Monday, October 15, 2012

The Chauffeur and the Chaperon

Author: C.N. and A.M. Williamson
Genre: General Fiction
Original Pub. Date: 1906

It's rare that a book lets me down as abruptly as this one did about a quarter of the way through. It starts out very promisingly, beginning with two upper-class English girls who unexpectedly inherit a boat and decide to blow their cash on hand on an irresponsible and slightly improper houseboat jaunt through Holland. Given that this is set in contemporary 1906, the girls really shouldn't just go by themselves, but they throw all caution to the winds and run off from England to an equally civilized place inhabited by equally stuffy upper-class (but Dutch) people, decency be damned!

They quickly meet some appropriately rich and charming love interests, one of whom disguises himself as a boat tour guide, and the other of whom hires an elderly chaperon so that he can go with them (the chaperon's actually a beautiful young woman in disguise, of course -- I figured this out so quickly that I don't think it's much of a spoiler), and there's another guy along for the ride.

Unfortunately, what was a sprightly, charming, Wodehousian farce in the making quickly turned into a well-written but jaw-droppingly detailed travelogue of Holland. Now, I'm all for a good travel narrative. I like the kind in which some red-nosed old looney-tunes waxes nostalgic about the accommodating charms of the maidens of Phlegmenstein-Schnützel, where lager flows like the mighty Rhine all evening and sour vomit gushes like the frolicsome Danube come morning. This is not one of those.

No, The Chauffeur and the Chaperon is the kind that's all about hats. Specifically, Dutch hats, bonnets, helmets, and any other type of headgear you can think of. The husband and wife author team, C.N. and A.M. Williamson, also offer a few digressions into the always fascinating minutiae of Dutch doors, doorknobs, walls, windows, window frames, shutters, floors, cookware, dishware, flatware, shoes, ducks, bridges, so many miserable canals, roofs, food, and in short, any material object that can be catalogued by two obsessive-compulsives with no pity or mercy of any kind.

To be fair, an avid student of turn-of-the-century Dutch culture would find this book an inspiring, nay, even orgasmic read. For those of us with lives and stuff like that, it's the literary equivalent of having all your teeth kicked in by an extremely boring Williams-Sonoma clerk in wooden shoes.

I will grant that the descriptions held my interest at first. They're beautifully written; no complaints there. But then you turn the page, and you're like, dude, more fucking hats? And then you start to wonder if maybe just nuking the place would solve this rampant hats-and-canals problem, and then you start flipping through looking for the actual story. Which does reappear, and it's fun when it does . . . which is why I can't pan this book.

The part that's a novel earned a solid three and a half stars. The travelogue part gets four stars for detail and one for its unhealthy hat fetish. I'm going to go with three stars overall; it's easy to turn pages as quickly as necessary.

For the other person in the known universe, besides the Indiscriminate Reader, who might actually enjoy reading weird Edwardian social comedies (Hi, Mom!!), The Chauffeur and the Chaperon and others by the same authors are available for free thanks to Project Gutenberg.

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