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!