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Romance author Betty Neels died peacefully in hospital on June 7, 2001, aged 91. Her career with Harlequin spanned 30 years, and she continued to write into her 90th year.
To her millions of fans around the world, Betty Neels epitomized romance, and yet she began writing almost by accident. She had retired from nursing, but her inquiring mind had no intention of vegetating, and her new career was born when she heard a lady in her local library bemoaning the lack of good romance novels.
There was little in Betty's background to suggest that she might eventually become a much-loved novelist. She was born in Devon to a family with firm roots in the civil service. She said she had a blissfully happy childhood and teenage years, which stood her in good stead for the tribulations to come with the Second World War. She was sent away to boarding school, and then went on to train as a nurse, gaining her SRN and SCM, that is, State Registered Nurse and State Certificate of Midwifery.
In 1939 she was called up to the Territorial Army Nursing Service, which later became the Queen Alexandra Reserves, and was sent to France with the Casualty Clearing Station. This comprised eight nursing sisters, including Betty, to 100 men! In other circumstances, she thought that might have been quite thrilling!
When France was invaded in 1940, all the nursing sisters managed to escape in the charge of an army major, undertaking a lengthy and terrifying journey to Boulogne in an ambulance. They were incredibly fortunate to be put on the last hospital ship to be leaving the port of Boulogne.
But Betty's war didn't end there, for she was posted to Scotland, and then on to Northern Ireland, where she met her Dutch husband. He was a seaman aboard a minesweeper, which was bombed. He survived and was sent to the south of Holland to guard the sluices. However, when they had to abandon their post, they were told to escape if they could, and along with a small number of other men, he marched into Belgium. They stole a ship and managed to get it across the Channel to Dover before being transferred to the Atlantic run on the convoys.
Sadly he became ill, and that was when he was transferred to hospital in Northern Ireland, where he met Betty. They eventually married, and were blessed with a daughter. They were posted to London, but were bombed out. As with most of the population, they made the best of things, and when the war finally ended, she and her husband were repatriated to Holland. As his family had believed he had died when his ship went down, this was a very emotional homecoming.
The small family lived in Holland for 13 years, and Betty resumed her nursing career there. When they decided to return to England, Betty continued her nursing and when she eventually retired she had reached the position of night superintendent.
Her first book, Sister Peters in Amsterdam, was published in 1969, and by dint of often writing four books a year, she eventually completed 134 books. She was always quite firm upon the point that the Dutch doctors who frequently appeared in her stories were not based upon her husband, but rather upon an amalgam of several of the doctors she met while nursing in Holland.
She received a great deal of fan mail, and there was always a comment upon the fascinating places she visited in her stories. Quite often those of her fans fortunate enough to visit Holland did use her information as an itinerary for their travels!
She was always amazed and touched that her books were so widely appreciated. She never sought plaudits and remained a very private person, but it made her very happy to know that she brought such pleasure to so many readers, while herself gaining a quiet joy from spinning her stories.
It is perhaps a reflection of her upbringing in an earlier time that the men and women who peopled her stories have a kindliness and good manners, coupled to honesty and integrity, that is not always present in our modern world. Her myriad of fans found a warmth and a reassurance of a better world in her stories, along with characters who touched the heart, which is all and more than one could ask of a romance writer.
She will be greatly missed!
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