I am not nearly the connoisseur of Betty Neels’ 134 novels as the gracious hostesses of specialist blog The Uncrushable Jersey Dress. But, having read about a half-dozen of her novels, I now venture to have some general thoughts on the contemporary world Neels portrayed.
So far, every Neels novel I’ve read features a young English woman who works as a nurse and is overlooked and underappreciated, particularly by her family and by men…until she meets an older man, distinguished, Dutch, a doctor of some variety. (Neels herself was a nurse, and her husband was Dutch, though not a doctor.) The stories are told from the heroine’s point of view, and most of the tension arises from her dilemmas (shortage of money, family problems) and her confusion about the hero and his intentions. His intentions are, of course, to marry her, but he never says so until the end; until then, he just does nice things for her and confuses her because she can’t comprehend why he is being so nice. There’s an innocence about the heroine’s feelings, and a gentleness that makes these novels very soothing.
The essence of a Neels romance isn’t affected by the setting, not really. Which is a good thing, because, with slight variations, the setting is always the same, no matter the decade in which it’s ostensibly set. It’s my humble opinion, having read only a small selection so far, that Neels World is outside of time, much in the way that the classic Regency Romance is outside of time. Betty Neels’ voice as an author overrides any need for contemporaneity with publication date.
In both these subgenres of Romance, Regency and Neels, the setting is like the setting for a jewel (the story); it’s there to set off the jewel, not upstage it. These settings create familiar atmosphere for the reader. Outside of the novel’s atmosphere, the story can’t breathe; but within that atmosphere, it’s a special thing all its own.
Neels, as I mentioned before, was a nurse, and used a lot of specific detail about nursing to enrich her novels. She knew her world very well. But it wasn’t necessary for her particular stories to track, for example, changes in nursing practice over her lifetime. That wasn’t important to the story she wanted to tell, and that her readers wanted to read. So she didn’t discuss it. As time goes on, elements of her novels might seem more and more outdated, but the “old-fashioned” morals don’t matter. Neels’ authorial voice supports the story. For 134 novels. I only hope I can do so well one day!
“London may be a swinging city, the permissive society may be the normal way of living in the big cities, marriage may have become an old fashioned ceremony to be laughed at, but here, in the village, such goings on are very much on a par with the more sensational Sunday papers; not quite to be believed.” —Dear Reader Letter from Betty Neels, The Magazine of Harlequin Romance V. 1 No 3: August, 1973.
Betty Neels’ Books Rock, a guest post by Magdalen Braden.
Some Neels books that have recently been reprinted:
A Girl in a Million
The Final Touch
The Quiet Professor
Henrietta’s Own Castle
A Valentine for Daisy
A Girl Named Rose
The Most Marvellous Summer
Never Say Goodbye
A Kind of Magic
Damsel in Green
Never the Time and the Place