Monday, July 23, 2012

Midsummer Star - Reprise

Midsummer Star was one of the last Neels that I read, so it hasn't made it through my rotation very often.  Partly due to The Nicky.  I have a hard time reading about Celine and the married man. I do love the B & B segments (except for The Nicky), I even like the idea of Celine working and living in Bethnal Green - a bit rougher neighborhood than the typical Araminta or Olivia is subjected to. I just keep stubbing my toes on The Nicky.  You might want to put on some work boots for this one. For those of you who like a bit more angsti-ness than I, this one might be right up your alley.
-Betty Debbie

My copy of Midsummer Star is falling apart--the pages fluttering out like pieces of our heroine's ragged heart.

Celine Baylis, 22, is a gorgeous dark-haired beauty with years of theoretical education and 'finishing' behind her. She speaks French like a native, whips together food like a Cordon Bleu, looks awfully decorative and lives like Sleeping Beauty in a charming tumble-down Elizabethan Manor. But, as evidenced by her awful name (Celine just screams Neels villainess to me), her parents are not to be trusted.The Colonel (a dreamy type with a sporadic parade-ground manner) and his wife ('My, what a lot of flowers there are to arrange!') have dug themselves into a debt crisis. Their assets are these:
  • The manor. Yes, this 10 bedroom house has damp patches and needs repairs but if you squint just right and fail to acquaint yourself with the furnace (ha! It doesn't have a furnace, silly.) it is charming.
  • A couple of old retainers--cooking and butler/gardening. They're paying them no matter what.
  • A well-stocked wine cellar that The Colonel mothers like a broody hen.
  • An extensive kitchen garden--producing fresh delectables at little cost. The garden also has a good deal of flowers.
  • One newly minted entrepreneurial daughter--passionately determined to make a go of running a Bed and Breakfast. ('If Mrs. Ham can, so can I.')
Act I: The Bed and Breakfast or Mother Can Do the Flowers or Celine the Magnificent
This is my favorite part. Once Celine (a name which is probably not too bad in real life but fits like a bad suit on a Neels heroine) understands the magnitude of her parents' financial straits, she throws off the young Swiss-finished lady and rolls up her sleeves. Celine pitches crud up in the kitchen

With an unflinching desire to live life as it is and not the way she wants it to be that had me cheering she tells the family solicitor, 'I've been doing nothing for a long time...I think I'll try something else for a change.'
In no time they've opened up the rooms, worked out menus and rates (Six pounds for a night, dinner will be three pounds fifty and extra for drinks) and had a few visitors.
And then one day, when she's strolling gently past the front drive she gets malaria. Okay. Not malaria. But some disease that transforms her personality and gives her a brain fever. Let's call it...I'm just spit-balling here...(snaps fingers)...The Nicky.
Celine instantly succu
mbs to The Nicky. He is with his parents on holiday and plans to stay a few days! Celine's joy has little to do with swelling the family bank account and more to do with being rushed off her feet by this magnificent malarial specimen.
Editorial Note:

I think of falling in love with Nicky as the Old Celine's last hurrah. She's not in love with the Malady, per se, but in love with this languid, cosseted life she used to live. And though she works like a Trojan, I think she's got some lingering longing for her former self. New Celine is rushed off her feet, running after guests and getting dinner. Nicky takes trays out of her hands and strolls with Old Celine in the garden. (Of course, New Celine takes a basket along with her to collect some peas while she's at it.)
And then his father has a stroke. (Maybe from hanging out with The Nicky?)
The Nicky is less than useless, leaving his father to be cared for by strangers, while he lolls about the scenery and makes passes at Celine. Papa Seymour (The Nicky's father), meanwhile, calls threadily for 'Oliver'.
Oliver Seymour, Nicky's cousin, is an up-right, up-tight, do-right bore according to The Nicky--he's a virtuous prig but they'll have to send for him.
Celine is up a ladder in filthy clothes painting a drainpipe that she's hauled into place (no lolling here!) when she meets the Odious Oliver. Deep in love (read: 'Deep in do-do') with the Malarial Nicky, she feels like she needs to adopt his attitudes and loyalties--hauling her opinions into line with his in much the same way as that wayward drainpipe. So she sees what Nicky sees: A smug and virtuous man bent on showing The Nicky up as the cheap imitation he is.
Oliver loves her at once.

Act II: Young Love's Dream Dashed
Oliver steps into the situation with an un-Nicky-like aplomb. Nicky is only able snatch moments with Celine--whispering about weekends and...marriage...of course he means marriage if weekends away are involved--before Oliver breaks things up. And then, when Nicky and his parents leave and all the bills are settled (by Oliver), Celine receives a crushing blow.
Oliver: I noticed you and Nicky were making googly-eyes at one another.
Celine: We mean to be married. What would an old bachelor like you know about a divine love like ours?
Oliver: Only that it would be illegal in all fifty Colonies.
Malarial Nicky is married.
It can't be true, thinks Celine as she spirals into a fevered delusion. But when The Nicky returns, she (after much equivocation) tells him what Oliver said. Well?
Oh. That. Divorce is easy these days...let's have a're naive...let me grab your arm menacingly...
Oliver makes a sudden rescue and Celine takes off to cry her eyes out.
When Oliver does track her down he offers a shoulder to cry on and a job. She (stupidly!) wants to know if Nicky would really want to divorce his wife and find her again. (I almost can't forgive this much idiocy.) And then she calls Oliver avuncular because he must not be interested in women. He took this unflinchingly on the chin.

Act III: The Fetid Swamp of Bethnal Green or Celine Gets a Job and a Flatlet
Oliver arranges everything (even the installation of Mother Baylis' much younger sister as Celine's temporary replacement) and before you know it, Celine is living above a paediatric clinic in the rough part of London--Bethnal Green in the East End.
The point is that absence and activity will make her forget The Nicky but I keep getting annoyed at the subtle implication that she's not up to the job. She bravely started a semi-thriving Bed and Breakfast with limited resources and a willingness to work, people! Don't tell me that she's incapable of swabbing baby vomit or de-funking toddlers.
My one criticism of Oliver is that, just as The Nicky said, he is always right. This would be rather tiresome to live with and you find yourself wishing that Celine would be mugged and strangled on her way to church just to prove to him that establishing her in the middle of a slum might be a bad idea.
She does not get strangled.
Instead, on her day off, she meets The Nicky. And she has tea with him. And she listens as he pours his honeyed disease into her ears. But back in her flatlet she isn't quite so happy. Maybe dating a married man would be a bad idea!
Oliver, seeing the need to bolster Celine's resolve, makes some effort to fill up her free time and she spends a wonderful day with him in the country and then at his home. They go to Cats that evening and stumble across Daphne--Nicky's wife...and mother of his child! 'You knew--that they were going to be there. You did it deliberately...'
'Yes, I did it deliberately.'

Editorial Note:
Recently legendary screen actress Patricia Neal died and I've been going through a lot of her obits. She suffered a series of horrible strokes during one of her pregnancies and her rehabilitation was attributed to her husband, author Roald Dahl, being a horrible SOB (not a stretch for him, I hear) and making her button her own shirts if it took her an hour. This is exactly Oliver's approach. Nicky is a disease to be purged from her system and Celine won't get better by being coddled. But don't think that Oliver enjoys it.
Nicky isn't going to stop pestering her (though her fever has finally broken and she's so over him) so Oliver, tossing over his shoulder on the way to stabilize a diabetic child, says, 'A propos Nicky--we could get engaged.'
She agrees to talk about it (intending to ask if he's suffering under malarial delusions) and, coming upon him waiting for her to change--sitting on the bottom stair, reading a newspaper--she is blindingly certain that she's in love with Oliver.
So, now it's a foregone conclusion that she'll agree to an engagement of convenience. Delightfully we learn that her middle name is Petronella (please don't print that in the newspaper, she thinks) and his Christian names are Oliver Edmund Frederick. They dance in the line of duty and kiss in the line of duty and if his embraces are more warm than is strictly warranted than it must be attributed to his skills as an actor.
On one weekend they visit his aunt and uncle (Nicky's parents) and run into Daphne (quite bitter over her husband's continual philandering and in a mood to pour her heart out to Celine) and Nicky (who hisses at Celine, 'Am I supposed to believe that this is a fairytale romance?...You'll be telling me next that you love him.' Celine's quiet and heartfelt, 'I do' wipes the smug expression off his face).
So that's Nicky taken care of. But we still have thirty pages left and we have to fill them with something...Ah, a red herring! Just the thing. One of Oliver's friends tells Celine that she was sure Oliver was waiting to marry her daughter Hilary. This is just like your GPS telling you to take the I-405 North exit to get to the airport when you know that to take the I-405 South exit will get you there sooner. Detours ahead!

Act IV: Hie to Holland or The Little Italian Dress Takes a Trip
And then they go to Holland because he has a business trip and wants to have her meet more friends. She gets a chance to air her French and likes her hosts enormously. He catches her in the garden one afternoon, kisses her thoroughly and gently reminds her that they are engaged. But of course, that only makes her stiffen (instead of relent and reveal which was what he was hoping for) and, as he is a seismograph where she is concerned, he lets her go and the moment is lost.

Act V: A Spot of Snogging
Back in England, she plucks up her courage and corners the good doctor. She has heard that Hilary is a charming girl and, finding the selfless love of New Celine more satisfying (albeit, more painful) than the blind rapture of Old Celine, gives him back his ring and breaks the engagement.
Just by chance she meets Hilary in the street and sees that she's not a day over 14. Uh-oh. Or, if I may employ the more nuclear, Scooby-Doo-ism: Ruh-Roh.
Forces (by 'forces' I mean 'A very determined and angry Oliver') keep her from getting a minute alone with Oliver to explain and she finds herself being told by his butler that he's gone away for a few days. Tears!
And thank heaven for tears because Pym (the butler) calls Oliver to let him know he was making innocent young ladies burst into lamentations on his doorstep. That's why, when Celine is swinging gently in her Elizabethan garden under her Elizabethan tree, Oliver walks around the corner of the Elizabethan house. He's there to see what the fuss is about.
There's no fuss. Just kissing and disclosures and more kissing
The End

Rating: This was a darling little book. It's not one of my favorites (as it becomes mired in the swamp of Bethnal Green rather securely) but it mostly works and the two main characters have much to recommend them. Oliver is always right and serious and dependable. Celine (ugh, I hate her name) is fresh and plucky and hard working...and as dumb as a post. The only part I don't like much is when she's trying to justify seeing Nicky again even after finding out about his wife. I hated it, but then, I think I hated it because it was uncomfortable to read...not because it wasn't an understandable feeling for Celine to have. When she was behaving stupidly I would think to myself, 'She single-handedly rescued her family from ruin' and say it over and over in my head. She never does get the recognition she deserves for such an awesome thing. I give this a happy boeuf en croute.

Food: Cornflakes, kipper fillets, lamb chops, syllabub (twice!), egg and mushroom flan (ick.), fresh peas are pushed to the side of the plate (that's what I do with my peas too), Yorkshire pudding, roast beef, trifle, wild duck stuffed with apples, ice cream, strawberries coming out of your ears, Boeuf Stroganoff and lobster.

Fashion: Celine meets Oliver wearing paint-stained jeans and a cotton sweater. She could practically drive to Rome on the mileage she gets out of a 'little Italian dress'. She also wears a dim apricot silk and a faded cotton Liberty dress.


  1. I always forget this one when thinking of my top-ten or top-however-many, but I bet it's pretty far up there. I love that she just jumps up and starts running a four-star B&B. (Given my own B&B experiences in the Mother Country, I should be delighted for a shot at Baylis Manor, especially at six quid a night, which I bet was cheap even in 1983.)

    Nicky is vile, but surely most of us have some experience of the, "Wait, wait -- I couldn't have been that much of a sucker" with which one softens the blow of one's worst misjudgments of character.

    And I quite like the name 'Celine,' especially when coupled with 'Baylis.'

    1. Which is funny, you know, because I'm re-reading my review and wondering what my problem was with the name Celine. It's still not a favorite but I don't hate it. Ah well...

  2. Now, I remember this one. I don't remember her name. I hate her name too.

    And I couldn't stand it that her mother wouldn't lift a finger to help. ugh.

    But the aunt fit in very nicely and effeciently, although, I wonder if they fought a lot over how hard she works compared to ze momma.

    I really like hard working heroines, especially when they don't have to per se.

    She could have easily gone the "let's have a career of my own in London" route, but she opted to help her father instead.

    I sooo admire that.

    I so love Oliver. He is one of the awesome ones that I love. He reminds me of the one in Holland who was very similar in character--the one who sat on a bucket behind his house. Remember him?

    She is lucky to have an Oliver lover her and boy did she just barely get him. Just barely. (Shudders). Nicky would have made any young woman bitter.

    But, I totally understand the pull of the Nicky Disease. A girl needs male relatives to protect her from that kind of disease. Where was her father when she needed him????

    B. Francesca

    1. The man on the bucket behind his house was Gijs van Amstel, Uncertain Summer.
      I, too, am not fond of the Mother. It is wrong to say that she never lifted a finger, for when she sent Celine shopping in Dorchester she offered to tidy the rooms and make the beds, and to make a salad for lunch. But I was really and truly upset when the first couple of pounds had been earned and Mrs. Baylis said she was wondering if they couldn't buy some clothes. ARRRGHHH. And Mr. Baylis! What do we know about him? He reads books, takes a nap after lunch (which he denies) and catches trout. Being a happy angler and, in addition to that, sommelier in his own home and wine cellar is Mr. Baylis's contribution to the B&B. (Considering the number of times that trout appears on the B&B Dinner Menu, I am surprised there were still any trout left in the stream.) He lost a lot of money through unwise investments (investments made against his lawyers advice, of course!)- and bought his wife a mink coat for Christmas which cost more than his now remaining meager yearly income. AAARGHHHH.
      And I cannot agree with Celine that it would be unfair to expect her mother to do any real work around the house. Where does she get that idea?
      I have started re-re-re-re-reading the book. And it occurred to me that dear Celine was truly an innocent. She thought marriage and Nicky Le Slime thought Brighton in Bournemouth. Ha.

  3. I re-read this yesterday morning in anticipation of this review. I know that I really liked this the first time I read it (within the last 10 years) but I had forgotten pretty much everything save the opening of the B&B.

    To be honest, The Nicky truly is a dreaded disease that I have a hard time recovering from (and then he keeps turning up or calling which upsets me as much as it upsets Celine), however, I was hit by three realizations yesterday.

    1. I love that Oliver Seymour has an Anglican name that I don't spend hours wondering how to pronounce.

    2. I swoon when Oliver drives across London because Celine didn't answer the phone and he was worried. SWOON.

    "'I telephoned because I wanted to see you.' He didn't tell her that after the second no reply he had got into the car and driven across London just to check that she was all right." (still swooning)

    3. The last sentence of the book may be my most favorite Betty ending. My eyes shimmer, my heart lurches, and I turn the page back and read the swing scene all over again.

  4. THE MAY SUN, bright but still tepid so early in the morning, shone down on the old house, so that the rose brickwork and the tilted gables glowed; it shone on the Albertine roses, already in bud, climbing its walls, and on the large neglected ...

  5. Considering the time they had at their disposal, Mireille worked miracles. They left the car and walked in Leiden; down one side of the Rapenburg Canal and up the other, past the University and the little lane leading to the Hortus Botanicus Gardens, and then on to the other side past the Museum of Antiquities, and from there into Breestraat, the backbone of Leiden, as it were. But Mireille had by no means finished. They did a lightning tour of the Sint Pieterskerk, the Burcht fortifications and the Cornmarket Bridge, they even managed to have a quick cup of coffee in the Doelen, on the edge of the Rapenburg Canal.

  6. The photographs make me want to go!

    Thank you so much

  7. Gosh, I sure hope they don't name their first daughter - any daughter - Petronella. She's bound to be a little plump and miss being pretty by a too wide mouth....

  8. One thing that bothers me about this book is that even after Papa Seymour has a stroke there’s not a whisper about his daughter-in-law and shadow granddaughter (Nicky’s wife & daughter). Surely they should have been notified? It’s almost like the whole Seymour family didn’t want Celine to know Nicky was married. Still a fun read, but not in my top ten. Middle of the pack.

    1. I am fairly certain that Nicky's wife had been notified, Oliver if no one else may have phoned her, but there was no need for her to come and stay at the B&B. So why should she have been mentioned to Celine and her family? In fact, the Seymours may have avoided the topic of Nicky's wife and daughter altogether.

  9. We simply cannot enthuse about this book as other have. It was simply one irritation after another. Why on earth would you trust the finances of the BnB to the very people who made such a venture necessary in the first place?
    The Nicky sub-plot was awkward and in the morality that generally governs HPlandia it perhaps went too far into the unpleasant with a ghost child that very few felt fit to mention.
    Finally, Celine is a little bit dense. How many (not so subtle) hints does Oliver have to drop that this is a real engagement and he does envision a future (replete with a horribly named daughter) for Celine to realise he is serious?