Betty Neels’s Cobweb Morning reaches peak Other Woman over-the-top-ness. And in reaching this apex of romance-tropish-goodness, our Betty spotlights Neelsian values with an intensity borne of ethical conviction. Oh, it’s all typical enough: Nurse Alexandra Dobbs happens to be on duty when an amnesiac is brought to emergency by Dutch doctor Taro van Dresselhuys. Sparks fly: Taro is arrogant, officious, and cruelly teasing; he provokes Alexandra into fits of temper. Despite bringing out the worst in each other, he’s as good a man as she is a woman. I especially loved Taro’s remark when he sees Alexandra in a temper and notes, ” ‘ … you walked down the street as though you hated – er – whatever his name is. You have a very eloquent back.’ “Isn’t that “eloquent back” marvelous? Taro asks Alexandra to help him care for the amnesiac, “Penny,” first at his aunt’s house in England, then, in his own home in Holland, and she accepts. Penny is manipulative and meretricious, playing pathetic, hurt victim to Taro and simultaneously Delilah-like in her come-hither-babe routine. Alexandra nurses Penny with gentleness care, but sees through her damsel-in-distress act. While the romance is typical-Betty enough, aloof, mysterious, impenetrable hero and gah-all-feelings-out-there heroine with no hope of their return, it was Betty’s contrast between the two women I enjoyed most. (Be warned, dear reader, there be plenty of spoilers beyond this point.)
To start, we’re introduced to Alexandra’s personality. We learn that Alexandra comes from a family of numerous brothers, her mother despairing Alexandra could ever throw off the mantle of tom-boy-hood. But toss it she did and grew into “a charming girl with nice manners, a willingness to help at church bazaars and other rural events, a pleasant way with children, and an endless patience with the elderly and their foibles.” I love how Betty’s good people, male and female, have values of service and care for children and the elderly. We could do worse than having these values instilled in the young. Except, at least in this passage, Betty neglected to mention yet another loving quality in what makes heroes and heroines, care of, and love for, animals. This, my friends, is the crux of the difference between the evil Penny and Alexandra.
Alexandra and Taro spar; Penny moons over Taro and plots his matrimonial downfall. Alexandra and Penny move in with Taro’s Aunt, Miss Thrums. Alexandra nurses Penny, despite her nasty temper, and spends time getting to know and love Miss Thrums, a charming spinster with a love of animals and figurine collections. Alexandra genuinely enjoys Miss Thrums’s wit and wisdom, but Penny is impatient with her. Even more so with Miss Thrums’s pets, ” … she didn’t like Jock, the elderly Golden Retriever, who was Miss Thrums’ constant companion, and it wasn’t just dogs; she had flung Sambo the kitten off her lap with a rough pettishness which amounted to dislike.” She flings kittens!?!? What kind of a monster is this? And monster she be, dear readers. Things get worse … Penny isn’t merely an exploitative forture-huntress, she’s positively sociopathic.
Meanwhile, our Betty establishes Taro’s and Alexandra’s goodness, as well as their attraction and affection during one bird-filled, Dutch, “cobweb” morning. The scene, reminiscent of a Brother Sun, Sister Moon (if you remember this, I could probably guess your age) mysticism:
His quiet: ‘Good morning, Alexandra,’ caused her to jump and the little party of blackbirds, thrushes and sparrows which had collected around her took instant shelter in the trees. She wished him good morning with faint reproach and he grinned as he took the last of the bread from her and began to scatter it, whistling a variety of birds calls as he did so.
‘Show-off,’ said Alexandra crossly, and he grinned again, like a schoolboy.
‘One of my very few talents,’ he explained with mock humility. ‘Look, here they all are, back again.’
They stood quietly while the birds finished their crumbs and then flew away. ‘A lovely morning,’ observed the doctor.
“Heavenly — the mist makes everything look like fairyland … ‘
‘A cobweb morning — that’s what it’s called in these parts — did you know that?’
And a first kiss. One of Betty’s most masterful scenes: the loveliness of the day, the bird-feeding, a moment to be savoured, in nature and with each other, out of the day’s hurly-burly, a communion. A hero and heroine who take time and care to feed the birds, to care for a spinster aunt, and collect a menagerie for the sheer pleasure of caring for animals, wild and domesticated.
Later, Betty contrasts Alexandra’s care for Sambo with Penny’s peevish flinging. Flinging! I had a really hard time with this cavalier kitten-treatment. But here is our Alexandra:
Alexandra made no effort to move because of disturbing Sambo; she sat doing nothing in the softly lighted room, watching the dim outlines of the trees against the moonlit sky. The curtains were never pulled; she could see clearly into the garden — the deer were there as they usually were and it was all very peaceful … she dozed off … and should really go to bed. She lifted the kitten gently on to the old shawl he liked for his bed and went to the window to look out. The doctor was outside, sitting hunched up in a sheepskin jacket, his bag at his feet, packages piled neatly beside him. He smiled at her through the glass …
Alexandra remains motionless for fear of disturbing the kitten, watches the deer, transports Sambo to his bed, and finds a magical moment (it’s also Christmas Day!) with the man she’s in love with. Again, like the cobweb morning, an idyllic, Edenic moment of harmony and connection. Contrast this with our villainess and her barbaric kitten-lobbing.
Penny’s behaviour goes off the rails. She tries to throw Alexandra off the road by grabbing at her steering wheel, but Alexandra saves the day and Penny is out of favour with Taro. Penny vows revenge and is soon on her way with doggie-and-kitty hostages and a soon-to-be attempt at drowning them. She’s taken Taro’s dog, Butch, and the cats, Kiki and Nibbles. Alexandra rescues Butch, Kiki, and Nibbles from dangerous waters; she and Taro (who comes to her rescue) get Butch, Kiki, and Nibbles safely home, none the worse for wear. Penny is sent packing for the final time, fake-amnesiac that she is, and Taro and Alexandra work out their HEA.
Penny is a vibrantly villainous character. Taro is beautifully obtuse in the way of Neels heroes. Alexandra is alternately snippy with Taro and loving and gentle with everyone else. What matters, however, to the building of the hero and heroine’s wonderful life together is the coming together of two people who hold every life as precious, from the tiniest stray kitten to the wild of the forest to the testiest, grouchiest elderly curmudgeon. I think this is why Neels’s romances are such a comfort and still enjoyed by so many: it isn’t just an HEA for two individuals, it’s an HEA for two people who do good in the world and are good. They are more than the sum of their HEA, bringing to the romance what Pamela Regis (in The Natural History of the Romance Novel) defined as the social function of the hero and heroine’s marriage and subsequent family (the baby-filled epilogue, which I adore), the hope of a society renewed and made better by their inclusion.