Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Comedy of Errors: Love by the Morning Star by Laura L. Sullivan

It takes so much work being better than everyone else, Anna Morgan mused. Of course, on one level, superiority is a matter of one's birth. No, she hastily amended, recalling her father's origins as a grocer: not birth, but blood. Rank and money don't matter. What did it say above the National Fascist Front (NAFF) headquarters? "Rank is but the guinea-stamp; a man's a man for all that." She didn't mind--almost--that she wasn't of noble birth. Being British....  there was nothing better than that.

But to appear unequivocally superior to the untrained eye, that took some work.

Hannah Morgenstern was singing about sheep. Why her cabaret audience loved songs about sheep, she was not sure. Still, when Hannah sang sheep songs (in her dirndl and blond plaited wig), they bought champagne and left tips so large that goodhearted Benno the busboy ran after them, asking if they'd made a mistake. Since the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria, she was a bit leery of singing songs about that country, but her repertory of sheep songs was limited. What the show needs, Hannah decided as she crooned the final bars to wild applause, is a song about a nationless, nondenominational sheep. A sheep that cannot stir up resentment from any side.

Of course, by now there was only one side, really, and everyone else kept quiet if they knew what was good for them.

It is 1938, and in that brief holding-of-breath time in pre-war Europe, two very different seventeen-year-old girls are about to have their paths cross, brought together in a life-changing case of mistaken identity.

Anna is a statuesque, overblown English beauty, a self-centered Anglophile with aristocratic pretensions acquired in spite her father's lowly shopkeeper status. Hannah Morgenstern is the spritely, dark-haired daughter of a Jewish caberet owner, a singer with operatic aspirations. But the winds of war are rising, and Anna and Hannah are to find themselves blown and bound by fate.

Anna's father has risen in the NAFF, the Nazi sympathizers of Britain, and noting her obvious beauty, her father's superior insists that Anna assume the role of a kitchen made at Starkers, a castled manor of the highborn Liripip family, who frequently hobnob with royalty. Anna doesn't object to being a spy on the listen for murmured drawing room secrets let slip by the royals, but she is insulted at the idea of being a kitchen maid with raw, red hands, especially since she keeps hers gloved to hide the fact that they are as large and strong as a peasant's.

Hannah, the Berlin-raised daughter of the disgraced but noble Caroline Curzon, Lord Liripip's lost love, is dispatched to live with her noble second cousins at Starkers after the first Kristallnacht convinces her father that they are not safe in Germany. Promising to follow her as soon as they can and with the grudging reply from Lady Liripip that Hannah will be allotted a less-than-welcome place there, the Morgensterns send her to England.

As fate would have it, the two girls arrive at Starkers on the same morning, first greeted by the handsome and flirtatious gardener Hardy, and then by the family scion, the equally handsome Teddy, almost an Oxford graduate, and because of his fluent German, a soon-to-be British spy in Berlin. Being seventeen and beautiful in very different ways, both girls are admired by and easily enamored with the debonair Teddy.

And, fickle fate being what it is, the two are mistaken for each other.

Hannah is assumed by Hardy to be the new kitchen maid, eagerly awaited by the shorthanded novice cook Sally. Knowing of the bad blood between  her mother and Lady Liripip, who resents the Lord's lingering affection for the lost Caroline, Hannah assumes that her menial assignment is retribution by the lady of the manor, and she decides to stick it out as best she can so that her parents will be able to find her when they escape from Germany.

Anna at first assumes that her elegant speech and oh-so-English good looks have earned her at least the status of a lady's maid, and when she figures out that she has been mistaken for the refugee cousin, she decides to play along and try to win Teddy's heart and a proposal before she is found out.

Teddy is not immune to Anna's voluptuous looks, and when he follows a lovely female voice singing from the cover of the intertwined yews in the garden after midnight, he assumes it is Anna. He is enchanted with this mysterious girl, so vivacious in conversation, so different from her stolid daytime personality, and unable to see her in the dark, knows her only by the hand she offers him to kiss, one with a scar on the thumb. The girl he loves, is, of course, Hannah, who is equally charmed by Teddy and promises to meet him again by night.

But of course when Anna  receives the note from Teddy to meet in the garden, she assumes he has been enraptured with her and hurries to the garden after midnight, where she is warmly embraced, not by Teddy, whom she presumes it to be, but by Hardy, who romances her in his dark and fragrant hothouse.

What author Laura L. Sullivan sets into motion in her forthcoming Love by the Morning Star (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) is a delightfully light love story of mistaken identity with its roots in Shakespeare's romantic comedies. Indeed, it is easy to see this story on an Elizabethan stage, a parallel to Twelfth Night, with its mismatched lovers, its revelrous Servant's Ball where the staff and masters make merry together, and the engagement party when the true identity of Hannah (who Sullivan declares "the real heroine,") is revealed only when Teddy removes Anna's gloves, and seeing no scar, realizes who his real love must be.

As in Shakespeare's famous comedies, there is family conflict among the Liripips,  two young couples for whom the course of true love does not run smooth, interwoven plots that the Bard would admire, the clever servant who enables the assignations, and of course, the requisite happy ending. Even the obtuse Anna, who at last realizes that she is the unwitting partner in a Nazi plot to assassinate the King of England, gets off lightly and is given the ironic last line that will leave the groundlings, um, readers, laughing gleefully as they close the book.

A masterful mannered manor romance which floats along lightly, though not without a little willing suspension of disbelief, through the delicious twists of its plot, and which affirms that even under the dark clouds of war, all's well that ends well, with style and humor. Brava, Milady Sullivan!

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