Miss Bates is going to make wild and wooly assumptions about Betty Neels. Her 1971 Fate Is Remarkable will be the ground in which Miss Bates will sow outlandish seeds by saying that Neels’ romances can be read as historical romances in disguise, or at least that Neels was NOT interested in telling a romance of her day. This is not unique to Miss B. Liz from Something More said that Neels’ romances are set in a post-WWII England, rather than the 1970s, 80s, and 90s in which Neels wrote. As long as one is willing to suspend one’s disbelief and replace a fast car with a fast curricle, then they may as well be set in the Regency Era as well. This comes through in Neels’ to-some-tedious, detailed descriptions of interiors and architecture. Miss Bates eats them up … along with any references to clothes, food, or gifts, as she’s written about before. Neels often fails in incorporating details from the time and place in which she actually wrote. In Fate Is Remarkable, for example, there are references to awkward cigarette moments, which Sarah, the heroine, dismisses with a titter. Hugo, the hero, smokes a pipe, like a good Victorian gentleman. There are a few telephone conversations, but one knows that Hugo and Sarah would rather correspond. As a matter of fact, more often than not, their day begins with the post. Neels is good on sleek cars, but even those are the kind that last forever, that go from showroom to vintage in a lifetime. Neels’ interiors and her descriptions of furniture and objets d’art are about finding permanence in a changing world. Miss Bates would say that this is her appeal to readers as well.
Neels’ Fate Is Remarkable is, as all her romances are, light on plot. Sister Sarah Ann Dunn works with Dr. Hugo van Elven, a typical Neels hero, large, quiet, knowing, wealthy, intelligent, and closed off to heroine and reader. Sarah and Steven have dated for three years; over dinner, in the first chapter, he throws her over for a plainer, richer girl, whose doctor father can make his career go places. Sarah is heart-broken; or is it that her pride is hurt more than her heart? Hugo recognizes Sarah’s pain and, to distract her, asks for help with an elderly patient, Mrs. Brown, alone and gravely ill, with only a cat, Timmy, for company. Their endeavours for, and visits to, Mrs. Brown, cement a relationship that was already good professionally. Out of the blue, Hugo asks Sarah to marry him on the basis of their compatibility and friendship. She agrees, even though she’s aware of rumours that Hugo is still in love with a woman who broke his heart, Janet. Nevertheless, Sarah realizes that her “love” for Steven was more of habit and expectation than true, deep feeling. She likes and respects Hugo and agrees to marry him. They marry and agree to take time to get to know each other; it is understood that, for the time being, their marriage remains celibate. Most of the novel is taken up with Hugo and Sarah sharing household routines, going on holiday, entertaining friends, and working in an underprivileged neighbourhood clinic. In that sense, this is a romance that may prove slow for some. For Miss Bates, however, it was a marvel and joy; for the romance, of course, but also because she loved the prominence of architecture, interiors, and furnishings that Hugo and Sarah share, as he introduces his wife to everything his world entails. Hugo’s world is Neels’ idealized world: it is a world of comfort, hard work, service for others, beauty, and permanence. Everything the modern world is not. At least in Neels’ implicit critique of it.
When Sarah considers Hugo, she notes his kindness and placid, polite manners, as well as his monetary worth: Harley Street practice, Richmond house, and Iso Grigo (Miss Bates had to google that and it looks pretty sweet). Yet, the incident that brings them together is his request (totally machinated to be with her, we learn at the end) for a foray into an unsavory neighbourhood, where Mrs. Brown lives and where they venture to help her. It appears, however, that Dr. van Elven is used to venturing into underprivileged neighbourhoods to do charitable healing work. It is a testament to his ability to navigate between his privileged world and a world that benefits from his skill and kindness. To the staid, middle-class nurse, Sarah, this is new and strange. Her arrival is described in interesting detail:
Phipps Street was endless, edged with smoke-grimed Victorian houses, the variety of whose curtains bore testimony to the number of people they sheltered; the pavements were crowded with children playing, housewives hurrying along with loaded baskets, and old men leaning against walls, doing nothing at all. Sarah said on a sigh, ‘How drab it all is – how can they live here?’ [Emphases are Miss Bates’.]
Miss Country-Girl-Middle-Class-Respectability finds this world “drab.” Dr. van Elven does not. He navigates its Dickensian streets knowledgeably. Is this really a description of a 1970s street scene, or 1870s? There are no cars, or buses, but Hugo does ease the Iso Grigo past a “coal cart”; women carry market baskets, no shopping bags here … later, an ice cream van, Neels only concession to ’70s London. Mrs. Brown’s neighbourhood serves as a contrast to the world into which Hugo will lift Sarah, a world of comfort, ease, and beauty. Yet, he never forgets a world less privileged; this serves to establish his moral goodness and introduce the same to his future wife. Sarah fails to notice that children are playing and baskets are loaded; it’s a world not totally without hope, or possibility.
Hugo and Sarah’s responses to the interior of Mrs. Brown’s building and apartment tell us something about bringing dignity and comfort to others as an important mission. Here, initially, is Sarah’s response to accompanying Hugo:
They went on climbing and she wondered why he talked as if he was in the habit of frequenting similar houses in similar streets … The second landing was smaller, darker, and smelled. The doctor’s splendid nose flared fastidiously, but he said nothing. Sarah had wrinkled her own small nose too; it gave her the air of a rather choosy angel … They entered in answer to Mrs. Brown’s voice, and found themselves in a small room, depressingly painted in tones of spinach green and margarine, and furnished with a bed, table and chairs which were much too big for it. [Emphases are Miss Bates’.]
After Hugo and Sarah marry, they continue to care for Mrs. Brown. When Mrs. Brown is hospitalized, Hugo has the apartment repainted, papered, and new furniture brought in. Sarah helps redecorate, but she does not ignore Mrs. Brown’s slightly garish taste and makes sure that much is done in shades of pink. She continues to visit Mrs. Brown and brings flowers and especially one very precious vase from her and Hugo’s home, bringing beauty, pleasure, and dignity to an old, dying spinster (an idea that greatly moved Miss Bates). Neels’ novel is not about social movements, labour’s endeavours, or the sweep of history, but, like Mrs. Gaskell, about crossing classes in the spirit of love and beauty, in the true sense of what Dostoevsky meant when he said that the world will be saved by beauty. Our heroine’s guide through Dickens’ streets and Gaskell’s charity is Hugo van Elven.
In contradistinction to the Victorian smoke-grimed locale, Hugo’s neighbourhood and home, to which he brings Sarah, Mrs. Brown, and cat, Timmy (Alice, his housekeeper, will care for Timmy while Mrs. Brown is in hospital), are serene, beautiful, comfortable, and classically proportioned:
The doctor’s house was one of a row of Georgian bow-fronted houses set well back from the road, with their own private thoroughfare and an oblique view of the water … The doctor unlocked the front door with its gleaming knocker and beautiful fanlight … The hall … was square with a polished floor and some lovely rugs. There was a satin-striped wallpaper upon which were a great many pictures, and the furniture was, she thought, early Regency – probably Sheraton … the sitting room … from its window there was an excellent view of the river with a stretch of green beyond … the small garden, which was a mass of primulas and daffodils and grape hyacinths backed by trees and shrubs. There was a white-painted table and several chairs in one corner, sheltered by a box hedge … When he had gone, she got up and began an inspection of the room. It was comfortable and lived-in, with leather armchairs and an enormous couch drawn up before the beautiful fireplace. The floor was polished and covered with the same beautiful rugs as there were in the hall. There was a sofa table behind the couch and a scattering of small drum tables around the room, and a marquetry William and Mary china cabinet against one of the walls. A davenport under one of the windows would make letter writing very pleasant … it had a small button-backed chair to partner it; Sarah went and sat down, feeling soothed and calmer than she had felt for the last two days. [Emphases are Miss Bates’.]
Hugo’s home is as gracious as he. It is a combination of the beauty of urban/urbane landscape and natural world. It offers the best in carefully crafted material comforts. It is not ostentatious, or terribly modern and, though obviously wealthy, not trendy, offering a sense of permanence, something to pass down to children who will cherish it as previous generations did. What matters to Neels is its ability to serve as oasis, as refuge for a family working to better the world, as Hugo does. As he wants Sarah to. As he likely hopes their children will. For Neels and for us, in an increasingly throw-away world, a nostalgia, maybe a mistaken and quixotic one, for a world that stands still and shelters.
It is interesting that Neels refers to Hugo’s furniture as “early Regency – Sheraton,” a theme that comes up again when Sarah wears a pink party dress (pink is important to this novel) that looks, she notes, as if it could have been worn in the Regency. Neels’ allusions to interiors and Sarah’s wardrobe are reminiscent of a Regency romance, seeking in the contemporary world some sense of that lost, though likely never existent, gentility. But Protestant and Victorian in its idea of service. It is a powerful fantasy and Neels manages to satisfy both contemporary and historical romance readers. In another instance, Sarah says, “I’m behaving like a heroine in a Victorian novel.” Miss Bates has NOT read enough Neels to draw conclusions about the sub-genre-fusing that is going on, but she’d venture to say that, of all the Neels romances she’s read, this one, in allusion and reference to architecture and interiors, is as close as Neels comes to writing historical romance in contemporary guise. And the interiors play a great role in creating this atmosphere; note when Sarah has a tour of Hugo’s house, after she accepts his proposal:
It was a lovely house; the furniture, although antique, had a pleasantly used air about it; the chairs were comfortable, the colours subdued. She approved of everything and roundly declared that she had no wish to alter any of it. Presently they went upstairs and she looked with something like awe at the beautiful room which was to be hers. It was at the back of the house and had a little iron balcony overlooking the garden. The furniture was Sheraton and the floor-length curtains chintz in muted pinks and blues, colours which were echoed in the carpet and bed coverlet. [Emphases are Miss Bates’.]
Television, radio, and most conspicuously Miss Bates thought, clocks, are absent; nor do Sarah, or Hugo appear to consult wristwatches, though clothes and jewelry are frequently mentioned. As a matter of fact, Hugo is oblivious to time, dismissive of it, often late, an indication that the world he represents is not set by the clock, but by things permanent and beautiful.
After Hugo and Sarah are married, they travel, as any Regency couple would, to the country. They set off for Hugo’s Scottish cottage, stopping, on the way, at a hotel:
The hotel was old and rambling and lay, quite delightfully, by the lake. Their rooms overlooked the water and the fells beyond; the slow falling sun touched everything in sight with gold; the water of the lake looked like smooth shot silk … they strolled along the road beside the lake … Everything around them smelled delicately sweet …
Note that the ideas of old, comfortable, and delicate, including smell, are in contrast to Mrs. Brown’s Victorian neighbourhood. They are repeated and, other than the Iso Grigo, built for permanence and reliability. The modern world never enters Neels’ idyllic one. The hotel is a liminal moment in their journey north into Scotland. As they travel, they move further and further back in time until they arrive and are greeted by, “one of the most remarkable women he had ever met,” to which Sarah inquires why and Hugo responds, ” ‘ … She has a brood of children like angels and a husband who is the best shepherd in the district. She’s completely content with her lot – so is he. Each time I meet them, I’m cut down to size.’ ” Neels’ nostalgia for an urbane gentility contains, in turn, a nostalgia for a bucolic one, allowing the reader to experience another journey into another time, within the contemporary romance’s confines. This is what Hugo’s Scottish cottage is about, where the modern world is pushed even further away for our hero and heroine’s blissful, but chaste honeymoon:
… he slowed the car … and turned it sharply between the gateposts set in the old stone wall bordering the lane. The cottage … was whitewashed with a grey slate roof and small windows either side of its door … It was cosy and solid and looked as though it had grown out of the mountains all around it. The front door opened directly into a minute lobby and thence to the living room, which held a pleasant clutter of furniture – comfortable chairs, several small tables, well-filled bookshelves flanking a stone fireplace, and a variety of oddments conducive to comfort … The floor was wooden covered to a large extent by thick handmade rugs. The crimson serge curtains and the brass oil lamp on the table beside the easy chair drawn up to the fireplace … so that she sensed how pleasant it would be to draw the curtains against a cold evening and light the lamp. The kitchen was beyond … a scrubbed table against one wall, partnered by two rush-bottomed chairs … The Aga took up most of the opposite wall … two small bedrooms upstairs … curtains at the small windows were blue and white chintz with splashes of yellow … fitted cupboards cleverly built … and some beautiful candlesticks; pewter and old, each with its snuffer. The front room was the larger of the two, with a small Pembroke table under the window, bearing a shieldback mirror, a fine linen runner, exquisitely embroidered … she went downstairs to the kitchen. Hugo had lighted the Aga, and the fresh aromatic pine as the kindling blazed, filled the small room. He had taken off his jacket and was leaning against the wall, waiting to replenish the stove. He looked content, as though he had come home … [All emphases are Miss Bates’.]
Is this beautiful, minute description different from a Balogh historical, famous for giving her lovers an idyllic respite from reality for a few weeks? Look at what Neels itemizes in such detail: everything handmade and beautiful, crafted, time, effort, and thought put into every aspect of the bucolic cottage (complete with a local shepherd). The cottage itself seems hewn out of the mountains, as does Hugo at ease. This particular description struck Miss Bates because it is the moment when Hugo is both recognized and utterly mysterious to Sarah, when she confronts the other in him and is momentarily frightened she is in this elemental place with a stranger. Then, he is Hugo, the man she realizes she loves, at that very moment when he leans against that wall in that cottage with the pine scent redolent around them. It is as if the cottage and they are lifted out of time, neither forward nor backward, but of the earth. It is the moment when Sarah realizes she and Hugo are what “no man can put asunder,” built to last.
At the heart of this story is an awareness of death, when Mrs. Brown dies and Hugo, Timmy the cat, and Sarah mourn her. But they also take care of her in life and death; they care for her during her illness and make arrangements for the funeral. Mrs. Brown is alone in the world, a spinster, but their mission to care for the vulnerable, elderly, animals, and children (maybe not in this Neels, but one knows, at the HEA, that Sarah and Hugo are having a parcel of children). They will share a long and lovely life, have children and grandchildren, enjoy the cottage, and their beautiful things for many years. But there she is, Mrs. Brown, alone, old, and poor, a memento mori. Sarah and Hugo succor her; they act as Good Samaritans … and another post maybe some day on Neels’ theology (Miss B. will need Ros’s help for that one)? And that is what all the furniture, Sheraton or otherwise, and pewter candlesticks are about: to bring beauty and comfort to the world, to build a life of purpose, love, and service.
There is still a lot to be said about Neels’ interiors and exteriors, for example, what Neels heroines discover when they leave England, usually to travel to Holland, as Sarah does. There is also an entire aspect to the novel that Miss Bates neglected that is pertinent to what she’s written, the clinic where Hugo and Sarah volunteer. But Miss Bates has tried your patience long enough, dear reader.
We forget that romances can and do contain more than the central couple and their road to the HEA. Indeed, the best of the genre explores other ideas and themes in light of how two people work out a relationship. What have you noticed about buildings, rooms, and objects in the romances you’ve read? What other themes and ideas have sometimes struck you alongside the central couple’s?
Sadly, folks, Betty Neels’ Fate Is Remarkable is not available in e-format, or print. You may be able to find a used copy. This makes Miss B. very sad because in it, she found that “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma. Miss B. is eternally grateful to Janet for a copy. Miss Bates is indebted to Goodreads for the varied covers.