One of the things I love to search for when reading Betty Neels romances is where and how exactly the title comes into play. And it almost always is hidden in a bit of dialogue or in some internal musings by the heroine. In The Promise of Happiness, it comes late in the book and well after the "Rich Dutch Doctor", Baron Tiele Raukema van den Eck, falls in love with a plain, skinny little mouse of a girl, Becky Saunders:
‘They were all surprises for me,’ he told her, which explained nothing, and put his coffee cup down. ‘You’re growing into quite a pretty girl, Becky.’
She shook her head sadly. ‘No, I’m not, thank you all the same.’ She added quite fiercely: ‘I wish I were beautiful, so that everyone stared at me…’
She looked away, ashamed of her outburst so that she didn’t see his smile.
‘There are so many kinds of beauty—have you ever looked in a small hidden pool in a wood, Becky? It’s full of beauty, but it’s not in the least spectacular, only restful and quiet and neverendingly fascinating.’ He got up and wandered to the door. ‘Someone said— and I’ve forgotten who - ‘‘Beauty is nothing other than the promise of happiness.’’ That’s very true, you know.’
He put out an arm and pulled her close and kissed her gently. ‘Good night, my pretty little mouse.’
A remark which gave Becky a sleepless night. (188)
Though Baron van den Eck cannot remember who said it, the quote - "Beauty is only the promise of happiness" - is from Stendhal's On Love, a series of essays in which Stendhal examines love generally (all while mixing in culture, history, politics and literature) and specifically by trying to exorcise his obsession with an Italian countess who was allegedly not amused by his attentions. The story behind his "crystallization" concept as it applies to love and falling in love is both poetic and weird with an implication of love having an illusory quality, an idealization as well as an unhealthy sense of "perfection" is bestowed on the beloved. Stendhal latched on to the idea while visiting the salt-mines at Salzburg. Miners toss a leafless branch into the works during winter, the salt water works its magic, and in summer, a plain, brown twig is transformed into something which appears to be "scintillating", "dazzling", a "diamond-studded bough" covered in salt crystals. What was once plain is now beautiful. I'm more in the camp of "one sees clearly only with the heart." Physical beauty is just one element and is subjective, but seeing with the heart allows us to look beneath the surface to see honor, strength, humor, honesty, confidence, generosity and a million other reasons why we love. It's the entirety of the relationship that makes lovers see the other as unique and beautiful.
Becky is one of my all-time favorite Neels' heroines. Why? Well, because when we first meet Becky, she's sopping wet, schlepping along the lonely and drizzling moors before dawn with a battle-scarred cat named Pooch in a plastic bag, an old black Labrador retriever named Bertie trudging slowly beside her, and "a pitifully small sum in her purse." She's running away from home, of course, after overhearing her wicked stepbrother, Basil, tell his mother that he intends to murder Becky's pets (drowning for Pooch, shooting for Bertie). Becky, a trained nurse, has for the last year or so been the unpaid housekeeper and general dogsbody to wicked stepmother and evil stepbrother. The only reason she stayed was to ensure Pooch and Bertie were unharmed, but overhearing their fate compels her to take them and run with £30 6p she has saved. She could be depressed. Downtrodden. Morose. Miserable. Overwhelmed. Did I say depressed? But she's none of those things. Instead, she and her faithful friends are finally free. She is optimistic without being a Pollyanna, and happy despite her problems. She has a plan. She is resourceful and refuses to go down without a fight. I love her. She has gumption. How heroic is that?
Of course, it's not a case of love at first sight for dear Tiele. He sees Becky for the first time when she is at her lowest, least attractive point:
She offered a wet hand and he shook it, still with an air of amusement. She really was a nondescript little thing, no make-up and far too thin—her pansy brown eyes looked huge and there were hollows in her cheeks, and her hair was so wet he could hardly tell its colour. (8)
To continue Stendhal's analogy, Becky is just a brown twig at this point without those glittering diamonds of salt crystals to dazzle and mesmerize. Though there's not one bit of sparkle on Becky for Tiele at this point, he has been kindness itself - offering her a lift in his honking Rolls, paying for her meal, treating her pets with amused and gentle tolerance, and offering her a job as a personal nurse to his mother who's recuperating from a broken leg. Over the next weeks, Becky, with regular meals, begins to gain the weight she lost and the Baroness's compassion helps her build up some much needed confidence. Of course, Tiele's sister does a pretty fine job of knocking her down, but Becky holds her own.
The girl’s smile deepened. ‘You said she was plain,’ she observed to her brother. ‘A half starved mouse.’
He gave Becky another look. ‘And so she was—it must be the food and the fresh air.’ He gave Becky a bland smile. ‘You filled out very nicely, Becky.’
He was impossible! Becky hated him, although she didn’t hate him in the same way as she hated Basil. There was a difference, like hating a thunderstorm and something nasty under an upturned stone…
‘If you have finished discussing me,’ she said haughtily, ‘I’ll tell the Baroness that you’re here.’ At the door she paused to say: ‘Such manners!’ (63)
You just have to love her. And if that's not bad enough, Tiele expounds on his thin mouse statement in a later overheard conversation with his mother:
The Baroness looked at him thoughtfully. ‘No,’ she said at length, ‘the child has pitifully few things to put into a bag, she has bought almost no clothes since we have been here.’
‘Very sensible of her. She’s presumably saving for her future comfort.’
‘Don’t you like her?’
He laughed gently. ‘It depends what you mean by that, Mama. I like Becky, she’s a good nurse, and she’s gone through a nasty patch, but she’s hardly a beauty, is she? and her conversation hardly sparkles. Shall we say that she’s not quite my type—I’m not attracted to thin mice."
It was a pity that Becky heard him as she came back into the room. The self-confidence she had so painfully built up since she had been with the Baroness oozed out of her sensible shoes and her face went rigid in an effort to compose it to a suitably unaware expression. (68)
Yes, I know eavesdroppers never hear good things. Blah, blah, blah. But how utterly heartbreakingly painful is that? You can say "sticks and stones, etc" till the cows come home, but words really can hurt and harm. So very sad. Still no sparkle. Still not dazzling. Still just a plain old brown twig. But wait! This is Becky the Valkyrie-in-training. She's not about to take that lying down. Besides, Tiele will be hearing those words parroted back to him until he is sick unto death of them and wishing he'd never allowed the thought to cross his mind, much less say those hurtful things, before any snogging begins and wedding bells chime.
Somewhere after a side trip to Molde is when Becky begins to topple the Baron from his lofty turret of arrogance down into the murky moat to mingle with mere mortals. Could it have began when she called dear Baron on his unfortunate remarks about her thin, mousy person? Or possibly when he realizes that this rather nondescript little female was not going to allow him to use her as a doormat? An object to be taken for granted? Or maybe it was learning that there was more to Becky than her outward appearance? Or maybe it really was her creamy skin and large dark eyes? All of the above? Hard to say for sure, but Becky certainly captured his attention.
"You don't like thin mice," Becky reminded him coldly.
His eyes twinkled and his smile very nearly made her change her mind about him. "I'm not sure about that any more." He eyes her without haste. "And you aren't so thin, you know." (75)
In Stendhal's On Love, he offers an example of which lover a man falls in love with when given the choice between a woman of great beauty and a woman who is thin and scarred from small pox. It surprises him that his friend falls in love with the thin, scarred woman. Love has its reasons, after all. Baron-Not-So-Charming, too, has a choice: the coldly glamorous and tousled blonde Nina van Doorn (I always read that as 'Doom' for some reason.) and plain, mousy, thin Becky. Now Becky isn't a hag or anything, but she is a bit malnourished and just not. . .flashy. Of course, Becky found a place in the Baron's heart instead of Nina van Doorn, who is ideally beautiful but lacking in the character and compassion departments.
Becky is independent, honest to a fault, and dauntless. She should have been the true fish out of water but settles into a city comfortably where everything is twice as hard for her - the language, the customs, a job which is challenging even without the extra stress of being contingent upon her fitting in. She does it all, and without complaint. It doesn't take Tiele too long to begin making the comparisons between Nina and Becky with Becky coming out on top. In fact it is Tiele who is the fish out of water, reeling with emotions Becky lets loose in him. What follows - midnight snacks in the kitchen with buttered rolls and coffee, a quick stolen kiss as Becky passes him in the doorway, an impulsive and impromptu visit at her flat along with an improvised picnic including a sweet Moselle to drink (which he detests but Becky loves), and one toe-curling kiss culminates with Becky's dawning realization that she's in love with the Baron and the Baron fleeing her flat like the hounds of hell were on his tail.
One of my favorite scenes shows exactly how far Tiele has come from his "I am not attracted to thin mice" comment, and is shortly after THE KISS. Things are tense between Becky and the Baron after she blurts out in an alcoholic haze (it was the Baron's best Napoleon brandy that did it!) that Nina is not the wife for him. That bit of honesty only earns her a blast of icy anger and frozen hauteur that freezes her on the spot. She begins to avoid him, but contrarily he won't allow it. When Tiele insists he and Nina give Becky a ride back to her flat and then on to the hospital, the only one satisfied with this situation is Tiele. Clearly neither lady is happy about being pushed into each other's company.
She couldn’t walk away because he had taken her by the arm. Now he turned and said something to Nina which made that young lady sizzle with temper. ‘I’ve told Nina that she can wait if she likes to. Let’s go up.’
But before he did he took the ignition key out of the car and put it into a pocket, blandly ignoring both girls’ astonished faces.
Inside the flat he sat down, watching Becky putting food out and opening the door on to the balcony. ‘And let me assure you, Becky, that I don’t find Nina’s behaviour towards you in the least funny. I’m not sure what I find it.’ He bent to lift an impatient Pooch on to his knee. ‘That’s not quite true, but there is no time to discuss it now. Are you ready?’
Nina had gone by the time they reached the car. ‘Get in front,’ begged the Baron. ‘We can talk shop until we get to the hospital.’
Which they did in a comfortable casual fashion, brought to an end when they were crossing the vast entrance hall together.
‘I should prefer it if you were to call me Tiele,’ said the Baron apropos nothing.
Becky would have stopped if he had given her the chance, but as he didn’t she contented herself with a long look at him. ‘Quite impossible—you’re a Baron and a doctor, and I worked for you…’
‘I wish you wouldn’t keep throwing Baron at me in that inflexible fashion; I was Tiele first, you know. Besides, you told me that you liked me…’
She marched on, not looking at him, her cheeks glowing. ‘I like you, too, Becky.’ His voice was beguiling.
She said stonily: ‘Yes, I know. I heard you telling your mother that in Trondheim—you liked me, but I wasn’t your cup of tea.’
‘And I was quite right—but I do believe that you’re my glass of champagne, Becky.’ (173-174)
*sigh* Isn't that just lovely? From thin mouse to a glass of champagne. I think that means he loves the girl. Despite Stendhal's crystallization craziness, that little quote about beauty and the promise of happiness is quite lyrical and somewhat analogous to the long and winding road Baron Doctor (or is it Doctor Baron?) van den Eck travels to get to the point of really seeing, appreciating and, yes, loving his plain little mouse, Becky Saunders. Tiele comes to know Becky, with knowing her comes loving her and in loving her a fulfillment of the promise of happiness.