Betty Neels’ FATE IS REMARKABLE: The Permanence of Beautiful Things and Places

Fate_Is_Remarkable_2007Miss 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.

Fate_Is_Remarkable_1971

Love the original cover!

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 …

Fate_Is_Remarkable_2010Note 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.

17 thoughts on “Betty Neels’ FATE IS REMARKABLE: The Permanence of Beautiful Things and Places

  1. You may be interested to look up the TV show Call the Midwife, a British show that airs on PBS in the States and is probably available on demand. It’s set in 1950s England and focuses on young midwives who work in the poor sections of London’s East End. Much of what you mention as missing here–TVs, phones–isn’t shown on that show as well. Perhaps it’s a reflection of social/financial realities of that time, which Neels may have been trying to capture. It’s a truly wonderful show, too!

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    • Oh, Call the Midwife is a show Miss Bates has wanted to watch FOREVER, but the idea fell by the wayside when she gave her TV and cable up to focus on reading and writing for the blog. Something had to go because of the pesky day job. But now that you’ve mentioned it, and a little niggle of an idea to compare Neels’ nurse heroines to … well, she might just indulge in some DVDs.

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  2. Ahem, Miss Bates–
    Whilst you get the heroine’s name correct in the first sentences of your review (Sarah), for reasons known only to your brain, you refer to her as “Susan” from thereon. Ahem……

    Otherwise, I am still organizing my thoughts on >your < thoughts.

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  3. This was one of my first and favourite Neels — I read when I was around 12 or 13 (so back in the 70’s with that original Harlequin cover!) and it’s one of the few I’ve reread. I think you are right that Neels’ books feel more like historical romances than mid to late 20th contemporary romances. For me she seemed to capture some of the emotional (and moral) sensibility of some of the books that I inherited from my mother (some of which she had inherited from her mother)– books by authors like Jean Webster (Daddy-Long-Legs & Dear Enemy), L.M. Montgomery, or Alcott. I mean couldn’t you see Sarah volunteering with Jo March at a local charity? So Neels was comforting and safe read, an author who wrote adult books that reminded me of some of my favourite late 19th/early 20th century children’s lit. She, Burchell, and Essie Summers are the only authors whose names I can remember from the original Harlequin line.

    I actually was hoping that your review meant that Harlequin (or whoever holds the rights to Neels’ books) had finally released “Fate is Remarkable” as an ebook. But sadly it has not yet happened. Too bad — I’d love to see if its charms still work for me. After all I still love Daddy-Long-Legs, Rose in Bloom, and The Blue Castle.

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    • Oh, Miss Bates just loved your connection of Neels’ “emotional and moral sensibility” to beloved 19th century, Miss B. guesses we could call it “young women’s fiction.” She can absolutely see Sarah with Jo March, a character that Miss B. greatly identified with when she read Little Woman … over and over again until only tatters were left of it. Miss B. followed a Twitter thread that sang Burchell’s praises, but her books are only available on Open Library. Essie Summers she’s hearing of from you … so off she scrambles to check availability. Miss B. came to romance reading late, so she’s fascinated by life-long romance readers and the trajectories of their reading. Thank you for sharing. 🙂 (P. S. Summers: plenty available used, though some very expensive, nothing digitized yet.)

      As for Fate Is Remarkable‘s availability, Ros’s comment helped us find out that she’s available in the UK via Mills and Boon, must be the only one they still hold the rights to … 😦

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  4. I have Fate Is Remarkable on my Kindle. *smug face* It’s available from Mills and Boon, but I don’t know if you can buy it anywhere but the UK.

    I love Miss Bates’s observation about the permanence in a changing world. That is a huge part of what appeals to me about Neels’ books. I am always taken aback by any mention of modern conveniences – in the one I read last night, someone had a ‘portable phone’! I had not previously made the connection between Neels’ descriptive passages and historical romance, but of course you are right. To me they are very much books of the 1950s – it is the same world Miss Marple inhabits and Noel Streatfeild writes about.

    The theology of Neels! Now there would be an interesting subject. I am sure you are more than competent to handle it, though.

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    • Miss Bates actually went on the UK Amazon site and there it was! It’s quite peculiar that it’s the one title that isn’t available: Miss Bates will never understand how these things work, so she’ll just hope it is eventually.

      Yes, that is most definitely the appeal for Miss B.: the sense that one enters a timeless world, or at least a long-lasting one. Goodness knows, Neels was very much aware of how fleeting things are. She is not totally devoid of the “dark,” so to speak, that is why Miss B. loved the inclusion of Mrs. Brown, instead of moppets. She loved how Sarah and Hugo grew closer by taking care of others: Mrs. Brown, and the clinic where they volunteered. That scenario needs a post unto itself, but Miss B. might hold off until she can write one about five, or six titles and link them thematically.

      Thank you for the vote of confidence! 🙂

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  5. Thank you for this very thoughtful and thought-provoking post. Fate Is Remarkable is worth every penny I paid for my rather battered paperback copy. Honestly, it’s worth even more now I’ve read it.

    Furniture/architecture can be just a backdrop or it can set a tone for a book or say something important about characters in a book. Like the oak-paneled bed in Wuthering Heights that was Catherine’s retreat and then later Heathcliff’s coffin, the place where he’s finally reunited with Catherine. Or the contrast between the deeply set, narrow windows of Wuthering Heights as opposed to the large drawing room window at Thrushcross Grange. One is brooding, formidable, allowing only limited vision in or out, while the other is cheerful, permitting someone in the house looking out beautiful scenic vistas of gardens or allowing a full view of the home within from the outside.

    I had the same thought of Neels’ books being a quasi mashup of historical and contemporary lite running through my head after I’d read a couple of Neels’ books. It has only strengthened with every book I’ve read of hers, very much a Regency/Victorian feel with limited contemporary elements mixed in. I’m so glad/relieved it wasn’t just my imagination, and it goes a long way toward explaining a small portion of my obsession with her books.

    I recently finished Stormy Springtime by Betty Neels, and it, too, has this same historical aura, especially the first part. Meg and her two sisters were born and raised in their family home, but each of them sees it differently. Cora, the older sister, kicked off the dust of Hertingfordbury for Kent, and an accountant husband who’s a bit on the pompous side, two children, a modern house in the burbs. Doreen, the youngest sister, is a nurse and more at home in the fast-paced, modern world of London. But Meg, the middle one, has never left. She stayed to nurse her mother until her recent death. The house is old, built in 1802, very big, and a little rundown. But it’s her home, a refuge, a comfort, a connection to her past because of all the other Collins’ who’ve lived there, a piece of history of not only her family but also the village that’s been spared the harshness of the modern world, being left in “comparative peace.” Hertingfordbury is a pocket of simplicity untouched by the complicated lifestyles of the modern world.

    The very first sentence clues you in that this house is special to Meg, a protective barrier against a “mean wind” and “driving rain” on a late January afternoon with a “log fire blazing in its old-fashioned chimney-piece, lighted by several table lamps and furnished tastefully if somewhat shabbily.” There she is, curled up in an armchair listening to her sisters’ plans to sell the home she loves, and force her out to face a world she’s not prepared for.

    The estate agent sees the house as an easy commission, because “fine old Georgian houses with a generous spread of garden were much sought after.” For Cora, the older sister, the sale means her two boys can be enrolled in private school, and for Doreen, the youngest sister, proceeds from the sale means a down payment on a modern London flat.

    Meg, resigned to selling her home but dreading a move to the semi-basement flat from hell in London, wants to ensure the new owner will love the house as she has/does including all the beloved treasures inside and she does some pretty active vetting toward that end. One couple made lots of “loud-voiced remarks about old-fashioned bathrooms, no fitted cupboards and a kitchen which must have come out of the Ark.” They didn’t like the garden, or the lack of a swimming pool. Not to mention all those annoying trees and useless outbuildings. Then there was the overbearing lady looking for a property for a school but the dear old house was rejected because of “all those plastered ceilings, and none of the bedrooms would take more than five beds.” No one seemed a good fit for the house.

    But for each person who comes through to look, Meg patiently explains “about the old-fashioned bathrooms, the central heating, the Aga stove and why the large drawing-room was icy cold” (‘We switch on the central heating twice a week, though, because of the furniture—Hepplewhite, you know.’)”, lovingly points out “the Adam fireplace in the drawing-room, the strap work on the dining-room ceiling, the rather special Serpentine scroll balustrade on the staircase, and as they wandered in and out of the bedrooms on the first floor she pointed out the quite ugly cast-iron fireplace—writhing forms, a mid-Victorian addition”, the old-fashioned bell at the entrance, as well as the dated “bathrooms with pipes all over the place and great cast-iron baths sitting on clawed feet in the middle of the rooms.”

    But she does find a lady, Mrs. Culver, who likes the house, who doesn’t “seem at all put off by the bathroom pipes, and remarked upon the elegance of the Adam fireplace before Meg could even mention it.” She even promises Meg that if she updates anything it “will be done so well that you wouldn’t even notice it.” Even better she asks if Meg will consider selling the furniture along with the house, minus any “treasures” she and her sisters might want, of course.

    It was telling, too, what each sister chose as keepsakes once it was sold to Mrs. Culver. Cora, more concerned with impressing her neighbors “in her modern, split-level house with its well-kept garden and the double garage” than choosing anything of sentimental value, chose ancestral portraits and silver tea and coffee sets. Doreen chose a few portraits, a nondescript rent table, a little button-backed Victorian chair, and a corner cupboard, saying she’d furnish her flat with “modern stuff” preferring the money rather than any expensive antiques. Meg, knowing her future lies in a cramped tiny flat, chooses small pieces but pieces with personal meaning and timeless quality – a papier mâché work table used by her mother, encrusted with mother-of-pearl and inlaid with metal foil and a little rosewood desk where her mother wrote her letters. She also keeps a “serpentine table in mahogany with a pierced gallery, a Martha Washington chair” allegedly Chippendale and two early nineteenth century standard chairs “with sabre legs, as well as a sofa table on capstan base with splayed feet.”

    I always google the setting in Betty Neels’ books, and Hertingfordbury has an interesting history. It’s mentioned in the Domesday Book, it was residence of the Cowpers (think Lady Cowper of Almack’s fame), and it was the home of a Georgian brick home known as Epcombs, allegedly visited by Jane Austen and purportedly her model for the Bennets’ home, Longbourn. So an echo of the Regency is sprinkled throughout Stormy Springtime.

    Meg is one of those unfortunate heroines with no appreciable marketable skills suited for late 1980’s era. At one point, she’s referred to cruelly as a domesticated “pre-war paragon with no ambition.” She’s as much a relic of another age as the old family home and the treasures inside. What she’s good at are the things the modern world, including her sisters, find of little worth – nursing and caring for her mother, polishing furniture, arranging flowers, tending the garden, looking after the house, cooking, or perching “on a window seat in the drawing-room, carefully mending one of the old, but still beautiful, brocade curtains.” Now, tell me if that doesn’t sound like the attributes of a genteel Regency lady. Considering Hertingfordbury’s connection to Jane Austen, I feel sure it’s no coincidence that even Meg’s surname – Collins – is an allusion to Pride & Prejudice, especially when Doreen threatens, er offers, to find Meg an “unambitious curate” to marry.

    Meg’s reaction to the semi-basement flat from hell in London really speaks to your point of surroundings of permanence and beauty or, in this instance, the lack of same. She sees a dark living room with only one window whose one uninspiring view is the to and fro of thousands of strangers’ feet passing by, planks set up willy-nilly but called bookshelves, a tiny windowless kitchen, a bedroom “overlooking a forlorn garden with a row of dustbins along one wall and a tangle of grass”, a poky stained bathroom with a cracked washbasin, with its sad little testimony to the impermanence of life in the modern world inside a small cabinet – “a used tube of toothpaste, a piece of very old soap and a half-filled bottle of brilliantine”, left by the previous owner. This place was fit only for the lone spider making its way down a bathtub drain. Meg notes sadly the previous owner must have found it as depressing as she did because one wall was painted “shrimp pink”, but he’d obviously lost heart or run out of paint because the other walls were white.

    Left alone in the flat from hell until the estate agent returns, Meg is sure she can’t live there, but it’s what her sisters want her to do. Professor Culver, Mrs. Culver’s son, curious about what will happen to Meg and the London flat she’s gone to look at, tracks her down there, and his presence in this little piece of awfulness called a flat brings Meg to tears. As bad as it was at her first look at it, Meg confusedly explains that he made “the flat look so dreadful.”

    What Meg wants above all things is to stay in her home but the Great Betty has her admitting the only way for that to happen is “if a very rich man came along and bought the house and fell in love with her at the same time, but that only happened in books.” 🙂 But there’s Professor Culver to make that happen, to return Meg to, as you note in your review of Fate Is Remarkable, “a world of comfort”, “beauty, and permanence. Everything the modern world is not.” I believe the historical flavor here and in other Neels’ books is very much deliberate and reinforces the idea that Betty Neels’ books are “historical romance in disguise.”

    Wonderful post!

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    • Thank you for this awesome analysis of Stormy Springtime: it was so interesting to read about Meg’s preservation attempts, Miss B. guesses we could call them. Her love of the “Adam fireplace” in particular was so loveable and so telling. It’s lovely now to imagine how satisfying it is to have Meg and home swept into the fantasy of being able to keep all of this. The hero often plays this role when he is cast in the role of rescuer; Sarah doesn’t need rescuing so much as Hugo needs to have her in his life: there is nothing that he can offer that he believes she doesn’t deserve and more. Neels heroes, in short, are the best, inscrutable maybe, but real knights. Neels is so aware and imbued with a sense of worlds that give beauty and permanence, she must have felt our disposal world very keenly. She was about slow too: slow food, slow holidays, everything slowing down so that they can be more human and nourishing. Like your analysis: what a boon for Miss Bates’ readers to have your analysis! Thank you so much! 🙂

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  6. I did miss this when you posted it! This is one of my very favorite Neels novels, probably up there with Saturday’s Child and a couple of others. I’ve never found a paperback edition, even used, only as part of a hardback anthology. It’s one book I never lend out.

    I enjoyed Miss Bates’s comparison of Neels’s settings with those in historical romance, but I have to dissent gently from the idea that these early books are written decades out of their own time. I agree with Liz about the later ones, but this was first published in 1971. The absence of phones and television is not that surprising (radio seems less plausible), and the descriptions of the houses and the run-down part of London isn’t either. Not everyone had a TV, and telephone lines were expensive and not always available. Neels definitely didn’t approve of or dwell on the urban, modernizing part of Britain, and I think her books were a conscious rebuttal to the swinging ’60s London that Americans identify with the Beatles, etc. But the class distinctions she is drawing, both in terms of neighborhoods and in terms of education and consumption, were not entirely inaccurate.

    I love your comparison of the emphasis on detail in her books and in historical romance because I think that you are highlighting a characteristic of quite a few M&B contemporaries of that time. Remember that they were re-issuing books written in the 30s, 40s and 50s in the 1970s, especially in launching the HP line and in expanding the number of titles released (I think I have this right, and if not, I hope Laura Vivanco will correct me). You’ll find these kinds of descriptions in other categories as well, although perhaps not to the extent of a Neels book. Looking back, I think the 70s were closer to the 50s than to the 90s in terms of class stratification.

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    • Miss Bates greatly appreciates the clarification; her romance reading has neither the breadth nor depth of yours, so this is such a great learning opportunity for her. Especially what you’ve said about books being re-issued and the launch of the HP line: things she really didn’t know. She wonders if anyone would ever be willing to write a history of the romance novel? It would be so interesting. With every book Miss B. reads, she tries to formulate a response and an idea about it and those details in this particular Neels were ones that struck her so vividly. She totally agrees with you about Neels reacting to the swinging London of the 1960s; all one has to do is note how many times she takes a nice, sarcastic stab at the way people are dancing … in contrast to our hero and heroine who still dance cheek-to-cheek. She probably approached Neels from the perspective of her own memories of the 1970s when the telephone and the television, at least in her home, dominated.

      She is united with you in saying that Fate Is Remarkable is such a wonderful book. She just loved it to pieces and it’s vying with Tulips For Augusta for top spot in the Neels oeuvre! (She’s happy to see that Saturday’s Child is coming up in the Neels’ TBR.)

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  7. I loved your review and it makes me want to read a Betty Neels right now. I see Sunita dropped some recs up above, too. Sad to know this one is not digitized 😦

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    • Thank you! It’s such a wonderful book. The 😦 thing is that it IS digitized on Amazon dot UK!! Ros wrote that in her comment and Miss B. has gone on the site and gazed longingly at it. She’d highly recommend, and Sunita would agree, that TULIPS FOR AUGUSTA is all kinds of wonderful. And Miss B. really liked Visiting Consultant and Damsel In Green as well.

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