Charles Thornton Baxter, fifth Viscount Balfour, dislikes Christmas above all season, and this one is no exception. His valet has passed away, leaving him with the man’s son as a feeble replacement. His London home is about to be torn down to improve Regent Street, not that he cares. His mother and father are absent, as they have been for most of his life. And the neighbors appear to be decidedly inappropriate. No wonder everyone around him quietly refers to Baxter as “Lord Thorn.”
Said neighbors are Mary Rivers, fresh-faced country lass, and her grandmother, an ailing lady of gentility whose fortunes are at very low ebb. Thorn and Merry, as she is called by her Gran, meet when Thorn’s carriage is blocked by Merry and Gran’s progress across the street in a sort of wheelchair contraption. Against his will, Thorn finds himself charmed by this young lady and her irrepressible smile. Before long they are taking strolls along the street, shopping for hats and handkerchiefs.
Then Thorn invites Merry to attend an evening of Christmas carols at an assembly room, stunning him when she greets him dressed in a beautiful and expensive-looking gown she says she made herself. This is the woman who claims penury? Perhaps his cousin Gilbert is correct and she’s after Thorn’s fortune. Perhaps he should just make her his mistress.
What follows is a huge cross-communication, culminating in Merry’s humiliation when she realizes that Thorn’s offer is not respectable. Thorn, by this time, has seen the enormity of his error. How can he make things right?
The Holly and the Ivy reaches its pinnacle in the last third of the book. Merry’s embarrassment and disillusionment and Thorn’s self-recriminations and anguish are exquisitely done. The reader will suffer with Merry and Thorn as they try to regroup.
The first half of the book is much more standard, with lots of scenes of Merry and Thorn doing small things together. What seemed to be lacking was adequate conversation between the two, in a depth that would make it feel they are really getting to know one another. Their romance never seemed to be a meeting of the minds -- rather, Thorn appears enchanted with Merry’s smile and pretty face, and Merry is dazzled by his dashing good looks. Her understanding of his motives and underlying emotions doesn’t come until the end of the book.
Elisabeth Fairchild delivers a solid Regency read in The Holly and the Ivy. After all Merry’s and Thorn’s suffering, it’s fun to see them succeed.