Friday Night Reading: Damsel in Green, by Betty Neels

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

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7 Responses to Friday Night Reading: Damsel in Green, by Betty Neels

  1. Ros says:

    I would be DEAD after six hours teaching and a two hour meeting on a Friday. That is a horrendous schedule. But you’re right, Betty Neels is the perfect read in that sort of situation. She has become my go-to for comfort reading in times of deep stress. And Damsel in Green is just lovely. I particularly liked how clear it was that Julius loved her throughout and how kind he was. For me it had something of a Sound of Music vibe, though the Little Women comparison works, too.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, Sound of Music makes sense too! I like the fact that the children are not really plot moppets and Julius does not expect her to take care of them all–but the fact that she is happy caring for and being with and loving them shows how well suited George and Julius will be, because he loves them and likes being with them too.

  2. Sunita says:

    Oh, what a lovely post about one of my favorite Neels books! I’ve read this one so many times, and you highlight all the things that make it special. Julius is such a great hero, and you really feel that they’ll have a wonderful life together.

    When Neels was writing this in 1974, it’s true that women’s roles and social position were changing rapidly, but it was very much a period of transition, and there were still a lot of women who weren’t interested in being feminists, or breaking through the gender ceilings, or living lives different from their mothers (quite apart from the considerable backlash against the feminist movement). I have always found it interesting how many “traditional” books and series were written by women who were the main or equal breadwinners in their families, or who were single mothers whose lives were very different from the ones they gave their fictional characters. Neels was definitely one of those authors. What I like about the books she wrote in her first 10-15 years with Harlequin is that the heroines had agency and were often pretty successful and happy with the non-romance aspects of their lives. Even the mousiest, most put-upon heroines had agency, unlike some of the later books.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, it reminds me of some 19th-century women writers, who talked about the women’s place being in the domestic sphere even as they supported their families with their writing. That wasn’t always what they *wanted* to do, just what they had to do.

      The heroine’s agency is so important in making this kind of story enjoyable. George always had choices and a basic self-confidence, and that was part of what made the HEA believable. Julius wasn’t just going to take over her life. It’s definitely the best Neels I have read so far. So much of it was just FUN, like all their Christmas crafts. Neels really drew George as a character for whom caring for a home and family would be joyful, not a burden, and I liked the way the book gave that work value. Here’s a wacky comparison–it actually reminds me a little bit of the end of Middlemarch, and Dorothea’s diffuse good influence.

  3. Barb in Maryland says:

    I’m glad Sunita mentioned Neels own life circumstances. She didn’t marry until she was in her 30s and her Dutch husband was neither a doctor nor rich. Indeed, her nursing career supported her family for years. I do believe that all of those books where the heroine fills her days (once she marries the RDD) with flower arranging and needlework is Neels indulging in a bit of wish-fulfillment.
    Yes, I do believe that ‘Damsel in Green’ is on just about every Betty fan’s top 10 list. May I suggest ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ as your next Neels read?

  4. Beverly says:

    ah it’s so nice to read comments from another Betty Neels fan. I agree with your analogy of her plots being like Grandma’s recipes

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