|Signet is back with a double helping of the late Elizabeth Mansfield in the form of two earlier Regency novels, A Christmas Kiss and Winter Wonderland. While entertaining, these aren’t two of her strongest efforts.
A Christmas Kiss is the story of Miss Evalyn Pennington, a governess of gentle birth who has just lost her position after the lady of the house suspects her of setting her cap for the eldest son of the household. Fortunately, two gentlemen are in attendance: Reggie Windle, a viscount, and Jamie Everard, a future earl. Seeing Miss Pennington’s distress, they come up with a plan. Miss Pennington will accompany them to the Everard estate for the holidays, where they will pass her off as a friend and allow her to meet Jamie’s Aunt Clarissa, who has many connections. Surely once Aunt Clarissa gets to know Evalyn, she’ll recommend her for a new position.
Philip Everard, Earl of Gyllford, is perturbed by the young woman in his son’s care. Philip has a conversation with Jamie and comes away believing the two are betrothed. This doesn’t set well with Philip; Jamie is too young, too feckless, and besides, Philip is drawn to Evalyn himself. And if they are engaged, why is Jamie all but ignoring Evalyn?
The presence of a scheming debutante who wants to snare the debonair Earl muddies the waters further. Philip and Evalyn find they have much in common, if they can only get past the misunderstandings to the truth.
The book was first copyright in 1978, which might explain the nearly twenty-year difference in the ages of Evalyn and Philip, but to a modern reader, it’s a bit creepy. He’s literally old enough to be her father. Furthermore, no matter how charming the leads are, the conflict turns on a Big Misunderstanding that is cleared up in about six sentences when Philip finally gets around to asking a few pointed question of his son. A Christmas Kiss is a bit dated, though still an entertaining tale.
Winter Wonderland is the story of a young widow who receives a comeuppance from a man she humiliated years earlier in a fit of self-indulgent arrogance. Miranda Pardew, now Lady Velacott, met Barnaby Traherne eleven years ago at a ball. He was a callow youth, she a sparkling debutante. Dazzled, Barnaby attempted to introduce himself, only to have Miranda return his somewhat bumbling attempt with scathing taunts. Miranda succeeded in capturing the attention of Lord Velacott, a renowned rake. Barnaby developed a forbidding demeanor and a stinging wit of his own, swearing off involvement with any more Society ladies.
But now Miranda is a widow, and virtually penniless at that. Her marriage to Velacott was a disaster, and rather than stay on as an unwelcome relation, she chooses to leave her spiteful relatives and take a position as a governess in the Traherne household. She and Barnaby end up in the same stagecoach, headed north. Barnaby recognizes her at once, but Miranda doesn’t know the glowering man with whom she is sharing a public carriage. One snowstorm later, they are stranded at an inn, and Barnaby has several days to observe Miranda. She’s the same spiteful woman, he decides.
But once at the Traherne family home, Barnaby is slowly forced to change his mind. Miranda takes on the job of governess, and thought it’s obvious she’s as green as grass, she gets along well with his nephews. Meanwhile, Barnaby’s family has invited Miss Olivia Ponsonby and her mother to visit for the holidays, in hopes that Livy and Barnaby will make a match.
This is a cute story, but the characterizations felt rather flat. Miranda drifts along, with a faint self-pitying air about her; Barnaby determinedly clings to his belief that she’s the same spiteful nasty shrew of eleven years ago. It never seems to occur to him that he managed to grow up, so perhaps Miranda has changed as well. I didn’t much like either one of them.
One thing that was rather refreshing was Barnaby’s status in the family. He’s a fourth son, unlikely to inherit, and is making his way as a public servant. Honoria, Barnaby’s sister-in-law, recognizes Miranda at once and is openly hostile, sure that Miranda will be a distraction to her matchmaking plans. Delia, another sister-in-law, is more approachable. Miranda has to humble herself to become a servant, and it’s only after watching her lowered in status that Barnaby begins to rethink his opinion of her. Not a point in his favor.
Overall, Winter Wonderland is an acceptable read, but not one of Elizabeth Mansfield’s stellar moments. This duet offers basic entertainment at a premium price. Ms Mansfield’s many fans may find one of her other releases to me much more satisfying.