A Regency Christmas by Elizabeth Layton, Barbara Metzger, Amanda McCabe, Sandra Heath & Carla Kelly
(Signet Regency, $6.99, G) ISBN 0-451-20725-4
****
The annual appearance of the Signet Christmas anthology is a signal that the Christmas season is upon us. That it traditionally appears in October merely reflects the determination of merchandisers to push the beginning of the holiday shopping season ever earlier. As is always the case with an anthology, the offerings are a mixed bag: one excellent, one very good, one sort of good, one acceptable and one, well, it took me two days to get through the story. Let’s start with the least enjoyable tale.

Sandra Heath’s “The Solid Silver Chess Set” is a strange tale. At heart, it is a not very interesting “big misunderstanding” story. I guess to make it Christmas-y, Heath has added an inept elf to the mix. Bramble Bumblekin has a penchant for creating disasters, not out of malice but simply because he is a klutz. The elf-king decides to give him one last chance to redeem himself; he is to deliver a silver chess set to a neighboring elf-king as a Christmas present. As he heads over the Malvern Hills, several other parties are traveling through the increasing snow.

One consists of Miss Julia Talbot and her parents. Julia had been engaged to one man from childhood, fallen in love with another man and broke the engagement, discovered that her new fiancé was betraying her, and resumed her engagement to her first and not very attractive suitor. The family must seek shelter from the weather at a roadside inn. Also approaching the inn is Philip, Earl of Allansmore, her second betrothed who is still suffering the pains of their broken engagement. He does not know why Julia rejected him and accepted a much less worthy.

Bramble, accident prone as always, also finds himself at the self-same inn along with a duke, a bishop, and a group of traveling players. Of course, he loses the chess set and of course, he manages to help Julia and Philip to sort out their misunderstanding. All I can say about this story is that it didn’t really hold together and certainly didn’t hold my interest.

Amanda McCabe’s “A Partridge in a Pear Tree” is a fairly standard match-making story. The widowed Harriet, Lady Kirkwood, is unhappy with her obvious heir, her husband’s grasping nephew. So she decides to host a Christmas party and invite two young relatives whom she has not seen for years. She also decides to give her guests a challenge - to collect the first five gifts of the famous song.

Allison Gordon and William Bradford have both fallen on hard times since they met five years earlier. The invitation to visit Lady Kirkwood leads to the hope that she might consider them as heirs to her substantial fortune which would enable them to assist their families. Each recalls the other fondly and when they are placed on the same team, they experience a growing attraction.

McCabe manages to include some humor into her story as William and Allison show considerable imagination in fulfilling Lady Kirkwood’s requests while their opponents efforts are merely fowl. “A Partridge in a Pear Tree” is an acceptable tale.

“A Home for Hannah” by Barbara Metzger is a sweet tale of virtue rewarded. Hannah is an orphan who faces being thrown out on the streets by her grasping guardians. The little girl picks a rescuer, waving at a man in a carriage and calling him “father.” Her victim is GregoryBellington, Viscount Bryson, picked perhaps because he shares Hannah’s blond coloring.

Gregory is out driving with the heiress whom he hopes to win so that he can repair the family fortune dissipated by his father and brother. The little girl’s greeting convinces this proud young lady that Gregory is no match for her, but the encounter does bring him into contact with Miss Claire Haney. Convinced that Hannah is his late brother’s by-blow, he seeks Claire’s help in caring for his new ward. Claire is impressed by his concern for the unfortunate little girl and a romance begins that will ultimately solve everyone’s problems.

Metzger provides a sweet and enjoyable tale of kindness rewarded. If everything is tied up rather quickly and tidily at the end, well I imagine this often happens in novellas.

Edith Layton offers a sweet romance in “The Amiable Miser.” Said miser is Mr. Alfred Minch, proprietor of a successful London bookstore. Seven years earlier, he had taken in his seventeen year old niece Joy Ayers when her parents had died. Joy had worked in Cousin Minch’s bookstore ever since and her beauty, charm and intelligence had made the establishment even more prosperous. Despite his penny-pinching ways, Joy can’t dislike her uncle.

One day, Minch discovers a sum of money in one of the lending library books that had been circulating among the group of women who came regularly to the shop to discuss the stories they are reading. He insists that Joy find out whose money it is. This brings her into contact Niall, Lord Paget, who in turn insists on helping Joy with her quest.

As I said above, this is a sweet tale of two people who are perfect for each other brought together by a most improbable matchmaker. I enjoyed it very much.

“No Room at the Inn” by Carla Kelly is the best story in the anthology, which should not surprise her legion of fans. As is often the case with Kelly’s stories, it deals with ambiguities of class and character in Regency England. Mary McIntyre has seen her life alter completely. Two weeks earlier, she had been Lady Mary, daughter of an earl. Now she is mere Miss Mary, the offspring of an unmarried seamstress who had been “adopted” by the childless earl and countess. When her grandmother finally tracked her down, she was told the truth about her birth, offered an annuity and sent off to Yorkshire to visit a woman she has never met at her farm.

She is traveling with the family solicitor and his wife and children. Thomas Shephard is the son of the earl’s steward and has known Mary since childhood. A social climbing snob, he is quick to make Mary conscious of her fall from the heights. A snowstorm forces Thomas to seek refuge at his brother Joe’s Yorkshire home. Thomas does not approve of Joe; he is in trade. Mary liked and admired Joe when they were children and meeting the adult Joe helps her come to realize that character and kindness mean more than class.

As is always the case, Kelly creates interesting and unusual characters, both primary and secondary. Her story is both touching and real. The romance is delightful and the ending is priceless. As with so many of her fans, I simply cannot understand why publishers are not knocking down her door to get her to write for them. Will somebody please publish this woman, even if she doesn’t like to write steamy love scenes?

Which brings me to the dreaded rating of this anthology. Using the system I apply to my students, I make the following calculations: 65, 75, 82, 88, 98 equals 405 divided by 5 equals 81 which equals four hearts, if just barely. But, in my opinion, the anthology is worth buying for the Kelly story alone. This is one I am planning to reread.

--Jean Mason


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