As you may already know, Miss Bates is a great fan of Christmas-set romances. She anticipates them annually, with much love for publishers’ covers going all out on snow, tinsel, sparkly trees and eggnog-sipping lovers. Romance writers offer a plethora of love in the snow, under the tree, and on the slopes. But there is no closed-cabin romance as good as the one where our couple is snowed in. One of Miss Bates’s favourite Christmas titles is a snowed-in-closed-cabin joy (actually a truck bed, but you’ll have to read it to find out), contemporary category romance Kathleen Creighton’s One Christmas Knight. One of Miss Bates’s favourite historical Christmas romances is Lauren Willig’s The Mischief Of the Mistletoe, with its projectile Christmas pudding as THE key plot point and one of the most endearing heroes ever written. Miss B. has written of her great Christmas romance loves before and won’t bore you, dear reader, with more. Well, maybe one, because it’s a recent addition and deserving of praise: Kat Latham’s Three Nights Before Christmas. This year, MissB’s inaugural Christmas romance post is classic vintage rom, Betty Neels’s The Fifth Day Of Christmas. Because if The Divine Betty can do ordinary days well, with such warmth and wit, what will she do with Christmas!!??
The Fifth Day Of Christmas‘s opening boded well. Newly-dubbed nurse, Miss Julia Pennyfeather (what a wonderful name!) rides an ambulance, accompanying a peevish, spoiled, diabetic Miss Mary MacGall to Scotland, returning her, gladly, to her family’s bosom. As they near Newscastle, fog rolls in and Julia is nervous about the drive. The Fifth Day Of Christmas‘s opening sentences gave Miss Bates that frisson of reader-excitement that screams “We have a winner!”:
Viewed from the comparative comfort of the ambulance’s interior, the M1 looked uninviting. Miss Julia Pennyfeather, too occupied with her patient to have bothered overmuch with the passing scenery, now realised that the motorway was becoming more and more shrouded in fog, which, coupled with the fast darkening sky of a December afternoon, boded ill for their chances of reaching their destination as early as they hoped. She pulled her cloak closely about her, cast a quick look at her dozing patient and peered out once more.
To Miss Bates at least, what a perfect opening. The short, declarative sentence, the use of that original “uninviting,” and then the long, complex sentence to follow, building a sense of our heroine: capable, but a little young, a little nervous, observant, conscientious, an eye on the road, an eye on her patient. There is a lovely sense of time and place: the “darkening sky of a December afternoon,” which, to Miss B., can only mean one delightful thing: the couple’s romantic entanglement and resolution will be accompanied by December’s movement towards Christmas.
Julia arrives at Drumlochie House with her patient and self in tact, but the house is without electricity, phone, and sundry other amenities. Nurse Pennyfeather, however, is of the “Juno-esque” nurse figure that Neels preferred. She is beautiful and capable. Julia soon has the house set right: she brings order and comfort to it. Julia lights fires and lamps, boils water, and cooks a hearty meal on the gas stove. This level of high competence and service to others can only find its match in a hero as capable and giving as Julia herself.
There is a lovely fairy-tale quality to Neels’s Fifth Day. Howling wind and storm, blanketing snow and swirling drifts, the adept young women, a quiet house all but abandoned by servants: they need someone to complete the picture. The doorbell rings and a huge, handsome stranger asks for a place to stay the night. Though he chides her for being too trusting, Julia feels safe with him. And for us, the reader, the realization that our older, as-competent-and-giving-as-the-heroine hero has arrived in the form of Dutch Doctor Ivo Van den Werff, 30 to Julia’s 22, blonde to her dark. As is Neels’s wont, her nurse-heroines need a hero who is socially and economically superior, but also in experience, education, and a kind of knowingness and worldliness too. But the Neels hero is never superior to the heroine in his ability to love, serve, or make moral judgements.
Ivo and Julia fall into a dream-like routine: they walk in the snow, care for the house and patient, share meals and converse. On Ivo’s first night in the house, Julia’s patient takes a turn for the worse. Julia seeks Ivo’s help. She goes to his room:
She found the stranger in the third room she looked into, lying on his back on a vast fourposter bed, fast asleep. She put out an urgent hand and tapped a massive shoulder and he opened his eyes at once, staring at her with a calm which she found most comforting.
Before she could speak he said reflectively, “The hair’s a little wild, but I still think you’re a beautiful girl. What’s the matter?”
Miss Bates loved this moment in the romance novel: the heroine awakening the hero with a tap on the shoulder. It echoes and reverses Sleeping Beauty. Like most Neels heroes, Ivo is a cypher: neither reader nor heroine can read him. His actions and words remain a mystery. The only thing we the readers have to go on is the trust we have in the HEA. It must hold us steady while the sleeping hero’s heart remains out of the heroine’s reach.
Ivo invites Julia to return to Holland with him, to his family home where his sister and father live, as does Miss Marcia Jason, an evil other-woman figure to rival the nastiest of them. Marcia is delicate and tiny to Julia’s voluptuous figure. She’s cerebral to Julia’s love for shopping, food, and sentimental films (lovely scene where Ivo takes Julia to see The Sound of Music). There seems to be some understanding between Marcia and Ivo and it’s compounded by the realization that Ivo feels responsible for Marcia’s illness. He asked Julia to return to Holland with him as the nurse who’ll care for Marcia while overseeing her rehabilitation from polio. Throughout the romance, Marcia is supercilious and treats Julia like a servant. Julia bears all with patience, but isn’t a rug under Marcia’s feet. She tolerates her in every way, except one: she will not allow Ivo to marry a woman who doesn’t love him.
Terrible struggles ensue between Julia and Marcia for Ivo’s heart and soul. Julia endures humiliation and many trials to awaken Ivo’s heart. The key moment for Miss Bates is when Ivo and Julia reminisce about their time in Drumlochie House:
She remembered him lying on the great bed, fast asleep, and smiled. “You looked like a petrified knight on a tomb,” she said, and went a little pink when he said on a laugh, “Did I? I shan’t tell you what you looked like.”
Miss Bates won’t spoil how Julia wins Ivo, except to say that the knight, once awakened, once recognized, belongs to the heroine, a heroine whose strength and goodness restore the knight to his rightful place where he will be loved and cared for as much as he cares and loves others, and most of all, the heroine. Suffice to further say that Christmas and the blessings of gift-giving are key to the knight and his lady and the world they share being healed and set right. Miss Bates loved every word of The Fifth Day Of Christmas, every meal listing, every Julia-outfit, every gift, every outing, every nasty Marcia-encounter, the Dutch setting, the hero whose only weakness is his car and slightly reckless driving, all those familiar, comforting elements that make a Betty Neels romance. With her nodding, happy reading companion, Miss Austen, Miss Bates finds that in Neels’s The Fifth Day Of Christmas “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Betty Neels’s The Fifth Day Of Christmas is published by Harlequin. It is available as an e-book at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates bought her own e-copy and was gifted a paperback. Sigh: it’s the kind of romance that you’d want more than one copy of.