Please welcome my guest, Magdalen Braden of Promantica!
A while back, I posted some thoughts on romance author Betty Neels. Strangely, that post keeps getting hits…more than I would expect. Alas, though I think her work is a fascinating part of the romance genre, I haven’t yet read enough of Neels’ enormous backlist to talk about her in a truly knowledgeable way, so I asked for a post from an expert.
Betty Neels’ Books Rock by Magdalen Braden
A friend sent me a Mills & Boon published in 1974. With a few changes, the plot could have been by Betty Neels. Here’s the back cover copy, edited just a bit:
After a childhood spent in an orphanage, Lucy Brown was delighted when Miss Ramsay organized a new life for her working in a hospital. But when Lucy got there, she discovered that the doctor in charge, Tavis Walsh, didn’t want her there, and Sister Ursula made it clear that Lucy had better stay out of her way. It was obvious that Ursula had a very close relationship with Doctor Walsh. Surely she didn’t regard Lucy as competition?
Let’s see how many Betty Neels-esque elements this story’s got:
- Poor childhood
- Plain-jane name
- Glamorous doctor hero
- Nasty, spiteful cow for a rival for the doctor’s affections
Only, it’s not by Betty Neels (I’ll protect the author’s identity; trust me you don’t want to read this one) and it’s not good. Very much not good.
Whereas, Betty Neels’s books—even the not-quite-so-good ones—are wonderful.
Here’s why, at least here’s why I think they’re wonderful:
- She’s a literate author. I imagine she grew up reading Charlotte M. Yonge and Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell and Stella Gibbons. People who could write a sensible sentence in English. It’s very rare that I come across an infelicitous sentence in a Betty Neels romance. We take writing of that quality for granted…until we’re reading a book written by a less skilled writer. (Here’s a sentence from the Lucy Brown book above: Once again, instead of the eager and interested aide she had been for the last hour, she felt herself the deprivation.) Betty Neels never wrote a sentence that bad in her professional life.
- Her characters, particularly her heroes, may be cut from the same bolt of cloth, but it’s damned fine cloth. Yes, almost all of them are rich Dutch doctors, with the rest being rich English doctors. (In 134 romances, there are precisely 6 non-medical heroes, and of those, only one is the least bit un-rich-Dutch doctor-y. See this fascinating account of the heroines’ occupations; halfway through is an aside on the heroes.) And yes, they’re all the type of man who’s likely to order for you at a five-star restaurant and get it right. But while we might not want to marry such a man ourselves (although I can see the appeal), these men are perfect for their heroines, who are hard-working, sensible, loyal and easy to love.
- Each book is partly a travelogue, period fashion show, foodie’s blog, British car rally, and antique furnishings auction catalogue. You could easily plan a trip to The Netherlands (specifically Holland and Friesland) from Neels’ oeuvre, right down to which stately homes to gaze at. You’d even know where to shop, which museums to skip, and what to order in a casual restaurant.
- Pets. Dogs, cats, donkeys, even an occasional pet rat (but a nice one, promise) are often important secondary characters in Betty Neels’ books.
- Sex. Admittedly there’s no explicit sex in her books, but implicit is that every single one of her heroes—even the bitter divorcés and widowers—know precisely what to do with the heroine after the book ends. (See ordering for you at a five-star restaurant, above. Now consider that a euphemism for something sexy and you’ve got the right idea.)
- Happy endings. Some romances leave me with the feeling that when the whirlwind quiets down, and the passion morphs into the mundane, the couple may not have what it takes to go the distance. Never, ever, with a Betty Neels romance do you have that feeling. Sure, YOU might not want to marry that sort of man, but he’s clearly perfect for her. And she might seem a bit bland for any man you know, but by the end of the book she’s the center of her hero’s world.
Last thought: Betty Neels romances are the mac-and-cheese of the genre. But really, really good mac-and-cheese, the kind you can’t wait to eat again and again. Comfort food never goes out of style, and a Neels romance—even one written over 40 years ago—doesn’t either.
If you want to read more about Neels, or share your love of her books, make sure to check out The Uncrushable Jersey Dress, a blog for all things Neels.