I just read my first Betty Neels, The Right Kind of Girl (included in my book care package from Janet). Many of you will understand that this is an epoch in my romance-reading life. If not, check out The Uncrushable Jersey Dress, the place for all things Betty Neels. (Their review of this novel is awesome, and it has a plot synopsis and all that stuff I never seem to bother with).
The Right Kind of Girl isn’t quite vintage Neels. It’s from 1995, fairly late in her career. The hero is English, not Dutch–but he is a rich doctor. He’s only 98% inscrutable, at least to the reader. The key elements all seem to be there, though: rich, bossy-caretaker doctor hero; plain, practical, downtrodden heroine; beautiful, nasty rival; a jersey dress. Despite its publication date, the book seems set in the 1950s, or just in an Alternate Neels Universe.
I enjoyed this book tremendously. I will definitely read more Neels. But. There’s some stuff I need to get out of the way first.
“women’s lib and feminism, whatever that was exactly”
Look, I don’t intend to go FeminstHulkSmash angry on Betty Neels. But there were a lot of thoughts I had to lock in a mental storage compartment as I read. I won’t describe it as a guilty pleasure; I don’t feel guilty about setting aside my feminist responses to enjoy a work of fiction (it’s not like I’m setting them aside in real life). But they did leak out a bit and affect my ability to believe entirely in a happy-ever-after for Sir Paul and Emma.
Early in the novel, Paul tells Emma that she’s “wasted” changing nappies as a mother’s helper. So he marries her and takes her off to . . . smile and make cheery small talk with him on the rare occasions when he’s home. I guess caring for a rich doctor is not a wasted life? This is not about me thinking that being a homemaker or stay-at-home mother is not a valid choice for a woman. I don’t think that. Emma enjoys those things, and would be happy and fulfilled doing them. But she doesn’t get to for most of the book. Sir Paul has a housekeeper and a gardener. Only at the end of the novel do they talk about having children (they clearly weren’t having sex before). Emma has nothing to do but walk the dogs, go shopping, and sew badly on her tapestry while she waits for Sir Paul to show up. Hang on, maybe Neels Time is the 1850s?
Paul “allows” her to volunteer caring for babies–only for four hours twice a week, mind you–but this is mainly a device to introduce Conflict in the form of the evil Diana, and soon ends. When he goes off on a lecture tour for ten days, he forbids Emma from driving to see his parents for the weekend, though there’s every sign that she’s perfectly capable of doing so. No wonder she has no self-respect! I wanted to whack these idiots upside the head with a copy of The Feminine Mystique–or heck, The Yellow Wallpaper–until they recognized that a traditional marriage does not have to mean a wife with no power, will, or purpose in life.
Some of the emotional tension I felt while reading came not from wondering when Paul would stop being an idiot and admit he loved Emma, but from wondering whether the lonely boredom of her life would drive her crazy first. In the hands of a different writer, and with just a tweak here or there, this would be the tragic story of a woman in a stifling marriage, not a romance at all.
But I loved it! Really!
Reading this book was like slipping into a warm bath. Neels’ world–of tweeds and cardigans, penny-pinching and lack of central heating–seemed so familiar. I’m not sure exactly why. It reminded me a bit of Barbara Pym, whom I like a lot, only with less irony and more romance. I’ve read plenty of mysteries set in mid-20th-century British villages, too. And then there are children’s books. This reminded me of Noel Streatfield in a funny way, and certainly of Cinderella rescue-fantasies like Burnett’s A Little Princess. It’s a commonplace of children’s literature criticism that food occupies the place sex does in adult fiction, one bodily appetite substituted for another; there sure is a lot of food in this book. Just saying.
My nostalgic pleasure in the world was enhanced by a nostalgic identification with Emma. As a child I always identified with the poor, plain, overlooked, misunderstood, unloved heroines. I wept over the wrongs done to them and rejoiced in their triumphs. (Since I just told my mom about my blog, I should add that this wasn’t because I was actually unloved and downtrodden). A part of me still identified with Emma, but a bigger part of me was glad I mostly don’t feel like the unconfident mouse anymore. Part of my enjoyment of the book, then, was very personal.
But I also like Neels’ restrained, straighforward prose. She has a telling way with small details that evoke emotion, like this moment after the wedding: “It’s the most wonderful day of my life,” [said Emma]. She spoke with such fervour that he looked down at her, but the little hat shaded her face from his.” Oh, the implied yearning. Sometimes less is much, much more, and I found this far more moving than many romances that describe the characters’ feelings in more detail.
I really felt for these two, idiotic as they sometimes seemed. Emma is self-doubting, but not a doormat. When she thinks Paul may be regretting his proposal, she marches into his study and offers to break it off. When he wrongs her, she holds him at a distance and makes a plan to leave. Paul, for his part, may be rich, professionally successful, and masterful, but his feelings for Emma catch him off balance. He’s less brave than Emma about expressing those feelings, and in the face of her coolness, afraid to speak up and mend the rift between them. I liked, too, that the plot was quiet; no need to throw in a bad guy or blackmail or much external conflict, just a slow exploration of two reserved, tentative people figuring out how to be open with each other and believe in their love.
For those pleasures, I’ll happily compartmentalize for a while.