Friday, February 26, 2010

Smart or Honest? I'll Attempt to Be Both

Lynn Spencer over at AAR has a new post about love-hate relationships with regard to books by certain authors.  She's talking about Betty Neels' books, and she not only links to my new best friends, the Bettys who write The Uncrushable Jersey Dress, but also to Sadie's less favorable review here of Stormy Springtime's curmudgeon of a hero.  And for the scholarly approach, try Laura Vivanco's analysis of Discovering Daisy at Teach Me Tonight.

Honest:  You know how we may hide our romances from our non-romance-reading friends?  (Read Jessica's explanation of how she hid them from the housekeeper.)  Well, I hid my Betty Neels collection from my romance-reading friends.  I'd admit to liking them, but I didn't feel I could defend them.  They're not merely retro, they're regressive.  The heroines are girls, not women; they have jobs and work hard but the "reward" is to marry the rich Dutch (later English) hero and be wealthy and do good works, suggesting being a wife will be a fulfilling enough life.  The heroes aren't even in the Greek alphabet, as they barely communicate with the heroine while steadily guiding the relationship toward its inevitable ending,  Most of the secondary women characters are portrayed particularly badly: lazy, ineffectual mothers / greedy, selfish sisters / irascible, demanding elderly women / gold-digger, predatory "other women" / punitive, heartless employers or supervisors (but not fellow nurses, who are almost all lovely people) / even troublemaking teens.

And yet I love them.  Why?

Smart:  Betty Neels was born in 1910 (her biography is rather fun, btw), so she would have done her nurse's training back before it was even considered respectable for a woman to have a career.  Almost all the British women from that era that I knew worked until they married, after which they pursued their interests (sculpture, propagating irises, etc.) and supported their husbands' careers.  So Betty grew up with a very different cultural framework than we did or even our mothers did.  Add to that the sheer Britishness of her existence, with its not-so-subtle subtexts of class and privilege, and her books make more sense.  They're still wildly anachronistic, though.

Honest:  But in another way, they aren't.  I have a brother-in-law who could pass for a Neels hero in a dim light (and provided he didn't speak): tall, dependable, devoted to his wife and children.  Mind you, Mike's wife has a Ph.D. and a job outside the home, but if she didn't, she would look a lot like a Neels heroine -- pretty, loving heart, devoted to her family, etc.  They have two children, teenagers (just), who are well-behaved and pretty good at school, sport, and community activities.  Take away their cell phones, and they could pass for Neels' teenager characters.  And I don't think Mike's family is very odd or anachronistic.  What I see in them is goodness of character, a willingness to serve their communities, and a dedication to making their home a good place for all who enter.

Smart:  So if you take a Neels heroine, teach her some computer skills and throw a mobile phone in her handbag, would you get someone closer to a "modern" British female?  No, of course not, because we expect women in that situation to be independent, sexually experienced, socially connected, and self-determining.  Frankly, even in 1969 when Neels published her first book, her heroines were anachronistic and unrealistic.  During the 30 years during in which she wrote 134+ books, her heroines changed little while women everywhere else (fictional and real life) changed a lot.

Consider this, though -- She herself had an admirable life, even (I would argue) by feminist terms.  She trained as a nurse, served in WWII, married, dealt with her husband's long recovery from war wounds, continued her nursing career (in Holland, even!) while she raised their child, and then -- when she was 59 (a number that is notable in one vital way: it's older than me!) -- she started a 30+ year career as an author.  What's not to admire there?  Romance writers, as we know, are allowed to write what they want, including rape scenes -- so why not write regressive crap about mousy chaste heroines with out-of-date moral codes?  As Stephen Colbert would say, "The market has spoken," in that Neels' books were pretty successful for series romances, even in the waning years of her career when the chasm between her world (in which a Thomas Kinkade cottage wouldn't look odd) and reality was at its greatest.

Honest: I really don't care about feminism in this context.  In my dissolute youth, I read a lot (a real lot) of Barbara Cartland's 300+ faux historicals, and I saved precisely two: the one she ripped off from E.M. Hull's The Sheik, as it happens, and a very early one that was almost an interesting book (plus they had sex).  Thinking back on it, I would say Cartland's books lacked heart.  She wrote them because she could and because they sold.  I rate Betty Neels much higher than that, which is why I saved all of hers, even the ones I didn't like as much.  I am -- perhaps irrationally -- more of a completist with Betty Neels than any other author, and it has nothing to do with intellectual arguments pro or con.  (Bluntly, I don't think ideology is either necessary or sufficient to make a romance novel good.  We can love or hate a romance because of its ideology, but we can love or hate a romance despite an ideology we approve.)

It has to do with heart.  Almost all of her books are fairy tales of sorts: "The Little Match Girl" or something like that.  Downtrodden heroine refuses to give up, but also refuses to feel sorry for herself or to get angry.  She accepts (rather too vigorously) the assumption that she's plain and unexciting.  (As Betty may have felt about herself; see the picture at right.)  By her good works, he shall know her: the hero somehow recognizes the heroine as a) prettier than people realize, b) a loving soul, and sooner or later c) the one person he wants to be with.

Now -- what's wrong with that?

Smart:  Nothing, really.  It's just a shame that the heroine can't see her own worth before the hero can.  Why does she need his good opinion to believe in herself.

Honest:  Oh, now we're back to feminist dogma.  And sure -- I'll always lose that argument.  But when I read Betty Neels' biography, which includes some hardship financially and personally that she did work through, I wonder if she didn't write about 134 women (or 1 woman 134 times) that she could identify with, and then gave them what she considered a better, easier life than she had.  I have no doubt she loved her husband very much, just as I love my husband.  But as fantasies go, being loved by a guy who is more successful than you are, better looking than you, richer than you, and who can find his way perfectly after looking at a map just once (I told you they were fairy tales!), is not too hard to swallow.

Smart:  Unless it sticks in the craw.

Honest:  In which case, you don't read Betty Neels.  You read Anne Stuart's Black Ice instead.

Smart:  Touché.

Honest:  So here it is:  the real reason I love Betty Neels books as much now -- after an approximately successful career as a lawyer and two happy marriages -- as I did when I was in my teens, still covered with acne and wearing dowdy plaid outfits I made myself.

She makes me feel good.  It's all about the visceral, the inchoate happiness that comes from reading a romance.  It's indefensible, partly because there's no accounting for taste, and partly because I'm feeding the hungry heart of my inner dumpy unpopular teenage self when I read her books.  If their appeal had been intellectual, then I wouldn't like them now.  But they are comfort food books -- really well-prepared comfort food that you never outgrow.

Edited to add: Describing books as "comfort food" may seem a cliché, but here's evidence that my dog, Mimi, agrees all too literally:
She just did this today -- found it in a tote bag near my chair and went to town.  This is literally the first thing she's destroyed by chewing.  Good taste?  You be the judge.


  1. Comfort food - yes, that sums up much of her appeal to me also.

    No, her books are not very intellectually(or otherwise)stimulating, but sometimes biscuits and gravy will satisfy when nothing else will.

  2. Betty Debbie -- I have another reason, which Betty Janet helped me see: Betty Neels' books plunk me down in a place (both geographical and psychological) that I'm happy to be in, and happy to return to.

    We have to put together the Betty Neels tour to The Netherlands!

  3. I like your thinking...Betty Keira needs to get on board!

  4. I'm on board, I'm on board! Just let me shake loose from the kids for a minute and a half and I'll be there!

  5. Yippee! We'll be there to say Howdy!

  6. Betty Francesca -- Shhh! I'm working on softening up the Founding Bettys on the idea of a Betty Neels Tour of The Netherlands, but they have KIDS in school and college and husbands, etc., so it's a slow process.

    I think we'll get there...

  7. I began reading Betty Neels (and also Essie Summers of New Zealand) in my early twenties, as Vietnam waned and the world didn't want to hear about the results. Her women didn't have perfect lives, but they coped and got on with it--and then miracles happened. I needed to hear that life worked out for some. By the time I was 21, my husband had died in Vietnam, the twin daughters that were born after his death had been killed in a car accident, my brother was injured and bedridden for three years, and my father, after surviving 8 years of Nam, lapsed into alcoholism and then Alzheimer's. Betty's world, with her hardworking heroines who kept going, was my refuge. Every night before droppping to exhausted sleep, to read her was a dose of escape and hope. I hid my romances because I didn't want the inevitable scornful questions, but I knew then consciously what they did for me--they gave me that fingerhold still on reality, that even though things didn't work out for me, they could/did work out for someone else, and that was what I needed to hear, as I held it together day by day. In later, better years, I grew to appreciate more of her nuances--her cooking, her fashion choices (her heroines like Laura Ashley florals!), the cottage gardens, sun and moonlight predominating in her scenes. But above all I cherish her for her gallantry and the hope she gave me. Valeria in California's Central Valley farm country

  8. Valeria -- Wow. What a moving story. I think all writers want to believe their words have the power to make a reader a little happier, but to think of someone actually getting strength from a book is impressive.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  9. I'm 25 and Indian and I love Betty Neels - as I have for 10 years now! My local librarian, while extremely nice, has told me confidentially that her books only come in large prints where I live (in he UK, incidentally) because only the grandmothers read them. As a plus, they have nearly every book of hers.
    Ah, well.
    I beat future grans from my generation to it, by about 30 years!


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