Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Lark in the Meadow--1959

Essie Summers plonks the exposition down in front of us like a headless fish, gutted and ready for the grill. I will ape my betters.

Sarah Isbister, 24, nurse, half sister to young Rory and Pauline (14-ish and 12-ish) is suddenly orphaned when old (but curiously hot) New Zealand visitor Duncan Alexander fails to have his dodgy breaks worked on at the Scots equivalent of Les Schwab (where those of us in the Pacific Northwest have our tires rotated, our alignment adjusted and our brakes tested for reasonable prices). He kills her parents outright and doesn't fair so well himself.

As he is dying in the hospital, the only thing that will soothe his guilt is to give Sarah and the youngsters half of his New Zealand estate, Challowsford. Doubtless he would have shoved the whole thing at them if he could. But he can't. The other half belongs to his nephew: Curiously Hot, Grant Alexander.

London, as any true Betty Neels fan would tell you, is an inhospitable place for single nurses to care and comfort young children. Failing a lint-fair Dutch giant cornering our heroine in the sluice room, the only thing to be done is take the legacy and emigrate.

Any vast, faintly-accented endocrinologists
with foreign titles and stately homes? 

No? Going once...twice...
Sarah embarks via slow-going cruise ship which is a real pity since a letter of character beats her to her destination, dripping with poison from the pen of one Elaine Thomason. The missive comes crouched in the most hand-wringing tone. (Dear Mr. Alexander, I feel prostrate with embarrassment but I have to tell you ALL the salacious details of the last days of your dear, sainted uncle with that gold digging hussy. Her actions were lower than the earth's molten core...)

Grant's reception of Sarah is chilly but it was never going to be fantastic. He knows nothing of the brakes and thinks she obviously took advantage of a dying man, accepting an inheritance she had no business touching. The letter is a confirmation of his suspicions.

He notes her chic clothes and of the way she has wormed herself into a cozy friendship with the ship's captain. When she sinks herself to explain that their passage was paid for from her own money and that she has enough for her own and the children's needs for several weeks, he is salty.

"Am I expected to applaud?"
More horrors await. On the drive down to Challowsford he corrects her at every turn. That's not a village, lady. Here in New Zealand we call them townships. That lark isn't singing in a meadow. It's a paddock. No, you cannot help around on the farm. We don't need amateurs.

If Sarah's nose is still intact from all Grant's snubbing, he suggests that meeting Mrs. Macfarlane (the Challowsford housekeeper) will be sure to knock it out of joint. That lady is a wary piece, predisposed to think that Sarah is a lay-on-the-sofa-and-litter-cigarette-stubs-on-the-antique-mahogany-furniture type but it doesn't take long for her to take the true measure of the Orcadian beauty.

If the old saying is, "When Greek meets Greek, then comes the tug of war." then there must be another one that exists only within the world of Essie Summers: "When Scot meets Scot, then comes the salted porridge." Mrs. Mac knows at once that Sarah is independent, hard-working and would die before taking a penny that wasn't hers. Grant Alexander, blind as he is, must be descended from some other race.

Belgians, probably.
Sarah refuses the dubious hospitality of Challowsford and declares that she will stay in one of the abandoned cottages well away from the house, cleaning it and bringing it back to life. Now that they have a modest home and miles of open countryside, the children won't have to be raised in a London orphanage. (I always imagine it as a Dickensian wasteland in these scenarios. Rory is one growth spurt short of escaping life as a chimney sweep. Poor Pauline has to sell matchsticks.) Any slights she has to endure from Mr. Alexander are worth it.

Such is the level of mistrust that Grant sends her an offer to buy out her share of the estate...through lawyers. I think the firm name was...lemme see...Snotty, Coward & Dumb. Her retaliation is to use his phone, with Mrs. Mac and Grant pinned to their chairs at the Challowsford kitchen table, turning them down flat. Because insult is the usual chaser to injury, she also asks the operator for the charges and counts out $2.10 and slaps it on the table.

All these lively duels with the handsome Mr. Alexander don't get in the way of Grant bonding with Rory and Pauline. He teaches Rory to drive tractor, hands over responsibility of the chickens to Pauline, enrolls them in school, and arranges for the use of ponies. “Sarah felt lonely, shut out.”

Oh Betties. That wrings my heart like a pile of oranges from a New England bed and breakfast. Poor Sarah. I have said before (and, heaven knows, will say again) that 'stoic' is catnip for me. She's lost a mother and beloved step-father (I do adore that detail—beloved 'steps' are a thing with me.), moved away from all her friends, and has the burden of young children. Even if she was the Virgin Queen, it would still be nice to have a tall drink of New Zealand water to lead an attack against the Spanish Armada with.

"But it might be a squidge easier with a boyfriend, you know!?"
A disaster of that caliber would really bring a couple together but country-invading Spanish galleons are NOT thick on the ground. However, Mrs. Mac obliges by breaking her arm on the eve of hosting the shearing gangs after the local bakery has burned to the ground. This is almost as bad, you guys. In the world of Kiwi farming, it's Raiders of the Lost Ark face-meltingly bad.

Grant expects a cheap little gold digger to be useless but gets a warrior woman instead. She throws herself into the success of the endeavor and, while horribly exhausted, manages to deliver twins on a nearby station. If that isn't enough, one of the twins almost dies and the mother has a hemorrhage. She saves both lives and, once delivered to the nursing home, Sarah also has to give blood. My Betty-Neels-Fangirl-Heart grew two sizes because I have a hair-trigger appreciation for nursing heroics. 

A cease-fire would be nice but they don't get one until the Christmas holidays. I have to tell you about the gifts! He gets her a book about the history of New Zealand ranching, subtly underlining that he accepts that her interest in her adopted country is genuine. SHE GETS HIM A GIFT CARD!

"Apple chutney in July. You like apples."
On Christmas night, Grant kisses her. Like a NASCAR racer, he sees an opening and takes a chance, threading narrowly between danger. She is stunned but not angry.

Complications arise from beyond Challowsford. Sarah gets a letter from Elaine Thomason (one-time neighbor and full-time troublemaker) who is coming for a visit. Evidently the rules of hospitality laid out by Homer almost 3,000 years ago in The Oddessy were in full effect in 1959. One was expected to suffer enemies in one's home for indefinite periods of time because Zeus, or something.

Grant has his own sort of hell to endure. He discovers that not every man on the Chevoit hills cares to scrape Sarah's character for bacteria and grow a culture over months and months, tsking into the microscope at intervals and saying, "Bad. Very bad.". Farmer Jeff, for instance.

Grant: You mean Jeff and Sarah?
Mrs. Mac: Aye, just that...That ought to please you. 
G: What do you mean--ought to please me?
MM (Her face was guileless): Well, you've no' exactly made the lassie welcome, have you?

Mrs. Mac drops some Truth Bombs.
Is it any surprise that Grant is on the receiving end of Sarah's stingingest slap not five pages later? He is a Freudian mess, lumbering into one ill-conceived remark after another, until Jeff contracts a convenient case of the measles. (Think of Grant stealing pillow cases from hospital infirmaries, riddled with measles, and rubbing them on the steering wheel of Farmer Jeff's sensible station wagon.)

I suppose it's just Elaine to be dispensed with now. She's just awful and lands on Challowsford like an epidemic of foot rot. Grant seems interested in her, keen to listen to her poison about Sarah and tolerant of her terrible ideas. (Like painting the homestead PINK, you guys!)

Weeks later (Who has guests they can't stand for WEEKS!?), Elaine suggests that she and Grant would be so delighted if Sarah would disapparate or lose herself down an abandoned mine shaft (the better to clear the ground for a forthcoming wedding). Sarah is gutted. There are many sacrifices she's made for the children but she loves Grant too much to stay and watch him be wedded to Elaine.

For one thing, the wedding dance would be embarrassing for everybody.
Being a trained nurse has its benefits, as any Betty Neels fan knows. In no time, Sarah scouts out a new job and apartment in the city (heartsick at tearing Rory and Pauline away from paradise) and makes her plans to steal away without telling anyone.

But as anyone who has ever watched an episode of Lassie will tell you, there is always a little boy stuck on a cliff. A LITERAL little boy stuck on a cliff. Nail-biting adventures always clear the air and inspire passion (That's what Hollywood told me.) so it is not very long after Grant pulls her and Literal Boy to safety that declarations are made and proposals are accepted.

Her English lark is welcome in his New Zealand, paddock.

Rating: 7/10 Flash Flood
I remembered hating this book when I first read it and, aside from the busyness of the season, that's what has kept The Lark in the Meadow in my TBR pile. The memory of Grant's cruelty and unfairness bothered me, no end.
This time, however, I sort of loved it. Grant wasn't as awful as I remembered and each misunderstanding seemed to lodge my heart more firmly in my throat--hoping, praying that it would all sort out for the young lovers. And it does. Not only does Sarah have a homecoming, but Pauline and Rory too.
The one part that fell a bit flat was when Grant is hosting Elaine. Essie Summers muddied up the water quite satisfyingly (Does he love her? Does he hate her?) if Grant didn't already love and believe Sarah. But when he declares that he knew Elaine was a fink from the start of her visit, I can't quite buy it.
But Elaine is a piece of work. She hated the idea that Sarah would get ahead so much that she wrote a letter (long hand!), swiped the Challowford address from Sarah's handbag (probably) and walked all the way down to the post office to buy an airmail stamp. You've really got to admire her stick-to-it-ive-ness.

Location: Chevoit countryside (South island)

Misunderstanding: Because of misinformation provided by a third party, he thinks she's a gold digger, as fake as a one dollar gold watch.


  1. Yea! The next Essie!
    Great heroine. A nurse, no less! I feel myself sliding into ℬetty mode.
    But wait! Her days in Scotland are numbered...
    Her poor parents written out of the story in ℬetty fashion... 😢
    Off to new (South) Horizons! 🚢 The half-siblings in tow...
    Plotting Veronica posting trouble ahead.
    Hero predisposed to dislike her.
    Faithful Family Retainer Mrs. Macfarlane, in true ℬetty fashion, recognizes the heroine’s worth.

    Snotty, Coward & Dumb. [...] counts out $2.10 and slaps it on the table. Ha, ha, ha. Priceless!

    Hero bonding with the children. Awww.

    Fire or haemorrhage? Yes, both, though not in that order. And thankfully no crumbling causeway during a storm to complicate matters.
    Xmas is a coming the sheep are getting fat...
    Another letter from the evil Veronica forespelling trouble.
    What? Hero jealous?
    Sarah's stingingest slap. Ouch.
    Ah! Measles, too. But thankfully no epidemic for the heroine to cope with.

    No, but the evil Veronica! Ugh. I cannot even imagine having someone I don’t like over for a cup of coffee, let alone to stay with me.
    Ah, the plot thickens! The vyper spreads her poison.

    The best laid plans... (Wouldn’t she need a work permit? Or wouldn’t she, as a landowner?)
    If she had lived, oh, twenty, thirty years later, she would have been able to glean enough knowledge from ℬetty’s books to know that running away never worked.

    Little boy stuck on a cliff.
    And no cliffhanger, but HEA. Yes!

    Thank you, ℬetty Keira. I really enjoyed reading that review.

    ...the children won't have to be raised in a London orphanage — I actually read that as [awfinidge].

    Does Grant ever find out about the brakes, by the way?

    1. He does! There is a cute little subplot involving an autumn romance and the woman from that tells Grant about the brakes. I love that it's not left to linger and that he feels like a proper heel for being so beastly to her over it.

    2. Thank you! I am glad to hear it. I was a little worried...

  2. Sheep shearing at the zoo...
    Almost Essie adjacent. I am watching a progamme about a zoo in southern Germany.
    When you are used to watching Australian sheep shearers in action, on television, assuming shearers in New Zealand are equally fast, of course, the efforts the zoo keepers put into snipping the animals "coat" off, inch by inch, was kind of hilarious.
    They were using blade shears, and nowhere near this fast!
    Of course, they are not as experienced and try their hardest not to nick the sheep's skin. 🐑