Saturday, December 30, 2023

The Fifth Day of Christmas

By Betty Neels,  ©1971

It hadn’t taken Julia long to fall in love with Ivo van den Werff—but she had better fall out of love equally quickly, she decided, when she met Marcia Jason and realized just how much stronger a claim the other girl had on Ivo’s affection.


“That’s what you’re for—to see that I don’t die in a coma.”

“I, being a man of leisure, am the obvious one to sacrifice on the altar of frostbite and exposure.”

This is the first book I have read written by romance queen Betty Neels, who published more than 130 romance novels starting in 1969 when she was 60 and chugged along into her 90s (you go, girl!). Ms. Neels worked as a nurse most of her life and served in France during World War II, writing quite a few nurse novels on the way. The problem with her oeuvre is that it largely lies beyond the scope of my “vintage” lens, which I feel limits me to about 1975—certainly not outside the 1970s (and my regular readers well know how painful I have found the quality of books in that decade, which makes me reconsider the wisdom of including the 1970s in my circle for reasons other than timing). So though I was very pleased with this introduction to the prolific Ms. Neels, I also have mixed feelings about whether I should regret or not the fact that I will not be reading many of her books—we’ll let the caliber of her work that we encounter in the future help tip the balance of my regret or relief.

And with that editorial over with, let’s move on to a discussion of this really sweet and delightful book. Julia Pennyfeather is a 22-year-old nurse accompanying a brat of a patient to her home in England just before Christmas, arriving at that remote manor house in the gales of a severe snowstorm that strands her there with only a few members of the staff—and Dr. Ivo van den Werff, who is blown to the door entirely by chance shortly after her own arrival, as he is seeking shelter from the blizzard. She flings open the door to him in the middle of the night, and he chides her for letting in a stranger—but helps care for her patient who has come down with pneumonia. They spend a few days walking in the snow and cooking bread and soup out of the scraps in the cupboards until the roads are cleared, and then Ivo invites her to Holland to care for Marcia Jason, who is living at his fancy family home while that young lady recovers from polio.

Marcia has been “recovering” for about nine months, and Julia—who dislikes the condescending and self-absorbed woman at first site—suspects that the woman is actually much better than she pretends, that her inability to walk is a pretense to allow her to stay on at the house and trap Ivo into a pity-based marriage. So Julia forcefully hauls the young woman up and down stairs—noting that how much help Marcia requires depends on who is watching—and endures comments about how “robust” and “sturdy” she is (Marcia sees her emaciated frame as the height of sophistication). Julia also puts up with a lot of intellectual snobbery, as Marcia is always reading dense tomes by authors we likely have not read (Bacon) much less heard of (Vondel, anyone?) and making snotty comments about what she is convinced is a plebian sensibility, remarking, “You are, I imagine, an impetuous young woman, lacking intellectual powers.” In fact, Julia fabulously turns out to be a quiet brain, and only when she is on a tour of a museum with Ivo, completely flustered by his nearness, does she deliver “quite a dissertation on Rembrandt, rivalling her patient in both length and dullness.” She also often offers thoughtful solutions to actual problems in daily life and in medicine that cause Ivo and me to look at her admiringly. I was also impressed by her limitless ability to bite her tongue when Marcia makes yet another rude remark, instead offering with “a politeness which was quite awe-inspiring” enthusiastic exhortations for Marcia to continue working on her exercises or have another go at the staircase for practice that they both know she doesn’t need: “Why not come into the garden with me tomorrow morning? We needn’t go far and the worst that can happen is for you to fall over, when I shall pick you up again.”

Julia has a young man back at home “who was waiting with the smug certainty of a man with no imagination for her to say Yes.” She’s not going to marry him because he’s an ass, which puts her way ahead of a sadly large number of VNRN heroines, but that gives Ivo something to tease her about from time to time. But since Julia is convinced that Ivo is promised to Marcia—if not definitely, then doomed to be so because of his guilt about her illness—she can only drink him in when he is near and cry in secret.

The humor in this book is constant and reliable, such as when Julia hears a hoarse croak coming from the room of her patient. “She was out of bed, thrusting her feet into slippers as the list of postoperative complications liable to follow an appendicectomy on a diabetic patient unfolded itself in her still tired mind. Carbuncles, gangrene, bronchopneumonia … the croak came again which effectively ruled out the first two.” The characters in the book are delightfully drawn, including Ivo’s lovely father, and the villain Marcia is terrifically awful. Even the love interest, frequently a dull individual with no inspiring qualities in many nurse novels, here has humor, steadiness and appreciation for the gem that Julia is. The book’s only real drawback is that once the party arrives in Holland about halfway through the book, there’s not much to do except watch varieties of the same scenes play out again and again—Ivo and Julia on a pleasant outing, Marcia being nasty, Julia pining for Ivo and planning her departure for England as soon as she can reasonably get away from what she is stubbornly convinced is her impending heartbreak; even if the scenes are well-written and enjoyable, they still become a bit repetitious as the plot spins its wheels for another 80 pages. But even the fact that Ms. Neels can crank out multiple versions of the same scene, all laden with emotion and wit, demonstrates her powers. I look forward to more of her works—it just remains to be seen how far into the 1970s I’m willing to be drawn into, even with as prodigious a talent as Ms. Neels’.

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