Some older romance novels don’t hold up well to the passage of time. The changes in fashion make the clothes seem dated; the changes in tech make the situations seem absurd; the changes in male-female relations make the romance seem stilted. It’s amazing what we thought was charming, romantic, or hot twenty or thirty years ago. The heroine of lots of those books seem insipid. The heroes of many of those books are hard to take in large doses without setting fire to the book.
A Betty Neels book is a different breed. The books are dated, but the characters are so strong it doesn’t matter in the least. Her heroes are usually doctors and whether they are a country doctor in a small village or a highly sought after specialist, they are all used to getting their own way. They are alpha, through and through, but underneath there is a gentleness. One of my favorite scenes is in Daughter of the Manor. The heroine Leonora is running herself into the ground caring for the great, old manor of the title and for her sick relatives. To help her out, the hero arranges for dinner to be brought to her. But, knowing her pride wouldn’t permit her to accept charity, he passes it off as a gift from a neighbor. The really amazing thing is the way the hero James talks about Leonora. He doesn’t fault her for her pride or think it silly or useless. It’s a part of her personality and he just accepts it and works around it to try and make her life easier without causing her any embarrassment.
The heroines, while hardly identical, seem like they would all be friends if they met up in some book world cocktail party. They are often nurses. They are outspoken, at least for women of the day, and practical, calm in a crisis. Leonora in particular brought to mind a couple of Georgette Heyer’s heroines (notably The Nonesuch, Devil’s Cub). Leonora’s tireless housekeeping and caretaking, all with a smile on her face, are found in many other Neels heroines.
In Stormy Springtime the heroine Meg cares for her mother while her sisters carry on with their own lives, hardly giving a thought to how much Meg has sacrificed and certainly never thanking them for shouldering the whole of the burden herself. But “Meg, being Meg, never complained. Not that she ever felt downtrodden or put upon.” For me, that is the thing that keeps Neels heroines sympathetic and real. Sure, they are happily working their fingers to the bone with, by our standards, precious few conveniences but they don’t feel unhappy about it. Meg might wish to be more respected and appreciated by her sisters but she’s not bitter or angry or even all that sad. She did what she did for her mother and for herself, so the lack of appreciation doesn’t bother her much.
And then, in one of the book's great moments, as her sisters push through a speedy sale of the family home to divide up the money amongst themselves, they band together and try and push Meg into beginning an exciting new city life. Meg surprises them by saying no. In her same quiet way she simply refuses and will not be bullied or cajoled into changing her mind. Just because a Neels heroine is modest and soft-spoken it would be a mistake to think she’s a pushover. This is a heroine who isn’t the life of the party and might be overlooked at first but the hero eventually comes to see how wonderful she really is.
A Betty Neels novel is more than just the heroine and hero finding their HEA. They are surrounded by family or a close knit circle of friends. Neels isn’t blind to the downside of family and community. Her books are filled with neglectful sisters, self-absorbed parents, small town gossips. But the books are filled with the simple joy of being surrounded by the people who love you and value you without qualifications. And that is something that will never go out of style.
Julia Broadbooks writes contemporary romance. She lives in the wilds of suburban Florida with her ever patient husband and bakes ridiculous amounts of sugary treats for her teens' friends. Find her on Twitter @juliabroadbooks.