Monday, November 1, 2010

The Magic of Living--1974

Leave it to The Mighty Betty Neels to incorporate spastic children into the plot of her mid-seventies romance novel. And not only spastics (which here does not mean your little brother dancing around in your bra) but a stutter too! Is she successful? Did Houdini do card tricks? Heck yes.

Arabella Birch, 22, is a student nurse--orphaned at a young age and raised with her cousins in the care of Aunt Maud and Uncle garblemumblewhocares. She has unremarkable features and pale brown hair--a gentle kind of beauty which, next to her glamorous cousin Hilary, looks like an adorable pair of China flats cast off for some four inch Manolo Blahniks.
Arabella lets the readers know a couple of facts about her family:
  • They are very nice. They took her in as a 5-year-old and never grudged the expense.
  • Aunt Maud is full of some very helpful advice.
  • Hilary is a casual cousin but generally kind.
Editorial Note:
Many years ago I read a criticism of some literature that said, in essence, that the author did too much 'telling' and not enough 'showing'. In this case The Great Betty (at her most genius) has Arabella tell us a lot of nonsense and then quietly shows us how the family really treats our heroine.
So let's find out what home life is really like:
  • Aunt Maud's advice is to tell Arabella to buy plain clothes since she will have to support herself someday--unlike Hilary who won't. Also that plain hats should go with plain faces. There is a scene wherein Arabella sneaks a try-on of her friend's wedding hat, too embarrassed to see herself probably look awful in it in front of the other girls. Aunt Maud has a lot to answer for.
  • Hilary is not cruel to Arabella. Sure, she annexes every male in sight but it's not as though Arabella really cares about any of them. Nanny Bliss wonders what will happen when this is no longer the case.
  • Arabella is used as a gopher and babysitter in ways that the daughter of the house would never be.
So, all in all it's not dungeons, short rations and daily beatings but Arabella hasn't got a clue that she's being used. Not one to play dirty tricks on others, it is inconceivable that she might be treated so.
Hilary, in order to carry on an inexplicable flirtation with a man whose marital status, eye-wear and awkwardly hyphenated name (married, hornrims, Thisby-Barnes) make him sound like a booby prize, wheedles Arabella give up her holidays in order to take her place ushering a busload of spastics to Holland for a summer camp. Sing with me now!
Editorial Note: The Founding Bettys actually have a few siblings whom The Venerable Neels would have classified as 'spastic' but it's not a word people use anymore (at least for any medical condition)--preferring often to use the term cerebral palsy. So, please understand, if I'm laughing (and I am) it's only at the term.
Hilary manages to hog all the limelight and then sends the busload of spastics on their way.
Arabella is managing just fine (even though the other nurse is worse than useless) when the driver up and dies. He dies!
Arabella hastily grabs the wheel to avert an oncoming car and lands them in a ditch. (All this is more heroic and skilled than that just sounded)
But this is Holland and you can't swing a dead cat around without hitting a dishy Dutch doctor. Dr. Gideon van der Vorst, 38, peers at all her gentle loveliness from his perch on the side of the bus and commences the evacuation.
He is witness to her good sense, infinite patience, correct priorities, calmness, helpfulness, good scout-ery and stammer (which doesn't bother him a jot...Honestly, maybe every married pair should meet during a crisis.). She weathers a rescue that resembles something out of a muppet skit.
Gideon quotes some Shakespeare at her ('She has brown hair and speaks soft like a woman...') and takes care of getting everyone to the hospital.
Everyone is fine (except for, you know, the dead fellow) aside from Billy and Sally--they both broke some bones--and will be sent back shortly. Gideon suggests that Arabella bring them to his home for the remainder of their convalescence. She wonders if his wife will feel it inconvenient.
Well, no. He's a bachelor. His little sister Larissa is there to play propriety. (Because Billy and Sally can't move fast enough to break up a spot of late-night snogging, I suppose.)
Editorial Note: The one sentence that best encapsulates the nature of her stay at his home is about an ordinary tea in the sitting room: '...they talked comfortable nothings.' Arabella's stammer almost completely disappears when she is wrapped up in the peaceful cocoon of the doctor's house. A lot of other stuff happens during this relatively quiet time but it is mostly an interlude where the principles are enjoying one another enormously--kissing too. Tellingly, Arabella mentions Hilary (her wonderful cousin Hilary), hardly at all.
But it can't last forever. He returns her to her British hospital after a couple of weeks. She knows that Gideon likes her but not much else. And then Hilary, tripping down the stairs in a blinding glow of mendacious solicitation, meets the doctor. Arabella can see the castles in the air she built up over the previous weeks begin to show signs of structural weakness.
Hilary, up to this point, has been more or less benign--sure there's a pit where her heart should be but she's not been cruel to Arabella, merely unfeeling. And she's not trying to be cruel now (or maybe not trying very hard). Arabella, to her, is a native guide and having lead the Great White Hunter (Hilary) to the herd of wild rhinoceros (RDD) it's time for Arabella to cartoonishly clap her hands over her ears in anticipation of the .50 caliber rifle taking down that noble beast with alacrity. I can almost see her adjusting her bodice and heading into battle.
For his part, it helps the plot tremendously if you understand that Gideon is at first happy to meet Arabella's cousin. All that charming 'Darling-are-you-alright' and 'I'm-sorry-you-had-to-go'-ness is just how he would like to believe Arabella's family would treat her. He agrees to let her make a third in the car as he drives them home for a four day break. See, he thought there was real affection between them and can't make it out at all.
Arabella, the scales now ripped from her eyes with a vengeance, is furious. She sees Hilary as she is and for the first time her stammer becomes a real obstacle to sorting out misinformation (Hilary is practically a one-man Minister of Propaganda) and beating her cousin to the punch.
Editorial Note: I'm not about to spoil the machinations of Hilary the Depraved but, sufficient to say, a close reading will show that the doctor recovers from his Hilary-blindness (which never included attraction even a little) toot sweet. He continues to be around her only to gain access to an increasingly elusive Arabella.
But then Hilary makes a fatal mistake (ah pride, that most deadly of sins) when she tells Gideon that she has to go home to nurse a nigh-on-dead Nanny Bliss. Never mind Arabella--she didn't want to come anyway. She wanted to go shopping!
Which all leads to Gideon practically kicking down Arabella's door (in the nurse's home, mind you!), flinging around plenty of unjust accusations and taking her home to visit Nanny Bliss (who has been calling for her from her perch on the edge of death's door) whether she wants to or not.
The mortification on his face when he realizes that she had a train ticket for the earliest possible trip the next morning ought to give a happy glow for readers who like their Neels heroes to have to dig themselves out of craterous holes with back-hoes. The one benefit is that Gideon won't be fooled by Hilary's lies again.
His next act is to verify that Arabella is not, in fact, interested in the local rector's horrible son as Hilary has hinted (the scene is awesome--Gideon reassures us readers that he knows Arabella so well that one glance at Bertie Palmer Hateful yet Innocent By-Looker is enough to tell him that he's so not her type), engineer a theft of Arabella's passport by delightful means and to abduct her to another country.
Kissing and explanations and Dutch lessons follow.
The End

Rating: The last line reads like that short story Diana Berry submitted for Anne Shirley ('Sweetheart, the beautiful coming years will bring us the fulfillment of our home of which we will never use any baking powder except Rollings Reliable.') in that it seems bluntly shoehorned in to fit a just so-so pre-selected title.
But what a silly quibble! I love this book.
At first blush you're thinking, 'Stammer? Really?' Yes, and The Great Betty uses such a skilled hand that you'll be falling in love with it right along with Gideon.
The doctor is so darling. Just when you think that maybe he loves Arabella out of a sense of misplaced pity, our beloved authoress gives us a peek at how much he really needs her. He is charmed--completely charmed.
I felt that Hilary was such an interesting character--not cruel, according to her lights, to Arabella, just horribly self-involved and frank about her goals. She probably would make a good wife for a man willing to spoil her and reconfigure the planetary orbits so that everything revolves around her.
This one earned a lashings of whipped cream and then some...

Food: Arabella struggles with the Dutch breakfast (bread, butter, cheese and jam) as it seems such a poor compromise for hearty English fare (porridge and bacon). Gideon likes rich fruit cake. We get Peach Melba and apple chutney. He brings her champagne when she's pretending to sleep in the car but when she arrives at home everyone sends her to bed--in a rage she drinks some cooking sherry, eats a couple of bananas and has some bread and butter. The lower class Mrs. Burns serves tea laced liberally with condensed milk.

Fashion: Arabella is relegated to shabby tweeds, fawn-colored raincoats, and severe hats because, as Aunt Maud says, 'Plain hat for a plain face.' She owns a jersey dress of honey and cinnamon stripes (love The Great Betty's culinary descriptions), and (in the best shopping trip in the history of Neels) she is persuaded to buy a coral PVC mac 'with a decided swagger', a corduroy pinafore and a coral and brown striped wool dress with a flared skirt. He also gets to see her in her pink quilted dressing gown for good measure.


  1. I'm with you on this one. I only discovered it a few months back and was bowled over--just like Gideon. The scene over Nanny and the train tickets is silly and doesn't fit, but the sleeping in the car scene is so darling, who cares? Gideon and Arabella are both utterly charming, and even more so with one another. The book is chock full of great lines and scenes, including gentle and lovely ones.

    However, even more amazing is that Betty Keira found a Muppet bus scene graphic.

  2. Oooh, oooh, oooh, I forgot to mention the BEST scene and line: youth cream. If someone one out there hasn't read this one, pay what you have to for it--this scene ALONE is worth whatever the price!

    It might be at the top of my list for single best scene in Neelsdom.

    1. Need to agree with you on that! I love how fun this book is, it must be the cream.

      Betty Ruth

  3. I love all of BN's "heroine goes to Holland and crashes and bumps into hero" plots! Love them all! Soooo romantic!

  4. So, I was worried about that scene too but after a super close readin here's how I read the Nanny scene: He isn't attracted by Hilary but he has no reason to think she's an out and out liar and unfortunately Arabella is unable (stammer) or unwilling (pride/anger) to set him straight on some things (like her non-passion for Bertie Palmer). So Gideon (having thought he'd met the woman of his dreams) is uncertain, jealous and thrown aback by Hilary's weasel-y accusations. He's furious to think that Arabella isn't what he needs her to be.

    It's not cool of him but he's not short about apologizing profusely either.

  5. What I like is that at the end Gideon is going to throw a huge white wedding so that her relatives can see how much he loves her and that this isn't some little sweep-it-under-the-rug wedding. He's going to show off his wealth.

  6. Yes, this one is truly, truly marvellous.

  7. I loved this book, until the part about Gideon taking Hillary's word about the nanny and being awful to Arabella. That put me off him quick smart. The man had gotten to KNOW Arabella and to just take her cousin's word for everything when he didn't know her from a bar of soap! No, no and no, I can find no excuses for him and no amount of "I love you and have for ages" makes up for acting like a swine to her in my eyes.

    1. Those are harsh words indeed. Why should he disbelieve Hilary? Had she ever openly lied to him before? He had seen through her quick enough, but I think he may be forgiven for believing her this time. Besides. Great plot device!!!

    2. Here is what I see happening to Gideon in the "she won't come take care of Nanny" scene. In the scenes in Holland I think Gideon is thrilled to find this perfectly real, perfectly innocent and fairly naive young woman. It is very clear that he finds her totally charming.

      Remember the early scene where he is teasing her about being "inexperienced". And bless her heart, Arabella doesn't realize he is talking about romance, so she starts rambling on about how even though she isn't a fully qualified nurse she has done her children's training so she can take care of Sally and Billy.

      And Gideon is just totally charmed. And he is further charmed by the fact that she doesn't seem to realize that he is paying for her little shopping spree (all those clothes had to cost more than a student nurses' salary) and that she wears young cream at the ridiculously young age of 22. All of their interactions in Holland just show what a sweet young woman Arabella is, and Gideon loves her for it.

      Then they go back to England. And all of a sudden Arabella is elusive. She is avoiding him, pushing Hillary at him. Why? We know it is because poor Arabella is just waiting for Gideon to fall in love with her beautiful cousin and she wants to avoid being hurt. But he doesn't know that. All he knows is that the woman he loves seems to have changed overnight. Remember, she's never said anything bad about her cousin and the rest of her family. As far as he knows, they are the nice supportive people she thinks they are.

      So when Hillary (and her mother) tell him that Arabella refused to come back to see the sick nanny, he is incensed. That sweet naive young woman was just a fake. And then he gets into his car and has a fairly long drive to keep mulling over how Arabella fooled him. Have you ever noticed how if you can clear the air with somebody right away, a problem disappears quickly? But if you have time to mull over the same problem/slight/misunderstanding, you just get angrier and angrier? And the problem/slight/misunderstanding grows all out of proportion. That is what I see happening to Gideon here. He is just as mad at himself for being fooled by Arabella as he is mad at Arabella for not coming back to see Nanny. He is mad to begin with, then has a fairly long drive back to London that makes him even madder. And the more he thinks about it, the madder he gets until he bursts into her bedroom and starts accusing her of all sorts of things.

      And what does she do? She doesn't defend herself. She mutters something about yes, she knew Nanny was sick. Then she clams up, not explaining that she hadn't been told just how sick Nanny was, or that Nanny wanted her.

      So the scene is very believable to me. Here is a guy who has reached the age of 38 without getting married. Now he has finally found this wonderful woman, and she may not be so wonderful after all. He was fooled, and he isn't happy about it. I can see him getting mad about the whole situation. And when he finds out that Arabella hadn't been told about Nanny's condition, or that she wanted her, he apologizes very nicely because he knows that Hillary is the bad one, and Arabella is the real deal..

      So that is my take on this scene.

      Betty Melissa

    3. Very nicely put, Betty Melissa! I totally agree with you.

  8. My favorite Betty! Possibly the first Betty I read. This is the book that led me to your hilarious website-I just had to find it. The most memorable plot of all Bettydom. And best of all, Arabella doesn’t have creepy giant alien eyes, a little pig nose and Martha Raye mouth like so many of the Aramintas. Gideon is charming. I *heart* this book, but it does need a better name.

    Other favorite Betty’s: Caroline’s Waterloo, The Little Dragon, Tabitha in Moonlight, The Promise of Happiness, Fate is Remarkable
    Least favorite: All Else Confusion, Paradise for Two, Tangled Autumn, Winter Wedding, The Secret Pool.
    Jury’s out: The Hasty Marriage, ( hated the RDD, liked the end, may reconsider based on Betty Magdalen’s passionate defense of the book, but will have to reread.)

  9. Couldn't agree more with your favourites, and non favourites. The best by far is definitle Caroline's Waterloo!

  10. A character such as Arabella must be hard to render. She needs to be unworldly enough to contribute to the great misunderstanding but clever enough to be a believable lifelong companion to the RDD. Contemporary M&B heroes will openly muse to love such an innocent is to corrupt them. This is why the "Rolling Reliable' ending doesn't quite work. If the tears on the ferry are interpreted as not merely as the release of weeks of pent-up frustration but the loss of the innocent Miss Arabella Birch, the future Mevrouw van der Vorst would discern the 'kidnapping' is the proposal and the full import of Nanny's presence of Holland. It is troubling for the HEA that Arabella would be 'bewildered' at this point. (It is a delightful read so we shall assume word count and a predetermined title contributed to the awkwardness).

    Hilary is ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. Until the advent of Gideon, there was no need for her to be deliberately cruel to Arabella as she was Hilary’s docile little pet. Hilary never considered Arabella a threat but Aunt Maud sure did (repeatedly telling the 'bonny' Arabella that she is plain, unflattering clothing, eschewing any social event on A's behalf and practically raising her to be a FFR). Gideon’s presence unleashes the malevolence that Arabella has subconsciously always sensed (notice the stuttering begins in Holland at the mere mention of her family). Hilary is shrewd. She recognises that Gideon had awaken Arabella but is compelled to twist the knife. That is not careless selfishness. She also correctly deduced Gideon is concerned that he is too old for Arabella. Hilary is predatory (aided and abetted by Aunt Maud) and amoral (the married lover). Even Nanny feels the need to warn Gideon that Hilary while both clever and beautiful is not quite what she seems.

    We agree with Betty Melissa’s eloquent explanation of Gideon’s anger. We would also add fear into the equation. He is fearful that Arabella may discard him as he ages so he is relieved when Arabella clings on fiercely to her beloved Nanny. It gives him hope that she will cling just as fiercely to him.

    Oh yes, the cream scene is worth the price of admission but the note Gideon drops on her lap should not be overlooked.