Reading Betty Neels’ “Making Sure Of Sarah” made Miss Bates sad. Everything vibrant and quirky is sucked out of Neels and all that’s left is a deflated balloon, forlornly, droopingly, valiantly swaying in the breeze. Neels’ voice is tired in “Making Sure of Sarah,” even if there are moments, paragraphs, phrases, passages when her light shines; for the most part, though, the sun is waning on her talent. Miss Bates has announced her Neelsian love loud and clear; she cannot say this novella gave her that old Neelsian thrill. The signature robustness of hero and heroine is etiolated: the Minerva/Diana of Augusta has given way to a will-o’-the-wisp; the officiousness, presence, and mystery of Contantijn has surrendered to a softer, less imposing, more conceding giant; maybe more considerate and likeable to our contemporary sensibilities, but not half as deliciously maddening? To Miss Bates, Neels’ heart wasn’t in it any more.
No matter how conventional Neels’ ethos, there is something magnificent about her early heroines: an inviolability of person, manner, and perspective, a conviction that she knows who she is and acts in keeping with her character. Sarah Beckwith, heroine of “Making Sure of Sarah,” is a de-clawed kitten to Augusta’s puma. Everything we’ve come to expect is present, but shadows of the former books.
The narrative opens on a family holiday in Holland; Sarah travels with her odious step-father, Mr. Holt, who hates her and lets her know it, and her peevish, spoiled, demanding, cold-hearted bitch of a mother. Their car falls into a ditch during a squabble over directions, Sarah’s fault, of course. The family is taken to Arnhem Hospital. Sarah is unscathed; her injured mother and step-father must remain in hospital, lucid, angry, and demanding, until they can be transported to England. Sarah bears all like the good martyr that she is. Sarah’s physical experience of the accident stands as a metaphor of her life till she meets the hero, “Sarah, flung hither and thither and ending up rather the worse for wear.” Miss Bates thought, to use a term from Old Skool romance, where’s the Neelsian termagant I’ve come to know and love? Why is there a doormat where my statuesque and stalwart heroine used to be?
Enter Mr. Litrik ter Breukel, consultant orthopedic surgeon, hero, and Mr. Holt’s attending. He comes across the bedraggled, sleeping waif, muddied and exhausted, pale and tiny, and falls in love. Lo and behold, thought Miss Bates, why am I in the hero’s head!? And yet, here we have it, La Neels’ writing the hero’s POV: ” … to fall in love at first sight with this malodorous sleeping girl, with, as far as he could see, no pretensions to beauty or even good looks, was something he had not expected. But falling in love, he had always understood, was unpredictable, and, as far as he was concerned, irrevocable.” Miss Bates must say she was taken aback, maybe enjoyed the hero’s head-space for a while, but she missed the cool, officious, and closed-off hero of the early books. At least Litrik still drives a dark-grey Rolls. And that’s what he puts Sarah in to whisk off to his house, helpless and lost as she is. But she’s a good girl, she hesitates to go with him. When he drops a diplomatic hint that he lives with his sister, Suzanne, she sinks into the Rolls’ plush interior.
His home is beautiful, full of things that are “old and beautiful and used,” and Sarah receives every comfort in it. Witness how she wakes up in the morning, to echo his falling in love, with her own revelation: “Sarah opened her eyes and allowed them to travel up a vast expanse of superfine clerical grey cloth, past a richly sombre tie and white linen, until they reached his face … ‘That’s a nice tie – Italian silk?’ Mr ter Breukel … agreed gravely that it was … Sarah sat up straight and pushed her hair off her face. ‘I’m sorry I fell asleep.’ She studied his face, a very trustworthy face … a handsome one.” Pretty nicely done. But there are no – gasp – descriptions of food, or everyday luxuries such as good coffee and new clothes that we are used to in a Neels romance and which are half the fun of it. Miss Bates was disappointed.
Litrik is in obvious and immediate love for Sarah, of which we are cognisant, unlike early Neels where we vicariously undergo the heroine’s frustration and uncertainty. Here, we are lulled, but bored. Litrik’s reasons for not marrying Sarah on the spot are lame: maybe she wouldn’t want to marry a man twelve years her senior, maybe she wants to see something of life, or have a career before she marries? This is commendable on his part, but doesn’t make sense in light of Sarah’s life, personality, and abilities. She’s endured a life of indentured servitude: why, in heaven’s name, wouldn’t she jump at the chance to marry a gentle, loving, considerate, and wealthy doctor? Suffice to say that Litrik machinates to give Sarah these opportunities in the hopes that she’ll choose him anyway, but “to display too much interest might frighten her off.” His idea of letting Sarah see the world for herself is to get her a job in the local hospital cafeteria once she’s back in England with the parents-from-hell. Part of the problem is that the Neels’ romance is set in a perpetual post-war Britain/Europe; suddenly, the modern world encroaches on it. It’s as if Neels became aware of it, but didn’t quite know how to make her way to it to write a new kind of romance.
Sarah’s passivity is disconcerting; Sarah’s self-effacing is annoying. Note what she says to Lutrik when he asks to spend the day with her, ” ‘I’m not a very interesting person to be with. I’m not clever or witty. You might get bored.’ ” Well, honey, Litrik’s a goner, but we’re not. To nudge the narrative along, Neels writes a Big Misunderstanding, a silly one. Sarah is so timid, so darn mousy, that her attempt to set things right results in achieving the opposite. She seeks Litrik in his private London rooms, while he’s hosting a cocktail party. They retire to a private room to “talk;” the scene set-up is terrific. It’s vintage Neels: as Sarah settles to speak to the tuxedo-ed Lutrik, “Sarah sat down on a small easy chair and the cat jumped onto her lap and was instantly asleep.” What a subtle image, the cat instantly comfortable with her future mistress: an image of recognition, an image of the rightness of what will be their life. The cat knows what Sarah doesn’t and Lutrik is uncertain about; it kept Miss Bates reading. On the other hand, Sarah’s timidity knows no bounds when she runs away, with explaining the simple misunderstanding. The narrative redeems itself later, even though things are still not right. Lutrik is driving Sarah home, “She glanced at his hands on the wheel … They were large, beautifully kept, and they reminded her how very much she loved him.” Perfect.
Neels’ novella is akin to “an uncrushable jersey dress” (to echo the wonderful blog that introduced Miss Bates to Neels.) The jersey dress makes an appearance in “Making Sure Of Sarah;” she dons it for the one outing she and Lutrik share, “the jersey dress … an unpretentious garment, in an inoffensive blue, and she didn’t like it much, but it could be rolled up small and stuffed into her case and didn’t crease.” This is how Miss Bates felt about Neels’ novella: it’s Neels; it’ll do, but “she didn’t like it much.” It was, like its plain heroine, “almost pretty,” Northanger Abbey.
This was in Miss Bates’ TBR for no other reason than her ambition to read all of Neels; this makes it four down, 130 to go …
What have you dug out of the TBR lately? Was it a lemon, or an orange? Miss Bates would love to hear from you, so drop her a line in the comments!