The Christian edict that “the last shall be first” comes true in many a Neels romance. Such is The Hasty Marriage (1977). The waif. The mouse. The mousy-haired. The too-small, too-plump, too-plain heroine. And, horrors, on the shelf too. Pushing thirsty. An *gasp* old-maid-in-the-making. The heroine who declares her un-attractiveness on every page. Is there a more self-deprecating one than The Hasty Marriage‘s Laura (do we ever learn her last name?).
A ward sister at St. Anne’s in London, she comes home to visit her father and finds her Dutch godfather with his colleague, Dr. Reilof van Meerum. Drama ensues, as we learn from the blurb:
Laura had always been used to taking second place to her pretty younger sister, Joyce. If Joyce wanted something, she got it! It was, therefore, no surprise to Laura that when she fell in love with the attractive Dutch doctor Reilof van Meerum, he chose Joyce instead. But when Joyce walked out on him to marry another, richer man, Reilof asked her to marry him. He needed a wife, and Laura, it seemed, would do as well as anyone. So she accepted–but could she really expect to be happy with a man who did not love her?
For the most part, and thank the good Neelsian gods, Joyce is absent from the narrative. When she appears, at the start to lure Reilof and at the end to put a canker in the rose of Laura’s marriage (stilted and unconsummated as it is, it’s hers and she loves Reilof enough to be willing to live with this compromise).
From everything that’s come before, you’d think Laura a doormat, Reilof is an asshat-of-the-first-order and … well, we won’t say what Joyce is. Laura’s father is not much better, favouring as he does the beautiful daughter and benignly forgetting everything Laura does for the family. Reilof is harder to understand, falling for Joyce and yet, coming across as a much nicer man than one stupid enough to fall for a horrible person. Usually, Neels’s heroes may be close-mouthed maddening, but they’re not dumb as rocks! It’s good Neels puts little gems of niceness in our reader path, otherwise I wouldn’t quite know where to go with this Reilof-character. For example, when Laura carries in a loaded tea tray, though Reilof’s engrossed with Joyce, he “crossed the room to take it from her”. Phew, I thought, though a dunderhead, at least he has manners.
Though Laura loves Reilof to distraction at first sight, she’s more than a mousy-doormat-girl: “her mouselike appearance was deceptive; she was a clever girl and a splendid nurse, holding a Ward Sister’s post at St. Anne’s hospital in London, highly prized by the people she worked with and for. Besides, she was a good housewife and cook, got on well with animals and children and was liked by everyone. But she also had a fine temper when roused to anger, which wasn’t often, and could be on occasion, extremely pig-headed.” Other than being a great character-portrait, we have evidence of the Neelsian virtues: being well-liked, good at your work, clever, good with animals and children” and possessed of a Jane-Eyrian temper, in a plain girl, enough to hold her chin up and DEFY the hero, to love him to bits and call him on his BS. Thus is the best of the Neelsian heroine.
Laura’s dormant fierceness in defence of the under-dog (pun intended) awakens when she and Reilof, on their way to London, find a poor doggo hurt, on the road. It is also yet another opportunity for us to see how Reilof, though a lamebrain when it comes to women, is kind:
‘Stop!’ commanded Laura, and without waiting to see if her companion would do so, undid her seat belt and put an urgent hand on the door. Doctor van Meerum drew up smoothly, put out a restraining hand to stop her and said calmly, ‘Stay where you are — I’ll go look.’
‘Don’t you dare leave him there!’ she urged him fiercely. ‘They drove on, the brutes — and look at all those miserable people, staring … ‘
He didn’t answer her, but got out of the car and crossed the street to where the dog lay, squatting on his heels to examine it and then picking it up carefully and carrying it back to the car, quite unheeding of the warning voices telling him that he would get bitten for his pains. The unhappy creature he held didn’t look capable of biting anything or anyone; Laura whisked the scarf from her neck and spread it on her knees, and opened the door to receive the stricken creature on to her lap.
I’m happy to report that the dog survives thanks to their ministrations and awaits Laura when she arrives at Reilof’s home as his wife. He and Reilof’s dog become her stalwart companions. It’s easy in a Neels romance to know who the good characters are by the way they live in loving companionship with animals, children, and the elderly. (We have a hint of Laura’s goodness in the first few pages because she the sole family member to make sure Mittens the cat is fed.) Reilof may be a pudding-head when it comes to women, but he loves animals, takes the little pooch home to Holland with him and gives him a home. There is hope for him to come to his senses and Laura to get the ultimate Eyrian vindication.
We need Reilof to show this kindness because, frankly, the “proposal” scene is painful. And the blurb is wrong, Reilof doesn’t ask Laura to marry him; she tells him:
His dark eyes, so hard, that she winced, swept over her. ‘My dear girl,’ and his voice was almost a drawl, ‘she wouldn’t need to be pretty; anyone will do after Joyce, there couldn’t be another girl like her.’ He laughed without humour. ‘Good God, girl, if it comes to that, I might as well marry you.’
‘Then why don’t you?’ asked Laura, very much to her own astonishment. She hadn’t meant to say that at all, the words had popped out, and now there was no way of getting them back again. She lifted her firm little chin and met his dark look.
Ouch to Reilof’s response, of course, but look at our Laura, all-chin and no mouse! Reader, she married him. And was miserable at times, but she had the dogs, the kindness of his family and servants and, on occasion, a scrap of attention. But in the spirit of heroine-vindication, we know, from Laura’s original character-description, everyone liked her and, in time, Reilof likes her, more than likes her. She becomes precious and important to him.
I absolutely adored Laura’s reasons outside of her love for Reilof for wanting to marry, not just marry him because he is beloved, but marry a wealthy man. She loves her work, but as she says, “it’s a narrow life and an exacting one, and there are so many things I want to do.” The feral spinster is happy outside of marriage, but recognizes what a comfortable marriage offers. The feral spinster is no fool, however, because to find a Reilof, even in love with one’s sister, is a rare opportunity and it affords much in the way of personal fulfillment and satisfaction. Reilof is curious and asks her what she wants to do. Laura’s response, “Petit-point,’ she murmured, and when he smiled faintly, ‘reading all the books I’ve ever wanted to, having a garden and tending it and picking the flowers and arranging them — … ‘ Spot on, Laura, sounds like you know how to live. Laura gets to do the things, but is never fully happy because she wants a complete life with Reilof. If Betty were truly writing a marriage-of-convenience, and I don’t believe there’s any such thing in romance, then Laura would be content and Reilof wouldn’t have his private road-to-loving-Laura moment. For every romance marriage-of-convenience is merely a marriage-of-compromise until compromise is inconvenienced by love.
I don’t know how beloved The Hasty Marriage is to devout Neelsians, with Mr. Clueless as hero; Laura, if we overlook her self-deprecating ways, carries the day. I don’t know how popular my opinion will be among the Neelsian cognoscenti, but I loved it.