On Fridays I teach two three-hour classes. They’re team-taught, with a fair bit of discussion and group work, so I’m not “on” the whole time, but I do try not to zone out while my teaching partner or students are doing the talking. Fridays 3:30-5:30 is one of our meeting times, so sometimes I go straight from my second class to a meeting. As you can imagine, I arrive home tired, talked out, and not good for much–and usually with a headache.
Often whatever book(s) I have on the go seems too daunting for Friday night reading. Sometimes I’m just too tired for print and choose an old favorite on audio. Other times, I look for a short, undemanding book. Last Friday, not feeling up to the ordinary lives of North Koreans, and thanks to a Twitter recommendation from Sunita, I downloaded Betty Neels’ Damsel in Green, which she said was one of her favorite Neels books. I was totally engrossed, zipping through the first half on Friday night and lingering in bed Saturday morning to finish it. Perfect Friday Night Reading.
I don’t like to use the word “formula” when discussing romance fiction, but after reading four Betty Neels novels, I’d say she has a recipe. A grandma kind of recipe–a “handful” of this, a “pinch” of that, never quite the same dish twice, always delicious (OK, Betty’s cooking declined towards the end). There are common ingredients to all the books I’ve read so far: rich Dutch doctor hero, young heroine (often a nurse), nasty Other Woman. These books stay in the heroine’s point of view, with heroes of varying degrees of opacity, so the heroine is always unaware he loves her–and miserably convinced he’s going to marry Nasty Other Woman–until the last minute. The virtual omnipresence of these ingredients is part of what makes Neels great comfort reading, just as grandma cooking makes good comfort food. You know you’ll get that flavor you like.
I found Damsel in Green to be an especially tasty Neels stew: the heroine is not mousy or doormatty, but a pretty and skilled nurse. The hero is not very opaque to the reader, and is not too dictatorial and pretty nice (in some Neels books, I can’t imagine why the heroine fell in love with someone so condescending and bossy). Hero Julius is guardian to a clutch of young cousins, and the heroine’s involvement in their lives is delightful. Parts of it felt kind of like Little Women (the big dramatic moment involves skating on dangerous ice!). The hero’s households in England and Holland both had a lot of charm, and I smiled my way through this–with appropriate pangs and heart-burnings, of course.
Reading Betty Neels, I feel a bit like the Onion‘s woman taking a half-hour break from feminism to enjoy TV. I wrote about this when I read my first Neels book, and the discussion both on that post and on Twitter made me think about how I can enjoy a book without endorsing the heroine’s choices or wanting them for myself. I was much less conflicted reading this book, in part because heroine George’s desire to leave nursing to be a wife and mother seemed so right and fulfilling for her (something I didn’t feel about the first Neels book I read). And I’ll admit I rooted for pleasingly plump, unfashionably/old-fashionedly bosomy George, in her pretty dresses, against the slim, modern, silver-pantsuited Other Woman. “Your bosom is heaving too,” observes Julius once when George is cross with him. “So many girls don’t have bosoms these days.”
Er, OK, wait. I had some trouble with that one. I admit I have a residual knee-jerk Bryn Mawr College reaction to hearing a 23-year-old called a “girl” (Is that still an all-girls’ school? Yes, it’s a still a women’s college. . . . Wait, where was I?). And then there’s the celebration of George’s desirable youth, while poor slim Madame LeFabre looks “every day of her thirty years”–that dried up old husk! And I know I’d be pissed off if some RDD looked at my teary face “for a long time, tender and amused and mocking,” instead of immediately explaining that no, no, it was me he loved. Instead, Julius is mad because George took the offer of a nursing post instead of wanting to marry him–even though he had never proposed or even declared his feelings for her. Come again? So, you know, there were some hiccups along the way, but they didn’t interfere much with my enjoyment, because in general Julius respects Georgina and she’s capable of standing up for herself. I felt for George, I enjoyed her adventures, and I believed she and Julius would be very happy together, and on Friday night and Saturday morning, that was all I wanted.
The book made me think, too, about the fate of professional women in “Neels time” (it was published in 1974 but seems to me to describe attitudes that were rapidly disappearing at the time). The nurses live in a residence rather than on their own–they may be highly skilled professionals, but because they are women, they are not fully independent adults. The assumption is that once they marry, they will leave their jobs, and many of Georgina’s peers marry and leave as soon as they finish their training. What a waste! Not if they want to leave, of course, but I wonder how many women would have liked to combine work and family if it had been seen as a choice? This isn’t something the book really explores, as the admirable women seem to be the ones who choose to marry. But who are not, like Mme. LeFebre or Nurse Griggs, too anxious to catch a husband. That would never do! It’s not easy to be a woman these days–so many choices, all of them wrong in someone’s eyes–but I wouldn’t trade it for the bind the women of Neels’ world are in. Even if a Rich Dutch Doctor wanted to set me free.
This Friday Night:
Reading: The Matchmaker, by Stella Gibbons (or maybe something from my category romance stash)
Listening: Heavenly Pleasures, by Kerry Greenwood