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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.)
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Closing date for these positions is 3 February 2012.