Miss Bates hated elements of Neels’ Tulips For Augusta, but she devoured it in a few loving hours. Though she ought to have been peevish and disgruntled, her interest and enjoyment never wavered. Therein lies La Neels Power: to madden us with her spinster-bashing, callow (thank you, CG) nurse-y heroines, overbearing, wealthy, medical doctor heroes, and a world that never departs from a mythic, middle-class English gentility … at least until the hero whisks the heroine away to luncheon in his Rolls Royce. In Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the narrator, Nick Carraway, says of our crass, nouveau-riche hero Jay Gatsby: he “represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.” Miss Bates thinks that way of Betty Neels, but feels differently.
This post will unabashedly focus on what Miss Bates loves about Neels, or at least this Neels … about what she hates, she’ll, like Nick, for now, “reserve judgement.” For many, Neels is a romance reader’s “restorative niche,” (thank you, Dr. Little), the effortless place where we re-new our love of the genre, a place where we turn a blind eye and adopt an attitude of receptivity. Come on, Betty who is the nonpareil, “charm me,” we say.
Miss Augusta Brown, 23, a nurse of the “carroty hair” persuasion is in a foul mood when the novel opens: “she was seething with temper, disappointment, and a burning sense of injustice.” Wow. In one short phrase, our Neels has captured the sullen Augusta, captured the working woman’s frustrations. She’s resenting Sister Cutts, who’s assigned her to the Private Patients’ Wing. Yet, at the same time, authorial voice interrupts Augusta’s crabbiness to comment “she was a soft-hearted girl who hated to see suffering and pain.” La Neels is so good at conveying the mood of a character, which in Augusta’s case is mercurial, to the heart of a character, which in Augusta’s case, is caring, loving, and kind. Once she establishes a character’s defining traits, she can write gems such as Augusta’s reaction to the first tulip bouquet from the hero, “She glowered at him because she was tired and hungry and her hair needed doing.” Who hasn’t wanted to “glower” for those very reasons. 😉
Miss Bates loves La Neels’ no-nonsense, hard-working, firmly compassionate heroines, unafraid to speak their minds, competent, briskly efficient, and good at what they do. A little cool, a little brusque in manner, as Augusta is, their sentiments are often oh-so-right; witness this exchange between the experienced Sister Cutts and Augusta, ” ‘Nursing is hard sometimes, is it not, Nurse Brown?’ … Augusta knew what she meant, it wasn’t the long hours and tired feet or hurried meals to which she referred, but the hardness of not being able to help.” Neels is unique among many romance writers in truly capturing the rhythm of the work day/week, its tedium and rewards, the daily pettiness and the hard satisfactions of being a working woman in one of the “helping professions.” Her portrayals are tender with our heroines’ delight in a new outfit, or hand-bag … the working woman who holds the hand of the ill, the dying, the frightened and, at the same time, finds happiness in simple, harmless pleasures: a good cup of coffee, a week-end in the country, and a restfully long nap! Miss Bates just loves these spinster-ish comforts. Indeed, if not for mysterious, protean Dutch doctors, Neels’ heroines would remain spinsters BECAUSE THEY DO NOT SETTLE. There.
In the hospital room of a imperious elderly gentlewoman, Lady Belway, Augusta encounters the Lady’s godson, Dr. Constantijn van Lindemann and a beautiful young woman, Susan Belsize. Belsize is the “other woman;” there is always an “other woman” in Neels, who is conveniently dismissed by the end of the romance novel. EXIT: “other woman.” A little MissBatesian snark sets in here because Miss Bates hates the device of the “other woman.” She’s a little skimmy negligent when reading these bits … but this post is more Neelsian paen than snark, so Miss Bates will let the criticism stand, but desist from hereon.
Constantijn van Lindemann is typical of the Neelsian hero. He’s wordly, winking, teasing, challenging, and utterly, charmingly unknowable. POV in Neels is strictly of the heroine variety and Miss Bates loves it; not to sustain a permanent diet of it because she enjoys forays into heroes’ minds, but this is good too. What Miss Bates finds most interesting about a Neels hero is not only that he is a cypher, but that he seems, from the moment of encountering the heroine, to possess knowledge she does not. One of the first things that Constantijn says to Augusta is, “I was beginning to think that you didn’t like men. Of course it’s a blow to my ego that you don’t like me, but that is something which can be dealt with later.” The assumption is that there will be a “later” when the heroine realizes something that the hero knows instantaneously: that they will be together, will marry. The hero bides his time, waiting for the heroine to reach an epiphany that he had the first moment he met her. (Constantijn attributes this to “fate,” which, judging from Miss Bates’ post regarding this element in romance fiction, could serve for a whole other post on La Neels and Augusta’s tulips.) Similar to Neels’ heroines, heroes are no-nonsense. They are brusque and don’t suffer mincing misses. They like their women stalwart, hardy, and self-sufficient. Signs of missishness are derided and promptly squelched.
Constantijn is as brusque and cryptic as any Neels hero and as given to the mysterious given that he knows something the heroine doesn’t. But Constantijn does not leave Augusta totally without intimation of his feelings; he doesn’t utter them, but gives/sends her TULIPS. The first time, he hand-delivers them with, ” ‘These are for you – tulips for Miss Augusta Brown, because the sun has shone all day, and I doubt if she has encountered even one sunbeam.’ ” Aw. She has had a long day in the ward.
Our obfuscating hero bides his time, but uses gifts to nudge Augusta to the conclusion he wants her to reach. The gifts are wonderful, moving, and perfect because he sees her, knows her, is careful of her, but does not indulge her worse qualities. This leaves our heroine doubtful, but leaves Neels free to pen such gems as ” … she threw away the last of the tulips, designating, as it were, his memory to the dustbin of her mind.” The hero’s gift-giving strategy is a clever one, even while he confounds in his exchanges with Augusta. His gifts escalate in intimacy, in providing information about the depth of his devotion by making them increasingly more meaningful. The next bouquet is copious, “Tulips — golden tulips; dozens of them.” The next set are by way of an apology when Augusta finds “an enormous cellophane-wrapped bouquet of tulips on her bed … they were a rusty bronze”; amends for calling her hair “carroty,” the tulips are “called Bronze Queen.” (A boy named Gilbert had a similar love for a carroty-haired girl and we know how that turned out. 😉 )
Finally, when Constantijn accompanies Augusta to her village jumble sale and notes her disappointment over the loss of a china figurine and a beaded pincushion from the white elephant table … lo and behold, it’s because he’d bought them for her. They are delivered to her room the next day. New flower bouquets follow, each more sweet and endearing. La Neels really takes to heart and enacts in her hero the idea that gesture is more significant, more lasting, and more loving than florid declaration. Constantijn, and his name is indicative of what kind of husband he’ll make, rescues her, motors her, wines and dines her on oysters, and steak, and Crême Waflen. The day after she accepts his proposal, ushering in a new era in their lives, he sends sweetpeas!
As Miss Bates wrote this post by way of appreciation, her final judgment may not be in keeping with what came above, but if you’ve read Neels, then you know there will be things in this for which you’ll have an “unaffected snorn.” Yet here is “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Miss Bates purchased an e-book of Neels’ Tulips for Augusta from one of the usual places. She’s inserted the new cover above, but loves this one from the original publication in 1971.
Have you read Betty Neels? This is Miss Bates’ third and she’s sure to want to read many more. (Whew, La Neels wrote 134.) What Neels have you read and enjoyed? What aspects of her novels do you love and for what elements do you have an “unaffected scorn”? If you’d like to read a great treatment of Neels and issues of scorn and love and feminism, check out this great post at Badass Romance.