Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Betty by the Numbers: Families Redux

Betty Barbara posed some questions about dreamy, distracted dads, stable families and bad examples of parentkind in the discussion following the reprise of Judith.  'Ah hah!' I thought, "an excuse for reprising BbtN: Families!"  This was a fun one to research and to write, despite my ragingly powerful preference for the happy families, which include many that are missing a key member or two, like Sophy Greenslade's and Kate Crosbie's.  I do hope you will find it informative, maybe amusing, and perhaps, at times, a bit surprising.

There’s a wide variety of opinion on the Neels families.  Some appreciate the pathos a clinging, selfish mother, great-aunt or granny provides; some enjoy raging against evil stepmothers/sisters/brothers; some find pleasure in a good cry when a cherished daughter’s world is ripped apart by untimely deaths of loved ones by illness or traffic accident.  And then – let’s see what else – well, you can cheer on our heroine as she keeps home and hearth together for needy but staunch siblings and the occasional elder, or you can sink into the warm bath of an intact, independent nuclear family with a shabby but good furnishings, an elderly pet or two, and a garden in need of weeding.

As I went through the list, I discovered a few others.  All told, I’ve categorized the families as:

Adopt Me! – mostly intact nuclear families with a home (usually in the country), a reasonable income from dad’s profession or sensible estate-planning, a few heirlooms and a few pets; the heroine looks forward to going home to be stuffed with cake and discreetly questioned about eligible medicos

Mean People Sxxk – outright cruel, usually step-relatives; the heroine sometimes reflects, “she had tried to love xxx, but...”

Weeping Despots – where someone binds the heroine by ties of ersatz affection, demanding time, money, labor and dainty meals but providing nothing but mean-spirited digs; the heroine often reflects that, “of course she loved xxx, but...”

And Tuppence for Sissy’s New Socks – heroine feels obligated to commit her organizational skills and salary-earning abilities to the maintenance of usually-younger relatives (although Mum may need a hand, too) who appreciate all she does (i.e., the family pitches in with the washing up, and cycles off to school or a genteel job willingly enough)

Orphans – family just isn’t an issue; maybe it was a nice family, maybe she can barely remember them; a cold aunt or grandmother may be in the background

Sudden Impact – the mainstay(s) of our heroine’s family dies in the course of the book, sometimes without warning, other times after a brief illness

Just Us Two – mum and daughter, or a similar combo, living together amicably and helping each other along without emotional blackmail or abuse

Outliers – just can’t seem to cram them in anywhere else

With the understanding that one person’s Meanie is another’s Weeping Despot, let’s see how the 135 books break down, shall we?


Good news for me, as an escapist who wants nice fantasies when reading Betty – the largest category is the warm and loving and (mostly) intact family.  So Yay! for the country GPs, solicitors, vicars and vets who can keep their wives in teapots and well-worn but lovingly-polished quality furnishings, and their kiddies in Wellington boots and buttered muffins.  There’s a total of 45 happy families in the Neels oeuvre, from Adelaide Peters’s pater, Parson Peters, her protective Mum and younger twin brothers in Sister Peters in Amsterdam (1969) to Vicar Selby et al in An Ordinary Girl (2001).  A full one-third of the collection (45 of 135) features these perfectly pleasant people!

Of the happy families, 42 are intact nuclear units; two are headed by widows and one by a widower.  The bucolic English village is home to 41 of them, while three live in London; the Fosters of The Mistletoe Kiss (1997) have lost their happy home in Somerset and are forced to live in London, but make their way, happily ever after, to Dorset before story’s end.  Only one mother is credited with any money-earning capability:  greeting-card illustrator Mrs. Pagett of Marrying Mary (1996); two mothers ostensibly help out with the family B&B, but are never shown exerting effort.

Sure, in some books it’s not all scones ‘round the fire and grubbing happily in the garden, but in Neels-land country living with dad, mum and a clutch of kiddies is endless delight.

Sadly, the happy families began to peter out as Mrs. Neels aged.  In the fifteen books copyrighted 1998-2001, we get only two – just 1%! – whereas exactly half of the fourteen books copyrighted 1969-1972 offer up these aspirational examples of domestic comfort.  Whatever happened?


Next most common:  The Meanies!  Some people love to loathe them, I suppose – I just loathe them.  They start with Tabitha in Moonlight’s (1972) horrid stepmother and spoilt stepsister pick, pick, picking until the poor woman, who can rock a bikini, has no self-esteem left.  And then they sell Tara!  I mean, Chidlake!  From there, the Meanies just keep going, reaching their nadir with the unspeakable Stepmother Saunders and her foul spawn Basil in The Promise of Happiness (1979), who keep poor Rebecca broke, chained to the scullery, and cowed by vile threats against the welfare of her beloved breakdowns Bertie and Pooch.  That book’s very happy ending could have been improved, so slightly, by Tiele’s knocking down Basil when he attempts to re-kidnap the ridiculous Rebecca-who-doesn’t-like-to-make-a-scene.

Rebecca, cleaning up after Basil, and hoping she’ll find a few farthings under the Aga to help fund her escape with an old dog, an old cat, a crust and a length of string.

So who’s meaner, the flat-out bad guys or the wistfully smiling Weeping Despots?  The classic is the pretty, delicate, selfish mother who spends the housekeeping money on manicures whilst complaining, gently, that her graceless and plain daughter can’t seem to put lobster bisque on the table more than once a fortnight.  It is wrong to blame the victim, but honestly don’t you sometimes want to grab Hannah and her sisters-in-psychological-abuse and shriek, “Just get out!”  And be sure it’s not just Mummy dearest; there are also snooty aspiring-fashion-model sisters, bone-idle dads and maybe even a pathologically narcissistic brother or two.

Mrs. Paige, so beautiful as a girl, posed for the cover of Benny Davis’s 1922 song ‘Poor Little Me,’ which became her theme.  The lyric is better suited to daughter Matilda:  “Nobody ever takes me out/they say I don’t know what it’s all about.”  Except, of course, Matilda never complains.  Incidentally, has anyone in real life ever actually referred to herself as “poor little me” and expected to be taken seriously, as Mrs. P and her fictional sisters do?

There are minor despots, pretty little sisters Joyce and Louisa, in The Hasty Marriage (1977) and Winter Wedding (1979), but it is in Hannah (1980) that the master manipulators begin to shove into more of the books.  A handful of horrors:  the widow Proudfoot of A Little Moonlight (1991), the blackmailing (literal, not just emotional) Mr. Smith and Pretty Little Sister Smith of The Bachelor’s Wedding (1995), and the gaggingly inept whiner Mrs. Paige and her oblivious, invalid husband of Matilda’s Wedding (2000).  Yuck to all of them; I’m going to bleach my keyboard to clean them away.

We could argue who’s passive and who’s aggressive, but in my categorization I get Meanies as the primary family system in 18 books, or 13% of the canon, and Weeping Despots in 14, or 10%.


The despotism of fate keeps many of our heroines tied to loving, plucky family members – and when I say many, I mean 14, or 10%.  We first encounter this tribe in Visiting Consultant (also known as Surgeon from Holland or Blow Hot, Blow Cold, 1969).  The incomparably wonderful Sophy Greenslade has a loving granny and former bâtman to help out at home, but apparently she’s the primary selfless support for younger siblings Lucas, Penny and Ben – all of them bright, helpful and loving.  Nonetheless, early in the story she reflects sadly that she’ll be in her forties before she can live for herself instead of her clan – unless she marries a rich man...

Eulalia Warburton of Fate Takes a Hand (1995) cares for her orphaned first-cousin-once-removed with the help of the semi-retired housekeeper Trottie, though when Trottie breaks her leg, she may seem more trouble than she’s worth – unless the orthopaedic consultant who cares for the old lady winds up taking all Eulalia’s troubles off her generously-curved shoulders... 

“There isn’t a lot/to spare/who cares/whatever we’ve got we share”

We wave good-bye to the Tuppence crowd in 1997, when the pathologically rude Francesca Bowen of The Fortunes of Francesca supports her elderly aunty and bright little brother, protecting them from Uncle and Aunt Evil.  Fortunately for Francesca, the Meanies are not the primary family unit here, although her efforts to shield the meek from the mean seem, after aunty develops a heart condition, terrifyingly unavailing!  They are doomed to imprisonment by the sociopath side of the family, unless an eminent cardiac surgeon arrives in the nick of time...


There are fourteen orphans, tying for third place with the Tuppence for Sissy and Weeping Despot categories at 10% of the canon.  Note, however, that these Orphans only include those orphaned, and more-or-less alone in the world, before our story opens.  Those orphaned in the course of discovering true love are in a whole ‘nother place.  And the clutch that retain one family stalwart are in yet another.

Rich Dutch doctor, rescued stray, little orphan Araminta

Julia Pennyfeather of The Fifth Day of Christmas (1971) is my first orphan, as I give no weight to her dull, smug brother waiting offstage to shove her into a marriage with his dull, smug friend.  He’d be a Weeping Despot if he had more of a hold on her, but she’s no dummy, and takes herself off to Holland.  Henrietta’s Own Castle (1975) features another independent-minded orphan – my second favorite of the group.  My top pick for orphans is the unflappable Sadie Gillard of A Girl to Love (1982), whose parents are long dead and whose story, for our consumption, begins with the clearing up after the funeral of her beloved if improvident granny.  I believe the only orphaned heroine who spends much of any time thinking about her late parents is Cressida Bingley of A Matter of Chance (1977).  Rector Bingley and his wife are quite recently deceased after a virulent flu swept their small village, and on page five Cressida reflects on the deep grief that still threatens to engulf her.  (By chapter two, she’s got her stiffer upper lip re-attached, and a flu epidemic can ravage the Dutch countryside a hundred pages later without her giving a thought to Mum and Dad.)  Another Henrietta (Cowper, of Only by Chance, 1996) was actually reared primarily in an orphanage, her parents having died when she was one, and her emotionally-cold grandmother five years later.

The orphaned-within-the-text, or Sudden Impact, category is for those heroines who begin our story with some sort of parent, and lose him/her/them to illness or accident.  Think of Mary Jane Pettigrew, hieing off to Cumberland to nurse the stricken granddad who more or less reared her, only to suffer his death on page 37 of Winter of Change (1973).  More dramatically (grandpa was 82, after all), think of Margo Pearson, The Vicar’s Daughter (1996), happily pottering about Daddy’s vicarage, lashings of jam on the table and loving parents to appreciate her good sense and jolie laide quality.  Out of nowhere, on page 76, the “pleasant monotony” of life in Thinbottom is forever ruptured when Bob the bobby arrives to inform her that Mum and Father have died instantly in a head-on collision on the A303.  Surely this is awfully grisly stuff for a romance?  At least she gets to mourn for a few pages, and even discuss the late Pearsons with her brand-new husband a few weeks later.

This moiré layered skirt and Victorian jacket are available from a company called Monochrome, which has dubbed the outfit the “funeral doll.”  Not what Margo wore in Dorset, I suspect.

One thing that surprised me in totting up my maths for this review is that only half of the suddenly-bereft move quickly into a Marriage Of Convenience with their (future) heroes.  I had a vague impression that the deaths of loved ones always served as a plot device to justify the MOC, but in fact five of the eleven Sudden Impact-ers don’t get their proposals until the last few paragraphs.

I made a separate category for the demi-orphans and orphans who have family support in the form of a single parent or other relative (or two sisters for Julia of An Independent Woman, 2001).  They won their own section by having an unique dynamic and twelve appearances in the canon.  With the exception of the casually self-centered George Henry Forbes, brother to Christina of Not Once But Twice (1981), these mini-families are as loving and comforting as the Adopt Me! type – but they’re much less likely to be financially comfortable, and so couldn’t keep me in the style to which I should like to become accustomed.


Kate supporting Mrs. Crosby during her recuperation from appendicitis.

The co-stars of the Just Us Two families include the brother and two sisters mentioned above, a grandmother, a grandfather, a father, two aunts and a great-aunt, and four mothers.  Stand-outs include Caroline’s Aunt Meg of A Girl in a Million (1993), who takes her to Amsterdam in the first place, Esmerelda’s (1976) well-off mum, who can spot a bounder in 20 seconds (hint: he’s a registrar!  his name is Leslie!  he comments on the resale value of heirlooms!), and Grandfather Crump of A Suitable Match (1990), who can teach the recently-orphaned Crichton nephews all about India, since he lived there.  And maybe science, or Latin or something.


Seven families just wouldn’t jam themselves into my infrastructure, so have been tainted as outliers.  A Winter Love Story (1998) has a bit of Sudden Impact and a bit of Just Us Two; The Girl with Green Eyes has a comfortable and intact nuclear family that ignores our heroine rather than loving or tormenting her; Cassandra by Chance (1973) has a nice sister but no apparent parents, and it’s not a Just Us Two as sis is married and Cassandra doesn’t consider their home her own.

No, no – not that one!

The aristocratic Honourable Aunt Bess, mini-aristocrat Cousin Oliver and vapid husband-hunting cousin-in-law Margaret of Grasp a Nettle (1977) provide Jenny with a home base and plenty of excitement, but don’t qualify for any clear category.  Enchanting Samantha (1973) has nice grandparents, Jemima of A Dream Came True (1982) has a loving brother, but he’s brilliant enough to win a grant to study at Boston University, so where does that leave her, and finally, before she gets A Christmas Wish (1994), Olivia lives with both a loving mum and a mean granny.


The final analysis (which does not add to 100% due to rounding):

One-third of Neels families are simply lovely, 13% are aggressively mean and 10% are emotionally manipulative.  Heroines strive to hold together 10% of families, have nothing left to hold in another 10%, and cope with the loss of family mainstays in 8%.  Families of two anchor 9% of the stories, and the remaining 5% are un-categorizable, except as weirdos.  I mean, outliers.  I have added to my to-do list, “re-write The Vicar’s Daughter so those poor people don’t have to die,” ‘cause that one is a serious bummer.


  1. Another great Redux. Re-writing The Vicar's Daughter? - What a great idea! Perhaps some of our talented Bettys could outline a new plot or come up with the first new chapter after Mr and Mrs Pearson go to Exeter for the day.

  2. Awesome Betty by the numbers! Very humorous as always.. - DO you have families by the numbers for the Hero? :)... Thanks for posting!

  3. Betty Barbara here--
    I was re-reading Marrying Mary yesterday, trying to fit lovely Mary's parents into one of your categories and having a bit of a problem. Dad is a scholar, scribbling away on a book (for which he at least has a contract!) and content to leave worrying about the heating system, paying the local bills, etc to Mary. Mum paints Christmas cards and brings in a bit of money, but can't cook, clean, be bothered with family when artistic inspiration strikes, etc. Leaves all that to Mary. Neither parent is cruel; they are just useless. And when Dad gets conned out of a good deal of money--guess who has to buckle down and try to earn some money? Good old Mary.
    At least the nameless boys all got to go to university and escape out into the world and younger sister Polly is a treasure and willing to pitch in.
    So neither parent is a 'weeping despot' or a meanie. And they seem to get along great as a family when the parents emerge from their respective 'caves'--but I sure wouldn't want to be part of that family.
    So where did you end up placing Marrying Mary? This Betty is curious...

  4. Betty Barbara, I wouldn't mind being part of the Pagett family, so I called them Adopt Me!s, or a happy family, albeit with strong overtones of Tuppence for Sissy. (It's certainly not unusual in Betty's happy families for our heroine to pitch in for roof repairs or a new washer.) They've got a steady income for much of the book, and her parents and siblings appreciate all Mary does, so...

    I will bear your preferences in mind, however, and not arrange a visit to Golder's Green for your Christmas gift.

    Betty MaryinNH, I haven't tracked hero families, but may add some columns to the spreadsheet. I think we could all name about a million (okay, a hundred) financially-secure, loving hero-families. Off the top of my head, the most unique hero-family that occurs to me is James Scott-Thurlow's, which consists of kind-but-distant grandparents who reared him to be emotionally cold, giving Matilda quite a job of work during The Most Marvelous Summer. Then there's the handful, mostly in the early years, who died during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. And of course Simon Savage's drunken witch of a step- or half-sister in Heaven Around the Corner.

  5. I remember being completely shocked at The Vicar's Daughter. Usually the ones that die are old or have been absent for most of the book. Not at all a regular family that you've gotten to know and love, and then they're just gone. But maybe that makes it all the better plot-wise, because you actually care.

    1. Or maybe it makes it especially horrible plot- or other-wise, because you liked them and because you were glad Margo had them in her corner, and because you would like her to be able to marry for a better reason then "you've got nowhere else to go," and because they were so solidly nice even the fictional world could use more like them and to go willfully smashing them into a lorry on the A303 is just needless and heedless and wasteful. Not that care much, or anything...