Miss Bates was in the mood for something long buried in the TBR, not an ARC, or new release, something Christmas-y and vintage-y. Diane Farr’s Once Upon A Christmas is no Georgette-Heyer rom, but it certainly hails from a happier, more innocent time for the genre. Published by Signet in 2000, it belongs with Balogh’s and Kelly’s Regency Christmas romances. Though not the stylist Balogh is, Farr’s romance plumbs depths that surprised MissB and tells a lovely Christmas-consummated romance.
When the novel opens, Celia Delacourt, tragically solitary after losing parents and siblings, in mourning, is visited by Her Grace, Gladys Delacourt, Duchess of Arnsford. “Aunt” Gladys, sufficiently supercilious, willful, and autocratic to rival Austen’s Catherine de Burgh, offers Celia a home for the holidays and beyond. Still numb with grief, knowing she’ll soon vacate the vicarage that has been her only home, Celia travels to Delacourt Palace to find that Her Grace plans to groom her for marriage to her benignly cavalier son and the Delacourt heir, John/Jack, Marquess of Lyndon. Suspecting his mother’s matrimonial machinations, Jack arrives, ostensibly for the holidays, with every intent to foil them.
Marguerite Kaye’s The Soldier’s Dark Secret and The Soldier’s Rebel Lover were two of Miss Bates’s favourite 2016 reads. Kaye’s latest historical sheikhs series has been less successful in MissB’s humble opinion, but the Christmas-set novella, “A Governess For Christmas” sees Kaye return to finer form: Regency-set, military hero and heroine of humble means and huge spirit. Set on an English-countryside estate during Christmas season, hero and heroine being the charity-case invites, the Duke and Duchess of Brockmore hold lofty sway over their guests, but throw all the seasonal festivities in grand style. Scottish hero, ex-Major Drummond MacIntosh, at 32, has been dishonourably decommissioned for several years. The reason behind his military ousting, by Wellington no less, is a heart-breaking, visceral tale, of which we learn when he tells ex-governess heroine, Miss Joanna Forsythe. Drummond and Joanna, who shares Drummond’s social disgrace, though not military, in having been dishonourably dismissed by her previous ward’s family, are the Brockmores’ socially-redemptive causes. Joanna’s and Drummond’s presence at the Christmas celebrations is an attempt to redeem their reputations and regain the respect and patronage of their social superiors. As Drummond notes, encompassing the season and what he hopes from it, he has “twelve days to impress his hosts sufficiently to earn their patronage and repair the wound he had inflicted on his reputation.” Little does Drummond know that a beautiful governess will repair a far greater wound, that to his heart.
Miss Bates launches her annual Christmas romance reviewing month with … a Christmas-set murder mystery, a “not-a-romance” review of Francis Duncan’s 1949 Murder For Christmas. (Duncan’s work was recently reissued, revived, and thank the Good Lord for that, because it’s glorious.) And yet, Murder For Christmas contains a vein of commentary about Miss Bates’s most beloved and oft-read genre in the voice of Duncan’s romance-reading, old-bachelor, amateur sleuth, Mordecai Tremaine, an engaging, loveable, and despite his appearance seventy years ago (with Duncan’s first Tremaine mystery, Murder Has A Motive) fresh-feeling main character. Duncan’s Murder For Christmas has that old-fashioned Agatha-Christie closed-room, country-estate premise with elegant prose, adept plotting and pacing, and a great voice in Mordecai Tremaine. Miss Bates would venture to say there is something cleaner, more sophisticated in Duncan that Christie lacks (*runs away in fear from Christie fans*). Continue reading
Jo Beverley’s 1991 Emily and the Dark Angel restores your faith in the genre. That was Miss Bates’s thought as she turned the last page with a satisfied reader’s affection-sigh. Miss Bates is glad she read Emily Grantwich and Piers Verderan’s wooing on paper: a traditional format for a traditional Regency, which never loses its freshness, elegance, or emotional power. What brings about that lift, the reader’s spirit-rise, the recognition of “I’m in the presence of one of the genre’s greats”? It’s difficult to pinpoint, as elusive as catching a sunbeam. It’s trope-manipulation, or gentle tinkering; it’s psychological acumen. It’s the bringing-to-life of time and place; it’s secondary characters who breathe. It’s turn of phrase the reader recalls long after the last page is turned. It’s banter and confession and the fulfilled promises of desire and being understood.
Emily and the Dark Angel contains one of Miss Bates’s favourite romance pairings, opposites-attract: Emily is sensible to Ver’s imprudence, countryside respectability to Ver’s citified worldliness, propriety to his flouting of social conventions, innocent to his debauchery, staid to his temperament, plain to his gorgeousness, and Miss Bates’s absolute favourite, her diminutive stature to his gargantuan. When this yin-yang romance combination is handled as cleverly and sensitively as Beverley’s, the HEA is about the couple’s integrating the best of each other in themselves. Core identity is preserved for tension and interest, but tempered to show us how they will live in harmony.