Apr 10 2014 8:30am

Simple, Honest, Relevant: The Romance Novels of Betty Neels

The Daughter of the Manor by Betty NeelsSome 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.

Stormy Springtime by Betty NeelsIn 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.

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1. Mo
What a wonderful tribute to Betty Neels and her characters. I've read so many of her books, I have lost track. I can see how many people today might dismiss the heroines of her books because none of them are flashy or kickass, but her women are always quietly competent, serene (well, except when it comes to the good doctor), and gentle. I have always enjoyed how the practical but loving woman gets the doctor in her books as opposed to the flash and dash that usually is angling for the doctor.
2. Kareni
It's been many a year since I read a Betty Neels book. Thanks for your lovely post, Julia.
Julia Broadbooks
3. juliabroadbooks
I have to give a hat tip to Janet Webb. She sent me an old Betty Neels. And of course you can't stop at one...
4. Scarlettleigh
It been years since I read them too but I almost remember them fondly. It always used to be a red-letter day, when I found a book of hers, that I hadn't read.

Lovely post!
5. mrejane
You are right Mo! I love Betty Neels books because they always put my mind out of whatever is troubling me. I think I read all her books and like some stories more than others, and while her heroines and heroes might be cut from the same cloth, every book is special and different =D
Julia Broadbooks
6. juliabroadbooks
@mrejane Yes, that's exactly it! While the heroes and heroines are all similar, so I know just what I'm getting, each book is special and wonderful in its own way.
7. Bell
I stumbled onto a Neels book, ten or so years ago, at my Grandmothers house and no I couldn't read just one. I adored these books. I really enjoy how descriptive she can be about the clothes, food, and homes. Occasionally I'll look up the kindle versions and if on sale or in budget download one. I have three or so for when a certain mood hits and I just feel like a sweet gentle read and her books do the trick.
Julia Broadbooks
8. juliabroadbooks
I'm so excited that there are so many Betty Neels fans!! Her books aren't often discussed and it's so much fun to find fellow fans!
9. Amanda Ward
Love, love, LOVE Betty Neels. Her books have a timeless quality about them. Just something about them, a bit like dunking a digestive biscuit in a mug of tea, you can't just have one and they are very moreish!
10. Christy Herself
That name is a blast from the past! I'm not sure how long it has been. My favorite Harlequin authors were Janet Dailey and Carole Mortimer. Engaged to Jarrod Stone by Carole Mortimer was my first romance.
Julia Broadbooks
11. juliabroadbooks
@Amanda Or potato chips! One leads to just one more...

@Christy Herself There is something very comforting about rereading the old authors.
12. lizzie18
I enjoyed Betty Neels books years ago, but I could never now go back to them.
Most of them had a downtrodden heroine under the thumb of one or more bitches: employer, sister, aunt, mother. The hero was generally a Dutch doctor with a pretty cold demeanor who had a glamorous woman in his life and, most often then not, seemed to act badly or condescendingly towards the heroine without our knowing why. And, in the last few pages, a declaration 0f love !

What was missing in all those '70s books, and what I thoroughly enjoy now, IS THE HERO'S POV. At least now, when they act badly, we know why before we get to the last 'I love you' pages.

I think having the hero's POV was a welcome game changer in the romance novels genre. I could not go back.
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