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world:
  • You fire people without cause. 
  • You are stupidly sentimental about killing hawks. 
  • You behave like a feudal lord and are a big meanie about letting people on your land.

She is in the wrong on all counts. Oh, how she is in the wrong. When she discovers that he won't let climbers use his land if there is a winter storm brewing because he lost his brother and sister-in-law while they were rescuing two such fool-hardy people, the coals being heaped on her head look more like the lava flows of Mount Kilauea.

Spokespersons for Miss Kilauea issued a statement
denying any involvement in Miss Fotheringham's hot mess.

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Editorial Note (Oh I have notes): But this speaks to the problem with the characterizations in the book. Forrest is raising three young people, has given up a life he loved (at sea), carries a heavy burden of estate management and cares for an aging relative. These are recommendations of his integrity, aren't they? But, finding Rowena's been keeping a tally sheet of his perceived faults comes off as intensely petty. 

After these contretemps, they agree to be friends and for a short time life at Tawhai Hills is idyllic. Rowena wants to say, "You know that oddly specific artist I spoke of? He wants to seduce Lindsay but I'm a woman of taste and distinction so he's always triggered my gag reflex!"

But she never quite manages to say the words. Instead, she is discovered in the worst possible way (meeting them on the street after an awesome day with Forrest at the Beechington sea-cottage), while never doing a thing to prevent it--I mean, the arrow of Dirk was loosed from her own bow and was headed for Tawhai Hills. Did she never think he would actually see her and say "Oh yeah, we met on the boat"?

Forrest is furious and even trots out some outdated pejoratives. He says, "What is your type, Miss Fotheringham? A type like that dago Lindsay is with?" Meep!

dago:noun
informaloffensive
  1. an Italian, Spanish, or Portuguese-speaking person

Using that word is very off-brand for the racially broadminded Ms. Summers. (I only call her Ms. Summers when I am cross.) I am not sure Forrest will be forgiven.

Lindsay's children were this close to
inheriting a rich linguistic heritage.

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At Tawhai Hills, Dirk isn't quite the spork Rowena hoped he'd be. He rides well and paints nicely and isn't backing Rowena into semi-private closets while waving a switchblade under her chin. But he misses Lindsay's birthday so...I guess he's just the worst? (She spends her time dancing with John-Macrae-who-is-going-to-be-a-politician someday. Let me tell you. That is not the recommendation it once was.)

Forrest, meanwhile wants the truth from Rowena. She's been circumspect-ish around Dirk but walks into Lindsay's party wearing an actual Emerald of Museum Quality. He pulls her aside and asks for answers and when the only one she cares to give him is that she has never wished for a wealthy husband, he softens and kisses her. (At last, you guys!)

A feathering of unease washes over me as I check the page count. One-hundred and thirty-six. I don't suppose we could get fifty-five pages of No-Expenses-Spared Wedding Planning and a short but poignant Forrest-Meets-Lord-Ainsley-In-England interlude? Because I have had it with misunderstandings.

Time enough for the groomsmen
to perfect their dance number.

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Alas. Alas for all of us. Helen has arrived home from her Travels Abroad. Helen was once engaged to Forrest's OTHER deceased brother (What bad witch cursed the Beechingtons?) and lots of people think it would be a cracking good idea of she married Forrest...because Dear Child, in New Zealand at that time, if you were gorgeous and going places, no one at all would marry you. Aunt Lavinia did not find Helen a kindred spirit. Rowena told herself she must have a nasty nature to feel glad about that. 

Rowena has a chance to perform heroics when she spots sheep coming off the mountain in an historically significant way and rushes off to tell Forrest. He alerts the community and thousands of sheep are saved (not to mention all the sheep farmers bank accounts). They dig the sheep out together and then, not long after, he tells her that he got Dirk a job on the southern island. Torrid cheek touching and elbow cupping ensue. 

And then, when Forrest is gone, Helen rushes in. Oh Rowena, the hap-hap-happiest news!--Let me save you some time. Helen got herself engaged to an Aussie and Forrest was all for it. I hope I am as big a fan of free speech as anybody. But Rowena thinks she's engaged TO Forrest. If Helen drove a car as carelessly as she was yammering, I'd have pulled her to the verge and issued a verbal warning--maybe slap her with a two month suspension of chit chat and surprising declarations. 

Once that is resolved, Forrest chases Rowena into the Turret Room and all but proposes. Like an aged wife of a justice of the peace witnessing an elopement in the front parlor, my finger is hovering over the play button on the tape deck. The thready strains of Journey's Don't Stop Believing (For a String Quartet) are ready to bless this union. 

I am denied. 

It's Aunt Lavinia again, rushing in with news of a flash flood. Rowena saddles her horse and follows Forrest and it all gets very noblesse oblige-y here--the rich folk organizing armies of Poors to save their own possessions. I forgive everything though when Rowena fords a river with a child in her saddle. The horse looses its footing and she thrusts the young person at Forrest. "The child! The child!" she says as she is swept away. She is rescued but only after breaking her arm. 

This is such a huge moment that you think it would cut through everything else like a hot knife through butter. This is such sweeping proof of the good character of both parties that when one of them is tempted to think poorly of the other, surely (SURELY) they could:
  • Stop 
  • Think
  • Shut-up

How can you waste my time with your petty dramas?!
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While she is recovering, Rowena thinks that Forrest is only willing to marry her because Aunt Lavinia has gifted her a sum of money and Forrest has one more chance to think Rowena only wants to marry rich men. 

Oh. And then, as though our Bubbling Stew of Misunderstanding isn't already boiling over, Lindsay-the-Dramatic (who will someday, nonetheless, fall backwards into a good marriage with an awesome man) attempts to elope with Dirk-the-Already-Married. Rowena manages to save her and hush it up but reputations are both salvaged and wrecked when Forrest sees her as she's giving Dirk the what-for.

Way too long later, Forrest writes to Lindsay that Rowena is not to be trusted and she writes back that, of course, she is. Forrest proposes and Rowena accepts...

And Betty Keira rolled her eyes.
The End.

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Rating: 5/10 A Crumbling Ledge. I feel terrible that I didn't like this more. I am rating it against other Essies but rated against other mid-century Harlequins, we're bumping it up to a 7 or 8. It might have had something to do with the way I read it--in drips and drops--but I knew that once I mentally started re-writing it that the whole thing was sort of a flop. Here are some things that really didn't work:
A) Rowena had twenty pounds, good clothes, the chance to call home for more money at any time and an ability to turn her hand to anything. I never really bought that she was on her beam-ends. It was more like Rich Girl Goes Slumming--which can be fun (see Cold Comfort Farm) but is not my favorite genre. Becky from Betty Neels' The Promise of Happiness (or Becky and the Baron, the Hot, Hot Baron) would have died and gone to heaven for such an auspicious start.
B) Time and again, Forrest is accused of terrible things only to be vindicated as some admirable cross between Superman and Jonas Salk. Time and time again, Rowena selflessly rescues half the community from financial and mortal ruin, only to have him doubt her character. I CANNOT WITH THESE PEOPLE.
C) This book desperately wanted to be stream-lined. Some of these misunderstandings only cropped up for a second but, there we were--side-tracked again. We could have cut some of those and spent more time reading about the home restoration which is always one of my favorite bits.
Things I liked (because I know some of you probably LOVE this book):
A) The premise. Essie took a classic romance trope (common girl meets and weds British nobility) and transports it to New Zealand. It's clever.
B) There are some fantastic lines. The plotting is my issue but, again, Essie Summers has a deft hand at description. At one point, a brassiere is hanging off a tree branch 'in a dissipated fashion'. When they go digging out the sheep (the first time it's described in The Essie Canon) there is magic in it.
C) Though the misunderstandings had grown silly, I liked the last third of the book. Rowena really doesn't like Helen and has no reason to feel that way. The unfairness of it is greatly humanizing.

Location: South Canterbury

Misunderstanding: Too many to count but, okay, the big one is that they both think everyone is out for their money.

3 comments:

  1. Unlike Neels heroines, Rowena actually does go to the Antipodes when her fiancé throws her over for another woman. Ha ha ha!
    Not down a Brazilian mine. But doing a Betty-heroine type of job – companion to an old lady – anyway.

    Gotta go. The red barrette Lhasa Apso wants to go for a walk.

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    1. That is a great point. Rowena ups and offs but 3,000 miles seemed a bit drastic for one broken engagement. I should have liked her more, though, for her decisive action.

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  2. Not one of my favorites, and neither is the sequal. Poor Beechington family.

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