Thursday, May 20, 2010

Betty Neels: Metafiction and Repetition

In their centenary year Mills & Boon brought out a collection of volumes of novels written by the 'Queens of Romance'. One of those queens was Betty Neels, whom they describe as
a very special, warm and charming writer and individual; after retiring from nursing, she became one of Mills & Boon's best-loved authors with a phenomenal publishing record. No collection of romances celebrating our centenary would be complete without Betty [...]. Over her thirty-year publishing career Betty wrote more than one hundred and thirty-four novels [...]. She continued to write into her ninetieth year, still pleasing her readers with her charming characters and heart-warming stories. (3)
Neels' 'first book, Sister Peters in Amsterdam, was published in 1969' (Harlequin) and as Keira at The Uncrushable Jersey Dress has observed,
once she hit her stride most are circumscribed little post cards filled with lame donkeys, Dutch doctors, hospital sluice rooms, English village life, splenectomies, lashings of whipped cream, nursing caps, dauntless heroines, Gucci scarves, and uncrushable jersey dresses.
Uncertain Summer was first published in 1972, relatively early in Neels' writing career, but it already contains a fair number of these ingredients. The reason I wanted to post about it, though, was because in this novel Neels includes a metafictional passage in which the heroine, Serena,
remembered reading once some novel or other in which the dim-witted heroine had declared on the last page that the hero was like a calm harbour after the stormy seas through which she had been struggling. Serena had thought at the time that the metaphor had been a singularly clumsy one - no man would care to be likened to a harbour; now she wasn't so sure, for she herself felt exactly as the tiresome girl in the novel had felt and Gijs, although not in the least like a harbour, had all its qualities. (150-151)
Serena has indeed been a rather tiresome heroine, having fallen in love with Gijs' very unsuitable but charming and handsome younger cousin and then, rather predictably, been jilted by him. Even though she has finally had to acknowledge Gijs' superiority, she agrees to enter into a marriage of convenience with him without realising that he loves her. In this she, too, seems rather 'dim-witted' for his actions make his love rather obvious to the reader. Serena, however, who began by being unsure 'if she liked him' (20), believes that he truly wishes their marriage to be 'a friendly and businesslike arrangement' (113).

I'd like to suggest that in the passage I quoted above, Neels seems to be trying to diffuse any reader dissatisfaction with her heroine by addressing the fact that the heroine is being 'tiresome'. The metafictional moment takes the reader out of the story, and by emphasising the reader's superior knowledge, it perhaps encourages identification with others who also have superior knowledge of the situation, namely Neels herself, and characters such as Serena's mother and Gijs' friend Sarah, all of whom are aware that Serena and Gijs love (or will love) each other. Instead of experiencing the heroine's confusion and distress with her, it seems that the reader is positioned alongside the benevolent matchmakers.

Having firmly placed her own hero and heroine in a particular romantic tradition (that in which a somewhat 'dim-witted' heroine finds happiness with a hero whose personality reminds one of a 'harbour'), Neels includes further evidence that the development of Serena and Gijs' love affair follows a pattern set down by others. Serena tells her mother that
'I didn't like him very much when we met.'
Her mother paused on her way to the door. 'My dear child, I loathed your father for quite some time before I fell in love with him.'
Serena contemplated her parent with open-mouthed astonishment. 'Mother, darling ...'
'Yes, and don't you tell your brothers and sisters. I'm only telling you so that you realize that yours is by no means an isolated case.' (143)
It certainly isn't 'an isolated case' in Neels' oevure.

Serena and Gijs are also shown to be following a pattern set down by an earlier Neels hero and heroine. Hugo and Sarah van Elven are the hero and heroine of the earlier Fate is Remarkable (which Magdalen has summarised and retold from Hugo's perspective). They reappear, very happily married, in Uncertain Summer and before Serena begins what she thinks will be a marriage of convenience, Sarah tells Serena that
'When I married Hugo I was in love with someone else, or at least, I thought I was.' She smiled. 'It didn't take me long to discover that it was Hugo all the time - so silly.' (135)
The use of the word 'silly' seems to suggest that Sarah was yet another 'dim-witted heroine' until she recognised the truth. Since then, she has made the transition to matchmaker status. Towards the end of the novel Serena, like Sarah before her, flees from her husband in the mistaken belief that he loves another. Sarah, knowing the script that Serena is working from, hastens the happy dénouement. As Gijs reveals to Serena:
'When Hugo and Sarah married, she didn't love him - she had been - er - jilted and he caught her on the rebound. She ran away too, it took Hugo more than a week to find her. She is far too fond of you - and me - to let history repeat itself. So she telephoned me.' (211)
By explicitly acknowledging the similarities between Serena and Gijs' story and those of others (particularly a previous Neels hero and heroine), Neels was perhaps preempting criticism of the repetitiveness of her oeuvre. Certainly it serves to normalise a certain courtship pattern within the romantic world she created.

I deliberately refer to it as a 'romantic world' because although Neels' novels were contemporaries, they seem to portray a very particular, and perhaps not very realistic, version of modern life. Magdalen, for example, has stated that
Frankly, even in 1969 when Neels published her first book, her heroines were anachronistic and unrealistic. During the 30 years during in which she wrote 134+ books, her heroines changed little while women everywhere else (fictional and real life) changed a lot.
Neels herself was well aware of this: ' "The stories I write are quite out of date as regards morals and sex but that is something readers find to their liking," Neels said' (McAleer 289). In Small Slice of Summer (1975) Letitia Marsden, the heroine, has been disappointed in love because she too is 'quite out of date as regards morals and sex':
the Medical Registrar [...] had taken her out for a month or two, talking vaguely about a future, which she, in her besotted state, had already imagined into a fact which wasn't a fact at all, only daydreams, and then, when she had refused to go away with him for the weekend, had turned the daydream into a nightmare with a jibing speech about old-fashioned girls who should move with the times [...] how did one begin to explain that being the middle girl in a family of five daughters, strictly but kindly brought up by a mother with decidedly old-fashioned ideas and a father who was rector of a small parish in the depths of rural Devon was hardly conducive to being the life and soul of the swinging set. (8-9)
In Small Slice of Summer Georgina, the heroine of Neels' earlier Damsel in Green, reappears as a happily married secondary character and the repetitiveness of certain elements in Neels' storytelling is normalised partly because the friendships between Georgina and Letitia's sister Margo, and between Georgina's husband and Jason Mourik van Nie, give an explanation for a social circle in which it is likely for an English nurse to come into contact with a Dutch doctor. In addition, Georgina actively seeks to promote the relationship between Letitia and Jason (and is thus another instance of the former-Neels-heroine-turned-matchmaker).

While I can only speculate about why Neels so often wrote romances about a large, inscrutable, rich Dutch doctor who stoically hides his love from the English nurse he adores, she herself was a nurse who married a Dutchman (albeit not a doctor). According to her biography at the Mills & Boon website,
She was always quite firm upon the point that the Dutch doctors who frequently appeared in her stories were not based upon her husband, but rather upon an amalgam of several of the doctors she met while nursing in Holland.
Nonetheless, her heroes do often seem to be of a very similar type, and the fortune-teller who predicts Letitia's future summarises the plot of many a Betty Neels romance: 'A tall, fair man, dearie [...] Trouble and strife, but the life of a princess is waiting for you, for I see wealth and jewels and great happiness' (136). The fortune-teller states that this is 'Just as it should be for a kind young lady' (136) and perhaps Neels herself could think of no better type of husband for a nice girl.

Neels' own preferences certainly did filter through into her fiction. Many of her heroes and heroines, including Serena and Letitia, come from large families. Gijs, in conversation with Serena, says
'[...] I'm sorry for only children, aren't you?
[...] 'Yes, I think I am.'
'Ah, at last I have found something about myself in which you can show some interest - I am an only child.'
She said woodenly, not caring in the least: 'I'm sorry. Did you find it very lonely?'
'When I was a little boy, yes. One learns as one gets older, however.' (92)
Initially Uncertain Summer was going to conclude with a passage in which Gijs would state his preference for 'a "large" family of at least four boys and four girls. The Mills & Boon editor altered the reference to four children to two' (McAleer 265). Neels resisted the change:
In her masterly reply, Neels [...] believed that, provided there was enough money to bring up and educate children, 'a large family is a marvellous thing (You've noted that my heroes are always well-heeled!).' Neels admitted she deplored birth control when used 'for purely selfish reasons ... I find it just as unforgivable for a couple to decide on a second car instead of a baby ... I also feel that if birth control is pushed too far, the coming generations are going to lose their sense of responsibility and family life, as such, will disappear.'
But the passage, as published, was none the less toned down by Neels. (266)
It reads as follows:
Laurens told me once that you were very good at letting girls cry on your shoulder.'
'Not girls, dearest - just you, and later on, our daughters.'
Serena said gently: 'No, little boys, all like you.'
'There is such a thing as compromise, my love,' said Gijs on a laugh. 'How about an equal number of each?' (215)
I'm really curious about the use of the phrase 'There is such a thing as compromise'. Was it there before Neels revised the passage? Or was it the result of Neels' own compromise on the issue of large families?

  • McAleer, Joseph, 1999. Passion's Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  • Neels, Betty, 2008. Uncertain Summer, in Summer Engagements (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).
  • Neels, Betty, 2008. Small Slice of Summer, in Summer Engagements (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).


  1. I don't think Neels was much different from a number of romance authors in finding a formula that worked and re-using it often. In some ways, I think authors
    such as Neels seems to have been understand the romance genre--and perhaps the majority of readers-- better than those who write with greater variety in their plots and characters--and probably made more money. Repetition may be as much the mother of the genre as it is of memory (with a nod to the Jesuits).


  2. Hey, thanks for the shout-out! We love visitors over at The Uncrushable Jersey Dress.

    I fell in love with Betty because I trusted her perspective. Sometimes the heroines are a little dim but hearts are always in the right place.

  3. Laura -- How nice to read this! Even after 40 years, I can't tell you precisely why I loved Betty Neels back then and love her still today. She's a fairly literate writer, of course, which helps. Her characters are unexciting but sublimely comfortable, like the sheepskin slippers I have on right now. And as romances go, Neels books are calm harbors -- yet another iteration of that cliché.

    You quoted Neels on the subject of the RDD (rich Dutch doctor) -- how they weren't based on her husband (who was a poor Dutch patient, as I understand it) but on an amalgam of the doctors who treated her husband or with whom she worked as a nurse in Holland. Well, that makes sense -- basically, that would have been a succession of Dutch doctors in the 1950s: calm, stolid, well-to-do but not much for public displays of emotion or affection. Just as with her heroines, a time shift to earlier in the 20th century resolves a lot of the anachronistic behavior we see in Neels' heroes.

  4. Fascinating post, Laura!

    One of the things I find interesting about Neels' enormous oeuvre is the way her heroes and heroines changed over time. Her heroines may have been dim about love, but they weren't stupid women. In the first couple of decades, her nurses were often ward sisters or staff nurses, unless they were too young to have achieved that position. Many of them were very pretty (and of course completely without vanity about it), but some were plain, like Tabitha in Tabitha in Moonlight. And the hero's inscrutability would occasionally lift to allow us to see his emotions (think of Hugo in Fate is Remarkable, or Gerard in Stars Through the Mist). The rarity of those instances made them even more striking.

    In the books of the 1990s on, however, her heroines became more and more mousy, uneducated, and unconfident. They really needed the heroes to rescue them from lives of poverty and oppression. And the heroes were still godlike, but we learned so little about them (beyond their good looks, great accomplishments, and wealth). Not all the books were like that, of course, but they were more prevalent than before. And rather than showing us hints of the hero falling in love, Neels *tells* us, and sometimes quite clumsily. I just reread Only By Chance, and I was struck by how clunky the writing was.

    And then there's An Unlikely Romance, which I swear was written tongue-in-cheek or by someone else entirely. She takes her normal tropes to ludicrous extremes, as I read it.

    Laura, have you ever read any of Sara Seale's M&B novels? She was a contemporary of Burchell's, I believe. Her books had young ingenue heroines and older, inscrutable (and often tortured) heroes. They were frequently set in Cornwall, Ireland, and similar Celtic fringe-y locations. They're quite interesting sociologically, although extremely dated.

  5. Two more points: First, we all talk about the stoic Dutch doctors, but they weren't all stoic in the earlier years, and they stopped being Dutch in the later years. A couple of decidedly non-inscrutable heroes were Benedict in Cassandra By Chance, and Dominic in Saturday's Child.

    Second, it's really striking how poor some of the Neels heroines were. Abigail in Saturday's Child is literally counting pennies, and Dominic keeps forgetting to pay her. She's unusually poor compared to Neels's other heroines during the 1970s/1980s, I think. But in the 1990s, you have a lot more heroines who are living hand to mouth. In Only By Chance the heroine has 50 pounds to her name when the hero rescues her and no education to speak of, and that book was written in 1996!

  6. Sunita, you've obviously read far more Neels novels than I have. I'm sure you're right in your observations. Even Barbara Cartland, who definitely seemed to have a formula that she stuck to (though again, I'll admit to not having read a very high proportion of her novels) did vary it from time to time. I've come across a Barbara Cartland romance which was a contemporary, for example, and she's known for her historicals.

    "I think authors
    such as Neels seems to have been understand the romance genre--and perhaps the majority of readers-- better than those who write with greater variety in their plots and characters--and probably made more money.

    It maybe depends on the size and type of the group(s) of readers to whom they appeal. I wonder if a repetitive author is more likely to be described as a "comfort read". From what you say, Keira and Magdalen, she seems to fall into that category for you. Is that right?

    I also wonder how one defines an author's "formula": is it defined by their style of writing, their plots, their settings, the sub-genre in which they write, or the type of characters which recur in their novels? Is it a combination of all or some of these? Many of the most popular romance authors seem to be shifting between sub-genres. Nora Roberts is hugely popular and she does that. So I'm not sure that sameness is always necessary in order to achieve success, but, on the other hand, if an author's on someone's "auto-buy" list, it must be because of certain characteristics which the reader thinks they can depend on finding in all the author's novels.

    in the 1990s, you have a lot more heroines who are living hand to mouth. In Only By Chance the heroine has 50 pounds to her name when the hero rescues her and no education to speak of, and that book was written in 1996!

    I'm not sure of the dates of the novels I've read: unfortunately for the purposes of this discussion I haven't been paying enough attention to them. But it has struck me as odd, on at least one or two occasions, that the heroines buy new clothes which really drain their financial resources, rather than heading for the nearest charity shop. Admittedly there may not have been so many charity shops when Neels first began writing (I don't know much about the history of charity shops) but there were certainly plenty of them in the 1980s and 1990s.

    Laura, have you ever read any of Sara Seale's M&B novels?

    I've got hold of a few but, as is the case with Burchell, I've had to seek them out via the internet. They're not ones I'm likely to find in the charity shops.

  7. I was led kicking and screaming to Betty Neels by a law school student who read them to escape reality (that's okay - my sister's roomie at Stanford was a pre-med who zoned out watching re-runs of "The Brady Bunch" to survive). What got ME hooked was her attention to detail - every sumptuous and/or cozy meal described ("lashings of cream" is one of my favorites), every interior thoughtfully described, every outfit beautifully if indubitably detailed. Her description of the linen closet inventory in "Henrietta's Castle" is pure idyll. The romance is secondary to her amazing attention to detail!

  8. every sumptuous and/or cozy meal described ("lashings of cream" is one of my favorites), every interior thoughtfully described, every outfit beautifully if indubitably detailed

    Recently I read a few more Betty Neels in quick succession, and I felt like I'd overeaten. For some reason, though, I didn't feel as though I'd acquired the heroines' new clothes. That's probably just as well, though, because after eating all that fictional food I don't think I'd have fitted into the fictional dresses.

  9. i read alot of betty neels books,she touches more of the heart in her books.dont get me wrong i like hot steamy books as the next person ,but betty neels is the best

  10. I discovered Betty Neels about 12 years ago, after reading about her from someone on a forum (I think, it's hard to remember). I love her old fashioned values, her attention to detail and her warm and decent characters. I can think of no one else who so reliably created stories that couldn't offend on moral grounds. You can have the "hot steamy books" ...those are a dime a dozen and worth even less.

  11. "I can think of no one else who so reliably created stories that couldn't offend on moral grounds"

    Interestingly, this year Harlequin launched their Heartwarming Collection:

    This is a program conceived to satisfy many readers’ longing for romance novels with “wholesome” content; that is, free of violence, possibly offensive language, and on-stage depictions of physical intimacy [...] the many reader letters we’ve received over the past several years have led us to believe that there is a substantial readership who very much enjoy stories based on positive values, an unambiguous moral code and a strong, family-oriented foundation to the plotline. [...] These are not original stories: they are romances culled from our vast backlist treasure trove, where we went hunting for the right tone, the appropriate setting, the perfect kind of story to produce that heartwarming feeling we wanted our readers to experience as they finished turning the last page. (Zinberg)

    So you're clearly not alone in feeling that "the 'hot steamy books' [...] are a dime a dozen and worth even less".

  12. I was hooked from the minute I picked up a dog eared copy of 'The Little Dragon' and started reading it on the tube in South East London. I own a copy of all Betty Neels' books, including 'Stormy Springtime' sent and signed by her (with a handwritten, covering letter), after I had written to her expressing my love of her books. There are few other authors of her genre whose books I enjoy although Mary Burchell co es close. These days it is difficult to find books with the same values and innocence - yet a varying degree of sensuality with which one is left knowing, without a doubt, that the beautifully decorated, huge master bedroom is no longer going to remain empty and unused.
    My one huge disappointment is that, although some of the earlier heroes and heroines reappear, we do not meet any of their offspring as tbe heroes and heroines of later books.
    Interestingly, having v been the catalyst for my quest to read and own all of Betty Neels' books, 'The Little Deagon' is my least favourite!