If you aren't a fan of Betty Neels' rather distinctive series contemporary romances, you may want to skip this post - - or scroll down to the more academic sections to follow.
If you don't know who Betty Neels was, or don't know why I love her books, you could start here.
If you don't know about the Founding Bettys and their blog, The Uncrushable Jersey Dress, you could surf over there, or read here about my love for them.
If you still don't feel you really understand my relationship with Betty Neels' books (or are merely a glutton for punishment), here's a list of Promantica posts to trawl through.
Finally, we celebrated Bettysday in Philadelphia, and you can read about that here. Oh, and there are photos, too.
The best part of the day -- yes, even better than the scones & clotted cream -- was meeting a fellow fan, JoDee. She's a kindred spirit despite the many differences in our lives. We had a lot of fun discussing several Neels books, an activity we'd accurately predicted would feel like playing Barbies. (My husband suggests the term, "Playing Bettys," for this activity.)
I want to give JoDee credit for the ideas that occurred to me during Bettysday. JoDee has a Ph.D. in history and a lively way of looking at the world. For example, when I pointed out that Betty Neels (in the person of her writing) has been in my life for 40 years -- one year longer than BritHub 1.0, who was with us at the time, JoDee pointed out that BritHub 1.0 was always going to lose that race. Which is true, of course -- only immediate family members have been in my life longer, and most them don't count for various reasons. JoDee seemed to understand the connection I feel with an author whose books have been a recurring source of delight for almost my entire life.
In preparation for Bettysday, I had two t-shirts made. The first reads:
Betty Neels:1910 - Born in Devon, England
1930s - Trains as a nurse & midwife
1940s - Serves in WWII, marries Dutch patriot
1950s - Works as a nurse in Holland
1960s - Retires from nursing; writes first romance novel
1970s-90s - Writes 133 more romance novels
2001 - Dies peacefully in hospital
Bettysday 9 - 15 - 2010
The second one seems more personalized; it reads:
Betty Neels was 59
when she wrote her
first romance novel.
when she wrote her
first romance novel.
I still have time
They both reflect something important to me, something about Betty Neels herself. By the time she started writing romances that many now dismiss as regressive and anti-feminist, she'd already had more lives than most of us liberated women get around to.
Did Betty Neels herself believe that women -- even women in the 1980s and 90s -- should "save themselves for marriage"? Maybe. But her characters never explicitly argue for that in the books, so we can't tell. Did she feel strongly about that as a cultural issue, or did she just prefer books in which people don't go to Brighton?
I've argued before that certain books speak to certain readers for reasons that are inherently valid to them. If someone starts writing the sort of books that appeal to her as a reader, and if there are sufficient other people who share her pleasure in that sort of book, then her success as an author may have less to do with her political, cultural or sociological views, and more to do with her aesthetic preferences.
So let's look at some of the ubiquitous elements of a Betty Neels romance. (She will never be accused of having mixed it up a lot as an author.)
- The Rich Dutch Doctor and English Nurse pairing.
Betty herself was born in 1910 to a civil service family in Somerset. That says to me that her father had a solid job and the family would have been quite respectable without being posh. (Approximately "upper middle class" by modern American standards.) Thus, her childhood would presumably have been quite comfortable and she was well educated as a girl. But whether the family fortune suffered a downturn in the 20s and 30s, or there was a death or divorce, who knows. But I suspect something happened to cause Betty's adult life to be more financially precarious than her childhood. (One clue is that when she's married and has a daughter, and they're very poor, it's her husband's family in Holland that takes them in. Possibly she had no family left in the UK to help.)
Betty might have married in her twenties and raised a family, but for whatever reason (I'm guessing she wasn't the prettiest girl in her community but it could have been a lot of things), she chose to train as a nurse & midwife. She served in World War II, and not just in army hospitals in the UK. Being a nurse defined her for a decade or more before she married a Dutch patriot injured in the war, and when they struggled financially because of his injuries, she learned Dutch and worked in the Netherlands as a nurse for many years. Again, being a nurse supported her family; at one point, her husband was in a Dutch hospital for a year.
Following "write what you know" after retiring from nursing, she wrote about English nurses and Dutch doctors. Her heroines are rarely pretty while the hero is always good looking. And yes, the doctors are always rich. Very rich. Rich enough that no matter what happens -- including global depressions and world wars -- their wives and children will never, ever be in financial straits. Even so, I've never once read a Betty Neels and felt that the hero's wealth was fetishized. The food? Yes. The clothing she can afford once she's married to him? You bet. Even his property and cars are described lovingly. But his wealth is only a means to a happy end; no Neels heroine ever thinks, "Hey, look at me -- I landed a rich guy!"
This has to be wish-fulfillment fiction. I'm sure Betty loved her husband deeply throughout the whole of their marriage. But while she was committed to him "for poorer," she must have thought it would have been nice to have had a bit more money -- or even a lot more money. And even nicer to have enough money that she didn't have to work full time even while there was a young child at home.
- The Hero's Superpowers
JoDee brought this up, that Neels' heroes frequently know what the heroine is thinking, even sometimes when she doesn't know this herself. We agreed: Do not try this at home. Real life men do not possess even our bog-standard levels of perception, let alone the true x-ray vision needed to know what people want or need and why. Now, fess up -- who among us has not wanted our significant other to bring us a sweater just because we shivered the teeniest bit, or hug us when we look a little blue. (And not hug us when we're frowning that other way: in anger. Then we want a sincere and effective apology. The sing-song, "I'm sorry," so does not cut it.)
For an Englishwoman born in 1910 even to imagine a husband who talks to his wife might have been a bit of a leap. My former parents-in-laws, whose marriage I observed over 35 years, said very little to each other that wasn't about gardening, travel, the household, etc. They were British and born after Betty Neels. It just wasn't a part of their marriage. (I never saw them hug, for example.) But at the end, Thomas took the opportunity when Anne was in hospital (and thus not home to hear him) to say how much she had always meant to him. From the vantage point of the 21st century, that seems archaic and even backward. But when I repeated Thomas's comments to her, Anne barely reacted. (All anecdotal evidence, I concede. I present it merely to point out that our standards in this area were not universal for that generation.)
- The Heroine's Shrinking Skill Set
In her first 20 romances, the Neels heroine is a nurse currently employed by a hospital (invariably of Victorian vintage and in a bad neighborhood: large, rambling and ripe for a fire or bomb so that the heroine needs an alternate job in, say, Holland). Given that Neels herself had kept working until nearly age 60, she was still knowledgeable about medical procedures and practices. In one scene in a very early Neels, the heroine is carrying the needed liter of blood in a glass bottle along a causeway. (Of course it breaks and of course she's the right type to donate directly into the patient!) When were glass bottles replaced by vacuum-packed plastic? Now think of all the medical advances in the last 40 years.
As Neels' own personal skill set became more and more obsolete, her nurses moved further away from the hospital (being a "special" or private nurse was less likely to involve new technology) until finally they just couldn't be nurses any more. (Can you imagine some of the letters Betty Neels may have received from readers who were nurses?)
In the last few dozen books, her heroines have no computer skills (!) and virtually nothing in their education or training to suggest they could even survive in the 20th century. Well, consider who Betty Neels was at the time: an 80-something grandmotherly type. What did she know from mobile phones, CD-players, and the Internet? Probably next to nothing. And I'm personally disinclined to criticize her for failing to research what 20-something women were actually doing. Those stories seem the most consistent with the culture and times of her very early childhood; possibly they reflect the road not taken, her life if she had not trained as a nurse.
- Inter-class marriage
This may seem bizarre to American sensibilities, but I think there's something very subtly subversive in Neels's early romances. All of her Rich Dutch Doctors are socially respectable (no bootstraps were necessary in their professional accomplishments), many are gentry (in a rather loose sense of being the owner of the "big house" in their respective communities), and some are members of the Adel or Dutch nobility. Their English counterparts (who show up only in Neels's very late writings) never bear a hereditary title; if it's Sir Rich English Doctor, he's been knighted for contributions to queen and country.
I don't want to overstate my minimal understanding about the social complexity of the English class system, let alone try to explain how it has changed in the 40 years since I first lived there. But I feel comfortable hypothesizing that one reason Neels did not marry English nurses to English doctors was that her nurses were middle class while her doctors were upper class. Such marriages in the late 60s and early 70s may not have been prevalent or comfortable enough to suit her image of what would be a happy ending for her English nurses. The age-appropriate houseman (US equivalent: intern or resident) was too callow, while the consultant in a UK hospital may have seemed snobby or avuncular or both.
All this makes me wonder if her experience working with Dutch doctors (real, live ones!) in the 50s conveyed to her a more relaxed attitude in the Netherlands about whom a rich man might marry. Women in the same class or social circle as the RDD are invariably named Inga or Nina in Neels books and are frequently the cold, hard, bony competition for the RDD's hand in marriage. (At the Uncrushable Jersey Dress, the other woman in a Neels's romance is known generically as "Veronica" to contrast her with all of us Bettys.) Betty Neels had no love for the mature society figure or widow. And any younger woman in the same social circle is much more likely to be related to the RDD than trying to marry him.
In Neels' world, a rich Dutch doctor, even a member of the Adel, is free to marry a pleasing English nurse who treats him more as a professional equal and less as someone outside her class. Did Betty Neels find that she herself was treated more professionally by males in the medical profession in The Netherlands than she had been in the UK?
If I'm right, then Neels' increasingly anachronistic universe starts to make a bit more sense. She wrote what she knew at the time she knew it. Throughout her life, she wrote about women with good sense and pleasing personalities who are loved by stalwart men who "get" their heroines. Newly retired from nursing, her heroines are quite independent and skilled. At the end, Neels heroines are defined more by the adverse circumstances that have restricted their choices (staying home to deal with a difficult relative is a favorite device) than by what they do.
I don't like the last quarter of the Neels Canon as much as the first, but I think that's more about her energy level as a writer. I can't imagine how a Betty Neels book would come across to a modern 21st century reader. I first read them as a dumpy, awkward teenager in the early 70s. They gave me that most comforting of illusions, namely that if I was kind to animals, smart around men, and good at something, someone would love me for it.