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.
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.