Romance Panacea Part II: The Betty Neels Canon, Gifts That Keep Giving

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Weird cover: what’s with the “rival” nurse? Not in book, Harlequin.

As you know and may be tired of hearing, Miss Bates is revising and renewing her blogging project without straying too far from her original purpose. One way she’s done so is by reading outside her romance comfort zone, tackling a Big Fat Book over the summer (Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which she’s enjoying more than she expected to). At the same time, she’s revivifying her blog by writing about romance beyond the review (rest assured she’ll still review romance). In her previous post, she considered the idea of romance reading as panacea, as a comfort zone in the daily grind, when “troubles come not single spies, but in battalias,” as Claudius says to Gertrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Romance reading, however, doesn’t happen solely as an escape, or coping strategy. Romance is read for comfort, but it’s also read for pleasure. Miss Bates offers this eloquent summary of what she’s been trying to say about romance, which she found quoted in the Mary Burchell Wikipedia article (thanks to a Twitter convo with Sunita). Burchell, one of the founders of the Romance Novelists’ Association, wrote in one of their newsletters, ” … a good romantic novel is a heart-warming thing which strikes a responsive chord in those who are happy and offers a certain lifting of the spirits to those who are not.”  There is one writer, at least for Miss Bates, who exemplifies Burchell’s point: the Immortal, Inimitable Betty Neels.

Divine BettyN. is Miss Bates’ heal-all turn-to writer, good for all occasions, and when no other romance will do. When Miss B. wrote about her bad-day reading of Judith McNaught’s Paradise, it was a sheepish admission. She returns Paradise to the keeper shelf feeling a tad soiled … she can’t believe she read that … AGAIN. Like eating too much chocolate, or ice cream straight from the tub. Betty Neels’ romances have an opposite effect. Neels validates how very very good romance can be, as good as honeyed tea, buttered toast, orange marmalade, and a slice of sharp cheddar. Food to be eaten every day, at any time of the day. A staple, a stalwart reading friend, a BFF when the BFF can’t come ’round. She’ll explore this by writing about her fifth Neels read, Damsel In Green (again, with thanks to Sunita, for the rec). Miss Bates has read Sister Peters In Amsterdam, Visiting Consultant, Tulips For Augusta, and “Making Sure of Sarah.” Tulips is her favourite thus far, but Damsel vies with Visiting Consultant for second place.

Betty Neels’ appeal lies in her consistent inclusion of certain elements: the hero’s secret yearning for the heroine while coming across, to quote Damsel, as “tender and amused and mocking”; descriptions of rich and lovely meals and the heroine’s modest, tasteful wardrobe; the narrative’s stately pace, the hospital workday broken up by meals, coffee breaks, rest, and occasional day off, or holiday; the special outings, a drive, a skating, or site-seeing party; the sheer pleasure of a comfortable not terribly eventful life; and, most fascinating for Miss Bates amidst what she’s listed here, cryptic messages the hero’s gifts subtly offer concerning his feelings toward the heroine. (Indeed, Miss Bates wrote about Constantijn’s flower-sending to Augusta in her review/reading of Tulips.) All this, combined with polished, gently-toned, gently humorous writing make for a wonderful few hours with each book in the Neels canon.

Vis-à-vis the world Neels’ characters inhabit, Miss Bates gives many agreeing-with nods to Liz’s post at Something More when Liz says that Neels’ style recalls “favorite children’s books, not because they are simplistic but because they come from the same time and place, mid-century Britain.” This is how Miss Bates too has thought of Neels’ setting. But Neels published her romance novels in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s; her first, Sister Peters in Amsterdam, published in 1969 (thank you, Wikipedia). Yet, her stories never feature any of those things that would be in everyday use: television, in particular. At most, her characters use a telephone and that’s about it. They don’t go to the movies; they don’t wear bell bottoms. They certainly don’t visit a supermarket, or shopping mall. Miss Bates would say that Neels’ world is an idealized, moneyed, genteel bourgeois utopia and she is as good at “world-building” as any science fiction, or fantasy writer. At most, her affluent male characters drive sleek, quiet, long-lasting, grey, or black cars. Miss Bates would like to give you one snippet of how Neels cleverly built her world in contradistinction to the one that was around her:

“I can only bear a certain amount of this modern dancing. I get lonely dancing by myself,” he added plaintively, and Georgina laughed.

“How ridiculous you are,” she chuckled. “It’s the fashion. But I know what you mean – I’d rather dance with someone too.”

Neels condescends to the modern world: nods at it, acknowledges it, laughs it off and creates exactly the kind of world that we, for those of us who adore Betty Neels, want to live in. This is powerful stuff. Heady. And it is as much about world-building as it is about characterization, maybe more so. Our world is fast, convenient, disposable, EPHEMERAL … Neels’ world is stolid, dependable, timeless, slow-moving, somehow permanent … and this is as much about the things and places colouring her canvas as it is about the people inhabiting it. One way in which she does this is, as Miss Bates suggested, by depicting the age-old ritual of gift-giving and exchange.

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Love these new Neels covers by Harlequin.

Neels’ characters are “stock;” her hero and heroine, types: a worldly, monied, well-born, older, often medical doctor hero and innocent but fey, or precocious, kind, giving, smart nurse, or nursing, care-giving heroine. Damsel In Green doesn’t deviate. Miss Georgina, “George,” Rodman, 23, neophyte London nurse, is at the scene when two injured children are brought to St. Athel’s on a cold November night: Beatriz and Cornelis. They are accompanied by Karel, their guilt-ridden immature “uncle,” the driver. Their guardian is anesthesiologist Professor Julius van den Berg Eyffert, 33, huge, sandy-haired, and blue-eyed. George’s efficiency, care, kindness, and humour appeal to him and he convinces her to succor Cornelis (who’s bed-ridden for three months while his broken legs heal) at his Essex home. He is guardian to two more young people for a total of five, accompanied by sundry dogs and cats. The scene eventually shifts to his Dutch estate, Bergenstijn, when he convinces George to holiday with the family after New Year’s, ostensibly to care for still-helpless Cornelis.

As a side note, another one of the things that Miss Bates loves about Neels is that there’s nothing helpless about her heroines and nothing particularly helpful about her heroes. Au contraire, hero appeals to the heroine’s skill and usefulness to woo her and gives her time and space to realize that she loves him, to know her own mind. This is so in Damsel In Green, with a moppet-alert (which Miss Bates enjoyed very much; the children, interesting characters in themselves) and George’s loveable Great-Aunt Polly. Nothing much happens and Miss Bates loved every word of it: George takes care of Cornelis; Christmas is decorated and celebrated; meals are consumed; George dresses up for certain occasions; even the spectre of the “Other Woman” is etiolated. There’s a wonderful skating scene with George, Julius, and poppets. There is no one as good at depicting the pleasures of an ordinary life as Betty Neels: HEAs follow seamlessly from the events of her novels. There is no couple in her oeuvre that we cannot envision sharing a good life for years.

Julius is a wonderful hero: mysterious, as if he has knowledge the heroine cannot yet reach, but loving and kind. He insists that George wear her nurse’s uniform to remind him that he cannot woo her while he’s her employer. He’s circumspect and thoughtful. He’s charming and funny. He exhibits those qualities in a man that Miss Bates’ Tante Fanny taught her to look for: he must care for the elderly, children, and animals. Tante Fanny’s tried-and-true test is the Neels hero and it is especially Professor Julius. At the same time, Julius offers the heroine all the signs she needs to know that he loves her. Julius gifts George the most wonderful objects, objects, as Miss Bates has argued above, that a woman would keep and cherish for a life-time, objects that, when picked up, a smile crosses the lips and a memory of the giver and loving gesture accrues to them, objects well-made, for a lifetime of enjoyment and use. On St. Nicholas, December 6th, the Professor is in Holland on business, but has left behind the children’s and Georgina’s gifts in his drawer. She assumes the gifts are only for the children until she finds, for her, a Meissen-made “small, fragile, porcelain figure of a girl in a green and white and gold dress with a little dog hidden in her skirts.” Something she’s admired and wanted for ages, but was too dear. How did he discover this? Probably from his tete-a-tetes with the playfully delightful Great-Aunt Polly. But George’s modesty and diffidence won’t allow her to think that the Professor cares for her: he is kind to everyone, she says. When he returns from Holland, he brings gifts for the children and “a small Delft bowl full of budding crocuses” for George. When she visits Great-Aunt Polly before Christmas, he sends a box with a “half-dozen bottles of champagne.” For Christmas, he gives George a “silver Valentine mirror.” At New Year’s, he sends George off to Great-Aunt Polly with “an outsize box of Dutch chocolates,” and two “bottles of claret.” Everything tasteful and appropriate. Who wouldn’t want to receive these gracious gifts? Gifts for enjoyment and cherishing, gifts that create memories, that give pleasure, and say, look, I’m paying attention to you … because the hero knows that no gift is as precious as the heroine’s love. And that, my friends, is eminently romantic. If this were a review 😉 , Miss Bates would give Damsel In Green “no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.

Miss Bates is fascinated by any depiction of gift and gift-giving in romance? If any come to mind for you, dear readers, please tell her about them in the comments.

(Book covers courtesy of GR and Fantastic Fiction.)

26 thoughts on “Romance Panacea Part II: The Betty Neels Canon, Gifts That Keep Giving

  1. I just finished Ruthie Knox’s Deeper yesterday and in it the heroine gives the hero, who works overnight at a bakery baking stock for the next day, a book about the science of making bread. I’m a fan of stories where the characters show that they’ve paid attention to what matters to each other by giving gifts that are deeply personal. But one of the best gifts that I still remember with an almost visceral appreciation is a memory from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. In one of the last books of the series, Laura and Alonzo move into a small house together and as she’s wandering through it for the first time, she finds the pantry. The near-hypnotic description of all of the different supplies that Alonzo has stocked, flour and corn meal and baking powder and sugar and salt and all of the things that add up to luxury for a homesteader when they are available and to hand…I remember that passage 30+ years after reading it. 🙂

    Also, “the sheer pleasure of a comfortable not terribly eventful life”? The older I get, the more this is my idea of heaven. Funny how things change. At twenty, I would have thought the very idea abhorrent!

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    • Oh, yes, Miss B. is so glad you reminded her of the bread-making book: she loved Deeper, wasn’t always easy to read, but so well-written and the characters, though NA is not her thing, most sympathetic.

      Laura and Alonzo: Miss B sure did wear those books down to paper-thin condition. You so brought that back to her, also loved “near-hypnotic description”. That is really what happens to us when a passage strikes a chord in our soul: it is mesmerizing, as if we’re both realizing something and recognizing it simultaneously. One of the saddest moments in literature for Miss B. is when Ophelia returns Hamlet’s gifts, and says, heartbroken, “My lord, I have remembrances of yours … ” “I never gave you aught.” “My honoured lord, you know right well you did, and with them, words of so sweet breath composed as made the things more rich. Their perfume lost, take these again, for to the noble mind rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.” Italics are Miss B’s. It is exactly as you say above, the object-gift bears no meaning without the thought, love, and promise it symbolizes. The return of gifts is as painful as the receiving is when the gift says, “I know you. I see you. I love you. I honour you.” Hamlet and Ophelia’s conversation shows their utter sundering and his cruelty and her confusion and pain, “I did love you once.” “Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.” Miss B’s heart breaks for Ophelia every time she reads that.

      Yes, Miss B’s concern was always with the “unexamined life,” and now “comfortable but not terribly eventful” sounds pretty darn good. At twenty, for her too, the idea would have been preposterous. She was a bit of a wild girl! 😉

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      • I’d forgotten that scene with Ophelia returning his gifts and Hamlet denying that he’d ever given them. Oooh, what a terrible thing to do! He’s so horrible to her that it bleeds off a lot of my sympathy for him when production includes all of the lines between those two. But of course, with Shakespeare productions, they don’t usually use the full text (4 hrs+) and frequently part of what gets cut are the scenes which make it clear that Ophelia is not spontaneously losing her mind, but is instead being gaslighted and humiliated to an unbearable degree.

        One of my other favorite gift moments from romance is in Lisa Kleypas’ Secrets of a Summer Night. The heroine’s family has fallen on hard times and she is in a ‘marry for money or else’ dilemma. While at a country estate, she joins a party going for a walk in the wilderness, despite having only flimsy slippers to wear. Later in the book, she finds a pair of sturdy walking boots outside her room. The hero, of course, denies completely that they are from him, but we all know that he is responsible for this useful gift and love him for it!

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        • Oh, how Miss B. loves Ophelia: the scene in question is often left out because it follows the great “to be or not to be” speech, but the problem with that soliloquy is that people so often forget the context. Hamlet’s great soliloquy ends with the line “But soft you now, the fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered.” So, Hamlet is actually glad/happy to see Ophelia and in all the madness and treachery and betrayal that surrounds him and that he is forced to be a part of, he knows that his “sins” redemption, his only salvation, lies with HER. His mood in the scene changes so abruptly to cruelty that Miss B. cannot help but think that he has realized that his philosophical mutterings, which he thought he’d uttered ALONE, were spoken to an audience, his hateful uncle, mother, and the Polonius. Ophelia and Hamlet were united as young people caught in an old people’s and world’s war. What he perceives to be her “joining” with the parents is yet another betrayal. OTOH, he’s an ass because what choice does this little girl have??? Hmmm, Hamlet, what? What have you offered her along with those “remembrances”?

          Oh the boots in that Kleypas novel, so true and so loving and again, “I’m paying attention to you.” Miss B’d forgotten them in her overwhelming love for The Devil In Winter.

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          • The Devil in Winter may be my favorite Regency ever. Certainly one of my favorite romances. When he carries her across the threshold and mutters, “That will be half a crown,” I grin every time. 🙂

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  2. I love all of the Betty Neels romances. It takes me back to being 14 yrs old and having not a clue where NZ was but being totally intrigued by the “sister” stories.

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    • Miss B. echoes your love. You’re lucky to have discovered the Divine BN so young. Miss B. came upon them, thanks to the Uncrushable Jersey Dress, quite late in life.

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  3. My dear Miss Bates–

    Betty does not >totally< eschew modern entertainment. She often has her characters going to the musical theater (Cats is mentioned in one book) or to the movies. Record players are mentioned (updated to CD players in reprint editions). And OH! the fashions!! the skinny other woman can be seen wearing slinky pants to a fancy dinner party. But our heroines are always appropriately dressed (unless they've been pressured by the rotter boyfriend into buying something totally inappropriate!)

    But! The actual time in Neelslandia seems disconnected from the modern calendar!! And we Betty fans love that aspect of her work! Reading almost anything by the great Betty is a nice mini-vacation. It might not equal a trip to Hawaii (but it is certainly cheaper!)

    May this Betty fan suggest two of her all time favorite Betty books? Both are later books, but are much beloved by many fans: 'The Mistletoe Kiss' and 'Roses have Thorns'.

    As for gift giving–the most heart-breaking is in 'Not Quite a Husband' by Sherry Thomas. The hero, who has No Clue why his marriage has gone into the toilet, decides to woo his doctor wife with a fantastic microscope. The gift is perfect–the timing is disastrous! I need tissues every time I read it!

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    • Oh, Miss B. just loved your comment. She writes about La Neels with really not enough books under her belt, so it’s good to hear that Bets didn’t totally “eschew” modernity. LOL! Musical theatre and record players, wow, Miss B. doesn’t know if she’ll be able to handle that, at least nobody has a remote to turn on a television. Classical music concerts and musical theatre, she can so see that for Betty heroes and heroines. Neels is utterly restorative. Miss B. knows it sounds simplistic, but reading a Betty Neels book makes her happy.

      She loved your example from the Sherry Thomas book and will ensure that it and the Neels titles are in her TBR! As always, what a great comment, thank you!

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  4. “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.” (your review of Making Sure of Sarah)

    “Liz says that Neels’ style recalls “favorite children’s books, not because they are simplistic but because they come from the same time and place, mid-century Britain.” This is how Miss Bates too has thought of Neels’ setting. (your review of Damsel In Green)

    I recently read Off With The Old Love (1987), and I found it interesting that Rachel’s boyfriend, Melville, is involved in “film” industry although what he does is never specified other than lots of parties and hobnobbing with unnamed pop stars and celebrities. He is so totally wrong for her, and everybody knows it except Rachel. Worse, he has absolutely no respect for her hard work and dedication, expecting her to come dancing or go to a party when she’s been in OR since 2 am!

    Anyway, what struck me was the internal struggle Rachel has in trying to fit in with Melville’s world, and the way it connects to your comments on the world building in a Neels’ book as mentioned in your reviews of Making Sure of Sarah and Damsel In Green. It shows up throughout this book.

    A good example is a party packed with pop stars that she and Melville attend. Rachel knows she sticks out like a sore thumb. Her hair isn’t pink or purple or blue, nor is it crimped, spiked, or so short and sleek “that it seemed to have been painted on.” She stands there amidst all this late 80s modernity and briefly entertains thoughts of short hair and three-inch diamond-encrusted heels, but admits in the next breath how unlikely that is. Even later after Rachel makes her farewells to the host, her “old fashioned” demeanor singles her out as different. He remarks how “refreshing” she was, that he’d “forgotten” girls like that existed.

    Then there’s a concert Melville and Rachel attend. Rachel is more the Rachmaninov, Debussy, Chopin, Grieg kind of girl, but this music is very modern. She thinks it’s “frightful” and “excruciating”, and she was “quite unable to understand the weird sounds coming from the orchestra.” So she does the Betty Neels version of “la la la, I can’t hear you” to distract her from the cacophony – mentally working the off-duty roster and a rundown of instruments Professor Radner van Teule (THE REAL HERO!!) will need the next day. 🙂

    The most poignant example comes much later as Rachel begins to reconcile who she is with who Melville wants her to be.

    “The world’s a funny place.’ Rachel was voicing her thoughts, hardly aware that she was sharing them with him. ‘All these dressed-up people yesterday evening, listening to that frightful music, and being what they call successful. They’re not, you know; they don’t do anything that matters.’”

    I’ve read several dozen (ahem) Neels’ books, and this one struck me more forcibly than others as a good example of the Great Betty’s struggle with reconciling the demands for a more updated hero/heroine/plot versus staying true to what she was comfortable writing and frankly, what she excelled at with those earlier books.

    I think Rachel echoes Betty Neels’ awareness of the general encroachment of the “modern” world and specifically, the more “modern” romance heroine/hero. It’s clear she’s also struggling to fit all of this modernity into her books in some fashion even as she acknowledges that this just isn’t her cup of tea. Pink spiky hair and three-inch heels, indeed!

    “Who wouldn’t want to receive these gracious gifts? Gifts for enjoyment and cherishing, gifts that create memories, that give pleasure, and say, look, I’m paying attention to you … because the hero knows that no gift is as precious as the heroine’s love. And that, my friends, is eminently romantic.”

    Oh I love how you framed this in your post! Ah,the gifts in a Neels’ book are almost as much fun for me as searching for the significance of the book’s title or how this or that heroine will experience her dawning realization.

    In Sister Peters in Amsterdam on St. Nicolaas Day, Adelaide receives two gifts: a pair of fur-lined suede gloves and a bottle of expensive Madame Rochas perfume. Of course, these anonymous gifts are from the Saint, and so she can only thank the Saint, not Coenraad. I thought this was a brilliant way for Coenraad to give Adelaide something personal that she could accept without embarrassment or being made uncomfortable. Plain old gloves say ” I want to keep you warm”, but fur-lined suede ones say “I want to keep you luxuriously warm and pretty.” And perfume is such a personal gift, and it takes time, thought, and effort to buy a scent suited for someone else. Adelaide loves it, takes a “blissful sniff” so the mysterious giver sees her appreciation. Perfume is all about the senses, comfort, beauty, and luxury. It’s the pleasure of holding a beautiful little bottle and dabbing on wrists and neck, and each time you think of the giver. Clever devil is Coenraad!

    At Christmas Coenraad comes out from behind St. Nicolaas’ robes and leaves Adelaide a parcel on her desk “wrapped in red paper patterned with robins, and tied with tinsel ribbon. Her name was on the label, written in the professor’s deplorable writing. Inside were three books: she looked at the authors—Jan de Hartog, Johan Fabricius, and Charles Dickens.”

    I loved this! Books!! Yay!! I have to think De Hartog was very significant to Coenraad since de Hartog was a member of the Dutch Resistance, and Coenraad lost his parents and the sight in one of his eyes during the Occupation. Fabricius, too, was uprooted by WWII when Japan occupied Indonesia, writing about it in Night Over Java. Considering Coenraad’s family history, I can see why he chose these two authors for Adelaide.

    Though he doesn’t confront Adelaide immediately, I do believe that he’s realized she knows he can’t see from one eye, and this was his way to share a little of his past indirectly. It was important to him, she’s important to him, and so he wonders if this will be important to her.

    And then there was an amber necklace given by Dr. Thomas Winter to nurse Isabel Barrington for her help in seeing his old Nanny safely from Poland. Isabel is wonderful. Every time Dr. Winter gives her a wintry blast from his eyes or looks down his nose at her, she, er, twinkles back at him. After Nanny is safely ensconced in Dr. Winter’s London home, Isabel’s job is done. A few weeks later, she receives a package from Dr. Freeze, an amber necklace she admired when they had taken Nanny out sightseeing in Sopot while waiting for paperwork to clear the bureaucratic maze in Poland. She’s surprised because he seemed not to like her at all, but because she loves him she decides to wear the necklace underneath her uniform each and every day, her little secret. Of course, Isabel and Thomas meet again thanks to Nanny, and Thomas has noticed the “bulge” under her dress.

    “‘There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you. Why don’t you want me to see that you wear the amber necklace? You wear it—I’ve seen it under your dress.’ He put out a hand and gently tapped its slight bulge.

    Isobel looked round for inspiration and found none. After a minute she said: ‘It reminds me of Poland.’ She blushed as she said it and then stared at him surprised when he said with a kind of angry impatience: ‘I need nothing to remind me of Poland—or, for that matter, of you.’ He bent his head suddenly and kissed her hard, then went on upstairs without another word.”

    Oh my! He may appear cold and formidable, but I knew right then Thomas is hiding a lot of sensitivity and tender emotion underneath his crusty exterior. Isabel had written him a stiff polite little thank you note (difficult for her because she knows she loves him by this point) so wearing the necklace was his clue that perhaps she felt something for him other than just amusement at his surliness, even if he was a little angry that she hid it.

    Gifts in Neels’ books can range from the sublime as in Damsel In Green, Sisters Peters in Amsterdam or Tulips For Augusta to the prosaic in Once For All Time. James Thackeray has been in love with Clotilde forever, but she’s engaged to Bruce (again totally wrong for her!). Each Christmas, James gives the nurses on her ward chocolates and two bottles of fine Sherry, but he’s singled Clotilde out with a leather notecase and a leather wallet in previous years. Except this year, nothing. Nothing!? Yes, nothing. But, but, why?? I know he loves her, and she’ll eventually see the light and dump Bruce, so he needs to be luring her away, showing her all his vast glory, doesn’t he? Well, James makes up for that lack with an almost explanation that warmed the cockles of my heart:

    “James got out of the car without demur, opened the door and went the few yards with her to the entrance. He went inside with her and stood looking down at her. ‘What did I give you last year?’ he asked her. ‘A leather notecase,’ she said promptly. ‘And the year before that it was a leather wallet, wasn’t it?

    And this year, nothing, Tilly, and do you know why? I’m unable to give you what I wish, and I have no present for you…’ ”

    Of course, she’s hurt and unfortunately still a little blind to the vastness that is James, so she brushes off his explanation before he can finish it. I knew what he wanted to give her but couldn’t: his heart, his love. The best gift of all.

    Really really wonderful post!! I did a happy dance when I saw it was up. I did try to shorten this, but . . .you know Betty Neels inspires me. 🙂

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    • Miss B. is glad you DIDN’T shorten it! And she has a lot to say, but has gone way past her spinster’s bed time, so she’ll write more tomorrow. But she did want to say that, LOL really, when she read your opening quotation, she hadn’t a clue she’d written it! 😮 Miss B. is clearly getting on in years.

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    • Wow, what an amazing analysis! Miss B. should have read her own post before writing this one. It’s funny when she considered doing so and dismissed it with, “Oh, there can’t be anything that interesting in it.” Well, you’ve certainly made it interesting because you have a broader knowledge of the Neels’ oeuvre, like “Barb in Maryland” does. What Miss B. finds most interesting about your comments regarding Neels’ struggle with “encroaching modernity” and she’s sure there was a commercial consideration there, is that we’ll be reading Neels’ world in the same we read Jane Austen, or the Brontës, with an awareness of the quaintness of their world and a deep nostalgia in us. So interesting. For Neels is moving further and further away from us in time and this makes, Miss Bates thinks, her appeal greater and greater. But her tension in the later books is intellectually so interesting. You’ve really brought it home for MissB.

      And the gifting comments too, so charming, like an early Neels romance 😉 Miss Bates remembers how much those fur-lined suede gloves struck her at the time. Such a wonderful combination of comfort and luxury. Sister Peters In Amsterdam is the first Neels she read and maybe not the most perfect, yet Miss B has a lot of affection for it. Your comments about the book gifting only reinforce that Neels’ allusions and referencing are part and parcel, pun intended!, or her world-building and the fantastical pleasures it affords us.

      Yes, Miss B. loves looking for the meaning behind the title; she especially loved its significance in Damsel In Green. To say more would spoil it for readers who’ve yet to read the novel … please, do read it, though. The title-hunts are for another post, but it’d have to be a spoiler-ish one.

      Of course, now Miss B. can’t wait to read Once For All Time because she loved this: ” … she’s hurt and unfortunately still a little blind to the vastness that is James, so she brushes off his explanation before he can finish it. I knew what he wanted to give her but couldn’t: his heart, his love. The best gift of all.” That is beautiful!

      Really really wonderful comment, Miss B. echoes! 🙂

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  5. I’m reminded of the gift-giving in Gaudy Night. Peter gives Harriet a dog collar to protect her from strangling and then bitterly points out it is the only thing she’s ever allowed him to give her — “Except my life, except my life, except my life,” she retorts. It is a perfect summary of the fundamental problem in their relationship. He wants to give her everything (much later, Harriet says to his mother that she thinks Peter likes giving people things, and he does), but the huge, unrepayable gift he’s given her always lies between them. He will always be King Cophetua and she the beggar maid. And until they can find a way to be equals, they can never be happy together.

    Except that is the moment when everything changes. Because Harriet does let him give her a gift – the beautiful carved chessmen that she has fallen in love with. She has found a way to accept his generosity and, I think, that is the moment when we know, for certain, that this will finally be the book where they have their happy ending. Even when the chessmen are smashed, it doesn’t matter. They have achieved their purpose. They have shown us – and Harriet – that she can accept Peter’s love, his ring, his wealth, his house, without losing herself.

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    • MissB has scrambled off to acquire the first of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, Whose Body? and it’s been duly added to the TBR. Years ago, she read Busman’s Holiday, but, of course, that’s the one wherein the HEA has been achieved; she’d really like to read the development. She loved this analysis of the romance between Peter and Harriet. It really brings home how gifts and gifting can serve as lodestones in the developing HEA. She also thinks that the gifts serve as foreshadowing of the HEA, little sparks of reassurance for the reader, their very “materiality” a touchable instance of elusive nature of love.

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      • Miss B has a treat in store for her! For the romance, you only need to read Strong Poison, Have His Carcase and Gaudy Night. Several of the others are wonderful too, especially The Nine Tailors and Murder Must Advertise.

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        • Good to know about the romance; Miss B. loves a cozy, witty mystery, so it’ll be a pleasure to read them all. She’s only known Sayers as a translator of Dante.

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      • Whose Body is such a wonderful debut novel – once you’ve read it, you really understand Lord Peter’s background and how it motivates his life’s work as detective as you read the rest of the books. But the Harriet/Peter cycle really needs to be read from the beginning – along with Murder Must Advertise, in which she only receives a mention, but it’s so touching. It’s one of the greatest literary love stories I can think of!

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        • Wow. What a wonderful way of summarizing Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series: this only confirms Miss Bates’ penchant to read everything in order of publication and the author’s development. She’s looking forward to this even more … and, of course, she’s starting with Whose Body?.

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    • Actually, a green dress features quite prominently in the novel and it does sound, at least to MissB, quite … um … unappealing. But the “green” in the titles has yet one more interesting reference.

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  6. I recently read a gift-giving situation I found weird. It was in a Diana Palmer book. The hero and heroine are sort of in a foster-sibling relationship, though have been at odds in recent years, and to pay the hero back for ignoring her, the heroine has been giving him the same hideous tie for every gift-giving occasion. (She bought a ton on sale.) This passive-aggressive behavior is depicted as appropriate, while the fact that the hero has his secretary choose something for her is seen as an unforgivable slight. When she later berates him with his lousy gift giving, he never makes the obvious retort, “what about those nasty ties?”

    I was surprised at my husband’s antipathy to Valentine’s Day, because I’d never seen it as a “holiday” that specifically pressures men. I’ve since come to realize he is right. It’s rarely seen as reciprocal, but something men *have* to do for their women, or they’re doing it wrong.

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    • Oh, how cool for MissB: a gift-giving instance which is indicative of dissonance in a relationship instead of harmony. There’s just so much to be read in these moments: it’s fun. Gift-giving and exchange are such interesting and important cultural phenomena: the interesting thing about them is in the nature of the “exchange,” in what is being sought, said, and solicited. Valentine’s Day, commercialized and kinda of crass as it is, says a lot about us. It’s also a renewal of the gift of the other person’s body, so in a true marriage, your husband is right, it must be reciprocal. (Some of Miss B’s besties are anthropologists.)

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  7. I love the analysis of Ms. Neel’s canon here. I’d never thought of it as a sort of post-war Neelslandia, but reading these comments makes me think a bit of Norman Rockwell too. Her books inhabit a sort of mythic England (and Netherlands) that have a serene existence in the misty borderland between reality, history, and “life as we wish it was.” Georgette Heyer would be my go to author for this kind of “feel good” reading – another author whose England was based on history, but floats in some misty haze, along with Avalon and Neelslandia, just outside the real world. BTW, also want to tell you that in response to your reply to my comment on BFB postk have order Old School, and it will be my summer “out of the box” read!

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    • Miss Bates loved the phrase, “the misty borderland between reality, history, and ‘life as we wish it was.'” There is a most interesting post over at Emma Barry’s blog about authenticity in romance and the search, by reader and writer, for that place and time that feels like we belong, or would like to belong to it. Certainly Neels taps into that nostalgia better than most. She does so for the simple reason that she is knowledgeable about a time and place, as is Heyer, and she has the talent to transform her knowledge into a fictional world. It’s very difficult to explain, but Miss Bates cannot abide the romance that doesn’t build a whole world around its couple, that floats them through various sexual escapades until they arrive at the HEA still disembodied from a time, place, history, etc. Atmosphere is important to creating romances that will resonate, as Neels’ and Heyer’s do.

      Miss Bates is very excited that you’re going to read Old School: that novel and what is has to say about art and politics and the co-mingling of art and politics stayed with her.

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