With every volume in my Great Betty Read, I have to reconsider the Great Betty’s continued appeal. And with every volume, I unearth another reason why I continue to love to read her romances.
The Moon For Lavinia is wonderful, one for the keeper shelves, to be savoured and reread. It’s standard Betty fare: Nurse Lavinia Hawkins takes a nursing job in Holland in the hopes of greater funds to allow her to bring her long-suffering baby sister, in the hands of a nasty aunt, to live with her. Soon after she arrives and settles into her work, Professor Radmer ter Bavinck, large, solid, blond, attractive, possessed of medical fame and independent fortune, proposes a marriage-of-convenience, seeking a mother for his fourteen-year-old daughter. He’s kind, gentle, and removed, but Lavinia likes him; though she yearns to be loved, Lavinia knows her plain looks and ordinariness will not see her with a better “offer”. She accepts, knowing this will let her bring her sister, Peta, to join them in Holland.
To return to my original point, that with every Neels romance I find yet another reason why I love Betty so. In this case, I think what struck me about her romance narrative is a central Betty theme, one I’ll call “woman does not live by lashings of whipped cream alone” (with a nod to my friends at the Uncrushable Jersey Dress and their Betty rating scheme). Lavinia finds her life transformed by marriage to Radmer. She no longer worries about money and can offer Peta a good life and every opportunity. Lavinia can buy herself beautiful clothes, live in a graceful, lovely home, dine in the finest of restaurants, enjoy leisure, and find purpose as the wife of a prominent, wealthy man. As is the norm with Betty heroines, Lavinia is a caring, responsible person: she ensures that Radmer’s home is welcoming, learns his language, and integrates into his life and family with good humour, good manners, and all the proprieties. Radmer offers Lavinia security, friendship, and position. In return, Lavinia offers Radmer a loving, sympathetic presence to his well-brought-up daughter, a household and its running to ease his professional life, and intelligent, caring companionship.
A life, in other words, in Betty’s and romance readers’ estimation, devoid of love. I was struck again and again, throughout The Moon For Lavinia, how utterly miserable Lavinia is, though she has “everything” she could ever want. But a woman cannot live by lashings of whipped cream alone, shopping carte blanche, and a coldly handsome man by her side (Radmer makes it clear from the start, their marriage is in name only. Oh, there be reasons, like a nasty former wife and they’re not attractive or interesting ones. Yada, yada, his wife was a promiscuous harpie … yawn.) But Lavinia’s misery and yearning for love, no matter how plain, small, and ordinary she is, this is one of Betty’s Jane-Eyre-ish triumphs.
Everything Betty wants to tell us about love is summed up beautifully in Radmer’s pragmatic proposal:
“There is no question of falling in love, my dear. I think I may never do that again — once bitten, twice shy — as you say in English. Ours would be a marriage of friends, you understand, no more than that. But I promise you that I will take care of you and Peta, just as I shall take care of Sibby.”
Lavinia swallowed. “Why me?” she asked in a small voice.
He smiled a little. “You’re sensible, your feet are firmly planted on the ground and you haven’t been too happy, have you? You will never be tempted to reach for the moon, my dear.”
Were more hurtful words ever spoken by a romance hero? How subtle and clever was Betty. Radmer damns Lavinia with faint praise. And Lavinia accepts the compromise to help her sister. From hereon, even at the proposal juncture, Lavinia is miserable:
She was speechless once more. So that was what he thought of her — a rather dreary spinster type with no ambition to set the world on fire. How wrong he was, and yet in a way, how right … But to marry this man who was so certain his idea was a good one? She was old-fashioned enough — and perhaps sentimental enough too — to believe in falling in love and marrying for that reason.
I love that in Betty, the heroine’s quiet acceptance of being “less than”, coupled with a consistent, persistent yearning to be loved, despite plainness, poverty, and ordinariness, soon grows to righteous anger and self-worth:
She imagined herself as he must think of her — a home body, content to slip into middle age, running his house with perfection and never getting between him and his work. The hot resentment had been bitter in her mouth even while she knew that she had no right to feel resentful.
A long time ago, I wrote about how the romance heroine’s triumph is her vindication vis-à-vis the hero. The marriage, intimacy, companionship, and family are the trappings of the heroine’s being right. In Betty’s case, woman can’t live by lashings of whipped cream alone, but what the end brings is that the hero can’t live without her. Lavinia gets an adoring Radmer and the moon. Romance has too often been condemned a bourgeois wish-fulfillment (and there’s a good Marxist argument to be made here). Still, in the end, if Radmer lost all, Lavinia would still be loved and that is all she ever wanted, the moon.