Friday, January 27, 2012

Betty by the Numbers: Heroine’s Jobs

Betty by the Numbers: Heroine’s Jobs

Betty Neels was a nurse. She was a nurse in peacetime, a nurse in wartime, a nurse in the UK, a nurse in the Netherlands, a certified midwife, a Sister, a night superintendent and maybe more. She told her publishers and readers that she loved nursing, and picked it as her career of choice. It seems reasonable to assume that Betty Neels knew early-20th-century nursing cold.

A Dorset advertiser’s depiction of a nurse in 1910, a year after Betty was born.

She was, further, a daughter, a sister (the relation kind as well as the boss-nurse kind), a wife and a mother. In the last third of her life she was an unusually prolific author. She used a library (at least once), and enjoyed Dickens, Thackeray, Brontë and Donne. She enjoyed touring stately homes and living in the country. One might guess that she enjoyed gardening, eating, cooking and at least learning about antique furniture, but then one might also guess, based on her heroines’ Advanced Driving Certificates and varying levels of comfort in driving, that she was a good driver. However, when Mills & Boon asked, “What is the one thing you’ve always wanted to do, but never had the courage to try?” she answered, “Drive a car.” And she certainly never married a rich Dutch doctor and quit her job to rear a large brood of children with the help of one to six servants. So is all the gardening and cooking her heroines do also fantasy? I cannot say...

A German nurse circa 1936, about the time Betty got certified (I cropped out Hitler, who added less than nothing to the image)

However, I do know that her heroines were all the things we know Betty was, if you’re willing to stretch a point on the author-ing and allow a greeting-card-verse writer to stand in for the creation of 135 romance novels. In keeping with her great love, her heroines were primarily nurses. While a few of them professed no understanding of or interest in “women’s liberation, whatever that was,” only four of her 135 heroines – that’s just 3% – didn’t earn money through work of some sort. And those four kept busy: two vicar’s daughters visited parishioners, ran the Women’s Institute, succored pregnant travelers and so forth, one QC’s daughter read to the very old and the very young, and one veterinarian’s daughter helped out in Dad’s surgery.

But the nurses! There are 79 nurses of our 135 heroines, or 59% of the total. From 1969’s Sister Peters in Amsterdam through 1982’s Judith, a total of 55 books, they’re 100% nurses. Then we move into a period of decline; from 1982’s A Girl to Love, which stars our first non-nurse in the marvelous housekeeper and sensible countrywoman Sadie Gillard, through 1994’s A Secret Infatuation (surgical sister Eugenie Spencer), 48 books, we have 23 nurses – 48% of the total. In the remaining 32 books, only Araminta Pomfrey (Nanny by Chance, 1998) can claim nurse status, and that’s only by dint of a short stint as a student nurse.

An English nurse in about 1969, when Adelaide Peters was making her way to Amsterdam, and romance history, via Mills & Boon. You can read her story, and a whole lot of other very brief oral histories, on this memory wall site. You can see how nurse’s uniforms, and especially the caps, evolved in this fantastic slide show of American nurse’s caps from 1900-1970, modeled by the nurses themselves.

[As an aside, I note that Mrs. Neels began featuring non-nursing heroines at about the same time she tried her brief experiment with non-doctoring heroes. There are a total of six non-medical heroes, beginning in 1981 and ending in 1984. For the record, they are: civil engineer Simon Savage of Heaven Around the Corner (1981), history professor Charles Cresswell of Judith, television writer Oliver Trentham of A Girl to Love, factory owner and board chairman Jake Royle of All Else Confusion (all 1982), accounting-firm owner Lucius Massey of Roses and Champagne (1983) and economics professor Gideon Beaufort of Year’s Happy Ending (1984). They loved, respectively: a nurse, another nurse, a housekeeper/sensible countrywoman, a vicar’s daughter/companion, an illustrator with family money and a trained nanny.]

Of those 79 nurses, 57% were sisters or hoofdzusters, 32% were staff nurses or zusters, and 11%, just nine heroines, were students. The first student nurse, Lucy Prendergast, doesn’t show up until 1978’s Ring in a Teacup, and then we don’t meet a student again until 1984’s Polly, when we’re well into the transitional period. The final nurse, as noted above, is also a student. Many scholars have speculated that The Great Betty may have moved away from nursing heroines as the work began to change dramatically and quickly in the 70s and 80s, so her experience from the 30s through the 60s became less relevant to her writing. If this theory is correct, presenting students might have been easier than writing about more experienced nurses – however, sisters continued to predominate through the transitional period, right up to her penultimate nurse heroine, A Secret Infatuation’s Eugenie Spencer in 1994.

Seven of our nurses, 9%, work nights, though if I recall correctly a few of the others occasionally had night duty. My Irish nursing friends in the 1990s worked one week of night duty every six weeks or so. My recollection is that they had seven 12-hour shifts, 8pm to 8am, and then seven days off. The retribution threatened to housemates making undue daytime noise when Marion and Dara were “on nights” involved – again, if my memory is accurate – scalpels, iodine, plastic tubing and digitalis. (Normally lovely young women, they suffered ugly personality changes with the drastic alteration to their circadian rhythms.)

Would you believe 18% of our nurses, 14 heroines, worked for private patients in some capacity or other? I’ve lumped people like Emily Grenfell, the student nurse blackmailed into nursing Sebastian van Tecqx’s sister privately (The Fateful Bargain, 1989), and Christina Forbes, who takes leave from the Theophilus to nurse her Dutch-language teacher (Not Once But Twice, 1981), into this category. Sticklers will note that their work is not the same as that of Roly Brown, forced by Authority to put up with the egos and hypochondria of the Private Patients wing (Tulips for Augusta, 1971), or Hannah Lang, forced by her hideous mother to give up hospital nursing amongst the premies and turn to the more-lucrative agency nursing for the idle rich (Hannah, 1980). A confession: I’ve probably left out a few, since page one or two often gives me the heroine’s title and specialty, and with that block filled it, I doubt I always came back to it when, on page 114, she scoots off to Leeuwarden for a stint with our hero’s whooping-cough-afflicted former nanny/ex-girlfriend/mischievous godson.

Operating theatre after Sister Greenslade and Staff Nurse Bennett finish restoring it to pristine condition

A UK ward in 1973 – unclear whether medical or surgical, but pretty sure the patients are women. And the nurses! L to R: staff, aide and sister?

As to specialty, we’ve got quite the mixed bag, including a bit of double-counting: 19 are on surgical wards, 15 on medical wards, ten in theatre (my favorites!), eight in casualty or related urgent-care areas (my second favorites), two in outpatients and two in offices – one in the hero’s consulting rooms, the other in uncle’s GP practice. Seven of our nurses, or 9%, care for kiddies; just two, or 3%, specialize in elderlies. I’ve classified six as specializing in a ‘body part,’ which includes three orthopaedics and one each of gynaecology, chests, and ears, noses and throats. Betty Anonymous is currently pursuing the ENT route in hopes of meeting Emily Seymour of Winter Wedding – but she quit nursing to marry Renier Jurres-Romejin back in 1979, Betty Anon!

Very well, unless you have questions, I shall move on to the 56 heroines (41%) without nursing training. Questions? No?

Then I have one for you: What’s the second-most popular career choice for Betty Neels heroines? Take a moment...

I bet you said, “Companion!” didn’t you? You are spot on; there are 17 companions, 13% of all heroines and 30% of non-nursing heroines. If you said, “Mother’s help!” (or “Nanny!” or “Governess!”), you weren’t far off. We follow the trials of 14 nanny/governess/mother’s helps in the course of the oeuvre – although only one of them is a trained nanny. That’s 10% of the heroines; 25% of the non-nurses.

Louisa May Alcott, who worked as a seamstress amongst her other jobs, traveled from Boston to Europe as a young woman by serving as a paid companion to an invalid – maybe a relation.

Glancing through the list of alternative professions, we can pretty much generalize heroines’ roles as domestic, medical, non-domestic childcare, business or outliers. The bulk are in the first two categories, as you’ve probably noticed.

The domestic sphere includes those aforementioned companions and mother’s helps, as well as six of what I call “professional daughters,” four each of maids, general household helpers and housekeepers, three cooks and three social secretaries, and then a seamstress, a docent, a cataloguer, and a caretaker (the joker in the pack!).

On the medical front, we’ve got nine clinic assistant-types, including clinic assistant Celine Bayliss, pathology-lab assistant and bottlewasher Eustacia Crump, and part-time physiotherapy assistant Henrietta Cowper. There are also seven doctor’s receptionists (you know which doctor), five medical typist/secretaries, two hospital administrators (canteen, path. lab), a physiotherapist, a hospital switchboard operator and a hospital-canteen worker.

Mrs. Angela Meehan is Matron of St. Paul’s School in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. If I were a home- and children-loving rich Dutch doctor, I would love her.

We’ve got four school-matron types, two orphanage assistants, two school assistants and a volunteer reader at a nursery school – that’s the non-domestic childcare. Of the businesswomen, count three typists, two B&B proprietors and two business owners (cottage tea shop; needle-crafts shop). So for outliers, I get seven shop clerks (supermarket shelf-stackers amongst them, plus Abigail Trent earning six gulden daily in a Friesian village store despite not speaking the language because Dominic van Wijkelen has not paid her for several months of nursing services), two library aides, an illustrator, a florist’s assistant (doesn’t count as business because she’s really lousy at client service), a farm worker and a writer of greeting-card verses.

The non-nursing jobs add up to a total of 114, held by 67 heroines. Eleven of our nurses make career changes in the course of a novel – like poor, workers’-rights-violated Abigail Trent as described above, although they’re more likely to take on companion-type roles with light nursing than grocery-assistant-ing. And then there’s the unflappable Annis Brown, who serves as both a nurse and a cook to the burly working men of the Spitzbergen radio station in Midnight Sun’s Magic (1979). (Her previous work as sister of the children’s ward at St. Anselm’s, London, stands her in good stead for her dealings with the rather bratty Jake van Germert.)

Never having figured out how to turn all those A levels into a remunerative career, and unable to work a cash register, Matilda Philomena can’t wait to see what’s next for her on the wheel-of-casual-work!

So the 135 heroines average 1.4 jobs each, but the nurses are only 1.2 per, while non-nurses carry 1.8 during the course of their stories. Bar short-term student nurse Araminta Pomfrey, none of the nurses holds more than two jobs. Araminta, however, is one of six heroines performing four distinct jobs in the course of her story, as she quits her job as an aide at a children’s convalescent home shortly after Nanny by Chance begins to work as (untrained) nanny to Marcus van der Breugh’s twin nephews. That assignment finished, she finally gets to start her nursing training, but quits in frustration at the heartlessness of modern medicine’s focus on efficiency over humanity. Dr. van der Breugh then finds Mintie a job as temporary assistant matron at a boys’ school in Eastbourne, which town possesses a seaside promenade convenient for lonely weeping and a cozy tearoom where formerly lonely weepers may receive marriage proposals. Suzannah Lightfoot (The Chain of Destiny, 1989) works as a docent, a cataloguer, a companion, and a nursery school aide. Matilda ffinch (The Most Marvelous Summer, 1991) introduces herself to her readers as a social secretary, but tries out assistant matron-ing, companion-ing (to Grandpa Scott-Thurlow) and temporary nanny-ing (to goddaughter Scott-Thurlow). Francesca Haley (The Proposal, 1993) has four jobs, as does poor Henrietta Cowper – three at once as she cobbles together part-time work in the physiotherapy department at St. Alkelda’s, nights cleaning offices and Saturdays at the fruit stall down the street. After a bad bout of ‘flu loses her all her jobs, Adam Ross-Pitt finds her work as a general household-helper – and that’s a three-fer, as well: she’s a maid, needlewoman and docent for Sir Peter and Lady Hensen, for which 53-hour week they pay her fifty quid plus room and board. Even for a 1996 copyright, that sounds like awfully skimpy wages. Finally there’s independent woman Julia Gracey, whose graceless and sexually-harassing boss/boyfriend Oscar does her out of her job writing greeting-card verses after she points out a few of their incompatibilities. With her sisters leaving home to marry, Julia needs an income – and finds it in companioning Gerard van der Maes’s invalid housekeeper, plying her clever needle at a northern estate (that catches fire) and finally opening her own needle-crafts shop for about two weeks of losses.

Here is the text of the job-posting for seamstresses at the very gorgeous, very historical, very gigantic Derbyshire property of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, Chatsworth. I really wish one of our Bettys would apply (Betty Kylene is very handy with a needle, isn’t she?):

Soft furnishing Seamstress x 2 (1 F/T, 1 P/T - 3 days per week) - 2 year fixed term contract

Chatsworth is embarking on the next phase of a substantial interior refurbishment project. This is an exciting time in Chatsworth's history and these posts offer an opportunity to contribute to the future of some important historic interiors in one of the country's greatest treasure houses.

We require two experienced soft-furnishing seamstresses to join the team, to work on large scale interiors projects. In addition there will be the opportunity to work on the alteration of historic curtains. Experience of making high-quality hand finished curtains, complex pelmets and other soft furnishings are essential.

The role requires previous experience of using industrial sewing machinery on a diverse range of cloth types. Proven pattern-matching skills, cutting, machine joining, and the ability to work to a consistent speed maintaining high levels of accuracy is essential. There will be some hand finishing, and the application of complex trimmings required.

Betty K, if you move to Chatsworth I promise to come visit.

The post holders will be required to assist with the removal and installation of soft furnishings, working from height. Candidates must be able to demonstrate experience of working on an industrial sewing machine as part of the selection process.

All applicants must have excellent written and communication skills, be self motivated and able to work effectively alone or as a member of a team.

Please click here for job description.

To apply please send your CV, including current salary details, to: The HR Department, Chatsworth Settlement Trustees, The Estate Office, Bakewell, DE45 1PJ or via email to

Closing date for these positions is 3 February 2012.


  1. Great research! I also like the theatre settings. My favorite theatre sister was the one who could control her entire staff with her eyes and eyebrows. The RDD said she would be just as successful in Holland communicating that way. Does anyone remember which book that was? My second favorite Neels of all time is Wish with the Candles wherein Sister Emma Hastings continued working through the operation despite having appendicitis!

    1. Betty van den BetsyJanuary 28, 2012 at 7:57 AM

      "Surely your eyebrows will be just as eloquent here as in London?"

      Max to Sister Sophy Greenslade, best theatre sister in the history of Neelsdom -- not only controlling the room with her eyes and the very occasional clack of the Cheatles, but also capable of working through a fire -- I'm sure if she'd had appendicitis as well, it would have made no difference. That's Visiting Consultant from 1969, my favorite Neels.

    2. I think it may have been Deborah Culpepper, Stars Through the Mist. But I think more than one of them, if not all of the theatre sisters, could do the eyebrow-thing to a certain extent.
      Since we now know there are only 10 theatre sisters that narrows your search down considerably - if Betty van den Betsy will let you known the titles. But perhaps Betty van den Betsy knows which of the sisters it was, since the theatre sisters are her favourites.
      Betty Anonymous

  2. I have a soft spot for student nurse Polly who managed her Greek and Latin so deftly and was an unsuccessful nurse.

    I LOVE these posts!

    1. Betty van den BetsyJanuary 28, 2012 at 7:58 AM

      What a nice thing to say! Thank you, Betty Keira. I love The Uncrushable Jersey Dress, and am so glad I found you all, and that you were there to find.

    2. I love these posts too informative and highly entertaining, thank you so much BettyvdB. Its amazing to think how narrow Neels hero and heroine career paths are. I also like the nurse/professor settings, such a good line between reality and otherness.
      Polly is a lovely character with her brightness and ability to endlessly work while still fixing updating her fashion sense. She can make a grumpy 'old' professor fall in love with her despite his every effort not too and all the while seeming to both edit and translate a book in a few weeks. That's a keeper!
      Being a nanny or MOC-caregiver (married to the mob-children) are my least favourite Neels professions followed by illustrator and tea-shoppe entrepreneurs/knitters.
      Otherwise its lovely that most of the heroines do work and am including being CEO/CFO of your often dutch household as a final career choice too.
      Betty AnHK

  3. You've done it again! And you've answered one of the questions I had lately. Now I know who the non-medical men were and what they did! Thank you for that. What a lot of information! And what a lot of jobs Neels girls had! Good work, Betty van den Betsy! Thumbs up!
    Betty Anonymous

    1. Betty van den BetsyJanuary 29, 2012 at 5:33 PM

      I've often wondered what was behind the foray into non-doctors. Their professions are so entirely inconsequential -- Lucius Massey goes to the office, at most, two or three times a month (and he was not working from home via e-mail in 1983), and Jake Royle owns a factory in New Zealand. Why on earth New Zealand? It just sounds so very unlikely. He is also the only one with much taint of trade upon him; interesting that the daughter of pub and grocery owners didn't write what she knew in that regard.

    2. Betty van den Betsy,
      I thought Lucius Massey went to the office about two or three times a week, or thereabouts? Not that that is a lot of time in total, but in addition to that he seemed to spend a lot of time managing his estate. Ah, I've found the corresponding passages:
      page 8 "...he was a chartered accountant and Stockley House and its surrounding acres belonged to him."
      page 14 "That would be Lucius in his Jaguar, going up to London to do big business, she supposed."
      (What kind of business???)
      page 21 "He was a good landlord and the estate, although not large, took up a good deal of his day, and twice a week he drove up to London where he was a partner in a large accountants firm."
      (So, I guess he had only a few accounts???)

      As for Jake Royle, I started re-reading All Else Confusion last night. Here is what Annis's father said about Jake Royle,
      "He's a very clever young man—well, I consider him young—he's chairman of several highly successful companies and commercial undertakings, owns a factory in New Zealand, and is much sought after as a financial adviser."
      He seems to do a lot of travelling throughout the novel. Barely married, he leaves Annis with her family, when he might have taken her along (money is not the object), or left her at her own new home. (Home alone. - That might have been worse for her, of course.)
      Why in New Zealand? Why not in Britain? I have no idea. But a number of the RDDs' family members (brothers and sisters) seem to live in New Zealand (or Canada, both Neels-approved places of residence, obviously)and sometimes we hear of their parents visiting them there.

      I believe "the taint of trade" on a high-dealing business man, such as Jake Royle, would be infinitesimal compared to that upon a pub and grocery owner (who must needs "dirty" his hands). And from what we learned from Betty Barbara's post, the Great Betty's father worked in a clerical capacity. (I meant to write as a pencil pusher versus barrel and crate lugger, but it sounds so demeaning and I don't mean to be, because there is nothing wrong with either of these professions.) The pub/grocery owner was a little further up her family tree. So the Venerable Betty may not have known anything "in that regard". Or of corporate business.
      Betty Anonymous

    3. Should that have been: money is not an object/issue?

    4. I think Jake Royle is my least favorite hero. It's probably because, though he's not worse in the attitude/approach department than the RDDs, he's tainted by trade. ;0)

    5. Betty van den BetsyFebruary 1, 2012 at 11:32 AM

      Truly did laugh out loud.

  4. Betty Barbara here--
    Betty van den Betsy--you have outdone yourself here! Fabulous!! After reading this I went immediately to my Box o' Betty Books to grab Only by Chance--Henrietta Cowper's story (a story for which I have a soft spot.)

  5. What a delightful and informative page! The photos of nursing through the decades are just wonderful. And thank you for including that marvellous advert for Chatsworth... that so reminds me of my first - and favourite BN: Only By Chance. Lovely! Wish I could get a job like that...

  6. "where he was a partner in a large accountants firm"

    When you are a partner at a large firm, you don't have to be there everyday. You don't have to do any accounting. He was one of the owners of the firm. He had mucho buckaroos and didn't have to "work" the daily grind of an employee. He invested in a business that made money FOR him. Which made it possible for him to support his vast "little" estate in the country. Which I BET was not "little" (at least where I live, it would be considered multi-milllionaire big).

    Betty Francesca