Monday, April 12, 2010

The Promise of Happiness--1979

"Oh, I'll do The Promise of Happiness," I said to Betty Debbie, my head cocked to the right, holding the phone between my ear and my shoulder. My brow puckered. The Promise of Happiness...which one was that? The fabulous one, that's what.

Becky (only-my-evil-relations-call-me-Rebecca) Saunders is nothing less than the bravest woman in Neelsdom. The. Bravest. At first glance she's nothing much to look at. Her elderly raincoat and scarf are sopping wet, she's carrying a mangy looking cat in a plastic sack (recycling!), Bertie the dog is trotting alongside with a lead. She's been walking briskly along this desolate stretch of road for miles in the dim light of a summer morning and she's thin--almost emaciated, really. She's got no home, no family, two pets, just the clothes she's standing up in, a comb and 30 Pounds and sixty pence, scrimped into a tiny nest egg for two years. Due to her lack of food, I loathe saying this, has probably got salt-cellars for bosoms.
But she's out there in a horrible rainstorm because it's the right thing to do. In short, she's Amelia, freaking, Earhart.
Up whispers a silver-grey Rolls Royce Corniche. The very handsome man who climbs out of the car says good morning and proceeds to introduce himself, "My name's Raukema van den Eck--Tiele Raukema van den Eck." (Are you sure it's not Bond, James Bond?) It's Baron Tiele Raukema van den Eck, in point of fact.
I've seen this one before. Honey, when Richard Gere slows down to offer roadside lifts, don't demur about ruining his seats with your pets. Just hop in and you'll be at the Beverly Wiltshire in no time. But, whate
ver you do, don't kiss him. Kissing just anybody makes you trampy.
Tiele takes her into Newcastle where he offers her breakfast.
She's explained by this time that she's a nurse but that she's been forced to keep house for her step-brother Basil (no relation to the herb), and her step-mother.
Editorial Comment:
My own step-mother is much beloved which is why I know she has a given name. Becky evidently didn't get to the exchanging-of-Christian-names part of their relationship which is why she is only ever referred to as step-mother.
Basil was going to kill the pets the next day (because his sociopathic rage is more of a low-simmer variety) so Becky, who'd been stuck there for years, ups and offs--in the rain, with the pets, with 30 Pounds and sixty pence.
Tiele feels a bit of a heel letting her go out in the rain again but she is free and over 21...
Out in the lobby Becky comes to the aid of an old woman in a wheel chair. He
r quick thinking and kindness are appreciated and after she leaves the hotel is chased down by Tiele once more.
Hey, that was my mother you helped...She just fired her nurse...How wo
uld you treat ulcerative protocolitis?...No she doesn't have it...I'm quizzing you...Oh, yes, I am a doctor--Why else would I be so hot?...Why don't you give up this dream of homelessness and penury and further starvation to go on a fabulous cruise?!...Your pets can come to Holland with me.
And that's that. She's hired, is given an hour and a stipend to buy some plain uniforms and undies (!--Will someone explain The Great Neels' fascination with knickers?), and finds herself in fabulous luxury with a congenial patient, lovingly folding her silk undies (!).
I am mildly surprised that the Baron would hand over his frail invalid mother to someone who may or may not smother her in her sleep. Becky could be a congenital liar with handy props for all he knows. Happily she is not.
The Baroness has a fractured tib and fib that has taken some time to knit. Betty Debbie is practically an expert on wheel chairs and cruise ships and bones that take a long time to knit so I expect a robust discussion thread on these topics.
The cruise. We get to hear about Becky making "a sincere effort not to be thin anymore" (oh I just love her), extravagant shore trips, and, best of all, occasional calls from the Baron--whose rapport with Becky is mildly condescending but she gives as
good as she gets. The Baroness is happy to feign sleep just to listen in on the conversations. She will be a delightful mother-in-law and probably volunteer to take their children for afternoons and send them back sugared-up just because she can.
Trondheim, Norway. The Baron shows up unexpectedly one morning with a pretty blonde named Tialda. Oh it's just his sister. Whew. Keepi
ng with Raukema van den Eck family tradition, she makes personal remarks, "You said she was plain...a half-starved mouse." Maybe Tialda had also been told that Becky was a deaf-mute as well.
Becky flashes back after enduring the burning light of the Baron's microscope for some uncomfortable moments, "If you have finished discussing me, I'll tell the Baroness that you're here. Such manners!"
It is then that Tialda has her Dawning Realization. Here is the girl who will lay her brother low at last. A fat lot of good a sister's recognition of budding true love is...
Unfortunately, Trondheim also contains an episode wherein our hero (whom I promise we will learn to love as Becky does) tells his mother (Becky overhears!) that thin mice are not his cup of tea. I was so mad I almost didn't forgive him when he says he wants to see more of The Obvious Brunette who replaces Becky for her short holiday in Molde.
In Molde, the Baron is surprised to learn that Becky swims really well
(yay! Take that you supercilious tea drinker!) and she is sad to think that all he sees is "a dowdy girl who wore cheap clothes and didn't know how to make the best of herself--and she wasn't really like that...it was difficult to splash out...and he was so secure himself that he would never have known the insecurity that not having money brought with it." Which puts me in mind of those stories you hear about people who lived through the Great Depression--hoarding every sliver of soap and burying money in Mason jars in the backyard.
Tialda comments to her brother that Becky will make someone a splendid wife and the Baron frowns. The thin end of the wedge...
Back in Holland, the Baron walks his mother, sister and Nurse Becky into his house to find a stunning blonde with an fashionably untidy mop of hair. All is forgotten (mother, Becky, dinner, Bertie and Pooch) while Nina van Doorn is entertained. The Baron will live to regret his thoughtlessness for decades to come, I am sure.
He finds Becky a jo
b and a tiny attic flat. Forgive me for skipping great swaths of fabulousness but there's too much of it. All you need to know is that he begins to see that the Insidious van Doorn takes a lotta maintenance to stay fashionably untidy and that Little Becky is holding her own in their undeclared battle of wills.
He asks her to call him Doctor (because she's been 'Baron'-ing him all over the place) and she answers, "Just as you wish, Doctor." "I sometimes suspect that you are laughing at me," he observed blandly.
See what I mean? She's knocked him off his Rich Dutch Doctor pedestal and he's attempting
to clutch his dignity to himself like a maiden aunt wearing her best hat in a windstorm.
At the hospital she continues her Reign of Awesomeness (picturing a galloping Mongol horde in my head) and keeps impinging on his consciousness enough so that he asks her out. I don't know what his reasoning
was--maybe a mixture of pity and curiosity or perhaps he's trying to pin down why the thought of her making some houseman a splendid wife makes him frown--but by the end of the picnic he's found that he enjoyed every second with her, appreciates that she is one of the happiest people he knows (to contrast with a certain sulky and whiny character---rhymes with thorn, born, shorn, forlorn (as Shakespeare might say, "an unhappy rhyme")) and realizes...something. He's not sure what yet. But it's enough to swoop in and kiss her.
Her Dawning Realization follows and I can't really blame her. It was a s
hattering kiss. Her bones have turned to jelly but she's in her right mind enough to know that retreat is impossible. Quarantine fees, you know. She'll have to apply herself to those Dutch verbs and hope to find another hospital in six months or so. But I'm sure that first night of study was no good:
  • Nina van Doorn is een bedorven rotkind. (NvD is a spoiled brat.)
  • Mijn liefde voor de Baron is hopeloos. (My love for the Baron is hopeless.)
  • Bertie en Hond zullen de dood van mij zijn. (Bertie and Pooch will be the death of me.---FYI, even the online translator read 'Pooch' as Hond--dog--even though she's the cat.)
Bertie will really be the death of her. That dumb dog (don't blame him, he has a cat name) escapes in a thunder storm, half drowns himself in a canal and requires Becky and the Baron (sounds like a Nancy Drew mystery) to shuck their Burberrys and swim in.
Muzzy on 'peculiar' tasting Napoleon brandy in the aftermath, Becky indiscreetly tells him that Nina is no good for him and that he should marry someone kind and good for him. This is one of those oopsie-daisy cross-cultural courtship mishaps that crop up from time to time in every relationship. When Brit girl says, "You should think about marrying someone who is not a merciless block of statuary," the Dutch-boy translation is "I've just keyed your Rolls Royce Corniche because I could and killed a man just to watch him die." Oopsie.
Tiele, making one last bid to recapture his spot on the Rich Dutch Doctor pedestal, lashes out, "...should she be a skinny creature with no conversation--such as yourself, Rececca?" Did you notice how he calls her Rebecca? That should put her firmly in her place.
It does. She spends the next few days in a fever of dread that she will have to see him and making PSA announcements about the dangers of drinking and talking. How he spends the next few days isn't explicitly spelled out in the book but I argue that this is when he has his own, final Dawning Realization. He runs out of Becky's flat without shutting the door and positively gallops down the stairs. What's he running from? Himself, that's what. A skinny, plain little creature--who does she think she is? It must have been a horribly uncomfortable thing to abandon the pedestal once and for all and to admit that a girl he had no intention of loving, not to mention noticing, is the sun the moon and the whole enchilada. I think of him sleeping very poorly once he realizes he just called his future wife a skinny creature with no conversation...to her face.
So, after plucking up his courage and girding up his loins, he corners her in a nurses' corridor and asks her to come to lunch with his mother and sister. That's right. He's reduced to conducting his courtship behind his womenfolk's skirts. Oh how the mighty have fallen.
Naturally he shows up at the end to give her a lift back--with Garden Statuary Nina (she keeps inviting herself to things).
"You'll be late on duty,"

"I prefer to be that than--than...I suppose you think it's funny to watch her snubbing me
."
Becky may be thin and small but when she fell in love she didn't lose her backbone. (Team Becky!)
But then one day the doctor goes completely off the rails. Becky accepted a date with a houseman-- Wim the Worthy--because his girlfriend was busy. The doctor's prescription for the predicament is to drag Nina (who keeps inserting herself into his life anyway) off to a te-de-ious chamber music concert where he plants himself in an expensive seat and stares, with a scowl on his face, at the back of Becky's head. The. Entire. Night.
He manages to rid himself of Nina and cut Wim out of the picture and then tells Becky that he only went to the concert "because you did"!
He didn't just walk away from his aloof Rich Dutch Doctor pedestal. He's chopped it down, dragged it to a clearing and built a bon fire.
One more location to go! Becky helps nurse the Baroness as she goes to England. Lots of darling things happen, Basil the Bad makes one last ditch effort to turn Becky into Rebecca and our hero carries her off to an Olde Worlde Tea Shoppe where, on the strength of his feelings, makes her eat with one hand. (He won't let go of the other one!!!) Kisses!

Rating: I loved this--just loved it--from the first vision of her whistling her way down a wet English road to the very last second outside the Tea Shoppe. Becky was brave and plucky and honest. Tiele was so mixed-up and turned around and then really, really let himself go when he'd finally diagnosed the problem. I bestow the most joyful queen of puddings. The only thing that makes it anything less than a lashings of whipped cream (which I'm already regretting not giving it) is that when I picked it up I could hardly remember which one it was. I think that has something to do with the title. The Promise of Happiness just didn't leap...zzzzzzzzzzzzz. They need to rename this Becky and the Baron (the hot, hot Baron).

Food:
Iced celery soup (Why on earth?), cold chicken-tangerine-apple salad, peach royale, chilled strawberry soup (I want some!), blueberry pie and (for The Picnic of Dawning Realization) chicken legs wrapped in foil, tiny pork pies, minute sausages, crisp rolls filled with ham and dishes of salad and ice cream in a container as well as coffee in a thermos jug and Moselle (which she likes and he tolerates for her sake).

Fashion: An old-fashioned rain coat and sopping scarf to start, later a worthy-looking dark blue nurse's uniforms and cardigan, and then (in one shopping trip when she gets to splash a bit--see left) 2 cotton dresses and cardigan, blue slacks, cotton tops, flat sandals, sensible slippers, a flowered cotton skirt with a lace-trimmed blouse. The Baroness pronounces everything to be in the best of taste. After that a knit set in old rose (Betty did like her old rose, didn't she?) and in anticipation of going on a date with him a pretty flowered cotton voile and a grey skirt (with pink roses) with a pale pink crepe blouse for the theatre.

12 comments:

  1. I love the cafe au lait cardigan with the big bow -- that is SO Emma Pillsbury (redhead from GLEE). I'm telling you, she's my new exemplar for all Betty Neels heroines -- change the hair color to mouse, grow it out to mid-back then bundle it up untidily, and give her nice thick lashes for those huge eyes, and she's the one.

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  2. I'm liking those cute yellow sandals!

    Also, I have to admit that I cringe at all the references to old rose in Betty Neels. My fault entirely. My mom spent years dressing me in old rose because she loved that color. I'm a redhead, so it didn't go well.

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  3. Ouch. Old rose and redhead.

    I'm just hoping "old rose" isn't the same as mauve...because that's a colour that just makes me look dead - it brings out the green in my slightly olive complexion...so...not only dead, but slightly rotten to boot.

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  4. No, it's a different color. Old rose is a dusty (i.e., slightly grayish) dark pink color. Mauve is equally grayish, but has more purple to it.

    I look okay in old rose, but I wouldn't want to marry it, if you know what I mean.

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  5. This was my second or third Betty Neels, read about 30 years ago! I love, love, love this one! The first few chapters are my favorite in all of Neeldom!

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  6. Wow, I'm sorry I was out on an oceanliner in the warm Caribbean during this review (okay, not completely). I love the review almost as much as the book. "He didn't just walk away from his aloof Rich Dutch Doctor pedestal. He's chopped it down, dragged it to a clearing and built a bon fire."--YEESSS!!

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  7. I am getting this book. This couple is in my favorite- Caroline's Waterloo. Always thought they must've starred in another book.
    Haven't giggled and laughed out loud this much in a long time...had my husband asking me what was amking me crack up like this. The review is hilarious!

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  8. Years ago when I was a teenager reading Mills & Boone books, Betty Neels was the only author who stood out for me and "The Promise of Happiness" was one of her first books that I read. I even bought it and have kept it throughout the 20 plus years since as it is one of my favourites. Loved this review.

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    Replies
    1. The Promise of Happiness is one of my favourites, too. I just Tiele and Becky. I even bought a second copy just in case I lose one when travelling.

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  9. This was my favourite a long time ago before I got hold of Caroline's Waterloo. They still hold 1 & 2 on my Top of the Betty list. I love how spunky Becky is, and how much to heel Thiele becomes. A real winner!

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  10. So glad to have found this website! Have been reading Betty Neels since the mid 80's. I just read the books over and over! My youngest son does dramatic readings off the back covers to make me laugh... I just finished reading The Promise of Happiness for the umpteenth time. I checked out this review to see what others thought of it. It has never been a favorite of mine because of the Baron. I just couldn't seem to get past that bad behavior toward Becky to appreciate the other aspects of the story which were pointed out in the review. Am viewing it in a new light. Thanks!

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  11. I love this book too. My favourite part is when she is going back to the hospital with him and she might be late. He says, “your not my cup of tea, your my glass of champagne.” She says I don’t know what you mean, and he says he doesn’ know either. I think he is is surprised by the strength of his feelings.

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