The quotation opening Neels’s Grasp a Nettle is quite the thing: “Tender-handed stroke a nettle/And it stings you for your pains;/Grasp it like a man of mettle/And it soft as milk remains,” attributed to Aaron Hill and eponymously referring to the romance’s heroine, Jenny Wren, her surname suggestive of bird-like cuteness. Well, there’s nothing “cute” about Jenny, or her hero, the acerbic, temperamental Professor Eduard van Draak te Solendijk. Jenny is, like the majority of Neels’s heroines, a nurse, but she is independently wealthy, of a storied estate family, and has neither a need to work, or marry to ensure a living. Her parents are long dead, but she may go home whenever she likes to Dimworth House, where her Aunt Bess, aka Miss Elizabeth Creed, would welcome her any time, indeed, would prefer that Jenny remain with her, take care of the estate as it receives visitors and be at her beck and call. Aunt Bess is loving, but imperious, expecting Jenny to care for her and marry her neighbour’s son, Toby. But Jenny is Neels’s attempt at a more modern heroine: Jenny wants to work at her nursing because she loves her work and is devoted to it, is ambitious for herself, and willing to wait until she meets “the one”: “There would be someone in the world meant for her; she had been sure of that ever since she was a little girl, and although there was no sign of him yet, she was still quite certain that one day she would come face to face with him, and he would feel just as she did — and in the meantime she intended to make a success of her job.” How beautifully Betty sets us up for The Man’s entrance. Aunt Bess takes ill, Jenny leaves her job to devote herself to her aunt’s care … and thus encounters and spars with Draak, through England, a cruise, and Holland.
In typical and deliciously Betty fashion, Draak is enormous in size and condescending in manner: “There was someone in the lobby and the small apartment seemed crowded by reason of the vast size of the man standing there, and he wasn’t only large, but tall too, with iron-grey hair and bright blue eyes, and although he wasn’t young he was nonetheless handsome. Jenny spared a second to register that fact … ” They, of course, don’t hit it off, with Jenny’s cheer clashing with Draak’s arrogant coolness. The initial antipathy is fun, as Neels-antipathy is wont to be. I especially loved this delightful exchange: “The evening passed quietly. Aunt Bess showed no sign of rousing. The Professor arrived again about nine o’clock, this time with Doctor Toms, examined his patient, nodded distantly to Jenny and went again. ‘And good riddance,’ declared Jenny as the door shut quietly behind him, and then jumped visibly as it opened again. ‘I heard that,’ declared the Professor in his turn.” Draak does seem to have a preternatural ability to hear and see things beyond mortal men, as well as to turn up when least expected. As Jenny wanders through the town of one of her and Aunt Bess’s cruise stops, there he is, striding towards her. Which leads me to propose that Neels’s heroes act very much like the the gods in Greek mythology, showing up to help, hinder, and administer a passionate, unexpected, inexplicable kiss (the Greek gods do a lot more than that, but Betty liked her romance “kisses-only.”)
Even though I enjoyed Jenny and Draak’s sunshine-to-grump banter, it wore on me by the time we reached the second half. It didn’t make for much romance. No matter how antagonistic Betty’s heroes and heroines may be, there’s always the sharing of a lovely dinner, or ice, or coffee and dessert, an outing; or, an accident, or illness, where they have to strive together to save and help others. On the other hand, the eponymous “nettle” isn’t solely Jenny, it’s Draak too, who can be maddening, evident in this brilliant Betty scene as Jenny and Draak discuss her marrying the neighbour’s son (something Jenny is dead-set against):
‘ … perhaps you would suit each other very well after all. You could be bossy-boots for the rest of your life and he would become nicer and nicer — meek is I think your word for it. Your children would be simply ghastly.’
Jenny choked. ‘Bossy-boots!’ she exclaimed. ‘Whatever next?’ She swallowed the rest of her drink, anxious to be gone from this tiresome man. ‘I am not — and my children will be simply super … ‘
‘Given the right father,’ conceded the Professor, and Jenny, choking again on the last few drops of her drink, caught her breath and had to be slapped sharply on the back, so that the tears stood in her eyes and she became quite purple in the face.
‘You really shouldn’t allow yourself to become so worked up,’ advised the Professor kindly, ‘nor should you gobble down your drinks in that fashion.’
Jenny, her breath back, let it out slowly. ‘You are quite detestable,’ she told him in an icy voice unfortunately spoiled by a hiccough. ‘I am not worked up, only when you deliberately annoy me.’
‘My dear Miss Wren–or may I call you Jenny?–I am the mildest of men … ‘
No matter how fun and delightful the above scene, Nettle‘s second half grew slack. Romance needs a little more give in the tension, especially when the hero and heroine are so antagonistic, and the hero unknowable and cold. Not my favourite Betty, but still a Betty.