This week I had SO many things I was determined to get through – the least of these being that I would finish the 6th (!) part of Middlemarch and finally post about it.
Twas not meant to be.
There I was, grouching over the vacuuming (yet again) when hunkering down to extinguish the ever present (and LARGE) dust bunnies under a bookcase – what did I discover? Just a sad, slip of a paperback, lying spine down and corners dog-eared, smooshed up against the wall.
I sighed deeply, muttered unmentionable curses and pulled it out – only to find resting in my ungrateful hands was – brace yourselves:
An unread, (I repeat, UNREAD (!!!!)) Betty Neels.
STOP THE PRESSES.
The Actual Book…
My cats came running, convinced I had been prematurely crushed beneath a large pile of books, but no, it was just me, squeeing like a 9yr old at a My Little Pony Convention.
I am not sure how it came to be lying there, all sad and disconsolate, but I am hazarding one of the following completely plausible theories:
1) The tiny clean-and-tidy deities were rewarding me for my (grudging) attempt at housework
2) There was a bookcase squirmish and one of the heftier, posher tomes (I’m looking at you Becky Sharp) took exception to it, thus leading to its recumbent position
3) I have a secret book faerie that is rewarding me with snowflake speshul books because reasons.
It is important to note that an unread Neels is triune in amazing-ness because:
1) There are a finite amount of Neels in the world, and every time you read one? That is one less you can discover.
2) They are REALLY hard to find anywhere. My local libraries combined have 5. Out of 135 (ish). And I only find one every few months at the second hand books stores and op-shops in the area.
3) A never-before-read Neels is a delicious treat, like an upside-down pineapple cake: It is ALWAYS good (a not-that-great Neels is still leagues ahead of any other romance) and goes perfectly with lashings of cream.
Plus has the added benefit of making you want to take up dress-making and bicycle-riding and other hyphenated things…Hence my heretofore mentioned excitement.
An Independent Woman. (only a little spoiler-ish)
The much prettier cover…
Meet Julia. One of three sisters, she has always stood by the irrefutable premise that women should stand on their own two feet.
She comes across like a combination of:
She shares a house with her two (much prettier) sisters, and when we (and Professor Gerard van der Maes) first encounter her, she is making a new dress out of a set of curtains that were hanging in the spare room.
They strike sparks off one another immediately.
‘Do sit down,’ said Julia, being sociable.
Instead he crossed the room to stand beside her and look down at the stuff spread out on the carpet.
‘It looks like a curtain,’ he observed.
‘It is a curtain,’ said Julia snappishly…
‘You are a skilled needlewoman?’
She picked up the coffee pot. ‘More coffee, Professor?’
Her tone dared him to say yes and delay his departure.
He had a second cup, and she hated him. And she thought he would never go.
Their next encounter is at the very dance Julia was making her dress for.
It goes even less well…
He looked amused. ‘I can’t say that I agree with Oscar about your dress, but then I know it’s a curtain, don’t I?’
He was sorry the moment he had said it; for a moment she had the look of a small girl who had been slapped for no reason at all. But only for a moment. Julia stared up into his handsome face. ‘Go away, Professor. I don’t like you and I hope I never see you again.’
And thus the scene is set. For reasons best known to Providence, Julia keeps ending up in the Professor’s sphere of influence. They meet again at a dinner; he bails her out of trouble, he feeds her. And slowly they begin to see each other in a different light.
The Professor originally thinks Julia is sharp-tongued and difficult, but when he sees her naive treatment of an extremely expensive glass of champagne he is stabbed with unexpected feelings of tenderness.
On Julia’s part, she starts to feel like she mis-judged him, wishing their encounters weren’t quite so antagonistic.
For a relatively short book, A LOT happens.
- Ruth & Monica (the sisters) both get married.
- Ruth gets sick, and Gerard offers her and Julia a stay in his country cottage in Holland, so Ruth can recoup.
- Julia loses her job.
- Then gains a job.
- Then travels through Holland with the Professor.
- She finishes a job and then picks up yet another.
- Gets a wardrobe update (it’s not a Neels unless there is a wardrobe makeover (!).
- Travels to Carlisle.
- Ends up in a FIRE.
- Sets up her own shop.
And all the way through, Gerard is there, in and out of her life; calm, resolute and gentle.
It’s not really a spoiler to say that Gerard discovers he has fallen in love with Julia much earlier in the story, because in reality, this story isn’t about Gerard.
It’s about Julia. Her bid for independence; her reluctance to settle for second best; her intrepid spirit of adventure as she tries to carve out a space for herself in a cold and inhospitable world.
‘I wasn’t going to tell you—I’m going away—tomorrow morning…I’ve got a most interesting job. I want to get away from London…’
‘You were not going to tell me?’ His voice was as quiet as his face.
‘No—no, I wasn’t.’ She had spoken too loudly, and now added recklessly, ‘Why should I?’
‘Indeed, why should you?’ He smiled gently. ‘I hope that you will be very happy.’
‘Of course I shall be happy,’ said Julia in a cross voice, wishing that he would go so that she might burst into tears in peace.
Which was exactly what he did do, blandly wishing her goodbye, telling her cheerfully that he would see himself out.
She wept into the eggs.
Julia is a rather isolated character, which manifests in a number of ways: she has no close friends, apart from her sisters; and with no real qualifications, no traditional workplace either. It means she is free to travel at the drop of a hat, but lacks the resources to do so.
And whilst it would be easy for Neels to make Gerard the Prince Charming to sweep Julia off her work-worn feet, she resists (for the most part) the urge to do so, and the story is definitely the better for it.
Though a man of no conceit, he was aware that he could make her fall in love with him—but he had no intention of doing that; she must learn to love him of her own free will…He didn’t think that she was happy; she liked her work and the surroundings in which she lived but she was sad about something. There was nothing he could do for the moment only have patience.
Neel’s Professor is blunt and to the point, ruthlessly honest and never prevaricates, yet he is also gentle and compassionate, particularly with Julia.
‘I have waited patiently for you to make a career for yourself, for it seemed to me that that was what you wanted more than anything else. But there is a limit to a man’s patience and I am at the end of mine. But you have only to say, Go away, and I will go.’
Is it perfect? No. But it IS Betty Neels, and it is one of the last books she wrote.
It was first published in MAY 2001, but there is very little sign of anything remotely modern. No mobile phones, ipods, or anything that smacks of life beyond the 1970s. More than anything, there is a slight melancholy sense of loneliness that seems to permeate the story. Julia ends up fairly solitary, until Gerard comes along and declares his love.
It’s easy to write that off as Neels making Julia relapse on her earlier self reliant stance – but I think that is rather erroneous. It’s not that her autonomy was wrong, but rather that she tried to show it through a variety of ill-though-out mechanisms and she tried to use the idea of independence to resist her feelings for Gerard.
- She ran away from Gerard (and her love for him) and wouldn’t tell him where she was going.
- She decided to set up a shop – and run it by herself, not because she REALLY wanted to, but only because ‘there wasn’t anything else’
Using this theory, it then makes sense (in the logic of Romancelandia, at least) that nothing ever quite works out for Julia in the long run. Fate has decreed her a partner, and a partner she shall have.
It doesn’t feel like Neels is against singleness and the evidence of independence, but rather, for Julia, she decided it was not to be.
And whilst I might not let that pass for another author – for Neels?
Added bonus: SO MUCH food in this book:
- Dinners with watercress soup, duckling in an orange sauce andpofferjes light as air and smothered with cream.
- Teas with eggs and ham, several kinds of bread, butter, pots of jam, a splendid cake and a great pot of tea.
- Suppers with game soup, roast beef with Yorkshire pudding to dream of, roasted parsnips, crisp and golden brown, and a crême brulée
I wavered between feeling ravenously hungry and slightly unwell…
And side note:
I notice a lot of Neel’s heroines (including Julia) seem to have ‘tip-tilted noses’ I am not exactly sure what that looks like, (although it does sound delightful) but I am thinking something in the spectrum Cindy Lou of The Grinch:
and the impossibly adorable Sailor Moon noses…
But where ever it falls?
I am totally wishing I had one.
Valancy: now vaccuming MUCH more regularly and checking behind ALL bookcases. What? I’m just covering all bases is all…
Header Image: Bridge of Sighs, John Singer Sargent,c.1903-04; watercolor with body color over pencil on paper, Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY, USA