As a recent college graduate with my first job in London (not as a nurse or a down-trodden companion) I used to sneak into a used paperback store on my way home from work to stock up on Mills & Boon romances. I remember Mary Burchell and Anne Weale among the English writers. And fascinating American stories about eighteen year old girls marrying men old enough to be their fathers. These American heroines tended to wear pumps, which I knew as ballet shoes without toe blocks but I gathered were what we called “slip-ons.”
One day I picked up my first Betty Neels, a story about an English nurse and a Dutch doctor. I enjoyed it, so I looked for the author and found some more. And they were all about English nurses and Dutch doctors. I hadn’t previously come across the phenomenon of writing very similar books over and over again. Yet despite the lack of variety in Neels’ plots, I found them oddly compelling.
Fast forward many years. I moved to another country, married, raised a daughter, had several careers, and became a writer of historical romance. Cruising the romance section of Borders one day, a name caught my eye. Could this really be the same Betty Neels? I picked up the Harlequin book and flipped it over: English nurse, Dutch doctor. Yup. Same Betty.
I cannot claim to be as Betty-obsessed as the owners of this blog, or to have such a wide knowledge of the Betty canon. But I read a few of her books in recent years and stumbling on The Uncrushable Jersey Dress led me to learn more about La Neels.
What struck me most was that she only started writing in the late nineteen-sixties and her last book came out in the twenty-first century. Yet even in the seventies, when I first read her, she was old-fashioned. She described an England already long gone--if indeed it ever existed--and continued to do so. I see the World of Neels as akin to a parallel universe in a sci-fi novel, recognizable yet slightly askew.
Some random observations, questions, discussion points. Feel free to shoot me down if the texts prove me wrong:
• Does our heroine ever have dinner with Mijnheer Doctor? As far as I can see most of their encounters are over lunch or tea. My first thought was that dinner is a dangerous meal taking place far too close to bedtime with raffish overtones of Brighton. On the other hand, our heroine does dine with the balding man she isn’t going to marry. Presumably because he’s too wimpy to even think of Brighton. But my interpretation may be cynical and unBettylike. There’s the less sensational explanation that it’s a plot device. If the Dutch Doctor actually asked our heroine out to dinner it would be a real date. He would have to acknowledge his feeling and even she couldn’t be dull/modest enough to think him wholly indifferent. Dawning realizations and misunderstood intentions ruined.
• Betty’s characters mostly live in London or southern England. There are two reasons for this, I believe. 1. Handy for trips to the Netherlands. 2. Doctor Van Der Handsome can drive her anywhere in an hour or two, giving them opportunities for morning coffee, lunch or tea stops but not dinner and most definitely not overnight-in-hotel stops. (My own prejudice may be showing here. As a historical romance writer, I spend far too much time worrying about how long it will take my characters to get somewhere in a carriage and if/where they will spend the night. Given the cars the Doctor drives, he can get most places in England in a few hours.)
• No woman younger than my mother (who had ten years on Betty) wears a “good suit.” Younger women may wear an “Armani suit” but only if they earn over one million pounds a year as a corporate lawyer. Such a woman does not deserve a Dutch doctor.
• Aside from nursing school, Betty’s heroines don’t seem to be overly impressed by the possibilities of education, which is why they get such lousy jobs. But seriously, in England in the second half of the twentieth century a presentable, intelligent, well-spoken girl, even one without an O Level to her name, could do better than being an old lady’s companion for slave wages. Even if she could find an old lady who needed a companion.
•Food: Betty shows a healthy scorn for old-fashioned English food. The meals served in our heroine’s undesirable environments (cod with parsley sauce, tinned soup) are the kinds of things my grandmother used to serve. Betty knew the best English food was served at teatime or for pudding (dessert). She also had a thing for French cuisine (boeuf en croute anyone?). In her taste in food she is uncharacteristically ahead of her time, presaging the development of English foodie culture. I do not, however, believe she would have approved of Gordon Ramsey.