Friday, April 2, 2010

Betty Miranda talks about Neels.

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.

17 comments:

  1. 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.

    LOL!

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  2. Barbara here
    Betty Miranda, LOL! especially about the dinner dates. You are soo right. Our British Nurse doesn't have dinner with Rich Dutch Doctor until after they are married. I recall reading of many a dinner party where Evil Other Woman tried to make new wife look bad.

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  3. After I wrote the above but before it was posted, I saw the review of The Course of True Love and the RDD does date the heroine and - amazingly - she fails to notice! Does strain credulity a bit. I think Betty should have stuck with morning coffee.

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  4. Those were only "pretend dates". It was all part of the deception they were working on Irma the Soulless. Claribel knew these weren't real dates - so, even though they sort of were (I'll bet they were in his mind), I'm not sure we can count them.

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  5. But consider, Betty Miranda, the spirited (but of course losing) effort Bettys Keira, Debbie & JoDee are putting up in the comments about Tulips for Augusta to insist that -- DESPITE RDD's very pointed attentions, kisses, declaration of burgeoning love, AND a proposal of non-convenient marriage -- still it's reasonable for Augusta to believe that he doesn't actually love her.

    If they are all right (which they aren't, but just suppose), then a mere dinner date is no barrier to the miscommunication, misunderstanding, and bad luck needed to keep the perfectly-suited-for-each-other RDD and UKN (at least one nurse was Scottish; okay it was only one, but still) apart for 180 pages.

    Fundamentally, though, you are right. RDDs don't "date" the object of their affections. They do a lot of other things, including drive them around a lot, but not "dating."

    Betty Neels lived in the West Country (Somerset/Dorset), which is why the books where stuff happens at the heroines' homes tend to have those homes in that vicinity.

    About the heroines' levels of education/training: My theory is that when she first started writing, Betty Neels was a recently-retired nurse and thus could write knowledgeably about medical practices with some authority. Eventually, of course, she was further away from what nurses actually did in the 70s, so her nurse heroines had good reasons not to work as ward sisters or in the OR. After a while, they weren't even nurses.

    A couple of the later books have explanations for why the heroine has her A-levels but didn't go to university (usually money issues, or smarter sibling deserved it more). What to do with a hard-working, penniless heroine that didn't require specialized knowledge of a profession? Generally, Betty Neels seems to weave those situations into the larger sense that the heroine needs some intervention.

    Thanks for your explanation of how you encountered Betty Neels!

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  6. I sense a controversy here and I'm keeping right out of it!

    West country, yay! As soon as I receive my copy of The Course of True Love, ordered used from Amazon, I shall issue a report on the accuracy of Betty's description of Tisbury, Wiltshire, possibly with pictures.

    Magdalen is very likely correct on the nurse thing, but I still think Betty displays an aversion to education. College education in the UK is free for those without money, for Pete's sake. In The Proposal, a 1993 short novel, the heroine is working a crappy job because it comes with housing for her clever younger sister. Here is an actual exchange in which, I believe, the RDD expresses Betty's eccentric view.
    Heroine: "She's clever; she's set her heart on GCSEs, A levels, and a university."
    RDD: "Some discerning young man will snap her up long before then."
    Even if you don't believe married women should work, what about education for its own sake?

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  7. Oh, of course Betty Neels was hopelessly unevolved with regard to women's education and roles, perhaps not unreasonably for a woman born in 1910. What she accomplished as a nurse in her 20s and 30s was advanced for women in her time, but I'm sure she believed to her dying day that what women wanted was the RDD-husband, with the nice homes and nice cars and money to support lots of kids.

    (She and her husband were very poor for the first x years of their marriage and had to live with his relatives while she worked as a nurse in Holland to support them both. He'd been badly hurt in WWII and needed tons of health care, which is why she knew a lot of RDDs.)

    But you know, it's a funny thing. My first British mother-in-law was about 20 years younger than Betty Neels. Anne's mother, Amy, was a doctor who had to support her two young children in the 1930s when her husband died tragically young. Amy got a job as a staff psychiatrist at a psychiatric hospital because it included housing. Anne, then, was thrust into the role of junior-mum to her younger brother while her Amy went off and earned a salary.

    Now, Anne is one of the most professional women I have ever known. She could have been a CEO of any sized corporation. But after serving as a lorry driver in WWII, she married a patent barrister and raised three children. She never worked outside the house for money, but she worked tirelessly for the British Iris Society (several times its president, secretary, etc., etc.).

    I have always seen this as two things: First, that Anne saw no need to make money outside the home, and second, that she would be damned before she would let her children raise themselves. (She was not a doting mum. Not at all! The fact that she did, in fact, expect her children to raise themselves is of course yet another example of people saying they will NEVER be like their parents in one key way and then being like their parents in other ways.)

    My mother was right between Betty Neels and Anne in age. She got a master's in international relations just before WWII, then married, had four kids in 11 years, and was miserable. For my mother, her life became dramatically better when she went back to work in the mid-60s. They didn't need the money, but she needed to work; it was her accomplishment and satisfaction and, yes, refuge from an unhappy home life.

    I see all three women as accomplished. But then I'm in the unusual position of being surrounded in my family by well-educated & accomplished women going back to the late 19th century. In other words, I'm weird.

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  8. Of course, nursing is an educated profession, lest we imply otherwise.

    My late father had strong advice for his four daughters that was in its own way very liberated for his generation: you had to get either a nursing degree or an education degree. You didn't have to use them--you could be anything you wanted, but you needed to get them, just in case. His position was that life could be very unpredictable and that a woman needed to be able to provide for herself and her family if necessary and that whatever else happens in society we always need nurses and teachers thus guaranteeing employment.

    My sisters and I all have education degrees (and have all needed them at various and sundry times).

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  9. Betty Keira here,
    Our Dad had the same idea. Though quite conservative in some ways, he had very firm ideas about female education. Mom got a Masters degree when they had enough children to argue that it wasn't necessary and time without number I heard: An education is the cheapest kind of insurance.

    Still, I've only stayed at home for the last 10 years working at keeping body, soul and household together. Can't say that scrubbing grout is self-actualizing but making a home is...so there you go.

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  10. Great discussion. Clearly whether it's for a career, as insurance, or for its own sake (and I'll throw in the notion that an educated mother can do a better job of raising educated children) there doesn't seem to be any disagreement among all Bettys that education is A Good Thing. And since I don't like to believe The Betty could be so misguided, I have to retreat in good order to the Plot Device theory. As Betty Magdalen points out, our non-nurse heroine needs to be in a dire situation so that the RDD can save her.

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  11. Actually, I wonder if it wasn't so much that Betty Neels *disapproved* of university educations for her heroines (or her daughter or granddaughters, if she had any) but rather that as she herself didn't have an uni education, she couldn't/wouldn't write about it. (She never, to my knowledge, wrote about nursing school either. By the time she was writing her books, her nursing school days were 35 years in the past...)

    We may never know what the real story is/was...

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  12. I think that's a good point, Betty Magdalen. It's strange nowadays thinking of nursing as a profession that bypassed college and was primarily training schools. I think Grandma Hanna started when she was 16 or so. My superhero ER nurse neighbor was in a highly competitive college program by the time she trained.

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  13. My nursing friends in Ireland did their training right at the hospital, in the late 1980s. They got the equivalent of a few A levels, then got low-paid jobs as student nurses at a large hospital -- it seems to be very much the system Venerable Betty describes. After 2-3 years they became full-fledged nurses, and in 1990 they even had a matron!

    My mother, born in the mid-20s, was told by her father that the only acceptable jobs a lady could have were nurse and secretary. (I don't know what he had against schoolteachers.) I think a lot of very smart women, and the V.B. was clearly intelligent, and well read, thoroughly internalized the idea that the only way they could be truly successful was to marry someone who could support them financially. While there were plenty of examples of women who held non-nurse/secretary/teacher jobs, and plenty of examples of women who were married and still worked, they were more likely to be held up pitiable examples of what might happen if a girl got too much education.

    One of my colleagues went to Boston College in the mid-60s, when women were only allowed degrees from the School of Education. Now she teaches finance at the university level!

    -Betty van den Betsy

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  14. I wish I could start comments with, "My nursing friends in Ireland..." It would be ever so much fun.

    As for the success=male financial support thing...The Great Betty was sort of like me in this regard--all for competence and independence in the real world but writing/reading novels on the more traditional side. (Though Essie Summers I feel a real kinship for, insofar as her feminist philosiphizing goes.)

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    1. Yes! Finally, somebetty who sees it my way! The Great ℬetty did not live (in) a fairy tale - she wrote them.

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  15. Somehow missed this last year but gotta add a line or two to the mix.

    Having read more than my share of other Harlequin authors over the past 40 years, in all fairness, until fairly recently, most Harlequin authors liked Men Who Can Provide. The heroines weren't necessarily placed in such dire situations (although many were - this just works as a plot device - hot kitchens, screaming children, nasty bosses...) but not only did we get Tall, Dark and Handsome, more often than not, we got RICH.

    It's fiction and it's romance. :)

    me<><

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    1. re: RICH
      These days, there are a lot of millionaires and billionaires. Greeks or sheikhs... Just reading the titles often makes me giggle. :o)

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