Apr 3 2014 4:30pm

Lessons from Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy Series: Love Triangles Are Best When They End as Two HEAs

Heaven to Betsy and Betsy in Spite of Herself by Maud Hart LovelaceI started reading the Betsy-Tacy series when I was five, the same age as Betsy Ray and her best friend, Tacy Kelly, in the first book of Maud Hart Lovelace’s enduring series. I read the six books that cover Betsy’s life from her first year in high school through the early months after her marriage to Joe Willard long before other YA books filled my bookshelves. I loved those books and reread them again and again and again. Betsy, Tacy, Tib Muller (who turned their duet into a trio), and their crowd were as real to me as my own friends.

In Heaven to Betsy (1945), the first of the YA books (the fifth in the series), Betsy meets two boys: the blond Joe Willard, who shares Betsy’s love of reading and writing, and Tony Markham, whom Betsy and Tacy christen the Tall Dark Handsome Stranger. Neither boy is part of the group that Betsy has grown up with in Deep Valley, Minnesota, and their newness is part of their appeal. Joe is independent and a bit mysterious; Tony is funny and charming. Even at eight, I understood  that sooner or later Betsy would have to make a choice, and although I belonged to Team Joe from the first, I wanted Tony to be happy too.

Betsy In Spite of Herself (1946) takes a detour around the original triangle as Betsy catches the attention of the wealthy, sophisticated Phil Brandish and learns an important lesson about being true to herself, but by the next book, Betsy Was A Junior (1947), Joe is involved with Phyllis Brandish, sister of Betsy’s sophomore-year boyfriend, and Tony’s bad-boy vibes appear to be winning the day. Betsy likes the image of herself as the one who saves Tony from himself.

“Tony is suspended again,” Alice said.

“What happened?

“I hate to say it, but I believe he came to school when he'd been drinking. He goes into the saloons sometimes with that fast gang he runs with.”

“He's going around with a perfectly awful girl.”

But the book ends with Joe sending Betsy a postcard that begins an exchange of letters. Senior year looks promising for a Betsy and Joe pairing.

Tony is still on the scene in Betsy and Joe (1948), however, and now the reformed Tony is romantically interested in Betsy. There is no doubt that Betsy’s heart belongs to Joe.

“Then he kissed her. Betsy didn't believe in letting boys kiss you. She thought it was silly to be letting first this boy and then that one kiss you, when it didn't mean a thing. But it was wonderful when Joe Willard kissed her. And it did mean a thing.”

But at the same time, Betsy cares about Tony, and she doesn’t want to see him return to his former wild ways. Her family is also fond of Tony, who has been hanging around the Ray house for several years now. Betsy’s father and her younger sister Margaret are especially close to Tony. Joe, on the other hand, has always been too busy studying and working after school to be part of the crowd. All of these factors make it difficult for Betsy to say no when Tony beats Joe to asking Betsy to a school dance. Joe interprets Betsy’s acceptance as a rejection of him. Of course, the misunderstanding is eventually resolved, and Betsy ultimately follows her heart. It’s a perfect ending for Betsy and Joe, who clearly belong together as the following exchange shows:

In Miss Bangeter’s Shakespeare class they sat side by side at the back of the room. Miss Bangeter, with her dark magnetic eyes and sonorous voice, had almost transformed that roomful of desks and blackboards into the Forest of Arden. Trees with love songs hung and carved upon them seemed to rise between the desks. The sun slanted down through leafy aisles upon gallants and fair ladies, shepherds, shepherdesses, clowns, and courtiers. The Forest of Arden always made Betsy think of the Big Hill.

She underlined a sentence and passed it across to Joe. “Fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world.”

“That’s what I’d like to do,” she whispered.

“That’s what we’ll do next spring,” Joe whispered back, while even Miss Bangeter looked pleased.

That may be the first scene over which I sighed happily. The only thing that marred that sigh-worthy ending was poor Tony who left Deep Valley, never to reappear in the series. My sister and I grieved over Tony until we imagined that he kept up his correspondence with Margaret and years later when she had grown up, he (a famous actor by then) returned to Deep Valley and swept faithful Margaret away to their own HEA. But we would have been happier readers if Lovelace had written that imagined ending.

Concern about Tony marked me as a reader. To this day, more than half a century since I first read Lovelace’s books about Betsy and Joe and Tony, I can tolerate love triangles with three characters in whom I am invested only when I am assured that the rejected lover will be given his or her HEA.

For example, I love Edith Layton’s The Duke’s Wager (1983), but I could not read it and feel that everything’s-right conviction until I read The Disdainful Marquis (1983) and could rest assured  that the Marquis of Bessacarr found his true love. I was not incensed as some of my friends were when Liberty Jones was paired with Gage Travis in Sugar Daddy (2007) by Lisa Kleypas, but I was far happier with that book’s conclusion after reading Blue-Eyed Devil (2008) and seeing how perfect Hardy and Haven Travis were together. Jennifer Haymore’s A Hint of Wicked (2009) left me heartbroken for Garrett, Duke of Calton, until he achieved his HEA in the following year’s A Touch of Scandal. I waited impatiently for two years before Julia London gave Wyatt Clark, the loser in the love triangle at the center of Summer of Two Wishes (2009), his happily-ever-after in A Light at Winter’s End (2011).  One reason Pleasure for Pleasure (2006) will always be one of my top-ten favorite books is that I waited through Your Wicked Ways (2004)  and the first three Essex Sisters books before Eloisa James finally gave Garrett, Earl of Mayne, his HEA in the last book of the Essex series. For the same reason, I count Mary Balogh’s A Summer to Remember (2003) and Jo Beverley’s Hazard (2002) among my favorites by those authors because they give jilted Lauren Edgeworth and Lady Anne Peckworth heroes who adore them.

So if you have book recommendations for me that include love triangles, please be sure that there are two HEAs eventually.


Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.

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1. CLM
Beautifully put! As you clearly appreciate two of my favorites, Lovelace and Layton, I am guessing I should investigate the other authors you mention.
Lege Artis
2. LegeArtis
Great post, Janga!

Well, Penelope was jilted in Eleven Scandals to Start to Win a Duke's Heart only to get her HEA in A Rogue by Any Other Name by Sarah MacLean.
Hardy Travis first came to mind as well, I was actually mad when I finished Sugar Daddy, I can't even imagine what would happen of he didn't get his book.
Jennifer Proffitt
3. JenniferProffitt
The only time I'll read a love triangle is if I know I'll get an HEA in the end for whoever gets "left over." I've mentioned this before on the site but when I heard Tracy Anne Warren was coming out with a new series, I was so disappointed that it wasn't the guy who was jilted at the end of book 3 in her Trap Trilogy, The Wedding Trap. It's the one and only time I ever wrote a fan letter, and it was to ask if the jilted fiance would be getting an HEA ever...her reply did not leave me optimistic.
4. Kareni
Mary Jo Putney's Petals in the Storm has a triangle of sorts. The third member of the triangle gets his own happy ever after in Angel Rogue.
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