I did so enjoy my latest Betty read, The Little Dragon. I especially appreciated the non-OW conflict. Instead, we have a heroine (who skips!) with an unreasonable hatred of wealth. Utterly unconvincing because she reaps its benefits when the hero throws delicious dinners and beautiful clothes her way. But I don’t want to make Constantia sound like a hypocrite. She’s just not terribly smart and can’t recognize either the irony of her position, or the evidence of her husband’s wealth! (That it’s a marriage-of-convenience-troped romance made it all the better for me.) It’s a bit silly, but I loved the dynamic between Constantia and Jeroen and its accompanying Betty accoutrements: food, flowers, clothes, treats, cuddle-able animals, adorable children, extended warm family, a beautiful, graceful home (where hot drinks are served in Meissen cups), and a gargantuan, handsome doctor-hero who is described with my favourite Betty adjective, “placid,” and whose actions are accompanied by the adverb, “lazily”. He even smiles “lazily”! He is the ideal of Betty safety and security, comfort and strength; when Constantia gazes at him, she sees someone who is “solid and safe and very handsome”. I loved how Betty conveyed the hero’s kindness, through acts and second-hand. The children tell Constantia about the new doggie addition to the household, magnificently named “Prince,” given his humble beginnings: “Oom Jeroen found him in a ditch and brought him home to live with us.”
The Little Dragon is standard Neels fare. The blurb summary:
She swore she would never marry a rich man! As a private nurse to wealthy spoiled people, Constantia had seen the misery too much money could bring. Jeroen van der Giessen, though, was only a poor overworked G. P., so when she found herself stranded in Delft without money or passport, and Jeroen offered marriage, Constantia accepted. At first she was quite happy with her loveless marriage, though she thought Jeroen was being recklessly extravagant–until she began to discover things, about herself and him, that took away all her new-found happiness…
Meh, I’m not sure about Constantia being able to “discover things”. She’s not that bright. Jeroen’s grandmother throws them an expensive post-wedding party … duh, Constantia. Jeroen’s sister, whose children are staying with their uncle while she and her husband are in New York on a business deal, seems to live in the most expensive part of Delft. And the servants?! They’re so happy and cuddly and appear constantly to produce delicious dinners and polish silverware. I’ll concede one point to Constantia: Jeroen does tell her he’s living in this graceful, beautiful, heirloom-filled home because a “relative” lends it to him, preferring his country estate (which is, of course, Jeroen’s own).
In truth though, this was moot for me, given how much I enjoyed the Betty accoutrements and the growing, loving relationship between Jeroen and Constantia. On their first “date”, when Constantia bumps into Jeroen while exploring Delft on her half-day-off, he treats her to tea and Constantia eats two “cream cakes”, encouraged to spear another one after the first by Jeroen himself, “Have another cake — your carbohydrates must be at a very low ebb.” Now, this is my kind of hero, the cream-cake-encouraging kind. When Jeroen invites Constantia home to have yet more tea, they have “bread and butter and jam and a large cake” with the children; after the children are in bed, they indulge in an adult coffee repast of “little chicken patties and sausage rolls.” They share many more meals and, as it was the 70s when Betty wrote her Little Dragon, they have “quiche” for lunch (I counted at least three “quiche” lunches), which Constantia considers “cordon bleu”.
Lastly, I’ve been thinking about Betty’s attitude towards work and how readily her heroines give up their nursing careers, in which there may be some drudgery, but also professional satisfaction and fulfillment. While we can throw aspersions towards Betty’s non-feminist stance, certainly, and justified too, we can also get off our feminist plinth and consider how Betty distinguishes between work and service, connecting purpose to leisure rather than career, or profit. When the heroine gives up nursing to marry the hero, it’s also to bring up their children, run a household, and enjoy hobbies (one heroine wants to pursue her embroidery). Is this a viable model for everyone? Absolutely not. Is it an idealized, circumscribed feminine 1950s utopia? Yes. On the other hand, does it elevate “work” as the sole means of realizing a life well-lived? Nope. What is important to Betty’s heroes and heroines is purpose, not “work”, even in the form of “career”. Her heroes are doctors and work hard, despite great wealth, because they take it as an natural extension of who they are to care for others. As do the heroines, until the hero comes along and provides them with a means to do the same while also being thoroughly loved, cared for, and respected. Thank you for coming to my TED talk on Betty’s undermining of the work-as-virtue ethic …
‘Nuff said, The Little Dragon is going onto the reread shelf of Betties. Miss Austen agrees.