Friday, February 3, 2012

Betty by the Numbers: Pretty on the Inside

Betty by the Numbers:  Pretty on the Inside

Blondes have more fun, according to Cynthia Heimel, because you can find them in the dark.  Perhaps that’s why Betty Neels shied away from them, the gilded hussies*.

  Elizabeth Gunning, an 18th-century Anglo-Irish beauty

She was not shy, however, about stamping her poor brunette darlings with some pretty cruel assessments of their physical appearances.  Take, as a for instance, this description of a 24-year-old with all the advantages a country upbringing provides a woman’s complexion:  “a slim figure with long legs, her titian hair... pleasant face... her astonishing violet eyes.. small, high-bridged nose and wide mouth.”  This is Beth Partridge, on whom A Star Looks Down (1975), and Betty assures us that Beth is plain.  She assures us, in fact, over and over, bluntly and inarguably – that this slim, long-legged, glowing redhead with purple eyes is barely worth a second glance, and unlikely ever to attract a husband.  Beth mentions it several times, her brother agrees, her RDD seems to agree as well...  WHAAAAT?!?  (At least she’s pretty when she smiles.)

Truly violet eyes allegedly only occur in albinos, but deep blue eyes like Elizabeth Taylor’s sometimes appear to be violet. 

Two theories:  first, perhaps Betty had the kind of parents, common in England in her era, who believe in depressing any pretensions their children might have toward self-worth.  There’s a wonderful story of the Mitford sisters’ nanny telling one of her charges, amongst the most beautiful debutantes of her generation, about to marry one of the wealthiest men in England in the society wedding of the decade, and concerned that her veil wasn’t falling right, “It’s not as if anyone’s going to be looking at you.”  The sisters had grown up with that catchphrase, designed to ensure they didn’t think too highly of themselves.  (It failed utterly; whatever self-esteem issues the Mitford sisters had, they certainly seem to have believed entirely in their divine right to say, do and have whatever they wanted.)

Second theory:  Betty believed in Vogue magazine, with its prejudice toward the wand-like (I once read a male fashion designer complaining that breasts ruin the line of good clothes), rather than in Esquire, movies and popular music.  Surely no one ever accused Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor or Diana Ross of string bean-liness, but they pretty consistently beat out Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy in the popular polling for the 20th-century’s most beautiful women.

Vogue favorite Twiggy was 5’6” (1.68 meters) and weighed eight stone (112 lbs;50.8 kg) in the 60s; her bust-waist-hip measurements were 31-23-32 inches, or 79-58-81 cm.

Popular movie star Ann Margaret was
allegedly a rather splendid 35-23-35, or 89-58-89 on a 5’3” (1.6m) frame.  If I may say so, madam has a lovely bosom.

Science tells us (today at least; science may figure out something new next week) that men are most attracted to women whose looks suggest good child-bearing potential.  Thus, an 80% or lower ratio of waist- to hip-size and youthful features like full lips, big eyes, lots of hair and unlined skin count as attractive.  So from the hot-or-not perspective, standards of female beauty don’t change much.  Fashion, historically, disagrees, telling us all sorts of stuff, like this fall, broad shoulders and perfect calves are key, and next spring will be all about narrow shoulders and delicate wrists.  Short, curly hair this year, long, layered hair next year; models are clamoring for russet shades as the trend for blondes fades, okay, okay, okay.  (My favorites are the makeover pieces in fashion magazines that tell you that no matter what shape your face or body is, no matter what your skin tone or hair color, there’s a way to fix it!)

Lillie Langtry, late-19th century Jersey (UK) girl and celebrated beauty

 Anyway, we know for sure that the models in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition are a lot more consistent in looks than the models in Vogue’s fall fashion preview over the years.  Why does this matter?  In part because our heroines can stop worrying about being size 14s, which in England in the 70s was the equivalent of about 34-26-36, according to the best info I can find on the interweb.  Anna Wintour and Tom Ford may not like those measurements, but pretty much everybody else in the whole world does.  So small or big, plump or nicely curved, beautiful, ordinary, plain but lovely when she smiles, or dishy, our heroines are good looking women.

The good looks vary a bit, but return to some consistent themes – dark hair and curves especially.  Betty specified hair color for 127 of her 135 heroines, and of those, just nine had yellow hair – that’s a lonely but lovely 7%.  They were honey, gold, corn and sandy, by the way, and all were characterized as pretty or beautiful, except sandy-haired Deborah Farley, whose face was a mere ordinary in Year’s Happy Ending (1984).  One blonde shows up every other year from 1970 until 1988, but for the last 13 years of her writing career, Mrs. Neels eschewed them entirely.  When they do appear, they bear blue (five), green (three) or hazel (one) eyes.


Blue-eyes, hair the color of ripe corn (English word for wheat), already scraped back into a bun for the easier perching of a nurse’s cap.

Blonde is not the least common color, though.  While there’s lots of “dark hair” in Neelsland, only Julia Pennyfeather (The Fifth Day of Christmas, 1971) had specifically black hair.  Setting aside the becoming silvers and whites more appropriate to ideal mothers-in-law than romantic leads, black is the least common hair color in the oeuvre.  Julia has brown eyes, in case you wondered; she is also beautiful.

Mostly we follow the trials and dinner-dates of brown-heads in all their variety:  pale brown, dark brown, light brown, mouse, honey brown, deep brown, warm brown, soft brown, nut brown, light brown, rich brown, plain-old brown, that “dark hair” and tawny.  A full 71% of nurse/companion-types have brown hair; 23 of those 90 women have mouse-colored hair.  I’m not sure what the difference is between pale brown and mouse (except that L’Oreal does not offer a hair-coloring product in mouse), but I do know that not a single one of those mouse-haired young women is described as pretty or beautiful.  Eighteen of them win a description as “plain” or “ordinary” – that’s 78%.  Ouch!  Of the 25 future Mrs. Doctors with pale brown hair, just three are pretty, while 14, or 56%, are plain or ordinary.  The pale-browns and mouses have the highest percentage (seven, or 15%) of the back-handed compliment “good looking but not pretty.” (What?!?  How are “good looking” and “pretty” not synonyms?)

Is this the most famous mousey-brown hair in the world?

Heroines with dark brown or simply dark hair count 24 in total, and 22 of them are pretty or beautiful.  All of the three tawny-haired ladies are pretty or beautiful.  In light of this evidence, I’m going to start thinking of my own hair color as tawny, rather than mud-brown.

According to computer, the English run about 10% redheads, so Betty’s choice to make 21% of her hair-identified heroines redheads suggests an affection for the breed.  (Incidentally, far from disdaining the coppertops as shown in Sister Peters in Amsterdam (1969), where Adelaide attracts numerous un-admiring looks and comments from Amsterdammers for her red hair, today the Dutch celebrate an international redhead day each year in Breda.  Meanwhile, in the UK Mick Hucknall and others are claiming intolerance toward redheads is widespread.)  Further proof of her preference:  Betty tells us 74% of her 27 red, ginger, copper, pale copper, russet, titian, carroty, chestnut and bronze-haired heroines are pretty or beautiful; only 15% are plain or ordinary.  Perhaps because they have lovely eyes; 30% of them pair green eyes with their chestnut locks.  Second most common is grey, with 22%, then there are three each (11%) of blue, brown and hazel, plus one tiger and Beth with her astonishing violet.

Redheads in many shapes, shades and sizes – all beautiful, surely!

 The Venerable Betty specifies eye color for 117 of her heroines, or 87%, sometimes as vaguely as “dark,” other times as specifically as that “tiger.”  If we’re willing to include tiger-eyed Victoria Parsons (Victory for Victoria, 1972) and tawny-eyed Euphemia Blackstock (An Apple from Eve, 1981) amongst our brown-eyed heroines, then those are the most popular irises, with 26 heroines, 19%, sporting the shade.  If we chuck in “dark” eyes as well, the figure jumps to 40, or 30%.  Grey and hazel eyes tie for second place, with 24, or 18%, each.  There are 15 green-eyed girls, 12 blue-eyed babes (including one cornflower and two sapphires), and then lard-thrower Mary Jane Seymour (Dearest Mary Jane, 1994) and rock-climber Beth Partridge each claim violet eyes.  Mary Jane has light brown hair and an “unremarkable” face.  Again, whaaat?  How do you get an unremarkable face if it has purple eyes in the middle of it?


“Sometimes I’m overcome thinkin’ about it... you, my brown-eyed girl”

So what about beauty?  Sixteen of Betty’s ladies earn the descriptor “beautiful;” that’s 12%, and clearly a very high standard.  I think I class well over 50% of the women I know as beautiful.  In Neelsdom, they’re probably pretty at best:  46, or 34%, of her heroines are, while 26, 19%, are ordinary and 19, 14%, are plain.  (I think I counted those with “no looks to speak of” in the “ordinary” column, but some may have landed in “plain.”)  Doubtless the 13 (10%) described as ‘good looking but not pretty’ or some variation on the phrase are thrilled with the kind compliment, while the four, 3%, who get a back-handed ‘lovely when she smiles’ warrant another look – that smile is masking seething thoughts of vengeance.

Lady Diana Cooper, early-20th c. acclaimed beauty

Maggy MacFergus, a Nurse in Holland (1969) is the first of 45 tall heroines – at six feet in her stocking feet, she definitely qualifies.  A total of one-third of the women are tall, and of those, 87% are also described as pretty or beautiful.  Only Cassandra by Chance (1973) gets to be tall and not beautiful; instead she’s a jolie laide with an ordinary face, pale brown hair and hazel eyes.  Good thing Benedict is blind when she meets him, and so gets to know her beautiful character before less than dazzled by her unremarkable exterior.  In 1982, Betty starts to mix things up a bit by introducing the term “big” to mean both tall and splendidly built.  There are seven big girls; adding them to the talls, we have 39% big/tall heroines.  The women described as big are all also termed beautiful, pretty or charming.

So we turn to the small women, all 41 of them (31%), and another clear prejudice of our author:  71% of small heroines are plain, ordinary or ‘good looking but not pretty.’  Just 12% are pretty, and none are beautiful.  Women of medium height fare slightly better; two of the 11 (8%) are beautiful, and one is pretty; eight are plain, ordinary or good looking but not you-know-what.

How long were you reading Betty before you figured out that you weren’t re-reading the same book (‘This seems awfully familiar...’)?  Oops, I meant to ask, how long you were reading Betty before you figured out that ‘plump’ doesn’t mean, ‘just this side of fat’?  For those of you newer to the ouevre, I think it is very helpful to know that ‘plump’ means... hmm... how to put this... munificently endowed in the over-carriage?  Full-figured?  Stacked?  I hope this may save you some confusion when you read that Serena Louisa, one of the 25 “plump” ones, has a tiny waist and great legs with slender ankles.

Not what Betty means by “plump”

Plump is the second-most common figure-size classification.  The most common?  A “splendid figure,” or splendid proportions, or splendidly built.  This applies to 32 of our heroines, or just under one-quarter of the 135 of them.  “Plump” covers 19%, while 14% are “nicely rounded” or some variation thereon.  “Thin,” which consistently pairs with “no looks to speak of” and its equivalents, describes 11%, while nine, or 7% are  “slim,” which more often couples with “lovely” or “pretty.”  “Charming figures” show up on ten heroines, also 7%, while just three, a mere 2%, are “nicely rounded.”

Now, you must take all of this with a grain of nutmeg (grated over Brussels sprouts), since I just jotted down the earliest descriptions of most of our heroines.  It is entirely possible that someone I’ve shorthanded as “small, plump, dark/hazel” subsequently earns praise for her charming figure and rich brown hair.  And I’m afraid I couldn’t bear to delineate every “delightful smile," "slim waist” or “nose that was almost snub.”  I believe, though, that regardless of exact counts of dimensions, shades and evolving levels of loveliness, we can agree that Betty Neels had some truly cockamamie ideas of what constitutes pulchritude in the female.

 Native Londoner Samantha Fox, late-20th century pin-up and pop-music hitmaker

* Joke!  Two of my dearest friends are currently passing as blondes.  My biggest crush in college was on a blond (with pale blue eyes and a beaky nose; only about 5’9”, though).  I was blonde myself as a child, then dirty blonde in my teens, and brunette by adulthood, and oh how I mourned the change.  I love yellow hair.  It is so pretty and shiny.


  1. It took me a very long time before I understood that 'thin' and 'mouth a shade too large' was code for Audrey Hepburn and that the plump ones looked just like Marylin Monroe below the neck. Gosh, I love Betty.

    Another great post Betty van den Betsy!

  2. Betty v.d.Betsy, I particularly enjoyed this post. Great topic. Stats are interlardycaked with interesting illustrations--particularly the congregation of redheads! However, I beg to differ on Benedict's reaction to seeing Cassandra for the first time. "She gazed obediently in front of her, towards the gloom where Benedict sat, and heaved an audible sigh of relief when the lamp was switched off. 'Not long enough,' said Benedict softly." Sounds dazzled to me!

  3. Betty Lulu, I think that "Not long enough" is the most romantic line in The Canon--and there is stiff competition. My heart dropped to my stomach when I read that line the first time. Still gets to me.

    And, thank you Betty van den Betsy, I have also made the point over and over about Beth Partridge that one can't have red hair and violet eyes and be plain.

    1. Yes on the big yay for Benedict; my comment was a reflection of Cassandra's hardwired self-deprecation. She's so ruddy sure he's going to be appalled by her lack of looks. (He's not that interested in your face, sweetie!)

      I suspect that a violet-eyed redhead with acne, a missing tooth or two, no neck, a cauliflower ear, dumpy figure and lousy posture could be described as "unattractive" (though not plain! I am so sorry even to have imagined this poor young woman), but red/violet in a pleasant face over a long-legged, slim body? No. Just so utterly no.

  4. For all my familiarity with Betty Neels' style, I hadn't figured out what she means by 'plump' exactly... it seems I've a literal mind sometimes - I thought pleasantly plump meant pleasantly plump. Ah, euphemism! Thank you, Betsy, for this illuminating post.

    Does anyone remember a leading lady in The Canon with a short bob, whatever its colour? On the cover of The Secret Pool, it looks as if Francesca has very short hair, but that's not borne out by the description of course. Not the first case where the cover doesn't match the detail in the story I imagine!

    1. Would this be your idea of a bob? From Last April Fair, Phyllida Cresswell, "She was a very pretty girl, tall and slim and nicely curved in her navy uniform. She had corn-coloured hair, cut short and swinging around her neck, with a fringe over her blue eyes and a nose which tilted very slightly above a softly curved mouth so that despite her twenty-six years she reminded anyone meeting her for the first time of a small eager girl wanting to be friendly with everyone. ..."
      Betty Anonymous

    2. Absolutely a contender I'd say!

  5. I can't remember anyone with a short bob, Betty SHV, but I do remember that some of them actually wear their hair down--more than one! Which is funny because The Venerable Neels seemed to be married to a 'neat bun'.

    Bettys JoDee and Lulu, count me in for that line! I love that book but when I read that line, I thought, how can she not know that she's his girl forever and ever and ever?!

    And Betty Lulu: Interlardycaked? HA!

  6. Betty van den Betsy, wow! Again, what a lot of information worked into a great essay, with the help of your trusty calculator. (Has anybody ever accused you of being calculating? - Haha.) I have to try and find those tiger eyes you mentioned. Am I being obstinate? I still think pleasantly plump is pleasantly plump, because I rather like the expression, but I'll look for small waists etc. next time I come across it - and may have to change my viewpoint in due course.
    Like the readheads.
    Betty Anonymous

    P.S.: By now, I, too, am being curious about your spreadsheet!!!

    1. Betty Anonymous-
      Betty Barbara here with (I hope) some clarification:
      If our heroine starts the book 'a bit plump' then that translates to 'nice, full bosom'. However:
      If our heroine starts the book thin (due to lack of money for proper meals or being overworked by unappreciative evil step-siblings)and finally! (through the effects of bracing country air and a good work situation) achieves a 'pleasing plumpness', we can assume that she has gained sufficient weight to have achieved a 'nice figure' and no longer looks like a 'thin mouse'.

    2. Betty Barbary, thank you for clarifying one thing: I am (being) obstinate. I thought your "translation" was spelled out (the Olivias always feeling a little self-conscious because of their measurements) and commented on with words like "I like a woman to look like a woman".
      Betty Anonymous

    3. Oops. Betty Barbara - sorry about the barbary.

  7. By the way: Freezing temperatures in Amsterdam. Boats are banned from some of the grachten in the hope that the ice will "grow" thick enough for skating. Donnie Cam:
    (View from Looiersgracht 2 / Prinsengracht (332?) on Prinsengracht, Looiersgracht and Runstraat.)
    Betty Anonymous

  8. I absolutely love this series, Betties! "Betty by the Numbers" always gives me such fun things to think about as I work my way through the novels. Though I have to say that I was immediately struck by the first few paragraphs with this one... there's a heroine named Beth!?! How did I not know of this before? I clearly know which book is going next on my list.

    Do any of the rest of you ever try to describe yourself by Mrs. Neels's standards? Or wonder at least how she'd describe you? It seems like it'd be so much better than how others describe folks nowadays. Every now and then I match the description of the heroine (brown hair, blue eyes, a bit over average height) and always do a little wiggle of "yay!".

    -Betty Beth

    1. At one point in A Star Looks Down, Beth ponders why Alexander alternates between calling her Beth, Elizabeth and Miss Partridge. I'm rather touched each time he calls her by her full name, which no one else ever does, including our author.

      Betty Neels could not describe me nowadays, as she deals only with heroines aged 20 to 30, evil fiancees and would-be fiancees in their 20s and 30s, and cozy mothers-in-law-to-be in, presumably, the late 50s and 60s. If the hero ever had an older sister, I could be "cozily stout, with silver streaks showing through her rich brown hair above a surprisingly youthful face, and a distinct twinkle in her dark eyes." But the hero is almost always the eldest of his siblings.

    2. I think I just put A Star Looks Down back on the shelf. Now I will have to read it again to "hear" him call her by her full name.
      Betty Anonymous

    3. Betty van den Betsy, now I want an older sister exactly as described. :D From that description, you sound as though you'd be willing the type to understand perfectly things like falling out of trees, into caves, into canals...!

    4. Speaking of canals. Ijsbreken (ice-breaking) op de Amsterdamse grachten Feb 3, 2012.
      For the bird watchers among you there is a slightly longer tour: hundreds of seagulls and other waterfowl on the canals in Amsterdam.
      Betty Anonymous

    5. Betty Beth, I encourage canal-falling. Plus, I will never foist my four kids off on you for much longer than dinner-and-a-movie once a week.

    6. Ha! I am the oldest of four, I know exactly how much fun being foisted off can be. Make it twice a week! :D

  9. One of the best inspirational videos ever
    And here is your makeover.
    Betty Anonymous

  10. Thank you Betty van den Betsy for the latest post. Fun and absorbing!

    Perhaps this one shows that Betty (or her editors) was either confused about beauty descriptions or were just very, very savvy about what makes a heroine most relevant to her audience.

    I have spent far too much time wondering what a pretty mouse might have looked like and what exactly pleasantly plump means in terms of having a 'lovely shaped' bust and a 23 inch waist.
    Betty AnHK