After enduring heavy, not-so-enjoyable books (see previous post), I needed a comfort read. Who better than Betty to give me the feels, the laughs, the elaborate menus, the endless cuppas, and send me down the rabbit-hole of gazing at Jean Allen frocks and Gucci headscarves!?
This month’s Wendy’s TBR challenge “theme” is blue collar. Let’s face it, there isn’t anything “blue collar” about Betty Neels. And yet, dear friends, Betty is about class and the ultimate fantasy of cross-class fulfillment. I twisted Wendy’s theme to fit my reading mood and devoured Britannia in two sittings. Ahem, Britannia is now one of my favourite Betties!
I found a Betty with a definite class theme because the eponymous Britannia (with a last name like Smith, she tells the hero, her parents had to “compensate her”) refuses to marry Dr. Jake Luitingh van Thien because she can’t see herself fitting into his wealthy, privileged, read “aristocratic” life…which makes Britannia sound pathetic. She’s anything but. Britannia is the definition of feisty heroine, at least until her determination to marry Jake becomes reality in the last quarter and the obstacles of what she perceives as cross-class impediments to a “marriage of true minds” make a nasty appearance.
One of Britannia‘s delights, and they are many, is the leads’ banterish antagonism. I was tickled pink to read: “…she essayed a smile. His eyes became, if anything, even colder, his fine mouth remained in an unrelenting straight line; he didn’t like her. She removed her own smile rapidly and frowned instead.” The cartoonish smile-removal is genius and the banter in Britannia and Jake’s exchanges retains its acerbic wit throughout:
“You should have knocked, Professor.”
The cold eyes studied hers, “Why?”
She said with some asperity: “Manners.”
His thick dark brows rose, and then: “But I have none,” and he went on deliberately, “I am getting on for forty, unmarried, rich and something of a hermit; I need please no one.”
“How very sad,” observed Britannia with sincerity.
“How very sad” your privilege is such you need “please no one.” But we know the Professor is kind because, in a previous scene, he helped Britannia save a junior nurse from a superior’s wrath; later, he mends an injured bird Britannia finds while cycling in Holland. These insertions of “kindness” keep the privilege-and-arrogance combo comic, making it part of the professor’s conceit, not his essence. They go on like this, in antagonistic delight, with exchanges like: ” ‘It’s no distance, and I shall enjoy the walk.’ ‘It’s dark,’ the professor pointed out flatly. ‘There’s a moon.’ She added defiantly. ‘And I like the dark.’ He took no notice of this, however, and got to his feet…”
Despite Britannia’s matching Jake’s arrogance with spicy critique, she decided, at second sight, she was in love and choose him as her future husband with this observation: “…love him she might, but he really was quite disagreeable.” This remains a fantasy, even when they meet again in Holland (Britannia vacations with a friend) where the likelihood of Jake proposing is in the same stats category as being struck by lightning. When it becomes reality, Britannia is suddenly acutely aware of their class differences (especially when she compares her ability to fit into Jake’s world to the OW’s, privileged, wealthy, stylish, thin Madeleine). (I cannot help but think, with a name like Britannia and an earlier visit to Britannia’s parents, who live in shabby, mild-mannered, middle-class coziness in Dorset, that Betty wrote the Smiths, a prosaic name, as English “hobbits” to Jake’s Continental splendor, blue-blood, and old wealth.) Two scenes make the theme apparent and compelling:
Scene the first:
‘…now I can see that just being rich isn’t at all the same…’ She came to a stop, anxious to find the right words. ‘You see, you aren’t just rich, Professor, it’s more than that–it’s a way of life; you live in a magnificent house which I think must have been in your family for a very long time; you drink your tea from Sèvres china and the chairs you sit on are a kind which any self-respecting museum would jump at. But you’ve been born and brought up among them, you’ve eaten from porcelain with silver knives and forks since you can remember, and that’s the difference; you take them for granted, just as your Madeleine does, that’s why she’ll be right for you. Don’t you see?’
Scene the second:
‘…Marinus and Emmie–the housekeeper–and his wife, live in the house, so do a couple of maids. The laundrywoman lives in the other cottage.’
Her eyes were round. ‘The laundrywoman–that sounds quite feudal! She surely doesn’t do all the laundry for that great place.’
‘Lord, no–just the personal things. I don’t allow anyone else to iron my shirts.’
‘Why, you are feudal!’
His smile mocked her. ‘Disapproving? There are a great many things you don’t approve of, aren’t there, Britannia? But none of them matter, you know, and if you think about it, it’s fair enough–old Celine does my shirts, and when she’s ill, I look after her.’
She had to admit that that was true enough and he added in a wheedling tone: ‘I’m quite a nice chap, really.’
Taken out of context, the scenes lose some of their charm, but they are telling because Britannia rightly points out, Jake isn’t “just rich” (any self-made HP millionaire hero can be “rich”), but entrenched in a class that never has and never will experience the vagaries of oh-let’s-say the “stock market”. One can make money and lose money, implies Britannia, but one can’t shed privilege and entitlement. As a class comment, it is, of course, problematic, but as a symbol of the security offered the heroine, what can equal it? Therein lies one of Betty’s most tantalizing themes, old-fashioned as it is: what is more attractive than beauty (the house, china, lamps shedding gentle light, the restful comfort of it all, and a hunk in your bed), duty (for Jake comes from a class of men, like his father and grand-father before him, who chose to be a doctor to help others; that’s the ultimate argument: he doesn’t have to work), purpose, stability, and being loved and cared for?
(I have a pet theory the Betty-heroine’s concern over appearing with “messy hair” and an “unmade face” represents being tossed about by the world’s whims. To be with the hero is to be loved, cherished, and always have time to be composed and put together. It’s telling Jake and Britannia’s final scene sees Jake comment on Britannia’s state of confusion amidst the physical exhaustion of returning to her nursing job (and subsequent messy hair and tired eyes): “He gave her a quizzical look. ‘My dear, Britannia, all at sea, aren’t you?…’ ” In a final irony of Regency recall, Jake and Britannia are to be married by “special licence”.)
In the end, though I noted Betty’s antiquated notions of class and privilege, what I got out of Britannia All At Sea was a great read, a sink-into-comfort world of humour, plenty, comfort, and abundant affection. (My favourite line, by the way: ” ‘What I like about you,’ observed Britannia, ‘is the terseness of your answers.’ ” LOL!) Miss Austen would get a kick out of Jake and Britannia, with their echoes of Pride and Prejudice, to exclaim “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.