Mary Jo Putney, Anita Mills, Mary Balogh, Carla Kelly and Sheila Walsh
1990, Regency Romance
Signet, $4.50, 352 pages, Amazon ASIN 0451167910
I picked up A Regency Christmas II because it contains one of my favorite Christmas stories of all time: Sunshine for Christmas. I reread it, delighted in it, and then read on. I realized this collection also includes excellent stories by Carla Kelly and Mary Balogh, and even the other two, by authors less well-known to me, are very good. A Regency Christmas short story collection without a single dud! This deserves a review, I thought.
Regency Romance Sensuality: Kisses
Sunshine for Christmas by Mary Jo Putney is the first story in this volume, and what an opening it provides! It begins in November, with Lord Randolph Lennox being depressed by the constant London rain. On a whim, he decides to visit Italy over Christmas and takes the next ship bound to Naples. On arriving in Naples, he has some problems landing on his feet. In a ticklish situation, Miss Elizabeth Walker rescues him. She is a governess who has been teaching in Italy for the last few years, and is enjoying a short holiday in Naples before taking up her next post. Randolph invites Elizabeth for lunch, and then asks her to be his guide during further excursions, to which she agrees. Because they are both outside their normal social situation and restrictions (and because they are both no longer in their first youth), they can spend time together and get to know each other without any external pressure.
This is a wholly character-driven romance. Lord Randolph has the looks and elegance of an angel, and Elizabeth appears the usual drab governess with glasses and a sense of humor, but both have a depth to them that characters in stories are rarely granted. I like the maturity of both characters, the respect they have for each other, their honesty and the wonder they are still able to feel.
Grade: A+Regency Romance Sensuality: Kisses
In The Last Wish by Anita Mills, a rich old man lies dying. As both of his sons died years earlier, itís his nephews who assemble at his deathbed. One is a dandy, his brother is an unremarkable man, but both are gamblers and deeply in debt. The third nephew is Andrew Carstairs, Viscount Swynford, an independently wealthy corinthian and Sir Johnís favorite. All three are shocked by the unexpected arrival of Miss Maria Jeffries with her little niece Rebecca in tow. Rebecca is Sir Johnís granddaughter, the only offspring from his younger sonís mesalliance with a governess. As he always burned all his sonís letters and never read Mariaís letter announcing that she was taking Rebecca to live with him, he doesnít even know of his granddaughterís existence.
What develops now is a house party of sorts: Maria worries about Rebeccaís future, while the nephews are concerned about their finances, but instead of harping at each other, the characters forge a wary truce and settle to celebrate Christmas together. The wonder of this story comes from the way in which this disparate set of people does manage to find kindness and love, at least for a few days. Itís a very heart-warming story, in a muted manner, and I liked it a lot.
Grade: A-Regency Romance Sensuality: Kisses
In Mary Baloghís Playing House (which was later reissued in Under the Mistletoe), the Marquess of Bedford returns to the country seat on which he grew up for Christmas, accompanied by his four-year-old daughter. Last time he was there, he was still Lord Stephen West, carefree younger son, and in love with the vicarís daughter, Lilias Angove. But then his brother and father died in quick succession, Stephen found himself married for his title, and it is only after his wifeís death that he has reclaimed his daughter. He feels deeply embittered, and his distrust that everyone tries to sponge on him is further enforced by the fact that his first visitor is Lilias, who asks him for a goose and Christmas presents for her siblings. Lilias wants to make this Christmas special, because in the new year she must take up a position as a governess and her siblings must go to live with relatives, due to the familyís poverty.
The contrast between Philipís wealth and Liliasís poverty is extreme, as is that between his suspicious and her generous nature. In the latter instance, I would have preferred characters less black-and-white, but have to admit it works here. What I really liked about this story is the interaction between Stephen and his small daughter Dora, and that of Dora and the Angove family. So although this is not my favorite Mary Balogh Christmas story, it is still a nice read.
Grade: BRegency Romance Sensuality: Kisses
The Three Kings by Carla Kelly is a road romance set entirely in Spain. Lady Sarah Comstock is stranded there after coming to Salamanca with her scholar brother to transcribe a diary of Christopher Columbus. Her brother James insisted on staying after the British army left to finish the transcription, but then he was accidentally killed by the French. The French general gives Sarah a safe-conduct and an old horse, and she is determined to travel across Spain and back to England to salvage Jamesís legacy: the translation. Very soon she comes across a small contingent of British soldiers, but they cannot look after her and instead entrust her to a Spanish soldier, Colonel Luis Sotomayor, who is also traveling towards Ciudad Rodrigo. They are attacked during the night, and the colonel saves Sarahís life. Then they ride through a deserted landscape, encounter victims of the war and ordinary people who try to hold on to their Christmas traditions in spite of the war going on around them.
Both Sarah and Luis are multi-dimensional characters. Due to the extremity of their situation, they get to know each other very quickly. They fall in trust and tenderness rather than lust, but in my eyes this is entirely in keeping with the setting. There are several angles on the Christmas story in this tale, which makes it a highly satisfying read both romantically and spiritually.
Grade: ARegency Romance Sensuality: Kisses
The Christmas Star by Sheila Walsh is a Cinderella story with a mystery twist. Louise Beresford, from a good, if impoverished family, has come to stay with her godmother and cousin, the Duchess of Wyvern, as her companion. Louise both misses her family and chafes under the constant need to be useful to her benefactors, but sees clearly that she must get used to her new situation. During a skating party she meets a charming Russian officer, Prince Andrei Zarcov, a visitor at a neighboring estate. To her great astonishment, one day Prince Andrei requires her assistance in a secret mission.
The story is charmingly written, and the mystery has just the right amount melodrama to please me. However, Louise is very young, and so her feelings have something of puppy love to them. In addition, she is too unselfish for my taste, instantly offering help to anyone. Although, in all honesty, considering her position as companion, it may have been realistic for her station. In spite of these minor caveats, this is still a pleasant read.
A Regency Christmas II is easily the best collection of Christmas stories I own. With three truly memorable stories and two still very well-written ones, it is far above the average. While it has been out-of-print for many years now, if you can get it second-hand, it will be a true find.
-- Rike Horstmann
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