Review: Betty Neels

 

Thumbs up for Polly; The Bachelor’s Wedding; and The Edge of Winter by Betty Neels. Romance.

These three are not among my favorites books by Betty Neels, but their inclusion here warrants a batch review explaining why I read them in the first place.

Betty Neels wrote 123 books, each of which clock in at around 185 pages. They are what we now call ‘sweet’ romances–not a reflection of their girly gushiness, because they haven’t got any of that, but ‘sweet’ being one end of a romance-literature spectrum of explicitness which passes through ‘sexy’ and eventually ends up at ‘porn.’ There is no sex in Neels’s books, even on the occasions on which there is a marriage of convenience. Indeed there is rarely even any flirtation, though it is permitted that the hero may offhandedly compliment the heroine’s eyes or legs or attire.

Often, rather wonderfully, the heroine is plain. Actually plain; Neels does not fall for the ‘take off your glasses and you’d be lovely’ trope. But whether plain or beautiful, her heroines are practical, and kind, though not above being rather tart if the hero is ill-advisedly high-handed. (That is guaranteed to happen). They are practical books, Neels’s romances, and I can’t understate that, because that is their charm.

Though of course they are absolute wish-fulfillment, they manage to feel very close to real. Nothing grand happens in them. Food is prepared and eaten, dishes are washed, laundry is ironed, dogs are walked, transportation is worked out, unsuitable clothing is quietly lamented, pennies (or rather pence) are worried over. The heroine is genteelly impoverished and has to work; that is how she ends up in close quarters with the hero. He is a surgeon, invariably, and is often called away for emergencies, which is extremely useful to the plot.

This is a world in which proper young ladies have limited jobs–housekeeper, nanny, typist, nurse, teacher, shopgirl; Neels was a nurse, so it’s usually nursing or childcare. Suitable plot elements in a Neels book include snowstorms, minor illnesses or accidents, impecunious relatives, a fashionable but cold socialite whom it is assumed the hero will marry, the hero’s sister’s children with whom he has gotten saddled. Nothing that can’t be sorted out by the heroine’s good sense. She manages everything with immaculate competence, in a way which is somehow utterly astonishing when viewed from the distance of a few decades. Me, I iron once a year.

In some way, strangely, while these are romances, they are not primarily about the interactions between the hero and heroine. In Neels books the everyday is important: women’s work is important. Getting lazy kids to school on time, typing up the last chapter of the manuscript accurately, turning out a delicious meal–no, four meals a day (don’t forget teatime). These are books about work, about labor carefully and willingly done; and the love of the hero–on the last page–is her reward for her care and her practicality.

Maybe that’s their appeal. We can’t all be beautiful. But we can aspire to check our hair before going to dinner, to live within our means, to do our jobs well (whatever they may be), to show up on time, to be courteous, to appreciate good clothes and antiques and food, and to bake some fine cheese biscuits. This is what she’ll be doing after she marries him, too, you know, but she’ll have a housekeeper so she won’t have to do the ironing herself. I’m going to fold my laundry and vacuum now.

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