When you’re in a pandemic, what can you do but pick up your GREAT BETTY NEELS READ from where you left off, victim of neglect and ennui? Sigh. So glad I’m back on my epic quest to read all 134 of her oeuvre. It was a comfort to return to a world where the tea is good, the sandwiches are better, there’s always a pudding, the hero is enormous and ethical, as is the heroine, and everyone receives rewards commensurate with their qualities. A warning to readers: our eponymous heroine had a childhood accident, which left her disabled in one foot. The novel’s first half is dedicated to her encounter with the hero, Dr. Thimo Bamstra, a renowned Dutch surgeon, who will “fix” her foot. This may be offensive to some, that Esmeralda needs “fixing” in any way and, indeed, I don’t think the hero feels compelled to “fix” her. It’s Esmeralda herself who has crawled into a hole of shame, aided and abetted by a society that sees disabled people as less than (pub. date is 1976). I can’t say I embraced Esmeralda when I started reading because of this. But I can’t help but say how much I ended up enjoying it.
Esmeralda spends most of the novel pining for a man who doesn’t deserve her, Trent’s Hospital’s orthopedic registrar (where Esmeralda is a nurse), Leslie Chapman. Esmeralda has a tidy inheritance, a lovely home in the country with mother and formidable Nanny, and Leslie eyes her money as a conduit to his own practice. He’s a fortune-hunter and cad. Thimo Bamstra, on the other hand, is a man of wealth, integrity, and that mysterious Neelsian quality where he knows the heroine and what she wants and needs way before she does. It takes Esmeralda a full surgery, weeks of plaster-wearing, and physio recovery, in Holland, with Thimo, before she realizes she’s actually in love with her surgeon-in-shining-scrubs.
The Betty Neels Appeal is in the details, not the formula. Her fine writing, sly, gentle humour, knowing heroes, and temper-filled heroines. And in the marvelous scenes and dialogue Betty created for our reader delectation. First, there’s a great early scene between Esmeralda and Thimo as they discuss Thimo’s Dutch-surgeon-and-English-wife friends, Adam and Loveday, Cruise To a Wedding‘s hero and heroine (now with the usual nonfussy, perfect Neels baby):
Mr. Bamstra had gone to the basin to wash his hands. ‘My dear girl, Adam has never been imposed upon in his life; he arranges everything just as he wishes it to be and he never allows anything to get in his way.’
She watched him dry his hands on her towel. ‘Are you like that too?’ she wanted to know.
He screwed the towel into a ball and tossed it on to the basin. ‘Yes, I am.’ He spoke seriously and just for a moment Esmeralda glimpsed someone other than the elegant man with his placid face and bland voice; someone who could be ruthless if he wished. But even as she thought that he had become his normal self once more.
This is one of my favourite Betty moments: when some scale falls and the hero is revealed. One senses here that, in his defense of Esmeralda, his family, the vulnerable, and in his desire for the heroine, the hero will do anything. As for that revelation of character, I wrote a lot about it in my review of one of my favourite Neels, The Fifth Day of Christmas.
And then there’s the tea, or the coffee break, so important to the nurses and doctors’ working-day. (There’s always a marvellous sense of disappointment when there isn’t time for a cup, when the list is too long, or too difficult.) One of the most endearing of Thimo’s qualities, indeed of all Betty’s heroes, is their ability to know what the heroine desires and makes sure she gets it. In a nation of Dutch coffee drinkers, Thimo ensures that Esmeralda gets her tea. Here’s a scene with Mother, Nanny, the good doctor, and tea:
Syja had come in, the ward maid behind her, laden with a tray of tea things, plates of little sandwiches and biscuits. ‘The English four o’clock tea,’ she announced happily, and stayed to laugh and talk for a minute before leaving them to their refreshments.
‘Tea,’ said Mrs. Jones on a great sigh. ‘I’m dying for a cup, and so is Nanny. Our one fear was that we wouldn’t be able to get our tea.’
They were nicely embarked on their first cups when the door opened again and Mr. Bamstra came in. ‘I heard the teacups rattling,’ he explained, greeting them. ‘Indeed, each time I come — or almost each time — I find Esmeralda with her nose buried in the teapot.’
It’s not the tea per se, but what the tea means, that the hero pays attention to the heroine, what makes her happy, what fulfils her, what comforts make her day better. This is love, Mr. Bamstra’s, rather than the false compliments and true ignorance of Leslie Chapman, who doesn’t deserve Esmeralda, her lovely family, or her fortune. Thimo, on the other than, takes care of her family, doesn’t need her fortune, wouldn’t care if she was penniless: he only wants her.
Lastly, though it comes in the novel’s middle bits, Esmeralda‘s Thimo says the very thing that, in this particular romance, the heroine needs to hear and is the essence of what the genre conveys: you’re perfect just the way you are:
He stood looking down at her, smiling faintly. ‘You must remember, Esmeralda, that to the people who love you, you are always a very nice person — tears and temper and rude words just don’t matter to them, because they love you and understand.’
It takes a while for Esmeralda to learn this about herself: how worthy she is, how deserving, how lovable, but Thimo makes sure she does, because Thimo, like Adam, always gets what he wants. And what he wants, from the moment he sees her at Trent’s, is Esmeralda, just the way she was/is. I loved this Neels and hope I can count on others who do too. With Miss Austen, we say that Esmeralda is proof “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.