Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Betty Neels: "Discovering Daisy"

This is the first Betty Neels I’ve ever read, and I think I was fortunate to find this particular novel, since various reviews agree that it’s one of her best (see the review here by Mary Lynn and here (the 2003 review by ‘a reader')). It also seems to include some of Neels’ most common themes, which suggests that a fair amount of what I have to say here might also apply to other novels by Neels. According to the short biography available at the Harlequin site:
It is perhaps a reflection of her upbringing in an earlier time that the men and women who peopled her stories have a kindliness and good manners, coupled to honesty and integrity, that is not always present in our modern world.
The Wikipedia entry notes that in her stories ‘A character will often have an expertise in antiques’.

In Discovering Daisy the characters who appreciate antiques are also courteous and caring, which may reflect the author’s belief that such character traits were seen as old-fashioned, but, like the antiques, are nonetheless extremely valuable. The characters with little respect for antiques are also rude and prone to lying.

Daisy Gillard, the heroine, works in her father’s antique shop:
her nut-brown hair tumbled around her shoulders. She was an ordinary girl, of middle height, charmingly and unfashionably plump, her unassuming features redeemed from plainness by a pair of large hazel eyes, thickly fringed. (1999: 6)
Her clothes (I’ve mentioned the importance of clothing as an indicator of personality in a previous blog entry) are, when we first encounter her, ‘a quilted jacked and tweed skirt, very suitable for the time of year but lacking any pretentions to fashion’ (1999: 6) and she wears her hair tied back under a headscarf. Daisy is clearly a ‘sensible, matter-of fact girl’ (1999: 16) who adapts herself to her humble circumstances without drawing particular attention to herself or wishing to do so.

This alone is enough to give one a clue to the theme and imagery of the book, but I was far too caught up in the story to notice until the day after I’d put the book down and was wondering which books to write about for the blog. Daisy, of course, as the title of the novel makes clear, is going to be ‘discovered’, because she’s like one of the antiques that are sold in her father’s shop.

As the story begins Daisy is in love with Desmond, who has ‘superficial charm, bold good looks and flattering manners’ (1999: 8), but only temporarily, since not long into their relationship he accuses her of being ‘a spoilsport, prudish’ (1999: 7) when she refuses to go with him and his friends to a nightclub in Totnes. Totnes, it has to be said, is not a place I’d ever consider a hotbed of vice and depravity, so one has to assume that either Desmond’s friends are particularly offensive, or Daisy is very old-fashioned, or both. The final break with Desmond occurs after he proposes a trip to ‘a nightclub in Plymouth’ (1999: 14). Plymouth has a considerably more varied nightlife than Totness, as the local visitor information website reveals:
When the sun goes down, it's time for bright lights. International cuisine or traditional cooking, fine wine or real ale - it's up to you. Then, choose from a West End preview at the Theatre Royal, a concert or comedian at Plymouth Pavilions, or the latest blockbuster at one of our mulit-screened cinemas. Try your luck at the casinos, or simply enjoy the myriad of bars and clubs until the early hours.
It is not the sort of place to appeal to Daisy, and Desmond quickly replaces her with Tessa, ‘A pretty girl, slim and dressed in the height of fashion, teetering on four-inch heels, swinging a sequinned bag, tossing fashionably tousled hair’ (1999: 14). When Daisy first meets the hero, Jules der Huizma, he has a fiancée, Helene, and she too is thin and fashionable:
she was considered a handsome woman by her friends; very fair, with large blue eyes, regular features and a fashionably slender figure, kept so, as only her dearest friends knew, by constant visits to her gym instructor and the beauty parlor. She was always exquisitely dressed (1999: 52)
The contrast with the practical, old-fashioned clothing worn by the slightly plump Daisy could hardly be greater. For Neels and Jules the obvious prettyness of someone ‘in the height of fashion’ is no real match for the solid worth of a practical, old-fashioned girl. In fact, the slenderness and the fashionable clothes worn by Tessa and Helene are perhaps intended to be understood by the reader as an indication of their vanity.

Neels and Jules, then, are like the connoisseur of antiques, able to assess the value of the precious antique beneath its initially unprepossessing surface. Whereas the fashionable Desmond and his new girlfriend, ‘left [the antique shop] without buying anything’ (1999: 22), and the even more fashionable Helene says she dislikes all of Jules’ antique furniture (1999: 63), Jules is ‘interested in old silver’, like Daisy’s father (1999: 19) and purchases several items from the antiques shop. Daisy herself perhaps resembles a ‘Dutch painted and gilt leather screen, eighteenth-century and in an excellent condition – although the chinoiserie figures were almost obscured by years of ingrained dirt and dust’ (1999: 29). Daisy’s external appearance is not immediately attractive, but what lies beneath it is. The uncertainty facing the screen also reflects Daisy’s: ‘there was always the chance that it would stay in the shop, unsold and representing a loss to him. But on the other hand he might sell it advantageously’ (1999: 30). While Daisy’s father in no way wishes to sell her, her alternatives are to marry (and this is thought unlikely) or remain in the shop. The screen is purchased by two Dutchmen and taken to Amsterdam. Daisy too, once she marries Jules, will go to live in that city.

To return once more to clothing, the description of Desmond’s clothing seems intended to reinforce our impression of his lack of old-fashioned morals: ‘He dressed well, but his hair was too long’ (1999: 8) . Disapproval and suspicion of men with long hair unites indviduals from very different ends of the political and religious spectrum and presumably Neels is among their number. The conflict between Daisy and Desmond's value-systems reaches a head when Desmond obliges Daisy to change her image to suit his wishes. Instead of her sensible tweeds, he wants her to wear ‘a pretty dress – something striking so that people will turn round and look at us. Red – you can’t ignore red...’ (1999: 9). Indeed you can’t ignore red and, as Alison Lurie has observed:
bright scarlet and crimson garments have traditionally been associated both with aggression and with desire. The red coats of soldiers and fox-hunters, the red dresses worn by “scarlet women” in history and literature, are obvious examples. (1992: 195)
Daisy buys the dress, but when she takes it home and tries it on she ‘wished she hadn’t bought it; it was far too short, and hardly decent – not her kind of a dress at all’ (1999: 10). The moral implications of this item of clothing are stated quite explicitly here, and Daisy’s values must have been learned from her mother, who takes an identical view of the dress: ‘that lady thought the same. But Mrs Gillard loved her daughter [...]. She observed that the dress was just right for an evening out and prayed silently that Desmond, whom she didn’t like, would be sent by his firm [...] to the other end of the country’ (1999: 10, my emphasis). And whereas Desmond ‘made a great business of studying the dress. “Quite OK,” he told her’ (1999: 11) Jules, the hero, has a negative reaction to it which mirrors that of Daisy’s mother. He thinks that ‘that dress was all wrong’ (1999: 13) and his assessment of Daisy as ‘prim’ (1999: 13) makes her not an object of his scorn but of his consideration, and leads him to ask if she is similar to him: ‘ “Are you like me? a stranger here?”’ (1999: 13). Although Jules may mean this literally (he is a Dutchman in England), it is true that emotionally they are both strangers in the bustling ball-room. At one point Jules declares that ‘I am coming to the conclusion that I am not a socially minded man’ (1999: 51), in the sense that while he enjoys his work as a doctor, he prefers to spend his leisure time quietly rather than with large numbers of other people. Daisy and Jules’ courtship will take place in the open air and at quiet but picturesque locations of historic interest, far from the crowded places favoured by Desmond and by Helene.

Daisy shows love, respect and affection for her parents and other older people, including the hero’s mother and an elderly antique dealer in Amsterdam, and she is willing to learn from the older generation. Jules der Huizma similarly shows respect and care for his mother and Daisy’s parents. The Sister at the hospital at which Jules works thinks of him as ‘such a nice man, and always so courteous and thoughtful’ (1999: 49). In this Daisy and Jules are contrasted with Desmond, Tessa and Helene, who respect neither older people nor old-fashioned politeness. Instead they seek constant novelty, pleasure and excitement, Desmond with his friends in Totnes and Plymouth and Helene with her jet-setting friends and constant round of parties: ‘Helene is in no hurry to marry; she leads a busy social life – she will be going to Switzerland to ski, and then some friends of hers have invited her to go to California’ (1999: 75). Desmond is rude: on the evening of the dinner-dance he kept Daisy ‘waiting for ten minutes, for which he offered no apology’ and he criticises her hairstyle (1999: 11). Desmond’s fashionably-dressed friend new girlfriend Tessa is also rude, telling Daisy that she’s ‘too mousy to wear red’ (1999: 14). Helene too is lacking in courtesy: she ‘hadn’t wasted much charm on her future mother-in-law [...] and barely suppressed her boredom when she visited with Jules’ (1999: 92).

The fashionable, fast-living characters are also likely to lie. Unlike the truthful Daisy, ‘who if she made a promise kept it’ (1999: 10) and who only tells a small ‘fib’ (1999: 103) because she doesn’t want to outstay her welcome at Jules’ mother’s house, Desmond tells lies: ‘he had called her darling, and kissed her and told her that she was his dream girl, but he hadn’t meant a word of it’ (1999: 17). Helene also lies and is dishonest in other ways (but to go into that would be a huge spoiler, so I’ll not give any details).

Neels thus uses descriptions of clothing and attitudes towards antiques to indicate which characters have high moral standards and which do not. Those who value antiques, are the ones associated with old-fashioned virtues such as honesty and courtesy, whereas those who do not like antiques are portrayed as dishonest, rude and vain.

It is perhaps worth noting that although Neels’ ‘work is known for being particularly chaste’ (Wikipedia), there are some kisses and the way both hero and heroine approach food may be a subtle indication that they are not lacking in physical passion, much as Eric observed is the case in Mary Stewart’s Madam, Will You Talk?. When Daisy eats at the restaurant during her night out with Desmond she hardly pays any attention to her food, she ‘chose a morsel of whatever it was on her plate and popped it in her mouth’ (1999: 12). She also eats little in the house of two elderly Dutch gentlemen to whom she brings an antique and whose other furniture is ‘antique, but not of a period which Daisy cared for’ (1999: 35). Clearly they pose no threat to Daisy’s virtue: ‘the meal didn’t live up to its opulent surroundings’ (1999: 36) and a later, more substantial dinner, is ‘Good solid fare’ (1999: 37). Daisy’s enjoyment of another meal, in a hotel, indicates her friendliness and reflects how at ease she feels with the company:
She went downstairs presently, to the small dining room in the basement, and found a dozen other people there, all of them Dutch. They greeted her kindly and, being a friendly girl by nature, she enjoyed her meal. Soup, pork chops with ample potatoes and vegetables, and a custard for pudding. Simple, compared with the fare at Mijnheer van der Breek’s house, but much more sustaining... (1999: 38-39)
It is, of course, with Jules that she derives the most pleasure from food, and he masterfully chooses her meal for her:
He didn’t ask her what she would like to eat. ‘This is a typical Dutch meal,’ he told her. ‘I hope you’re hungry.’
She was, which was a good thing, for presently a waitress brought two large plates covered by vast pancakes dotted with tiny bits of crisp bacon. She also brought a big pot of dark syrup.
Mr der Huizma ladled the syrup onto the pancakes. [...]
Daisy ate all of it with an enjoyment which brought a gleam of pleasure into Mr der Huizma’s eyes. (1999: 99-100)
While not overtly sexual, the use of the words ‘enjoyment’ and ‘pleasure’, and the way in which the hero introduces the heroine to this Dutch speciality, and then takes delight in watching her response to it, is distinctly sensual.

----
  • Lurie, Alison, 1992. The Language of Clothes (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd.).
  • Neels, Betty, 1999. Discovering Daisy (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon). This is a book published in the Enchanted line.

11 comments:

  1. j as in jennifer03 October, 2006 05:43

    It's so weird. This sounds almost exactly like a romance I almost read by Betty Neels. I can't remember the title now because I stopped reading after the first couple of chapters. The heroine was a nurse, or nursing assistant (whatever you call the position below nurses in England) and she had a crush on a flash young doctor (or resident -- what we call doctors doing their hospital training here). He asks her to a party, tells her to wear something pretty. At the party, she meets an older doctor who tells her she doesn't seem to fit in this sort of crowd, so he gives her a ride home. I thought it must have been written in the 50s. Are you sure your novel wasn't reissued in 1999?

    Anyway, it seemed to me to be a "good girls don't do that sort of thing; they act nice and find richer, older men to marry and take care of them" kind of story, so I stopped reading it. It just seemed too preachy. In fact, it seems the opposite of that book you read last week: "Being a Bad Girl." That seemed to be about the overwhelming pressures of being good all the time -- a girl needs to cut loose now and then (in a safe way, of course). Both novels seem to be wrapped in a message. There's no harm in that, but both are rather cliché in their own way. It's the old addage: don't try to be something you're not -- be yourself, and someone will love you as you are.

    I like to see a girl eat, though. Maybe I should have read this story instead. : )

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  2. No, this novel was definitely dated 1999 for copyright purposes so it wasn't a reissue. I do think, from what I've read about Neels' work, that she returned to particular themes/situations (so do many authors), so that would account for similarities between this novel and the one you read.

    Both novels seem to be wrapped in a message. There's no harm in that, but both are rather cliché in their own way.

    I think most novels are wrapped in a message of one sort or another. Stories with adventures usually tell us something about heroism, courage and possibly question whether one can truly be alive without doing something which brings out these qualities. Or the novel might be about growing up and discovering adult prejudice (To Kill a Mockingbird) or about a sense of distance between the generations (Catcher in the Rye), or about the primitive nature which lurks within us (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) or about how fate/circumstances can destroy people who make the smallest mistake /have one fatal flaw (that's the essence of tragedy).

    In the case of Discovering Daisy the identification between the heroine and her antiques, and the contrast between 'old' and 'new' values really wasn't nearly so obvious when I read the novel straight through, but it does appear much more obvious when one identifies the theme and writes about it in the way that I just have. Similarly in what I wrote about Being a Bad Girl I just focussed on the theme/imagery.

    Clearly the underlying message of the Neels novel you read were obvious to you, or it wouldn't have seemed 'preachy' to you, just as you were quickly aware of Crusie's habit of including a pet in her romances. But these aren't things that pull everyone out of the story, so perhaps it's that you're more aware of them because they annoy you? What I mean is that if someone has the same values as Neels' and/or they were caught up in the storytelling, they wouldn't find her novel 'preachy' and similarly if someone is finding the Crusie novel they're reading extremely funny, they'll be busy laughing and won't object to the dogs/cats (in fact, that might be one of the things they love about her novels).

    The way I've written here about Discovering Daisy and earlier about Being a Bad Girl does make the themes stand out. The reason I've included links to reviews of the novels I've analysed is that they give a much better sense of the reading experience (though clearly not everyone will be as enthusiastic about Betty Neels' books as these reviewers). Reviews tend to be about plot and characterisation, which is what most readers (and I include myself in this) notice when they first read a novel.

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  3. j as in jennifer03 October, 2006 18:39

    Clearly the underlying message of the Neels novel you read were obvious to you, or it wouldn't have seemed 'preachy' to you, just as you were quickly aware of Crusie's habit of including a pet in her romances. But these aren't things that pull everyone out of the story, so perhaps it's that you're more aware of them because they annoy you?

    I guess my fundamental objection when faced with situations of this sort is, once you've written a story like "Discovering Daisy" why write another one nearly identical ("Uncovering Ursula" let's call it)? I don't argue with you that sometimes the characters are a bit different or have different problems, but there comes a point when an author just seems to be stuck in a rut. Why read "Discovering Daisy" when I've already read "Uncovering Ursula"?

    It reminds me of the last Amanda Quick novel I read, "The Paid Companion." It reminded me immediately of every other of hers I'd read. I'd already read those: why read this one?

    I suppose it is a quirk of mine. For many readers there is comfort in familiarity. But to me there's no point in rewriting the same story over and over again, except to fulfill your contractual obligations and hope readers don't mind reading about quirky heroine and intimidating but soft-hearted hero again.

    I'll admit that when I made my initial comments about Jennifer Cruisie I had only read 2 of her books and was struck by their similarity. I hadn't read more so I was not aware of what she was trying to do. "Bet Me" was her version of the novels where the hero and heroine meet because of a wager. "Strange Bedpersons" was her take on the romances where the hero and heroine pretend to be engaged for some reason. I like her books enough that I'm willing to forgive the similarities from book to book. I realize all authors will write similar books that carry their unique voice and perspective, but if they are truly talented, they will not repeat themselves egregiously.

    After all, Harper Lee didn't feel the need to write another novel about growing up in the south and learning about racial prejudice, did she? She made her point.

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  4. I can think of three possible explanations

    (1) the first is the one you give, which is that some people like comfortable reads where they know what they're getting. Some people never re-read books, but reading books by the same author, which are similar, is perhaps the equivalent for them of another reader re-reading the same book.

    (2) people may forget what they've read previously, so the similarities don't stick in their minds if there's a gap of a few months between reading one book and the next (quite how much a person will forget will depend on how good their memory is, but even those with the best of memories won't remember everything). At AAR this week's ATBF column is about 'glomming' books by the same author, and one thing that's said is that

    like many of us, Lorraine has learned to space out her reading of a particular author. She knows that "no matter how good the books are", reading too many in a row will cause, the author's voice to "go stale". At times she must "force herself to interrupt" a glom read with a book or books that are entirely different in order to refresh her reading palate.

    (3) some people will focus on the differences rather than the similarities and they'll think of each novel as an interesting variation on a theme.

    The thing about love stories, as opposed to stories with a different theme is that perhaps they engage the emotions in a different way. People who're in love but not sure if their beloved reciprocates their feelings can spend hours analysing his/her every look and word to try to work out what it really means. I wonder if some of that attention to detail carries over into romance reading.

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  5. j as in jennifer03 October, 2006 22:11

    people may forget what they've read previously, so the similarities don't stick in their minds if there's a gap of a few months between reading one book and the next (quite how much a person will forget will depend on how good their memory is, but even those with the best of memories won't remember everything).

    That may explain why readers read books by the same author, but doesn't explain why writers turn to the same tricks time and again. They depend on their readers having Alzheimer's?

    Honestly, I don't deliberately try to memorize every book. I don't look for books to be similar or different. It's just that the words turn my brain down familiar pathways and I get a sense of deja vu -- which I got when I read your description of DD. I'm not specifically criticizing Betty Neels. It's just that when outsiders say "all romances are alike" I'd like to have more of an argument.

    She knows that "no matter how good the books are", reading too many in a row will cause, the author's voice to "go stale".

    Yes, this is why I don't glom very often. I did go out and get several of Jennifer Crusie's books, but I'm reading them slowly with other books interspersed, because once I've read them all, that's it. I won't be able to read them again for another 5-10 years. Same with Laura Kinsale, which I searched all over the internet for, spending far too much money.

    Recently, I found several novels by Patricia Veryan from eBay which I ordered. Let me know if you want to borrow.

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  6. doesn't explain why writers turn to the same tricks time and again. They depend on their readers having Alzheimer's?

    I wonder if authors sometimes don't notice that they're doing it, because to them the current story will be vivid, and the details of the previous one will have faded a bit, and that's just the way they write (and maybe the way they think) so they won't notice the quirks the way someone else might (a bit like I don't notice my accent, or my husband's accent, but other people might when they met us for the first time).

    Also, I don't know if you've got to Crusie's Welcome to Temptation yet, but there's someone there whose political platform is 'More of the Same'. There are lots of readers who want that, and in fact get extremely upset if they don't get More of the Same.

    I'm not specifically criticizing Betty Neels. It's just that when outsiders say "all romances are alike" I'd like to have more of an argument.

    Ah, but even if all Betty Neels' novels are similar, they're not like the Julie Cohen novel I analysed, or like Crusie's or like Laura Kinsale's or .... So clearly, given the large numbers of romance authors, each with her/his own distinctive 'voice', all romances are not going to be same. I don't think having a recognisable 'voice' is a problem, really, or if it is a problem, it's not one that's unique to romance - I think it's the same for almost all novelists, regardless of the genre they write in.

    spending far too much money.

    I know the feeling. I spent rather a lot finding some of the rarer Crusie novels. And the fact they had to be shipped in from the US, Canada and Australia didn't help reduce costs. Ah well. That's just what gloms are like if you don't have a library that can help you track down the books.

    And shipping (and worrying that the books might get lost in transit) would be why I wouldn't want to borrow any books from you. It really would be rather nerve-wracking wondering if they'd get back to you intact. But thanks for the offer.

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  7. j as in jennifer04 October, 2006 06:05

    Also, I don't know if you've got to Crusie's Welcome to Temptation yet, but there's someone there whose political platform is 'More of the Same'. There are lots of readers who want that, and in fact get extremely upset if they don't get More of the Same.

    Yes, I have. And perhaps this is a common trait among genre readers: "More of the Same." But I think what they mean is, more of the same feeling they get from reading a author's work, or more of the same philosophy. I resist change as much as anyone, but I'm also against boredom and derivativeness (derivativity?). Being derivative.

    I'll always recognize similarities in authors' works. In Crusie, I'll know to expect a cute animal or cute kid. Loretta Chase frequently uses such a young, willful character, as well. Laura Kinsales will end with an emotional, climactic confrontation between the hero and heroine. Patricia Veryan also frequently ends her novels in dramatic scenes where objects previously alluded to are used to hilarious effect. In one, it was a jar of pickled pigs knuckles. In another, a fully loaded box of kitty litter. Finding "signatures" and "motifs" in writing is different than feeling you've read the same novel before.

    It really would be rather nerve-wracking wondering if they'd get back to you intact. But thanks for the offer.

    No problem. MY nerves wouldn't be wracked. And I got some of them free from PaperbackSwap. Someone wants US$40 for the "Mistress of Willowvale." I can only hope it comes back into print someday. But it's nice to know that some romance authors have become collectors' items. Kind of like those antiques, which like Daisy are worth discovering...

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  8. But it's nice to know that some romance authors have become collectors' items. Kind of like those antiques, which like Daisy are worth discovering...

    People do collect all sorts of things, so being collectible isn't necessarily any indicator of aesthetic or literary value, but yes, people are willing to pay a lot for some romances. And I have heard of people who have collections of both the hardcover and paperback releases of all their favourite romances and they're willing to travel half-way across the country to get their books signed by the author(s). I think this makes the books more collectible, but as these people aren't wanting to part with their collections, I'm not sure what the long-term value would be. Hmm. I'm sure I read somewhere that antiques aren't the most secure of investments. I'd imagine that investing one's nest egg in classic romances would be even less secure. But I could be wrong.

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  9. If you like Betty Neels, try this blog: --it's hilarious.

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