I am always impressed when an author takes an unlikable character from
one book and turns him or her into the hero or heroine of another. It
takes a skilled writer to so redeem a character that the reader can
actually end up rooting for the happy ending. Most often, such redeemed
characters are men; think Lord Rival in Diane Farr’s books. Much less
frequently does an author succeed in redeeming a woman. Martha
Schroeder succeeds admirably in this difficult task in A Merry Little Christmas.
Priscilla Harrowby was a secondary character in Schroeder’s series of
books detailing the experiences of three of Florence Nightingale’s
nurses. She was pretty and shallow and spoiled. She treated her cousin
Lucinda, a family dependent, very shabbily. Priscilla had no seeming
purpose in life but to make an eligible marriage. Her equally shallow
mother had seen to that.
As this story opens, Priscilla seems to have changed not a wit. To
quote the first lines of the novel: “It wasn’t fair. That was all there
was to it. It simply wasn’t fair that her dreary cousin Lucinda should
marry a rich and handsome man who adored her, while she, Priscilla
Harrowby, with her blond hair and her china blue eyes, should languish
unmarried at the advanced age of twenty. Not only was she prettier,
Priscilla thought, her face a thundercloud of resentment, but she was an
heiress while Lucinda hadn’t a penny to bless herself with.”
Well, thought I, this is our heroine? Good lord, what have I gotten
myself into? But I shouldn’t have worried. By the time the book was
finished, Priscilla had grown up, learned to think for herself, and
become a thoroughly admirable young woman. And I believed in her transformation.
Love, of course, had something to do with it. One evening, at her
cousin’s home, Priscilla meets the American Nick Cannon, a business
associate of Lucinda’s husband. Nick is immediately struck by
Priscilla’s beauty but fortunately, he has never seen her in her guise
of vacuous debutante on the make. Rather, he treats her as a rational
human being and, to her own amazement, she responds in kind. As she
spends more time with Nick, she begins to discover that she is more than
her blond hair, blue eyes, fortune and frilly dresses. In the company
of a man who has little time for the frivolities and foolishness of
society, she can step back from her world and question the “truths” that
her ambitious and overbearing mother has drummed into her head.
Nick is not simply an American businessman. (Are heroes ever such?)
Rather he is the scion of a noble family whose father had emigrated to
America when the proud Marquess of Bellingham had rejected his Scots
wife. Nick has come to England to try to mend the rift. Imagine his
shock when his grandfather greets him with open arms as the probable
heir to the title and the fortune. Invited to Bellingham Place for
Christmas, Nick insists that Lucinda, her husband and Priscilla
accompany him. He also makes sure that Mrs. Harrowby stays in London.
Away from her mother, Priscilla discovers her own worth as a person.
She and Nick also discover love. But fate and Mrs. Harrowby conspire to
separate the two lovers and Priscilla’s comfortable life is threatened.
Priscilla, rather than bemoaning her fate, rises to the occasion.
Readers should know that there is a “big misunderstanding” element to
the story. However, it does not seem forced but rather an all too
natural result of Mrs. Harrowby’s machinations.
In a sense, A Merry Little Christmas is about growing up. By the
end of the story, Priscilla has emerged from the cocoon her mother wove
around her and become the person that previously only Nick perceived
beneath her fashionable veneer. By the time I finished the book, I found
myself rooting for Priscilla. Considering my previous low opinion of
this character, I can only conclude that Schroeder did an impressive job
of taking an unlikable woman and turning her into a real heroine.