I just finished reading a romance novel from 1973 that made me nostalgic even as my eyes were rolling back in my head. This nostalgia is sort of fluid and rippling around several different stones in the river of my recent – and not-so-recent – reading. Apologies in advance for what I know is going to be a rambling and impressionistic post.
In 1973 I turned 10, which is the age my daughters are now (yes, twins). They have Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. At 10, I was still deep in Oz books and Andrew Lang’s Fairy Tales. I was about two years away from reading my first category romance novels, but by 8th grade my reading log was brimming with Barbara Cartland titles. There wasn’t nearly as much YA romance then as there is now. I loved Patricia Beatty’s YA historicals, and she sometimes introduced an age-appropriate romantic figure for her spunky heroines. Here is perhaps my favorite book from 1973. But barely two years later I read both Gone With the Wind and Jane Eyre during the summer before 8th grade, and the die was pretty much cast: leaving aside questions of comparative literary merit between these two iconic novels, I was looking for romantic tension, Eyre-ish happy endings, and historical settings. I read my way steadily through Victoria Holt/Jean Plaidy, along with Anya Seton and Norah Lofts. And in the ’70s I read hundreds of category romances.
At the time I wasn’t aware of category romance as a particular product distinct from single title romance, but I liked knowing what to expect, along with the fact that the supply seemed endless — akin to Nancy Drew mysteries, but I wasn’t turning into a mystery reader, I was turning into a romance reader. I gravitated to Regencies, and I also read Heyer. I still like books that are part of series, but I haven’t read a category romance in decades, mainly because I look for longer, denser historicals. So it’s been a long time since I read a book like this that reminded me of the simplicity and purity of a Barbara Cartland.
I could almost hear Angela Lansbury singing A Tale As Old As Time in the back of my head as I was reading WINTER OF CHANGE, by Betty Neels (Mills & Boon, 1973; Harlequin re-release 2001). The hero isn’t a beast, but it was enchanting and refreshing to revisit the kind of romance novel that takes me on a short, sweet, straightforward emotional journey with an old-fashioned style couple. It made me feel sort of sentimental, even though Neels’ story is much more astringent than saccharine.
It was Liz over at Something More who first mentioned Neels to me when we shared our mutual admiration for the tweedy, shabby mood of Barbara Pym’s wonderful novels. And indeed I found this Neels romance did evoke Pym-ish gentility with its focus on mundane aspects of domestic arrangements and its understated approach to passion and emotion.
Interestingly, it was in the 70′s and early 80′s that Pym’s novels enjoyed their greatest popularity, as Salon noted last spring. And indeed that’s when I was enjoying ‘em – as a much younger reader, curiously fascinated by Pym’s dissatisfied middle-aged couples, lonely spinsters, and generally deflated Oxbridge atmosphere.
But back to Betty and WINTER OF CHANGE: Distinguished Fabian van der Blocq is older, much more experienced, socially and professionally powerful. Mary Jane Pettigrew (yes, she’s really called Miss Pettigrew) is a classic ingenue – clever, petite, hard-working, modest and unassuming — one of those brave-girl-in-the-big-wide-world characters. Not much happens plot-wise — she’s an orphan, raised by her grandfather who is dying. They meet when Fabian, nephew of said grandfather’s dearest friend, is appointed guardian of her inheritance. They are at utterly different stages of life, and she resents his having any control over her affairs. They observe and admire each other, but privately, so that for much of the book when they are thrown together they spend their time being diffidently polite or openly antagonistic to each other. Mary Jane in particular becomes almost petulant, and entertains another suitor in a foolish gambit to get Fabian’s attention that, predictably, ends badly.
Neels, a former nurse, was known for her hospital-set romances, and there are medical situations in which both Mary Jane and Fabian learn about each other through observation of interactions with patients and relatives and with their shared vocation of healing. Yet the barriers imposed by the guardianship remain firmly in place. Mary Jane refuses to admit, even to herself, that she’s in love with the tall, dark and remote surgeon, though it’s evident to the reader throughout. Fabian is actually quite thoughtful and even tender at times, but he feels honor-bound to refrain from getting involved with his ward because of their age difference (he’s 40ish; she’s 22). He pivots from complimenting her appearance and noticing her preferences with genuine concern for her well-being, to antagonizing Mary Jane with his control of her affairs and remote detachment.
Of course it’s harder to know what he actually thinks about her because the entire book is written from her POV. This contributed to my sense of nostalgia — transpose the setting to Regency London and it could have been a Barbara Cartland duke and his ward. They seesaw back and forth between “chance” encounters where their delight is obvious, and separations and second-guessing where the young heroine in the pangs of first love despairs of ever catching his attention in that special way. Since we never get inside the hero’s head, it’s all about the chaste and unconsummated minuet of anticipation as played out in the heroine’s inner dialogue, until the final few pages when circumstances threaten to part them forever–unless love is finally declared.
The ending is brief and almost matter-of-fact; the tension is romantic but far from sexual. So the reading experience gave me a sense of nostalgia for the romance reading I did as a young teen. And yes, I realize it’s only my own filter that so distorts the brisk and efficient Betty Neels as to make this book seem to have anything to do with a Barbara Cartland flight of fancy. Since Neels has a lot more of Barbara Pym than Barbara Cartland going on, it’s as I’ve applied a some kind of rosy regency Instagram effect to the whole thing. Neels in her own right has immense nostalgic as well as immediate appeal, as the Bettys of The Uncrushable Jersey Dress have brilliantly documented. But I am a first-time Neels reader, and she’s making rather a complicated impression.
Within the confines of the novel itself, WINTER OF CHANGE’s early ’70s setting gave me a different flavor of nostalgia. It’s long enough ago to almost feel like a historical. Except, not. It’s a primary text for a historian of the 70s. To start with the good — in spite of the slightly downtrodden, mousy way that Mary Jane is described (and describes herself), the first chapter sets her up as an early ’70′s career gal in a way that reminded me a bit of Marlo Thomas and Mary Tyler Moore. She drives a Mini, watches her budget but saves for expensive shoes and handbags, has a good education, and earns a respectable living in a profession that maintains her position as a member of a privileged social class. Yet she’s clearly not totally on her own, living as she does in the nurses’ residence at her hospital with a loose group of friends but emotionally isolated without family or other primary relationship(s). It’s an idealized, semi-autonomous kind of That Girl! independence: Marlo and Mary had their own apartments but constantly hovering parents, neighbors, and boyfriends.
On the flip side, there’s no denying that any vaguely mod, second-wave-feminist elements of Mary Jane’s situation and character are heavily outweighed by the entrenched sexism Neels’ novel reflects.
As I was reading, I started keeping track of all the places and times where Fabian thinks for Mary Jane, makes decisions for her, and takes care of her needs in a way that is both delightfully thoughtful and totally high-handed. Yes, he’s legally her guardian, but why is this romantic? If they met some other way, Fabian would have to pursue Mary Jane much more actively; what’s interesting about the guardianship is that it makes explicit that his role is to guard and protect — and direct — her like a parent.
One way to look at this may be simply to chalk it up to the alpha hero convention in romance. Guardianship gives Fabian legal rights to go along with his romance-y alpha motivations to protect and possess the heroine by manipulating Mary Jane’s circumstances. I don’t know (or remember) enough about the genre in the ’70s to say whether alphas were as normative and popular then as they have been in later decades. Certainly controlling alpha heroes have been around in romanceland since, well … forever. So Fabian isn’t really all that remarkable, except that meeting him 40 years after he was written means I’m bringing a lot of baggage along for the read.
Jackie suggested recently at Romance Novels for Feminists, that in the wake of 50 Shades we are experiencing another wave of uber alpha heroes, noting the “obsessive” alpha tendency in particular. There are probably way more than 50 shades of obsessive when it comes to romance heroes, so I guess my feeling is that the most direct and obvious result of the 50 Shades phenomenon is the kinky billionaire hero. And here’s where I wend my way back to Fabian and Mary Jane. No, there’s no kink. There’s no sex.
But it’s a lot like a Billionaire/virgin D/s dynamic, without the BDSM. He’s so much wealthier than she is, and even when she attains financial security, it’s simultaneous with losing control of her own affairs. She stops working — he even makes the phone call to her (dowdy, of course) female supervisor and charms the beleaguered Hospital Sister out of requiring Mary Jane to give her month’s notice! Definitely shades of (Christian)Grey. Fabian then tells her what kind of clothes to purchase for her new life and whisks her to his home in Holland to serve as private nurse to his uncle.
He’s not obsessive — Mary Jane does return to her home alone (at this point they are both stupidly pretending they’re not in love with each other). She gets to make her own mistakes – almost. Fabian intervenes to save her, then disappears again leaving behind some achingly romantic Christmas gifts – almost as if he is waiting for her to grow up. She, of course, has no gift for Fabian because she’s too busy being snippy at him for rescuing her from a bad situation she was too blind to realize spelled certain disaster.
But regardless of their lack of intimacy or proximity, Mary Jane’s life is unalterably changed by her removal from her profession to an entirely domestic and social sphere. She’s expected to live in the manor house she inherited, do good works in the village, and marry well. Predictably, she gets frustrated, bored, and “headstrong” — in her own naive way (this is when she takes up with an entirely unsuitable suitor). It’s as if she’s a trapped housewife, with Fabian in control from afar. I kept thinking about The Feminine Mystique (another Betty) — and wondering if things would get any better – or just stay the same, or even get worse – once she inevitably married him. The book ends with a restrained yet believable HEA when Fabian basically pulls an “of course I love you, silly, and we’re getting married.” As a romance, the novel works. On one level, I was satisfied, and happy for both of them. But there was something that didn’t quite sit right. Perhaps, unlike a Pym novel, the book is just not powerful or compelling enough to transcend its vintage setting. I can’t escape the feeling that Mary Jane is 5, or maybe 15, minutes from Diary of a Mad Housewife — or Valley of the Dolls (easy access to pretty pills!) Or a Bell Jar experience.
So – is there any point to this meander down nostalgia lane? Somehow, reading this rather unremarkable romance from the ’70s brought me back to adolescent romance reading and mod heroines, and then around the long bend to 2013 and billionaires tying up virgins. In spite of the length of this post, I’m left with still more questions.
Is Fabian “worse” than a Christian Grey-type hero because though he wouldn’t dream of striking her, he takes control of her life without Mary Jane’s consent? At least Anastasia got to negotiate her contract, and she kept working. (I did read all three of the E.L. James novels, and I rather choosily read other erotic romance from time to time.)
Would it make a difference if Neels had written sections from the hero’s POV? Maybe the relationship wouldn’t feel so unequal if we could get inside his head and hear how Mary Jane affects Fabian. (I do plan to give Neels another chance to captivate me – next up: ESMERALDA. I have the sense that it’s not any one Neels book that wins you over, it’s her body of work — and I’m ready to read on.)
If Neels were writing today, would she be writing billionaire doms and submissive virgins (who work in hospitals)?
I’m curious to hear what others think about Betty (Neels), for those who’ve read her, and also what about the Barbaras? I sometimes think I am the only person who ever actually read a Barbara Cartland romance. Or is willing to admit it.
Finally, just because I was curious, I looked up their dates –
Betty Neels (1909-2001)
Betty Friedan (1921-2006)
Barbara Cartland (1901-2000)
Barbara Pym (1913-1980)