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.
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.