Monday, October 29, 2012

Magic in Vienna - Reprise

We hope all of our Bettys over on the East Coast/New England area are all safely buttoned up, battened down and tucked in - and that Hurricane Sandy does not do any serious damage to them or their well-tended garden plots. Please keep in touch when and if you can!

Magic in Vienna was one of the first Neels that I read - which is part of the reason that I have a fondness for it.  No, it's not perfect, but the sheer Cinderella-ish-ness still appeals to me.  Also the desserts. I'm pretty sure The Great Betty must have written this after a holiday in Vienna (which would also make a good book title!).  While I enjoy the bits of vicarious sightseeing, I really like the beginning and ending bits even more.  I love Cordelia for leaving the horrible steps...and she doesn't even wait for someone to die! Near the end when Cordelia discovers the theft of nearly all her money, I really feel the devastation that she must have felt.  Well played, Betty. Well played.
This is my second Charles in two weeks and I wasn't predisposed to like the first. I am happy report that this Charles is a fish of a different flavor.

Cordelia Gibson, 26, might be thinking to herself that reforming the savages in her charge is beyond her abilities. Her 15-year-old step-sister is a lost cause, as well as her 12-year-old step-brother. The 6-year-old twins, however, she has had the unpaid privilege of upbringing since their birth so her influence ought to have wrought some changes. Sadly, she's had a front row seat as she's watched Nature take Nurture out to the woodpile and kick its can.
It is time to leave.
She gets a job as a temporary governess to Eileen, a girl described as 'spoilt', while Eileen's grandmother takes a break. She's had the spoilt darling while her parents were (get this) in South America for two years. (Don't they know that South America means death and gigolos?) Two years. These people left their daughter with grandma for two years and took off. Cordelia is to travel with her to Vienna where Uncle Charles (a middle-aged bachelor) will take over for the remaining 6 weeks of Mum and Dad's South American vacation........two years.
Uncle Charles has the good taste to be nothing like Cordelia's expectations. She notices that he's neither presbyopic nor balding nor rumpled. He's an anesthetist and in the land of Neels that probably means that he's loaded and gorgeous and developed really, really hot hand-eye coordination while fiddling with all those valves.
Dr. Charles Trescombe does not return the favor by noticing her Ninja-like stealth, her disarming smile or the way she handles Eileen like a pair of smooth oak nun chucks. 'By all means let her stay,' he sounded bored, '...I can't say I have felt much interest--a rather dull girl, I should have thought, with no looks to speak of.' That's going to leave a mark. Cordelia, walking toward the room with Eileen, overhears all and probably wishes she hadn't packed her bow staff so deeply in her luggage. Charles would do well with a sharp thump on the head.
In one word the Great Neels gives us the whole picture of the painful episode. '...her gentle mouth was half open.'
But if Cordelia's hurt she is also philosophical. Uncle Charles doesn't like her very well but she doesn't much like him either. He is at least better than her step-mother. Over the next few weeks she sees him as a crusty, taciturn hermit, wedded to his work and '"...such a waste, if you see what I mean." And Eileen, a precocious child, saw.'
Editorial note: Though this part of the book isn't filled with much action (aside from copious trips to points of Viennese historical import) it is littered generously with clever and delightful lines like, 'Heaven is a cucumber sandwich.', 'He was as dull as his books and there was absolutely no need for it.', and 'He's got a girlfriend,' hissed Eileen, 'I thought he only read books.'
Someone once said, '...the gate of history turns on small hinges, and so do people's lives.' Eileen's rupturing appendix is a small hinge indeed.
Cordelia rushes her to the hospital and is told to wait. She does what she's told (so refreshing in the world of the romance novel when young ladies eschew sensible advice to their mortal peril with monotonous regularity.) and is forgotten for her pains. The following day, when Charles gives her a small commendation for being 'sensible' in her treatment of Eileen she finally blows her top and gives him the sharp edge of her tongue.
'Well, well, not dull at all and quite an eyeful when she's in a temper. I am surprised, Cordelia.' 'Let go of me, you--bookworm...'
Well of course he's got to kiss her for that.
This is the moment of his own dawning realization. She's been an undemanding and uncomplaining occupant of his household for weeks and now he's got to wage a land war against her unwilling heart.
Only it's not unwilling. Her own dawning realization sneaked up and tapped her on the shoulder while she wasn't looking.
Clear sailing, right? Wrong. The little black raincloud on the horizon is a matchmaking Eileen (who really is a dear) and the oily Dr. Julius...Salfinger. (But pretty please call him Dr. Julius as there is so much more fun there.)
Eileen (still in hospital) notices that her beloved Cordelia has nobody to talk to and no one to take her out. She arranges a meeting and Dr. J takes it from there.
Upon her return from a lunch date she didn't want in the first place, Charles is stung (by a big fat bumblebee of jealousy) into warning her away from him. 'You're not at all his cup of tea.'
Dear me. I need to flip through my Tormented Doctor/Penniless Governess Dictionary:
He meant: You're my cup of tea. Mine, mine, mine!
She heard: I hope when you are a very old woman you will unfold the memory of this one shining day when you got to lunch with a real live doctor as this singular event will never occur again in your lifetime.
When she rebukes him for rudeness I picture him in a pair of 70s era NBA shorts (the creepily short ones) holding out his hands, waiting for a ball as the play continues around him. Courtship is going to be more difficult than he supposed.
He does make up some ground by inviting her to a fun fair (yes, an actual fun fair!) but offers the charming caveat, 'Somehow I don't think it's quite your taste, Cordelia. A visit to look round, perhaps--you should have a country garden for a background...Liberty prints and your hair hanging down your back.' (Don't stare at the unresolved sexual tension. It's rude.)
That doesn't prevent him from winning her a stuffed toy and making what amounts to a move in a too-crowded bumper car.
But his is a Sisyphean task--inching ever closer to the summit and losing ground abruptly. Eileen returns home from the hospital and crossover characters Eugenia and Gerard (from Heidelberg Wedding) visit from England. Eugenia and Eileen go shopping with a cost-conscious Cordelia in pursuit of a dress--neither of whom 'considered privately that there was [any]thing they would wish to be seen dead in for that amount'. But they secure a new dress in shrimp pink which I'm going to call fine.
Charles is quick to pick up any opportunity that comes his way and asks her to dinner. She has a gorgeous time but won't call him Charles. 'It wouldn't do at all.' He sighed. 'Life is never going to be the same again,' he observed...and kissed her swiftly.
Uncle Charles is not letting the grass grow but the plot is wrinkling like a linen suit on a Summer day. His sister Sal (Yes, you heard right. Sal.) is returning from South America (where she has been living it up for two years while other people spoil/raise her child). It is Cordelia's unhappy luck that Charles, driving through the city on the way from the airport with his sister, sees what he thinks is an assignation between Cordelia and Doctor Julius. It is nothing of the sort. It is what the odious doctor describes later as her delivering 'the snub of his young life'.
There isn't enough time to clear matters up and too many people around to do it properly anyway. At the end of two days she is walking through the gates at the airport accompanying Eileen and her family on her way to England.
Sal (I readily admit that she would be a delightful dinner companion but makes a horrible relative and a worse employer.) has failed to mention to Cordelia that her job is coming to a rapid end. (I'm so glad you're going back to the bosom of your happy home so I don't have to feel icky about not giving you notice. Disappointed people always make me feel icky.) And so, within hours of coming to London, she finds herself like some unnoticed parcel left behind on a train platform alone to fend for herself.
Squashed up against a stout matron and a 'weedy young man' on a bus, Cordelia contemplates her future and becomes a statistic in the local crime rate. (I am betting it was the matron.) She is not exactly penniless but close to it and manages to make her way into a seedy part of town where the rent on a dreary bedsitter will make catastrophic inroads on her savings. Getting her name on the books of Mrs. Sharp's employment agency will further deplete her pounds and pence.
Charles, meanwhile, is combing the city for her.
He only made it one day without her before informing his servants (Thompson and Mrs. Thompson) that they have to get back to London sooner. In the course of his superlative search for her (seriously awesome) he tells Thompson, Mrs. Thompson, his mother, Cordelia's old Cook, and Mrs. Sharp about his marital plans.
When he finally tracks her to that drab bedsit (enjoying the lies he has to tell Mrs. Sharp to get Cordelia's address enormously) they have a reunion to cap all reunions and she becomes satisfyingly proprietorial: 'I love you more than I can say.' She put her arms around his neck and kissed him gently. 'Later on you shall tell me how you found me--'
The End

Rating: I remember loving this one and that's always a difficult hurdle to clear but this one did it. It started great (What's better than an evil step-mother? Soulless twins, that's what.) and then there's a lot of travelogue (which is more interesting than a lot of them but still, we're inspecting a lot of imperial silver, if you know what I mean.). Vienna comes in two parts (The avoid-Charles-at-all-costs part wherein the principles meet at breakfast--and the battle of the dueling dawning realizations part) and I like the second way better.
Eileen is such a fun part of the book--she's precocious, that one.
And the finish is a magnificent tour de force for Betty who sometimes gave us only a page and a half of wrap-up. Charles gets to fret about losing Cordelia, lose sleep, find out more about her past (and thus about her)...they spend a lot of time talking and not talking. Great, great end.
Boeuf en Croute but a really, really well made one.

Food: Cordelia enjoys sandwiches in a lay-by, lobster soup, filleted trout, boeuf en croute, Gentleman's Relish, buttered toast, ham sandwiches, madiera cake, the kind of picnic food found in glossy magazines (where immaculate children are frolicking happily around the assorted picnickers, no doubt), cold watercress soup, chicken vol-au-vents (I owe my knowledge of this word entirely to Betty.), smoked duck stuffed with cherries, lobster patties, aubergines in butter, sorbet, ices, fairy cakes, roast duck with black cherries (wait. Didn't I just say that?), and smoked salmon.

Fashion: Cordelia wore knitted sweaters, 'wearing clothes [the cook] wouldn't give to the jumble', a silk jersey dress 'for social occasions', a 'finely pleated crepe skirt in a pleasing' shade of plum (Is there a pleasing shade of plum?), and a shrimp pink crepe number. Eileen gets to not wear a rainbow hued cat suit and does get to wear denim trousers and a cotton top.


  1. Betty Barbara here--
    I did so enjoy this one--except for Sister Sal. I never quite got her motivation for dumping Cordelia so abruptly. Was she jealous of the rapport between Eileen and Cordelia? None of us can believe it was because she wanted her daughter all to herself (see the 2 year abandonment part of the plot)and besides, she's going to dump Eileen with the cousins in Scotland, if I remember correctly. I sure hope Charles firmly smacked his sister for her thoughtlessness.
    Ah, the ending--happy sighs all around.

    On a weather note, it is noon on Monday and so far so good--some wind, some rain. The weather mavens tell us the brunt of the storm is still to come.
    A good day to stay in and bake brownies.

  2. A good day to speculate as to which of the office couches would be most comfortable if it comes to spending the night...

    The soul-less twins are, I think, the only young children a heroine is unable to convert from spoilt and inconsiderate to polite and cheery. The unplumbable depth of their barbarity, and their complete resistance to Cordelia's ameliorating influence FROM BIRTH, render them especially sterile and plot-device-like for me. A Betty blunder, those twins, methinks.

    I'm getting ready to lose power by using language redolent of an earlier day...

    Sal is much the same -- she just doesn't make sense. I do believe Betty grew up in an age when it was commonplace for parents to part from their children for long spans of time, in service of the declining Empire (off to India!) or to prepare the kiddies to win their Waterloos (off to Eton!) or just to get them out of harm's way (off to Shropshire while Mummy stays in London to fire-spot!). So maybe leaving the girl with grandma for two years is appropriate in Sal's world (though you know Cordelia would never). And Cordelia, in Neels-fashion, stiffens her upper lip and refuses to tell the scandalous truth that she has no home, no 'people' to whom she can return. Nonetheless, Sal comes off very badly; inconsiderate, selfish, thoughtless and unperceptive.

    Plus I hate that TGB wouldn't tell me what a "fiacre" is. Jeez. Not born knowing this stuff, Betty, and it's not in every dictionary. I think I had to wait until the Internet Age to learn what we were riding around in.

    Nonetheless, lovely story. Cordelia's a trump, Charles is quite genuinely nice, and it makes sense they'd fall, slowly, for each other. I'd add, "great review, Betty Keira," but assume you take that as read by now.

    1. Re.: fiacre - The funny thing is that the Great Betty discribed the little carriages down to the drivers' bowler hats but she never explained that they were what she named a fiacre throughout the novel. IttyBittyBettyBlunder.

  3. I always liked this one.

    Was it on the top 10 list?

    I love the domestic part of it in the Vienna apartment. I'm always looking for apartments with soooooo many bedrooms. And am always confused in BN's version whether it had a stairs, a full 2 floors with stairs for the floors inside the apt. Still not sure to this day.

    There had to be a bedroom for Charles, 2 maids, Cordelia and the girl, grandma, and then Sal and her hubby. That's 8 bedrooms for an apt. That must be one heck of a rich apt in Vienna. The cost!!!

    Betty Femmy

    1. Everytime I hear about a storm of this magnitude (Sandy) and what will happen afterwards, I think of the BN where she is stranded in her former house by a huge snowstorm with no electricity and ends up baking bread in the Aga. The housekeeper is no help at all because she is a city housekeeper, and besides, she got ill.

      I'm reading what to do in an emergency such as Sandy, and it says to prepare 3 days for the storm and 3 days for no power and freeing temps, and no outside help.

      Just the scenario any of our BN heroines would easily know just what to do.


    2. Snowed in an baking bread - makes me think of Julia Pennyfeather,The Fifth Day of Christmas.

    3. Betty Barbara here--
      Betty F---The book is An Old Fashioned Girl, our heroine is Patience Martin, the poor suffering housekeeper is Miss Murch.
      One of my favorites.
      Though, like Betty Anonymous mentions, the baking bread in a blizzard bit is also used in Fifth Day of Christmas.

    4. Should have mentioned, Julia Pennyfeather is not in her own home but somewhere in the country with her patient.

  4. They boarded the ship at Passau. Bratislava they found disturbing...They were to go to Budapest before they went ashore at Vienna, and here Lady Trescombe declared her intention of joining them... Last night, I was a little disturbed when reading Budapest before Vienna. That seemed wrong. But I was to lazy to get up and look it up. Today, I did and found out I was right. They must have taken a return trip, partly at least, past Vienna to Bratislava, then on to Budapest and then back again to Vienna. Lucky them.

    Mrs Kinneard is one of those spoilt little rich wives in Neelsdom whom I cannot stand. At.All. (Like Gideon Beaufort’s sister in Year’s Happy Ending. Leaving Nanny = Deborah to deal with her teething infant. By day and by night. And when they get back from a trip – Deborah and the baby had not joined them for the trip – she asks Deborah to see to her mother because she herself is fatigued, and when D. has done that, which takes a while, and comes back down the baby is crying, Gideon’s holding her I think, and Mom says to Deborah, isn’t it past the time for the baby’s feed... ARRGGGHHH!)
    I can never decide wether to read Mrs Kinneard
    Mrs kin-NIERD or Mrs kin-NAIRD. And since I don’t like her not knowing how she pronounces her name annoys me.

    Sacher Torte – ZU-xah TOR-tuh, Austrian also: SU-xah TOR-tuh
    x = ch in Loch Ness, Bach
    uh = a as in "in a minute"
    Graben = GRAH-buhn or GRAH-bm, Austrian also: GRAW-bm
    Karntner Ring = Kärntner Ring CAIRNT-nah ring
    Karnter Strasse = Kärntner Strasse/Straße CAIRNT-nah SHTRAH-suh
    Demel’s cake shop DA-muhl
    Julius Salfinger YOO-lee-oos ZUL-fing-ah, Austrian also: SUL-fing-ah
    oos = short oo-sound as in "put"
    Salfinger: "-finger" not like English finger, "-finger" rhymes English bringer
    Wahringer Strasse = Währinger Strasse/Straße VEA(R)-ring-ah SHTRAH-suh
    VEAR rhymes bear, ringer rhymes bringer
    Betty Anonymous

  5. Don't stare at the unresolved sexual tension. It's rude.
    Love it! My favorite is this one:

    Place: Spanish Riding School. Lady Trescombe has returned to England.

    "Not so plain he decided, studying the long curling lashes and the pale hair pinned so neatly. A lot of hair; he wondered just how long it was and what it would look like unpinned and then frowned at the thought...

    1. That's pretty gorgeous. Subtle, sexy. I love it.