Betty(s) and Barbara(s): heroines of the ’70s, reading romance, nostalgia, and feminism

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.

Winter of ChangeI 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)

20 thoughts on “Betty(s) and Barbara(s): heroines of the ’70s, reading romance, nostalgia, and feminism

  1. Des Livres says:

    Ah, Betty Neels! I haven’t read FSoG – but in her body of work, while her heroines are all utterly innocent virgins (of course), they tend to be very competent and confident at their jobs – generally, nursing. All her heroes are … very similar. It’s interesting to see her work change over the decades she was writing. In her earlier books the hero wasn’t just high handed, he was on occasion abusive, careless and cruel. There was sometimes a bit of a Cinderella riff going on.

    I was fascinated to read your journey re reading historicals/romances as a kid – mine was very similar. Although I was also busy gobbling mysteries, F & SF.

    As for Barbara Cartland, I first got into her at age 11, with The Fire In the Snow. I got irritated with her pretty quickly due to….. all her…..full….stops…..which made her heroines (only the heroines had so many) read like they were slurring drunkenly. At one point Cartland changed publisher because they were refusing to add so many full stops, but she insisted.

    I migrated pretty quickly to mills and boons (“harlequins” in the US) and stayed with writers like Betty Neels, Mary Burchell, Dinah Deane, even though by then, the 80s, they were often decades out of date. I was also being exposed to many of those 80s books which were really “rapey” and abusive, which kept me away from pursuing romance again (other than my beloved Bettys etc) untill about 1999.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Yay! More context about Betty Neels. Thanks so much for coming over here to help me ponder. I admit I worried it was a bit much to make such a long post around and about Neels, after reading only one book. But it really did strike me as a sort of That Girl, chaste version of the billionaire/virgin romance. Of course we still have chaste billionaire/virgin romances (right? contemporaries with sexual content limited to kisses?), but then I started to think about the willing/unwilling/ambivalent abdication of control by the heroine, and that reminded me more of the FSoG dymanic.

      Also Yay! for another reader with some Barbara Cartland in her history. Age 11 is exactly about right. Thank you for reminding me about the breathless writing style which I guess I had sort of forgotten. I don’t even have a copy of one of those around anymore. I think I may have to get a few, and maybe do something with a re-read. It almost makes sense that the breathlessness would work for tween romance readers. Like Liz, I just love hearing about people’s reading histories, and where there are points of intersection and departure with my own. It’s only recently that I’m realizing that the 80’s were the decade that took me more outside romance than any other decade of my adulthood. I hadn’t connected this directly to the rapey trend in the genre, because it was also the decade I was in college and grad school. Until around 1995 I read more “literary fiction” and historical fiction, with occasional forays back to romance.

      It’s interesting that you find some Neels heroes high-handed or even cruel, and that she may have evolved her ideal hero over time. Fabian definitely never came across as cruel, but I did find that the thing that made the book seem the most “dated” was the lack of hero POV. That is such a commonplace in romance now, and it gives me newfound respect for writers who are able to write compelling heroes when we only see them through the heroine’s eyes.

  2. Des Livres says:

    OMG it only now occurred to me to check Betty Neels on Amazon – I have most of her books in their original paperback editions – and they seem to have every single one, at very civilized prices. I had only previously checked the Australian harlequin page, where they were jolly expensive. Wow. I can read Sister Peters in Amsterdam, her very first book!

    • pamela1740 says:

      You really are inspiring me to pick up a few vintage Cartlands for a direct comparison with today’s Regency duke romances….

  3. Miss Bates says:

    Hmm, you have one Betty and one Barbara who are anti-romantic and one Betty and one Barbara who wrote romances. Most interesting. I’ve read two Betty Neels to date and quite enjoyed them. Firstly, she can turn a phrase; secondly, there was no highhandedness in the heroes, they were quite … um … circumspect. Yes, older and worldly, and the heroines most definitely ingenues. But what I liked best about them … and this may be irrelevant to your point here, is how hard they worked, both hero and heroine. Loved the rhythm of the workday, with all the carefully circumscribed coffee breaks.

    BTW, I wanted to read a lot of Betty Neels, so I started in chronological order with her first, SISTER PETERS IN AMSTERDAM and followed that with VISITING CONSULTANT. (I love The Uncrushable Jersey Dress and its reviews of her books … the food mentions, yes!!) Betty Neels is the height of modernity when you’re reading Grace Livingston Hill as I am … again; there’s a fascination there I’m trying to work out.

    When I started reading your post, the first thing that came to mind was That Girl! How I loved that show … how I wanted to be Marlo Thomas. Her life had it all, yes the boyfriend, but her neat little wardrobe and her purpose, her independence … I just loved it. And how cheerful she was … I found MTMoore a little whiny, a little too high-strung.

    Wonderful ruminations in this post!

    • pamela1740 says:

      It’s nice to know I’m not the only one with a special place in her heart for That Girl! Even when I was in college I wanted to have her hair and dresses, and she was always my go-to costume party character. 😉

      I think your point about the integration of work-week routines and rituals into these idealized depictions of young working women was part of their appeal. It was lovely to imagine oneself being both capable and fun, making use of those “day into evening” wardrobe tricks from the magazines!

      I have learned from twitter friends this evening that TUJD is about to wrap up as a blog — once they get through the final 10 Neels novels, they are going to archive it all but stop blogging there. Something about continuing with a Facebook page or group, but since I’m not on FB, I’m not exactly sure what that means. Also based on rec from tweeps (including Liz), have decided to read Cassandra By Chance next – has Miss Bates read this one?

      • Miss Bates says:

        Wow, never thought of That Girl! as costume party character … brilliant! I’ve gone as Scully on X-Files; the “black” part of Stendhal’s Le Rouge and Le Noir (we had to go as our favourite novel; I was on a French kick) and … hmm, vague memory of Santa’s elf. Nuff said.

        Nooo: RIP TUJD. I even bought an uncrushable jersey dress in their honour.

        Miss Bates hasn’t read CbyCh, but she remembers that it’s one of the higher rated ones on TUJD: with lashings of whipped cream. She plans to, though.

      • pamela1740 says:

        Perhaps we can read Cassandra “together” and discuss – that would be fun!

      • Miss Bates says:

        Yes! Let Miss Bates know when you might be reading it. That’d be fun, especially now that we have a Neels under our belt. 🙂

  4. Liz Mc2 says:

    Crap, I typed out a long comment and somehow managed to lose it.

    Anyhow, I love all your Betty and Barbara links. The first Neels I read I did really enjoy, but the heroine was quite downtrodden and not a nurse, so she lacked the professional competence that makes many Neels heroines appealing. I did find myself wondering if she’d go mad with nothing to do but arrange flowers after a few years. Others I read felt more balanced. (Also, one reader I know who loved 50 said she thought Betty Neels’ bossy heroes would appeal to a lot of James/Christian Grey fans).

    I also liked how this made me think about my own youthful reading. I didn’t really discover genre romance until a few years ago (aside from the occasional randomly chosen book), but there was a Barbara Cartland novel in my Grade 7 class library I read over and over, and then we moved to a small town with a library in a creaky old house, where I devoured Betty Cavanna’s teen romances and discovered via my childhood love on Joan Aiken her sister Jane Aiken Hodge’s gothic romances, and Heyer too. Other people’s reading lives fascinate me!

    Thanks for going down all these interesting byways.

    • pamela1740 says:

      It is KILLING me that WordPress is wreaking comment fail with this post. My apologies.

      But THANK YOU so much for sharing your 7th grade history with Barbara Cartland! Also, it’s reassuring to know there are others who see the connection between the Neels bossy hero and his newer incarnations.

  5. victoriajanssen says:

    This is a fascinating post, with lots for me to think about, even though I don’t have any comments in particular at the moment.

  6. Des Livres says:

    Just read Sister Peters in Amsterdam which was fascinating as well as enjoyable. I’m used to thinking of her heroes (who are all remarkably similar – there may be ?2? of her books with an English hero who was in all other respects similar to her heroes) as high handed, but I don’t engage with BDSM, FSoG etc books so my version of “high handed” is probably a bit different to other modern readers.

    My favourite reading experiences of Betty Neels was one she must have written in the late 90s or so, where she has her characters going off to a performance of modern music and despising it, and then going off to a fashionable restaurant which fed them little slivers of vegetables and the characters finding it all MOST UNSATISFACTORY.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Her take on 90s mores and culture must have been very entertaining! That sounds pretty funny. What makes a “high handed” hero like Fabian seem so incredibly old fashioned is the fact that there’s no question in anybody’s mind — not even Mary Jane’s, really — that it would not be appropriate for a young woman with an education and a profession to manage her own inheritance. So he’s in total control and even though she is petulant and chafes at some of his decisions, she never really questions the status quo in which a female person of 22 requires a male guardian until she can be handed off to a husband. There’s no consent on her part, but this is because it’s never even really up for discussion (in spite of her outbursts which are framed as childish). I’m looking forward to reading more of everyone’s more favorite Betty books!

  7. Barb in Maryland says:

    Over at The Uncrushable Jersey Dress I’m known as Betty Barbara and I do so love to see other readers discover the uniqueness that is (as we fondly refer to her) The Great Betty. By all means, wander over and rummage in the archives.
    BTW, ‘Cassandra by Chance’ is simply fabulous–oodles better than ‘Winter of Change’. I re-read it often.
    I will gladly confess to having read entirely too many old Barbara Cartland books way back in the 60s and 70s. I even have one on my keeper shelf (but that’s compared to dozens of Heyer’s books, of course….)
    I’m glad I discovered your blog, as it is always interesting reading. it is now on my regular ‘read’ list.
    (Hi, Liz Mc2; greetings, Miss Bates)

    • pamela1740 says:

      Many thanks for honoring this post, and my little blog, by stopping by to comment. One of the Bettys – it’s squee for a novice blogger! 😉 I was back at The Book Rack (bestest local used paperback shop) yesterday looking at the stash of Neels books. Sadly, no copy of Cassandra by Chance, but they will look for a copy for me. It’s lovely to know you’ve also had the Cartland experience in your reading past! I am considering a Cartland re-read to compare to the longer Regencies of today – but I suppose a more direct comparison would be to new category Regencies so I’ll need to read one or two.

  8. JennyME says:

    I LOVE reading about people’s early paths to romance novels. I read a few Barbara Cartlands as a kid but quickly shifted to other trad regencies by authors who managed to avoid the full stop nonsense mentioned above. Marion Chesney was a huge favorite of 12-year-old me.

    My mom and I occasionally traded Harlequins and she, a hardcore Anglophile, introduced me to a lot of classic historicals and instilled a love for any book that mentions tea and tweeds. Catherine Cookson’s winning “maid marries mill owner” formula kept me happy for several years before I finally graduated to the R-rated historical romances of the 80s.

    Ah, memories. I might have to read some Jean Plaidy this weekend.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Any lover of books involving tea and tweeds gets a big hearty welcome to this excursion down memory lane! Thank you for copping to the Barbara Cartland. 🙂 And I am getting a huge chuckle over your maid/mill owner description of Cookson. I guess coming of age in the 80s was right in time for R-rated romances; I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it’s so true! It was the later 80s and early 90s that were the only years I read hardly any romance. I think nostalgia reading may be a big theme for this fall for me…

  9. […] to read a great treatment of Neels and issues of scorn and love and feminism, check out this great post at Badass […]


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s