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.’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.
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)
- 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.