Reading Betty Neels across the years
Dear DA readers,
When I think of my long romance-reading experience, one of the names that comes first to my mind is Betty Neels. I’ve watched the resurgence of interest in the books of the late Betty Neels with both amusement and bemusement. When I first started reading romance boards and then blogs online, categories weren’t discussed much, and when writers of the older “sweet” romances like Neels were discussed it was usually dismissively. Of course, categories generally were looked down on by much of the online community, with a few notable exceptions like Rosario and SuperWendy.
In the last few years the appreciation for both older categories in general and Neels in particular have skyrocketed. I’m very glad to see so many category authors receiving the attention and respect they deserve and reviews which take their work seriously. While this focus probably owes something to Harlequin’s excellent online presence, I think it also reflects the fact that a lot of readers either read them in the past or are reading them now, especially in countries where the big New York romance publishers are hard to find and/or expensive.
The Neels resurgence is a little more difficult to explain. Betty Neels was a hugely popular author for Harlequin throughout her writing career, and the publisher’s decision to release her backlist in a special series introduced her to a new audience. But Neels’ novels are from a different era. It’s not really accurate to call them period pieces, because by the 1990s, and maybe even earlier, they were dated at the time they were written. While Neels did create a unique world, this world had much more in common with the real one on which she drew when she started writing in 1970 than it did in her late novels.
I say this as a reader who owns every novel Betty Neels published with Harlequin, many of them paperback first editions, with duplicate copies of a few dozen, and most of the novellas. I’ve read all of them more than once and some of them over and over again. I don’t read them much anymore, but for over two decades, she was my go-to author for comfort reads.
The comfort-read factor is certainly one reason Neels remains so popular. You know exactly what you are getting when you open one of her books, especially those written in the 1970s and 1980s. The heroine is either quiet and somewhat mousy, but with lovely eyes, or she is very attractive, intelligent, and high-spirited. She is usually “sensible.” The hero can be dark or extremely blond, but he almost always has gray or blue eyes and is usually tall and broad (or “vast” in Neels-speak). In the 1970s novels the hero could be emotionally expressive and arrogant, but by the 1990s he was invariably quiet and extremely reserved, and he was almost always blond. The Dutch and English settings are minutely and lovingly depicted, as is the food (lashings of cream!) and apparel. Affluent heroines don’t shop just anywhere, they go to Liberty’s and Jaeger, while the thrifty heroines hit up British Home Stores. Everyone goes to Marks & Spencer. And the writing is reliably crisp and competent.
Neels is best known for writing about upper-class Dutch doctors and middle-class British nurses, and many of her stories feature this pairing. But she also wrote novels with British heroes who fell in love with heroines who had no career training whatsoever. The non-Dutch heroes were unpopular by Neels novel standards, and she reverted to writing primarily about British and Dutch doctors.
It is not accurate to say, as people sometimes do, that all Neels books are the same. There is a clear change in the novels over time, and it’s especially noticeable if you read them in chronological order. Since Harlequin is re-releasing old and new books together, it may be more difficult for newer Neels readers to see this trend. Nevertheless, beginning in the early 1990s, the heroes become even more stalwart and impenetrable in their affect (until the very end of the book, when their often long-standing love of the heroine is revealed to both the heroine and the reader), and the heroines become increasingly pitiable as well as pitiful. I don’t use these terms lightly. By the latter part of her writing career, Neels was regularly presenting the reader with heroines whose circumstances were abject. Whereas the 1970s and 1980s novels featured traditionally-minded, attractive and interesting couples who fell in love and went on to believable HEAs, by the 1990s some of the heroines were not just symbolically but literally being rescued by the heroes. This shift was not absolute; Neels wrote a number of later novels which featured heroines with stable, comfortable backgrounds. But the little-match-girl heroine was a new development during this period.
For an example of what I’m talking about, compare Abigail in Saturday’s Child with Henrietta in Only By Chance. Abigail is in dire financial straits, and she depends upon receiving her private nursing pay promptly in order to survive. Indeed, the hero, Dominic’s, forgetfulness at paying her on time serves to advance the plot. But Abigail is a skilled nurse, and her choice of private nursing over a more secure hospital position is motivated by her desire to take care of a long-time family retainer who is essentially dependent on her. Henrietta, by contrast, is socially isolated and completely untrained. Her primary virtues are kindness and patience. Both novels feature heroes who are brilliant, socially prominent doctors. In Saturday’s Child it is not difficult for the reader to believe that Dominic can fall in love with Abigail, especially since we accompany him on his path to discovery. In Only By Chance, not only is the romantic couple much more unlikely, there are very few scenes which can plausibly serve to develop the romance.
We continue to read Betty Neels’s novels because they so consistently provide a familiar but well-told story set in a warm and comfortable world. At her best, Neels was unmatched at showing how unaffected, self-reliant heroines attracted and lived happily ever after with heroes who could probably marry anyone they wanted. As the world around her grew more urban, diverse, and sophisticated, though, Neels relied increasingly on isolated heroines who were nearly overwhelmed by the demands of modern life, and who were saved from penury or worse by all-powerful heroes who inexplicably found their greatest happiness in saving these women, much the way we might save abandoned kittens.
How about you, readers? Have you read Neels? Did you love it? Hate it? Were you bemused by the love readers show for her books, or do they resonate for you? Tell us in the comments!
I remember reading one of those small, Dutch-set Neels romances. It was enough to let me know her style and my desired reading experience were not gonna mesh. A bit too slow and lowkey.
I love reading Betty Neels and, like you, she is my comfort read. Some are more appealing than others–but I do like that she tried to make a case for saying that a heroine doesn’t have to be spectacular by society’s standards to be attractive to a hero who is.
Betty Neels! One of the few names I remember from my youth when I discovered romance back in the early 70s, along with Violet Winspear, Anne Hampson, Anne Mather and my very favourite Kay Thorpe. I have one Harlequin paperback left in my library (aside from my Janet Dailey collection) and it’s Thorpe’s “Curtain Call”. I love that book with all its flaws. *LOL* But I do remember the Dutch doctors with much fondness.
Thanks for the blast from the past, Sunita!
Well I saw you talking about “Fate is remarkable” on twitter ( couple months ago maybe?) – I bought it to check her out. That should tell you again how much I value your recommendations even if I never heard of her and have serious doubts I still wanted to see for myself :). Great article.
I haven’t read a Betty Neels book for decades, so I can’t say what I’d think of them from an adult perspective. But from my 13 year old, small town (200 people….I’m talking SMALL!) girl perspective, they were wonderful; a window to a world that I’d never dreamed existed. And even if it leaned much more toward fantasy than reality, reading those books gave me a wonderful feeling I’ll never forget. I don’t think I’ll go back and reread, as I’ve also decided that I won’t reread The Flame and the Flower, because sometimes it’s just better to remember something the way it was and the joy it brought at the time.
@Evaine: Those were the authors of my teenage years as well, and not too long ago I got rid of thousands of Harlequins that I’d moved from house to house and sometimes I regret it. There’s one Michelle Reid Presents I’d love to have back, and I regret getting rid of all my Kerry Allyne books about Australia and the Outback (favorite book title of all time….Tuesday’s Jillaroo!)
@Kim: I found some of Kerry Allyne’s books at Amazon. She has released her backlist for Kindle. I bought Summer Rainfall (my personal favorite) and I am planning to add a few more as money permits. Now, I wish they would release some of the older Margaret Way, Rita Rainville, Kathleen Korbel, and a few others.
@Lisa J: I hope my family remembers to give me lots of Amazon gift cards for my birthday and Christmas. I love Margaret Way, too. This could get expensive.
Like Sunita, I have every Betty Neels novel published and have read them many times. At this time, I have several on my iPad that I am reading once again. It is a very different age and perhaps that is the attraction for me.
I have not read a Betty Neels in ages, but I do remember enjoying them at the time. I think I still have a few of her titles packed away with the rest of my Harlequin Romance and Presents keepers.
My all time favorite Harlequin Romance author is Essie Summers — my life-long desire to travel to New Zealand is due to her. I think she was also one of the first authors that I knew of that connected her books — a couple from one book would show up in another or be mentioned in another.
Even tho her really early romances are dated, I still regularly do a re-read of all of her titles that I own (still missing a few). I really wish that Harlequin would offer all of her titles as e-books.
@Kim : I still have some Kerry Allyne books in my keeper Harlequins. I really enjoyed her writing.
I’ve actually been on a Betty Neels kick for the past month or so. I first discovered her as I was on an exchange at university to Newcastle, and the amazing used-book store in city centre had a lot of her old books. Lately I have also been picking others up as Kindle books.
I know what I get with them, and they’ve been perfect for the autumn mood I have been in. I think I described them to my sister as books that I have to be in the right mood to read- and in the long run they’re ultimately also a bit frustrating because I would have wished for ten more pages in them, to get shown a bit more of the happily ever after/resolutions. But the confusion of the heroine in the books until the declaration of the hero is masterful – and she is also often a good example of why I don’t always need to know both the POV of the hero and the heroine in a romance novel – it can work well with just one of them.
When Harlequin began reissuing her books, I thought, “Who is this author? I’ve never heard of her.” Then I learned more about her – obviously later – books and thought, maybe not for me. Now you’ve got me thinking maybe her earlier ones with more self reliant heroines might do for me after all.
Thank you Sunita. Nostalgia just blossomed in October here in the UK. I used to rely on Betty Neels as a Mills & Boons sure thing when as a student I used to buy tatty second hand copies to reward myself for completing an essay. Oh with a small box of sugar powdered Turkish delight. Sighs happily.
Just checked my local library system’s online catalog and they have a nice size collection of her books. I’ll be sure to check some out and read for myself.
I have many a Betty Neels title in my library. She’s an absolute comfort read for me.
Her “plump and plain” heroines always gave me hope.
From what you say I’d prefer the 1970s and 80s books. But there are so many! Please could you recommend a few from that era? i.e. before the heroines became pitiful and pitiable.
I love Betty Neels, though I’ve come to her books late. About three years ago, I stumbled on The Uncrushable Jersey Dress website and decided, from it, to try some of her books. Because I’m keen on reading an author’s work in the order it was published (my way of understanding her development), I’ve read the early books to date, TULIPS FOR AUGUSTA being my favorite so far. Your succinct and perceptive understanding of them is something I will think about as I read through the Neels oeuvre (and it is huge!), so thank you for this wonderful post. What I love about them most are not the fairly standardized heroes and heroines, though I enjoy those too, but their texture, as you’ve mentioned, the food, the fabric, furnishings, colors, flower petals … oh, and have I mentioned the food. I love the world she builds and she is a comfort read for many of us not only because of the “romance” but the gracious Neels world that we enter.
Like Miss Bates, I am a latecomer to Neels and like her, it is the world which Neels conjures up that is the appeal for me. Some of the romances work better for me than others. I don’t like the ones where I am as surprised as the heroine to discover that the hero has been in love with her all along. I do like the ones where the hero isn’t afraid to show something of his feelings.
But in all of them, I like the feelings of safety they evoke in me. Hers is a world where there will always be a suitable position advertised in The Lady, or a kindly doctor to find one. Policemen can be trusted, as can doctors and lawyers. The good always triumph for Neels, even if it is an unshowy, domestic sort of triumph. Her books remind me, in the best way, of many of my favourite childhood reads – Noel Streatfeild especially comes to mind, and even, in a different way, Jilly Cooper’s early romances. I think her heroines inhabit a similar, rose-tinted, nostalgic (even when she started writing in the 70s) kind of England. They are deeply, deeply comforting to me and one of the things I most value about them is their reliability. In my blackest moods, Neels creates a light space for me to retreat into.
I do wish, however, that M&B would include the original release dates in their digital versions.
Another longtime Neels reader here. Happy sighs…
I was part of the lively community over at The Uncrushable Jersey Dress–the reviews of all of Neels books are a real treat and are still available. Fix yourself a cuppa and enjoy.
My favorite Neels, for those looking for a starting point—from her early years–“The Pursuit of Happiness”, ‘Henrietta’s Own Castle”, “Caroline’s Waterloo” and from her later years “Roses Have Thorns” and Mistletoe Kiss”.
Sunita, thanks for the stroll down memory lane.
Betty Neels and Eva Ibbotson are my go-to comfort reads. Sometimes you need a break from the general nastiness that seems to purvey so many books out there these days. Reading one of their books is like curling up in front of a warm fire with a plate of delicious cookies and a steaming cup of tea.
@Lisa J: Lisa — Summer Rainfall was one of the first Harlequins I ever read, and it started me down a very long and lovely road to reading! I never even thought to look for it on Kindle, since it’s so old. I’ve always loved that book, and have kept it for 40 years. I raced right over and bought it. Thanks! :)
@Lynn Pauley: Essie Summers was a favorite, too, and that’s how I became intrigued with NZ as well. May as well have been the moon, it was so exotic! I always got her books and Betty Neels mixed up, as I think so many of the covers looked alike they all blended together in my memory.
As to Betty, I quit reading her ages ago, tho I am sure I could pretty much tell you the general plot of every book. LOL (sorry Sunita, I guess I quit reading them before the nuances came about). I remember always thinking she must be overweight herself (and that wasn’t a bad thing, btw, just an observation), because most of the females were ‘big boned.’ Also, the mention of any after-marriage sex scenes, or even kissing for that matter, were always of the ‘fade to dark, go to next next chapter’ varieties, while she would rhapsodize for page after page, detailing the food at a dinner party.
Thrilled to find so many Betty Neels lovers. She has been my comfort read since college, along with Essie Summers, Mary Burchell and Sara Seale. Love old school Harlequins.
I’ve never heard of the Uncrushable Jersey Dress website before and laughed so hard! Thanks so much for this. You made my day.
Wonderful post! The last several Betty Neels ebooks I read were really bothering me, and now I realize that they were later works. The heroes seemed almost casually cruel to the heroines in the way they left her hanging right up until the end…particularly so in A Kiss For Julie, which I now see was published in 1998. I don’t recall having that feeling from her earlier works at all, and they’ve always been comfort reads for me too.
I remember reading one of the later books and realizing from a reference to electronics that it was set in the 90’s. Really funny since otherwise her setting hadn’t really changed at all.
@Lisa J: I know that Kathleen Korbel (aka Eileen Dreyer) is planning to self-publish some of her Silhouette backlist. And looking on Amazon, it looks like some of her 1990s categories are already digitally available under the Harlequin Treasury label.
I actually went on a Betty Neels binge in the 90’s– bad idea. Really bad idea. Doing this caused me to notice the repetitive nature of the stories. (I should have learned my lesson when I binged on Stephanie James/Jane Ann Krentz) I did, however, regret the Neels books that didn’t get written. When it came to writing about the inner workings of the UK health system of the time the books came alive for me. I admit that most of my exposure to this type of story was from reading the Mary Renault books which were probably written in the 30’s and 40’s and a PD James mystery from the 70’s set in a nurse training school. But I liked Neels more when she writing about the trials and tribulations of health care workers than when she writing about a Cinderella creature who was whisked away by a burley surgeon or prof. or something. And I never did learn to appreciate a description of a cozy meal of beans on toast.
I, too, am a longtime Betty Neels fan, have all of her books in paperback (with duplicates and some triplicates) and some as e-books. I can remember finding her as an author in high school, and I collected secondhand copies at a few used bookstores. When they got a book in, they put it aside for me. Among my favorites are “Esmeralda”, “Damsel in Green”, “Wish with the Candles”, and “Victory for Victoria”. I seem to remember her older works better. I especially loved how many of her books were linked by common characters – she didn’t do epilogues, but you did sometimes get a glimpse of the ‘happy ever after’ in another book. The Uncrushable Jersey Dress website has plotted (diagrammed out?) the cross over characters (now that took a lot of time.)
I do re-read her books – a good comfort read – and I also end up remembering a snippet and then I have to find the book and read that passage again, or more usually reading the whole book again. Such as the book that had a fire in the hospital and the floor caved in, leaving the heroine precariously balanced on the little bit of floor left next to a still standing wall. . .
I can see I’ll be spending some time with a Betty Neels book this coming weekend.
What wonderful comments, I’m so glad the post resonated for so many people and the shout outs to other category authors are great! Thank you so much.
I’m also a huge fan of Seale, Burchell, and Summers. And I have that Kay Thorpe book!
I think that almost any of the books written in the first decade or two are likely to appeal. It’s hard to pick favorites, but among those I’ve reread the most or that have really stuck with me:
Nurse Peters in Amsterdam
Damsel in Green
Tulips for Augusta
Tabitha in Moonlight
Wish With the Candles
Stars Through the Mist
Fate is Remarkable
Victory for Victoria
Heaven is Gentle
The Silver Thaw
My favorite non-doctor, non-Dutch romance is A Girl to Love. It has all kinds of unattractive tropes (wicked governess, wicked big city, etc.) but the heroine is wonderful and the hero is hilarious. It also has one of my favorite sequences, when the heroine is taken to Kettner’s restaurant (which she’s never heard of) and realizes the fancy French main course is just chicken breasts in a cream sauce.
@andrea2: OMG that book. I remember it so well. Can’t remember the name. And in Wish With the Candles Emma is lead nurse during a delicate operation while she is suffering from appendicitis. She collapses at the end but she sees the procedure through.
That’s what I love about Neels; her heroines were traditional and conservative but they had spines of steel and took pride in their work. That’s something that anyone can identify with, regardless of whether you identify with other aspects of their lives.
Betty Neels’ books were the first romances I ever read! My mom had most of them. My sister and I read them over and over again. Recently, a friend of mine told me she had read one and loved it, so I offered to lend her my box of Betty Neels’ books :) Ah, Dutch doctor heroes! They are the best!
I still have a drawerful of old 70s HPs (that I haven’t cracked open in many, many years!), but there’s not a single Betty Neels book in the lot. In fact, I don’t specifically recall reading any of her books. But other HP authors must also have been doing the Dutch doctor storyline because I do remember books like that (like the one with the nurse named Merlin who went to work for the Dutch surgeon she accidentally blinded who then moved to a tropical island to become a semi-hermit–lol). I was always perplexed why Dutch doctors were such a thing along with Greek shipping tycoons, French vintners, and Italian/Spanish industrialists.
Since it looks like there are a fair number of Neels ebooks available, I might try one.
I came across a box of Neels books at my grandmother’s house years ago. Spent a wonderful summer devouring them. They are definitely a comfort read. I read them and feel as if I’m curled up in front of a fire eating something with “lashes of cream”. I also liked the fact that the heroines were not the most beautiful creature ever seen. Oh, and the clothes. I love the clothes descriptions.
Thank you for the specific recommendations!
I’ve never read Neels. Don’t hate me! LOL
While I’m fairly sure Neels isn’t in my immediate reading future, I do love hearing those who love her books talk about them.
Great post Sunita!
Now that I have very belatedly seen this essay (Thank you, Sunita!), I can say that Neels is one of my go-to comfort authors too. I read her books years ago and in a sudden and unexpected old HP binge, I have been reading Neels as well now. While I can’t say that I have read all her books or read the ones I have in any order at all, my recollections, helped along by Sunita’s comments, do tell me that there was a change in the heroines. One thing, though, that never changed for me was their innate stoicism. Whether playing the role of the damsel in distress or the competent nurse (who usually still needed help of some kind), each one was practical, reserved, solidly middle class. There were often, in the ones I have read, strong overtones of classist attitudes in that Neels always seemed to portray the upper class women as fast, snooty, grasping, cold, and often cruel to both the hero and the heroine. I like and appreciate them now for the window into a bygone time and also for their lack of sexy times. In a sea of books that all seem to be vying for who can outdo the next when it comes to that, even among books that are not erotica, Neels’ books feel different and to an extent fresh. I can’t help but wonder if that is part of the appeal today for others as well.
If I had to pick one that really stands out for me it would be Sun and Candlelight.
Betty Neels are still my comfort reading materials. I love the safe and peaceful world she had created iN her novels.
I agree with most that her books seem to be a comfort read. I have quite a number of her books, and although sometimes I want to shake the men, I still find them satisfying. Maybe one of you could assist me in identifying one that I read, but cannot remember the title or names. Girl lives in the country with either a great aunt or grandmother who then dies and she takes on a number of jobs to keep things going. There is a country house, and a niece of the lady of the manor is training to be a doctor and works in London with the male character. Can anyone remember what this one is? Thanks.
I have only recently discovered Betty. I have read about 60 of her 134 books. I am now studying the book “Dutch Dikes”, I have purchased a map of Netherlands, Britain, Germany, and Norway. I follow the heroine as she takes her various travels.
The most fun for me is her description of surgery, medicine in general, and hospital procedures. I graduated from nursing a decade or so after Betty’s period so It is a journey of memories for me.
Yes, she sort of has a formula in her style. Each story makes you believe you are there. I can truly say that Betty gives me my most pleasant evenings and afternoons. She stimulates both heart and brain.
@Virginia: I’m not sure which one this is. I have them all, but it doesn’t ring a bell. Sorry!
@Patty: One of the fun things about going to the Netherlands for me was finding landmarks and streets that Neels used in her books. She was as good as a guidebook, sometimes better!
I didn’t read my first Betty Neels until 2003’s An Old-Fashioned Girl… and I loved every minute of it!!! I have all of the Betty Neels books I could find AND I turned my sister-in-law onto them! We absolutely LOVE them!!! We both re-read them all the time. I have several favorites, too many to mention really, but especially the aforementioned An Old-Fashioned Girl, Dearest Love, The Bachelor’s Wedding and countless others!!! I like the fact that they ARE essentially the same story with a few variations. Rich/poor, good family/horrible sister, brother, mother, father, skilled nurse/no skills accept common sense… doesn’t matter to me!
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I love Betty Neels! I have collected all 134 books she wrote and have read most of them. I admire that she started writing in her fifties and wrote until her nineties! What a blessing! Some may think that her books are simple but there is a message in each one of the stories. Who can forget stories like “A Girl to Love”,” Judith”, “The Promise of Happiness”, “The Secret Pool” and others. I re-read her books and never get tired of them. By reading her books I have learn to appreciate things we have in our life that we take for granted. Betty Neels’s legacy is to make us happy through her books and for that I am grateful!!!
I too like reading Betty Neels books. I have just ‘discovered’ them within the past few months. I like the ‘sweet’ style of romances that are really more about the couple and their personalities. In particular, I enjoy how Betty Neels managed to make each book a little different. i like to read about the first meeting and subsequent meetings of each couple and how they go about their lives. Someone above mentioned having a map and tracking the many places the books take us…I’ve done that also.
Betty Neels is my favorite of the Harlequin writers. I discovered Harlequins in the early 1970s when my place of employment was near a public library. During my lunch hour, I would visit the section containing paperbacks. My job was quite stressful and I read for escape. I’d describe my week as a “one Harlequin week, a two Harlequin week” etc. I liked that I could sit down for a short period of time and lose myself in something pleasant. I had studied in Europe during a semester of my college career in the Flemish speaking part of Belgium, so it was fun to translate the easy phrases in Neels’ books. My group visited the Netherlands as well as London, so I knew about Delft and other things she mentions in the book. I learned about tea from Betty Neels. High tea is a regular meal of the working class, not a fancy afternoon tea. I went to book sales and used book shops and I believe I have most of her work. I’ve given away most of my other Harlequins, but never Betty Neels.
Just stumbled upon this. Like so many here, I’m a fan of Betty Neels. My favourite is Year’s Happy Ending for the very beautiful declaration of love at the end. And so many more!
Thank you for the great post, Sunita.