Love and lardy cakes,
Henrietta Brodie is just about as close to being a spinster as Neels ever lets her heroines get. There might be a few that are just as old (Laura from The Hasty Marriage comes to mind), but somehow, they don't reek of incipient spinsterhood quite like Henrietta does. They may have cats and knit, but somehow they never quite cross that line.
Henrietta Brodie age 29. An Olivia, if ever there was one. An Olivia with dark, gently curling hair. Described as "dishy" and having "blinding good looks". She is an orphan. Has been for quite some time. She has recently turned down a marriage proposal - to a boring, but worthy (there's a bit of damning with faint praise) Chief Pharmacist. This wasn't her first marriage proposal, but she wondered if it would be her last - she is getting on a bit...but wait!....she gets a letter from a solicitor, informing her that her Aunt Henrietta Brodie (let's name the child after her aunt so that maybe she'll inherit something) died last week and left her some property in the village of Gijzelmortel. Well, of course she throws her bonnet over the windmill, quits her job as Sister at St. Clement's and drives off to Holland in Charlie -"a very old Mini bought from one of the housemen 3 years previously, it had been second-hand then...." (I don't know of any other Neels characters that name their car. Dr. van der Stevejinck's sister does - and so do her kids. It's a little weird, but very funny at times) Henrietta invests in some new clothes including a pair of unfashionable, sensible, lined boots...she might be glad of them; the guide book had said that it could be cold in Holland and that skating was a national pastime, which led her to believe that there might be degrees of coldness, for it wasn't a national pastime in England.
Henrietta drives Charlie onto the ferry (I feel for her here - I'm betting Charlie had a manual transmission - and negotiating tricky curving uphill ramps in a ferry, with a stick shift, is not for the faint of heart...I know, I've done it a time or two). She drives through Belgium, takes another ferry at Sluis, gets on the N97, skirts Tilburg then sees the signpost to Gijzelmortel. She turned into the exit point, swings the little car under a flyover and joins a narrow road which leads her to a narrower lane, then it's easy does it to Gijzelmortel. Except for the sleet and the gathering darkness. The village is so tiny she has no trouble finding Dam 3, her new home. (Thank you Betty for the travel log - it will make finding the fictional town of Gijzelmortel easy when we go on our Neels in the Netherlands Tour). And now we FINALLY meet....
Jonkheer Mr. Dr. Marnix van Hessel, her new landlord. What? Landlord? I thought she inherited the house...yeah, about that...it seems the solicitor neglected to go into that little item. (I happen to live near an Indian Reservation - where many non-Native Americans own homes...the land isn't their's, it's leased...which can turn into quite a nightmare if the homeowners want to sell their home, but the lease might not get renewed). Sparks begin to fly right from the get-go with these two. He is rude and arrogant, but also unexpectedly kind and thoughtful. A riddle wrapped in an enigma. Even though Neels' Holland is chockablock with barons and jonkheers, usually this means no more than a large house and fabulous wealth. Not this time. Okay, yes, there is a castle AND of course Marnix is wealthy, but the difference here is the whopping amount of rampant feudalism. I'm surprised that Betty didn't trot out the phrase "noblesse oblige" when referring to Jonkheer Marnix's responsibilities. Shades of Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins:
It's grand to be an Englishman in 1910
King Edward's on the throne;
It's the age of men
I'm the lord of my castle
The sov'reign, the liege!
I treat my subjects: servants, children, wife
With a firm but gentle hand
Marnix walks into the house without so much as a tap on the door. Henrietta is a wee bit uneasy (Stranger=Danger), so she tells him to leave, "...this is my house and I must ask you to leave it." He comes right into the kitchen and remarks: "A very hoity-toity speech". Question. Would Dutch Doctor Jonkeers really use the term 'hoity-toity'? It sounds a bit forced.
Speaking of kitchens (we were just a couple of sentences back), Henrietta describes her new one as "adequately equipped". She then goes on to detail how it is equipped: "a sink with a geyser above it, a small table with two gas rings and shelves of saucepans and cooking utensils." She calls that "Adequately equipped"???? I've gone camping with more kitchen appliances than that. I can overlook the lack of cupboards, I can overlook the lack of counter space (Dr. van der Stevejinck and I set up housekeeping in a little basement walk-up that had absolutely no kitchen counters. None. One cupboard over the sink/drainboard. True story.), but what I have a tough time with is the lack of refrigeration and the lack of an oven. I get that refrigerators might have been thin on the ground in a throw-back feudal village like Gijzelmortel, but come on, ovens too?? (my grandmother cooked on a antique wood-burning kitchen stove/oven well into the 1970's so maybe Betty could have thrown us a bone there...after all, Henrietta did heat her home with some kind of wood stove - or is cooking on a wood stove somehow not European?) Henrietta does go on to make bread in that self-same kitchen using "a tin oven she had found to set on top of the gas rings." Really? I'm all in awe of her bread making skills if she can manage to bake respectable loaves of bread in a tin oven on top of gas rings.
While exploring her new house, Henrietta finds a little cupboard hidden behind a picture. Very mysterious. In said cupboard she finds some table silver and a velvet-covered box. "There was a garnet necklace inside; a gold chain, very thick and solid, the garnets fashioned into a cascade of flowers...she would have to tell someone." This is our introduction to:
The Sad, Melancholy Tale of Henrietta Brodie, the 1st.
Marnix relates the story to Henrietta while giving her a lift to Tilburg.
Henrietta's aunt, (we'll call her H1) and Marnix's uncle (alas, unnamed) fell in love when they were fairly young. Sadly, Uncle was already unhappily married to a horrible woman. "They didn't have an affair in the usual sense of that word; it wasn't until she was forty or so that he finally persuaded her to go and live near him...he desperately needed someone to love, so H1 gave in at last and made her home in Gijzelmortel...although they loved each other deeply they were never more than friends - the village loved her; so did anyone who met her. If my aunt had died, they would undoubtedly have married, but my uncle died first...." I guess this explains why Henrietta II's parents didn't talk about H1 or invite her to go family vacations (Henrietta's parents have been dead for about 10 years at this point, so you'd have to assume all this tortured platonic love took place in the 1940's and 50's - possibly into the 60's, not nearly so acceptable back then, I'm thinking).
Marnix stops by to tell Henrietta to expect a visit from his agent, Pieter van der Zande. Upon leaving her, Marnix takes her outstretched hand, and instead of shaking it goodbye "...He took the hand and pulled her towards him quite roughly and bent to kiss her surprised mouth. 'I wanted to do that". It may not have been a case of Droit de seigneur...but it was kissing cousins with it. I would find that unexpected kiss more disturbing and unforgivable if he hadn't shown up at her house a few hours later to apologize. And then to notice she was baking bread. "Don't apologize, I'm not a silly girl, you know. I've just made a batch of loaves." Fresh bread and kisses. Two of the best things in life.
I really like this book. A lot. Which is why it is tough to introduce the next character. Loes Rietveld, the dominee's daughter. We shall now refer to her as Oh, Noes Loes! She is the fly in the ointment. The curdle in the milk. A stinker of the first water. Sure, Betty had heroines that were much more evil and loathsome...but Oh, Noes Loes! is only 18 years old. Marnix is looking 40 in the face. If he was, say 45, and she was (let's do the maths) 23 years old I wouldn't have quite as big a problem with it...as it is, Oh Noes Loes! is just plain creepy. She's a pretty, dainty blond with sly eyes and a selfish pout...only not when Marnix is looking. When he looks she's all wistful and sweet (can't...stop...gag....reflex....). Of course she doesn't love him. I don't think she even likes him, but she does like the idea of living in the castle and being wealthy. A lot. But really, 18??? Creepy. She is a mistress of two-facedness. Henrietta sees that immediately, but she doesn't think that Marnix does (and frankly, I'm not sure he ever does see her duplicitous nature). I shall now proceed to ignore the character of Oh Noes Loes! as much as I can.
And now we come to the carnage! Yes, CARNAGE. An airplane crashes in a field near the village. This is the sequence of events: Henrietta sees an airliner swoop from behind the houses, barely missing the roofs, then it swerves, gains altitude, engines sound bad, she runs inside, closes down the stove, puts on her boots and coat, grabs a scarf, talks to Marnix at the door - he gives her instructions and warnings, she bangs her door shut and walks as far as the castle gates. All BEFORE the plan goes down. Really? It's not that I doubt it would take an airliner that long to crash, but if it did, wouldn't it be quite a ways from the village? I shall have to consult Dr. van der Stevejinck about this as he knows much more about matters aeronautical.
Marnix tells Henrietta to go to the castle and get organized for the wounded...what follows is Henrietta being efficient and helpful and Oh Noes Loes! not being helpful. Marnix does some emergency surgery in the castle with Henrietta's help (did I mention that he is a consultant surgeon? Oops). Lots of descriptions of people injured, especially burned. When it was all over Marnix takes Oh Noes Loes! home. "The poor child is quite unfit for such sights and sounds - she tells me that she did her best to help, but she is sensitive and young..." Henrietta stared at him; he surely couldn't believe the rubbish he was uttering.
Henrietta goes home and has a good noisy cry...about everything ...in comes Marnix...."her voice spiralling upwards with rage, 'Why shouldn't I cry?' she flung at him, quite beside herself. 'Just because I'm not small and fair and blue-eyed it doesn't mean that I haven't any feeling.' She gave a watery snort. 'Go away, do - you've no right to come into my house!" I love the bit about the watery snort. Sounds a bit like a water buffalo.
Enough already about the airplane crash. Mr. van der Zande (remember, he's Marnix's agent) comes to make arrangements about the lease-hold. He unburdens himself to Henrietta about his love-life. Seems he would like to marry the fair Engelina, but mummy dearest doesn't think he's old enough to get married. Mummy dearest would like for Pieter to take care of her for the rest of his life. Henrietta suggests the Engelina come and stay with her SECRETLY. This goes just fine for Pieter and Engeline, but unfortunately Oh Noes Loes! sees them driving Charlie the Mini and tells Marnix that Henrietta and Pieter are going out. Misunderstandings galore. After helping a horse to foal in a field, our hero and heroine finally, finally work things out. The Betty actually gives us five (5)!!! pages of explanations interspersed with thorough kissing. The end.
Food: erwtensoep, loaves of bread cooked in a tin oven, lobster souffle, Barossa tart.
Fashion: sensible but ugly lined boots, apron, slacks and a thick sweater, tweed suit in a pleasing shade of brown.
To sum it all up: Every time Henrietta and Marnix meet they start fencing. Verbally. She is irritated, annoyed and intrigued by Marnix...sparks fly. Marnix doesn't help matters much. He is dictatorial, brusque, ill-mannered and has more than a bit of a temper - he is also often helpful and generous. Shall we mention chemistry and tension? Henrietta's Own Castle has got to be one of the top ten Neels books when it comes to *ahem* "tension". At this point I would love to insert a montage clip of David and Maddie from the old tv show Moonlighting, slamming doors. If only I could have found one. The Venerable Betty wasn't always able to balance her arguing couples well. At times the ladies just come off shrill and unappealing. She manages to make Henrietta likeable in spite of her yelling at Marnix and Marnix is appealing (though a bit dim about Loes being what Loes was) even though he has more than his fair share of "Lord of the Manor" attitude (which could so be a deal breaker in my book). I love it when they get together at the end, I practically cheer when Marnix climbs the kitchen wall to declare his love. You just know that Marnix and Henrietta will have a lively marriage - lots of fighting, and lots of making up...the good kind. I give this book a good solid boeuf en croute. (If you skip the references to Oh Noes Loes being 18 it might even bump up to a queen of puddings)
Fun quote: "You are a woman of parts, Miss Brodie."