Monday, December 13, 2010

The Mistletoe Kiss--1997

Betty Neels was in her late 80s when she wrote The Mistletoe Kiss. I slap my forehead, sink gobsmacked on the nearest sack of potatoes and goggle my eyes in wonder. May we all be so needle-witted and full of feeling in our sweet 80s...

Once upon a time there was a fair maiden disguised as a ordinary-looking hospital telephonist (operating a telephone is not exactly brain surgery). Ermentrude Foster, 23, is on the lowest rung of the hospital ladder (almost the scullery!) and she is asked to deliver a message to a beast in the tower.
Professor Ruerd ter Mennolt, a neurologist (operating on the human brain turns out to be brain surgery), is really a handsome prince but has been enchanted by a wicked witch named Annaliese. He meets the maiden, suffers the full force of her considerable charm and remains unmoved. Be good enough to tell Miss Crother on no account to send you here again. And then he polishes off a few villagers and lays waste to the countryside. The beast has very thick skin.
Each day, as he comes to and from his tower (to burn cottages and terrify the populace), he notices the little maiden, plying her needle and practicing other 'womanly skills'. He does not want to notice her.
One day, not too long after, Wicked Witch Annaliese flies into town on her broom. Confident that her spell is as powerful as ever, she neglects fully transforming herself into the Fairy Princess alter-ego so necessary to keeping the beast in her coils. Her answering machine voice, he notices, is grating and high-pitched. (Maybe he hears the lilting sounds of woodland singing from his mousy telephonist.) Also, she is not particularly interested in hearing about all the cities he has sacked or all the brains he has held in his hand. The beast develops a pucker in his brow. Maybe, he thinks to himself, my Fairy Princess is not all spun sugar and sticky toffee pudding...
Then there is a bomb.
Ruerd the Beast uses all his supernatural skills to save everyone. (Who will he pillage or terrorize if they're all dead?) And then he finds the maiden stranded. Well, what's a beast to do? He takes Emmy the Maiden to her door, shares her meal and wins her trust. As he leaves he marks her door with a heavy mark. He knows where to get a good meal in future...
Strangely though, it isn't thoughts of gobbling her up that possess his mind. As he passes her humble nook each day he begins to look for her and even to talk with her. This will never do.
Hoping to regain his old irascible self, Ruerd tells the Wicked Witch about the maiden. Maybe speaking her name aloud will make his growing obsession melt away like his mortal self under a full moon.
But it doesn't and, worse, it stirs his Fairy Princess to action.
The Wicked Witch can smell a threat to her enchantment a mile away and the sound of this little Ermentrude simp sends a shiver of fear through her frozen heart. Swooping down on the maiden in all her spun sugar glory, she scatters a few poisoned apples and waits for them to do their work.
Though mortally wounded by the attack, our gentle maiden is no push over. She rallies in time to assist the Beast in choosing a pet.
A pet. The Beast can't believe he's choosing a pet. Of course, he already has a familiar (a cat) but an animal strictly for pleasure...and not for eating? The maiden is beginning to chip away at his shell to find the handsome prince beneath.
He has so little desire to add her to his menu that he arranges for her father to be offered a job in a neighboring village--far enough away, he hopes, that he will be saved from his own temptations.
Unfortunately, the world holds more dangers than wicked witches and flesh-eating beasts. Emmy, alone in her cottage, is set upon by two highwaymen. She mostly vanquishes them by masterfully wielding a common umbrella. Sadly, the margin between entirely vanquishing and mostly vanquishing a thief is a mild concussion and unsightly bouts of vomiting.
Who should she send for but the Beast who seems considerably less toothy and hairy than when they first met...
As for the Beast, he loves her, of course he does. He has taken a long look at himself in the inevitably cracked mirror in his gloomy beastly lair and admits it to himself at last. But it is foolishness. 'She would forget him. Only he wouldn't forget her...'
Her concussion gives him an excuse to indulge himself in foolishness a while longer. Telling lies enough to shame a sinner and exaggerating her concussed condition, he manages to invite her father and mother and herself to join him in Holland (hereditary homeland of beasts like him) for Christmas.
His Fairy Princess will be none too pleased, he considers, but her wrath will just have to be dealt with. Nothing will get in the way of keeping the maiden with him...for a little bit longer.
At the beast's magnificent castle Emmy the Maiden looks into the Mirror of Erised (oh, no, wrong story) and sees herself happily wed to a handsome prince. Because her maiden heart beats true she is able to clearly see that this is the beast in his true form and she discovers she loves him. Of course she does.
Aware of perils ahead (to her heart and (thanks to the Wicked Witch's brewing powers) to her health), Emmy reminds herself, 'I must be circumspect...'
Meanwhile, two princesses (sisters of the beast) have fallen at Emmy's feet like the rescuing antidote she is. Princess Joke and Princess Alemke exchanged a quick look. Here was the answer to their prayers. This small girl with the plain face was exactly what they had in mind for their brother. But Ruerd, deep in his painful transformation from beast to man, has to keep himself well away from the maiden. Each moment with her threatened to carry him away on a tide of feeling. He wondered why the sight of her in a sensible nightdress with her hair hanging untidily in a cloud around her shoulders, should so disturb him in a way which Annaliese, even in the most exquisite gown, never had.
But one day the heady temptation of her proximity undermines his rigid control. Passing off the fierce and possessive kiss he gives her as a bit of mistletoe nonsense and beastly behavior is a lie and he knows it.
The Wicked Witch, her Fairy Princess disguise wearing thin around the edges, casts more enchantments and spells to little avail. The beast (hardly a beast at all now) is lost to her but she'll be cursed if there's going to be a happily ever after--not if she has anything to do with it.
She dips an arrow in deadly poison and lets fly. White-faced and shaken, Emmy is able still to banish her from the castle but staying with the prince is now impossible.
She turns to her Fairy God-uncle, Oom Domas, and asks him to escort her back home to her cottage. He agrees, though with some misgivings. But he must grant the wish as that is a Fairy God-uncle's job.
However, before they leave, Emmy the Maiden, with the courage of ten men, follows the wounded Beast (wounded at her news of her departure) out to the wind-lashed dunes. I'm going because I'm in love with you. You know that, don't you?
...He kissed her soundly. 'We will talk later. I'm going to kiss you again.'
And then the Beast was never a beast again.
And they lived Happily Ever After

Rating: I just adored this one from beginning to end. Ermentrude is so friendly and has so few deferential feelings toward Ruerd (at least until her Dawning Realization) that he is disarmed and then captivated. Expecting to be treated like the eminent professor that he is, Emmy instead adopts him just as she would a lost puppy.
The tension in this feels very like that in An Ordinary Girl--hero, engaged to one girl, finds himself pursuing (quite madly) another. The principles like one another throughout and the angst revolves around seeing if hero will let himself go. This is also one of the best books for supporting that 'I loved you from the start but didn't know it right away' tropes.
But Ermentrude. Any takers on whether Betty Neels named her that for a drunken bar bet?
The Mistletoe Kiss is particularly good in the supporting characters department--his sisters, her parents, even his Oom Domus. Brilliant.
Lashings of Whipped Cream for me.

Food: Chocolate cake, tiny macaroons, lemonade, bacon, eggs enough to start a poultry farm, mushroom soup, sole a' la femme, apricot pavlova, roast pheasant, smoked salmon with brown bread and butter, game chips, creme brulee, lobster Thermidor, ubiquitous New Year oliebolljes, a 'horrid' salty candy she is pressed to try in his village (Zoute drop), sorrel soup, mustard-grilled sole, milanaise souffle, red cabbage, mushrooms in garlic, and a traditional Christmas feast with turkey, pudding and mince pies.

Fashion: Ruerd thinks she wears a lot of ill-suited clothes 'with an air'. Plastic mac, a brown suit with a cream blouse, and a 'useful' brown velvet evening dress. While staying at his home, he presumably sees her wearing his sister's gossamer nightie (not too gossamer, I hope). In contrast, his fiancee' Annaliese wears a slim cerise silk sheath (nice alliteration, Betty), stone-colored crepe de chine, red chiffon (which is a middling way to be a vamp--chiffon isn't exactly dangerous and tarty material), a cashmere and quilted jacket, gold tissue and chiffon, peacock-blue taffeta, and a soft blue wool coat with a high-crowned Melusine hat.


  1. I'm rereading all the Christmas books with great fervor -- loved Roses for Christmas & can't wait for it to be reviewed -- and I loved this one. Particularly for the ending, where Ruerd admits that being engaged to the wrong woman was "something unbearable I never wish to live through again."

    There are two things that strike me about the books-she-wrote-later-in-life: 1) It's quite unbelievable (to me at least) that young women can be well-educated but still have no skills with computers etc. (Heck, half the time they live without a landline telephone, let alone a DSL connection.) 2) Betty Neels clearly had some very interesting notions about the ethics of engagements & "understandings" -- the RDD can't break an engagement *until* even his nasty crone, uh, fiancée, has found someone for herself. I can't decide if this is evidence of The Great Betty's fine notions of fairness, or just plain stupid.

    Oh, and you just HAVE to make the British Word of the Week "Telephonist" which is - forgive me if you knew this already - pronounced teh-LEFF-uh-nist. Gotta love the Brits!

    1. Love Magdalen's way of looking at this. I can vouch for the terrors of operating a PBX switchboard: I temped as a telephonist during a working holiday, and my university degree did not prepare me for it at all. I cut off conversations all the time. Caused mayhem. They gave no training: it was not intuitive (for me, anyway).
      Telephonist seems the logical name for people operating telephone switchboards (and telly-phon-ist would be an odd pronunciation, so te-leff-phon-nist makes sense). Magdalen might also like the British way to pronounce Lieutenant, which is "leff-ten-ant" (or Lefty for short).
      Theory on terminating engagements: RDD might not want to break off engagements until new love secured for his cast-off, lest she turn into witch and haunt his own new beloved?

    2. The reason a RDD will not break his engagement is this: when a man has given his word he cannot go back on it. It’s a question of honour. I have read a lot of 19th century /early 20th century literature. It just isn’t done.

      telephonist - pronunciation
      \tə-ˈle-fə-nist, ˈte-lə-ˌfō-nist\ (e/E as is left) tuh-LE-fuh-nist, TE-luh-fo-nist Merriam-Webster
      /tɪˈlɛf(ə)nɪst/ (i as in it) ti-LEF-(uh-)nist Oxford Dictionaries Online
      /təˈlef.ən.ɪst/ (e as is left) tuh-LE-fuh-nist Cambridge Dictionary Online

      I myself did not have a computer before I was past the four zero mark. Wasn't interested, didn't need it – cannot see myself without one these days. At work, we had computers, of course, and there were about four or five different special programmes for our line of business that everyone was taught. And even the elderly ladies without prior computer experience managed beautifully!!! - Nowadays, there are companies where you cannot apply for a job unless you have a computer because you have to send your application online or via email. Or, if you want to apply for a job - say assembling cars or whatever - and you have to take a 2-hour test, at a computer. And those poor men, not in their first youth, who have never had a computer or even a typewriter...
      When I was a kid everyone had a television set. It was strange if anybody did not. There was this one boy at school in a lower grade, parents both lawyers, and they did not have one. (He became a physician, by the way, and went to work in British hospitals. And at the time, late 90's/early 2000's, they still had those multi-multi-bed wards we know from Neelsdom.)
      Betty Anonymous

    3. Not that long ago, someone clever mentioned that the time it took to start a computer and boot up a word processing program had not decreased in the 20+ years since his first computer.

      (I'm pretty sure that statement's no longer true; I can get to my documents fairly fast these days, although not all that much faster than back in the 1980s when I had an early IBM PC.)

      But I have greater appreciation for The Great Betty as I get older. My mother was in her 60s and 70s when she stopped learning new technology if she didn't want to. Thus, she could operate a fancy Swiss sewing machine but "couldn't" start a CD player attached to the stereo. ("Okay, Mum, you push the button marked 'power' then the button with the 'open' symbol, put in the CD, label up, press the 'open' button again, then press play.")

      And I'm getting there. I can learn new stuff, but do I want to? The tragedy is, I'm still (barely) younger than when The Great Betty started writing her books.

  2. Betty Barbara here--
    Betty Keira--great review. I loved, loved, loved the Beauty and the Beast analogy!! I am soooo glad you loved the book as much as I do.

    Betty Magdalen-- I, too, will be interested in the review for Roses for Christmas. I am beginning to think I am the only Betty out here who doesn't love it!
    Re: breaking an engagement--I think The Betty is hewing to the old fashioned societal standard that the woman has to be the one to call it off(officially, anyway).
    I think Betty always gave the fiancee another guy so that it would make story sense for her to throw over the RDD. Because if there wasn't another guy handy, why would fiancee dump such a treasure as the RDD??
    Re: lack of skills--we have had many a conversation about that. Some of her later heroines are competent secretaries (type, shorthand, some computer skills), but most aren't. I was kind of taken aback by the fact that Emmy's house didn't have a phone! I have no idea how much basic landline cost in England in the 90's, but I did not get the impression that she was living in dire poverty!

  3. I was a little gobsmacked when I got to the part in Mistletoe Kiss where he decides that he is going to break his engagement whether Annaliese likes it or not. Very un-Neels-like. But then Annaliese gets caught kissing a long-hair and Ruerd's dirty work is done for him.

    I'm in the middle of Roses for Christmas and probably have feelings split somewhere between you two--I had just finished Mistletoe Kiss and it isn't quite as good as that for me but it's not bad at all.

  4. I am a big P.G. Wodehouse fan - especially the Jeeves and Wooster stories. Bertie Wooster was always getting engaged (whether he wanted to or not)...but he could never be the one to break off the engagement - usually Jeeves would work out a solution to the problem.
    If only Betty Neels' RDDs had more Jeeves-type people working for them, all those unfortunate engagements could be speedily dealt with.

  5. I really, really liked this book. I thought it was beautifully paced, and the main (and secondary) characters were adorable.

    The name Ermentrude was perfect because that's partly what made Ruerd look twice in the first place. The other reason he noticed is that Emmy never was so intimidated by him that she lost her personality--he did indeed become enchanted quickly.

    I actually thought that the Ruerd's engagement plot was perhaps one of the best treated in Neelsdom. He admitted to himself that he became engaged to the Wicked Witch without being in love with her because she had the qualifications that suited him. To throw her over (we're talking high Dutch society here and LOTS of $$$) in humiliation after the banns were read, so to speak, because he in essence changed his mind was untenable to his idea of how real men behave. Once he came to know what "twue love" (see "The Princess Bride") was, he decided that for him to marry her and not love her was worse than the humiliation. Remember he decided this still thinking that Ermentrude saw him as just an old guy. AND I like that he only kisses her as an engaged man with the mistletoe as an excuse--how adorable--of course, he makes it count.

    Plus, I really liked that they actually became friends before either of them fell in love. AND there gets to be some serious chemistry flowing at least on his part.

    I bet Betty meant a telephonist to be like an old PBX switchboard operator--which actually was, while not brain surgery, a challenging job at times.

    Betty Barbara--don't like "Roses for Christmas"--made a bogus cover to that effect.

  6. I suspect that "telephonist" is the person who answers and asks you "how may I direct your call?" I'm constantly trying to guess: am I already speaking to someone who can answer my question or do I need to figure out how much information I tell *this* person so that she (or he) can direct my call?

    Hotels are at the top of that list for me; I just need to remember to ask for "Reservations, please" because most likely the person who answered the phone can't help me.

    The real implausibility is that Emmy is working anywhere that a consultant would ever be... As we'll see with Olivia, it beggars the imagination that a consultant would come down in person to the file room.

    (We've just finishing 2010's Cookie Weekend and Betty Henry is helping pack cookies for his office staff; the file clerk is high on his list. "As you might imagine, she's someone I want to be very happy with me...")

  7. I started reading TMK last night and immediately realized, I don't think I've read this before. I got a big bunch of Bettys all at once a few years back and lost track of which ones I read.
    The tip off was Snoodles, the cat and George, the elderly Dachshund. We had a cat and our own elderly hot-dog until 2 years ago, so I would have remembered the book for that reason alone. His name was Ritz and she was Kimmy. Both about 15 when they passed away about 6 months apart.

    Did you consider in the founding days of doing a section on the animals of Betty in addition to food, clothes, and cars? It would be interesting to know what the favorite breeds and names were.

  8. High crowned Melusine Hat

    bummer. I was trying to post a pic here of the hat. Most are black high crowned hats that look like Fred Astaire wore. There was one in white. So I would think the wicked princess was getting ready to either dance or ride a horse!

  9. I need help finding the right BN book.

    Can anyone remember the title for this story?:

    Heroine is asked to marry the guy for a few months because his female ward~17-18 y.o. is a handful and needs to see what a real marriage/relationship looks like.


  10. Dear Betty Francesca,
    The book you're looking for is 'A Convenient Wife'. It happened to be among the books we reviewed back in January(that would be the dawn of time here at TUJD).

    You're very welcome.

  11. Betty Francesca,
    If you e-mail your high-crowned melusine hat picture to the Founding Bettys, maybe they can post it so we can see it.
    p.s. The cover of "The Convenient Wife" is very nice.

  12. I have read this one twice in the past six months. Bettys please don't hate me but after awhile the RDDs and plain girls with one redeeming feature ie lovely voice, lovely eyes, rich hair blur together.
    I love this particular one, its so so Betty. Out of step with time? Check. Chaste to the extreme (most Bettys are but I was shocked to extreme when a heroine hinted that she and her dull yet worthy fiance spend a weekend out of town together....What!) Check. Good food, good servants, good pacing and consistent relationship with main characters. Check.
    Wonderfully entertaining review for a thoroughly enjoyable book.
    Betty Delia

  13. Love the humourous review.

    We have to keep reminding ourselves that although the book is published in 1997 it is not necessarily set in 1997 but some parallel universe.

    In some respects, Neels 1970s heroines were far more independent than her 1990s ones. It is difficult to fathom that the daughter of a school teacher was afforded no opportunity to engage in tertiary education and as a consequence the father seems unperturbed that he is condemning his daughter to working class poverty. Also annoying was the high handed manner that he 'advises' Emmy to give her notice. She is 23!!! Emmy is well rid of her parents at the end.

    Bit disturbed by some of Ruerd's relatives. Joke seems entrust the care of her children to anyone who shows the slightest interest in them (no wonder Annaliese avoids them) and Oom Domas and his handy binoculars.

    Can we talk about Annaliese? We are repeatedly told she is clever but why would one so clever jeopardize the engagement by bringing her lover to a family function? It is so out of character. We also don't think it was fair that she be condemn for wanting only one or two children.

  14. You make some good points, B. Silence (here and in your other comments, too)--but they don't change my affection for this book. This is possibly the best review on the site and one of my favorite books, mostly because of the abundance of hero POV and the fact that he's consistently kind.
    First, to address your points: Her father doesn't seem to be "unperturbed" by her lack of education, perhaps because he knows she really hates living in London and wants to follow her heart and her artistic leanings into a more pastoral yet still possibly capitalistic world of one of those little craft shops where she can sit all day giving demonstrations of those really complicated forms of needlework. (You just know that when they marry, she's going to go to all those classes and then Ruerd will help her set up a business and she'll provide baby clothes and custom embroidery to the adel, and to mail order customers around the world.)
    Emmy said, "Will there be a house with the job?... Oh, Father, it's almost too good to be true!"
    He didn't sound "high-handed" when he "advised" her to give notice--"Mr. Foster said slowly, 'Your mother and I have been talking it over. You will have to give a month's notice, will you not? ... would you stay on for the last month, Emmy? Could you bear to do that?"....Her father frowned. "It's not an ideal arrangement ... if you give a month's notice you'll be free by xmas..." It's a given among the three of them that Emmy wouldn't want to stay on in London any longer than she had to, certainly not to stay and make her life there. She wants to get back to someplace like Littleton Mangate as fast as she can, and they seem like a nice loving family. As her mother says, "Just think, when we've sold this house there'll be a little money to spend. Enough for you to go to a school of embroidery or whatever else you want to do. You'll meet people of your own age, too." There has been no indication that her father feels any differently or more dismissively of her.
    Joke may have engineered the job for Emmy, once she saw that Emmy was not likely to stuff her babies full of Seconal if they stayed up too late, as a chance to get her more time with Ruerd and to show him how well she fit in with his family.
    But you're right, Oom Domas's binoculars are a bit contrived.

    Ok, why would Annaliese bring Humbold Humbold to the house? Because she needed a buffer against the waves of hatred emanating from the ter Mennolt family? Because he showed up at her house with nowhere to go for the holidays and she thought Ruerd would understand? Because somewhere along the line she was related to Hugo-let's-bring-the-ex-girlfriend-home-to-the-wife-I've-been-developing-a-close-relationship-with-over-the-phone-during-the-trip-I-coldly-canceled-on-her-and-can't-understand-why-she's-upset? Really, because underneath, she wanted Ruerd and Emmy to be happy together and knew that only an action as drastic as being caught in flagrante would give them the complete break necessary for their guiltless happiness? Or, plot device.

    (to be continued)
    B. Baersma

    1. Cultural expectations and norms tend to influence our reactions. This is a family that has been living a paycheque to paycheque existence, once that immediate financial pressure is off, rather than build a nest egg, the father squanders that opportunity. We realise in the context of the novel this is a moot point as Emmy's job is made redundant but this heedless regard to the future is so irresponsible (and in real life has devastating consequences).

      Twenty three is no age at all but she is beginning to age out of opportunities. By the time she graduated (assuming this was formal qualification) she would be competing with people younger (and cheaper) than herself. Let alone mention that pursuing a career in the arts without a secondary income source is foolhardy. Her financial position is perilous. It is so angering that Emmy's father is so feckless and Emmy's trust in her father potentially can led to her ruin.

  15. part two

    Emmy is an only child, she should be more understanding of Annaliese's feelings in that respect.

    Can you explain this line to me, though? Emmy meets his parents and sees that "his mother, despite her elegant bearing, had a homely face, spared from downright plainness by a pair of very blue eyes. No wonder he has fallen in love with Anneliese, reflected Emmy, with that lovely face and golden hair."
    What does that have to do with his mother not having a lovely face? Does she think he doesn't love his mother? Does she think his handsome father doesn't love his wife because she's not a babe? Does she think Ruerd is afraid if he doesn't marry a model his kids will be gargoyles? I think Emmy is almost as emotionally retarded at times as Ruerd is. (See? They're so perfect for each other.) If she says, "But you are kind! and handsome and sexy," don't think, oh, she doesn't like me. If someone rips open his trenchcoat of emotional armor and flashes his Dawning Realization at you in such a beautifully phrased way, --"One day, a man will look at you and love you. He won't notice the clothes; he will see only your lovely eyes and the kindness in your face. He will find you beautiful and tell you so."--you do not squirt ice-cold seltzer in his beaky-nosed face! No, you think, "Whoa, where did that come from?"
    Also, why didn't Ruerd announce that the engagement was off, the next morning? He thought it would pressure Emmy or something?

    But Ruerd was so thoughtful and honorable (and "Nice! Nice!") And I appreciated that he only kissed her that once.
    I think I have to read the review again now.

    B. Baersma

    1. I loved this book, but I felt the same way when I read the remark about the mother. That was a head scratcher. Regarding Annalise’s boyfriend, I got the impression that he was just back, she actually loved him, and wanted to be with him as much as possible. I’m not sure why Ruerd thought it would spoil the party to break off the engagement. I think his family had made it obvious that it would be a cause for celebration, not a spoiler. Very cute that he used the mistletoe excuse, and even cuter that he thanked Emmy for taking care of “ his” kitten for him when she got caught with it at work.

      Oh, and the whole bit about her parents being stuck with two houses’ worth of furniture after the previous occupant died. I did wonder if Betty knew someone that had happened to. They were a happy little family, and the parents hid the awful conditions at the new house even as Emmy hid the awfulness of staying behind. The perfect excuse for a RDD to whisk them off to Holland, even if I did question babysitting as a treatment for a concussion.

  16. I have read it for the third time, and still like it really well, probably because I admire Emmy's dignity, especially dealing with that Annelise woman :-) and I like the Professor, really!

  17. Loved seeing that you are still commenting. Has there ever been such an author as the Great Betty? This is one of my favourites, because both Emmy and the RDD have so much personality. Emmy is such a goer! One of my top 20!