A Regency Christmas
by Elisabeth Fairchild, Carla Kelly, Allison Lane, Edith Layton & Barbara Metzger
(Signet, $5.99, G) ISBN 0-451-19735-6
Every year I wait with bated breath for the appearance of the Signet Christmas anthology (every year I also wonder why I am reading it in the beginning of October). And every year I find myself caught up in stories by some of the genre's best writers. This year is no exception (although you-know-who is sadly missing.) I rate the stories as follows: two excellent, two good and one quite acceptable. What more can a Regency lover ask?

I am having a hard time deciding which is my utmost favorite. So I guess I'll talk about the two best in alphabetical order.

Carla Kelly once again demonstrates her uncanny ability to create improbable heroes and/or heroines who tug at your heartstring. "The Christmas Ornament" is vintage Kelly. Sir Waldo Hannaford is worried about his daughter Olivia's prospects. Just turned 18 and ready for her come out in the spring, Olivia is a most unusual young woman. To put it bluntly, she's not merely bright; she's brilliant. How will she fare in the marriage mart?

So Sir Waldo visits his neighbor, Lord Waverly, and suggests that perhaps his son might be the perfect match for Olivia. James Enders, Viscount Crandall, is a most unusual fellow. After taking a double first at Oxford, he has become a fellow at All Souls, the most intellectual of the colleges. There he is studying human motion, a subject that most ordinary mortals find quite puzzling. Jemmy was Sir Waldo's second son's best friend, so he is well known to the family. With his father's permission, Sir Waldo visits Lord Crandall and suggests that Jemmy come home for Christmas and consider courting Olivia.

Jemmy is more than willing to consider matrimony. At 28, he is ready for marriage and a family. But he is painfully shy and gauche around women. He knew Olivia as a child and is intrigued by the idea of determining if they will suit. And when he sees her in person and discovers that she has a mind as keen as his own, he is smitten. But how can a shy scholar compete for the hand of the fair maiden, especially when he ends up in bed with a badly sprained ankle? The answer is geometry. But you'll have to read the story to find out why.

Kelly managed to pack more emotion and more pathos into this short tale than most authors can fit into a 400 page novel. I laughed; I teared up; I stand in awe of her talent. Please don't stop writing Regencies!

Edith Layton provides another delightful tale, "The Hounds of Heaven." As the story begins, a litter of pups make their way through London's streets to find the masters who need them. One pup finds Lord Thadeus Rose in a dark alley where, having imbibed too much wine, he has become a footpad's prey.

Thadeus has been driven to drink because he has been disappointed in love. He had finally decided to marry and had chosen the charming, bright and attractive Helena. But when he makes his offer, the young woman rejects him. And all because he could not (or would not) promise eternal fidelity. What a bourgeois concept! And how foreign to his experience. Well, that was that.

Except, it wasn't that. Thadeus cannot get Helena out of his mind. Nor does he like being the topic of the ton's gossipmongers. The pup, whom he names Titania, provides solace for his bruised soul. She also provides him with object lessons about devotion, caring and fidelity, qualities he finally comes to appreciate. But has he learned these lessons too late? Read the story and find out. BTW, I teared up at the end of this tale too.

Allison Lane and Barbara Metzger both offer stories of second chances at love. Lane's novella is in fact entitled "Second Chances." Alice McDougal and Jeremy Caristoke had been young lovers ten years earlier, until fate tore them apart, each believing that the other had been merely trifling. Now, both are returning to the family Christmas party where they had spent so many joyous holidays.

Alice comes now in the guise of governess to her cousin's children. The years since her last visit have been harsh and indeed tragic. She is wracked with guilt about the death of her son and feels that she no longer has a place in the warm family which had once embraced her. Jeremy has come to Blatchford with the intention of deciding whether Miss Victoria Havershoal might be an acceptable bride, even though he does not feel for her what he felt for his lost love. The last person he expects to see is Alice. Can the two overcome the hurt and guilt that threatens to keep them apart?

"Three Good Deeds" are what the vicar demands the three Greene boys perform as payment for an errant cricket ball that breaks a church window. In their quest to make three unhappy people in the parish happy, they decide that the crusty Duke of Espinwall is lonely and needs his absent son to come home for Christmas. So they fabricate a letter to Viscount Royce informing him that his father is very ill.

Viscount Royce has been raking about London for over a decade, but filial affection brings him home. One reason he has stayed away is because he couldn't bear to see Sabrina Greene, his onetime playmate and first love, married to another man. But of course the boys do not realize that their mother and the viscount had once hoped to marry, only to be thwarted by parental displeasure. Can Sabrina and Connor regain the love they once shared? What do you think?

Last, but not necessarily least, Elisabeth Fairchild offers a story of a love that is almost thwarted because of financial pressures which require the hero to marry wealth to save his family and his home. Bingham Kirby has just returned from three years touring the continent to discover that most of his family's fortune has gone missing. His father, suffering from what we now recognize as Alzheimer's disease, has seemingly dissipated huge sums of money.

Bingham happens one winter afternoon to save the life of Felicity Pendleton, the niece of the local vicar, when she falls through the ice while skating. Felicity has just arrived from America, and her languorous drawl delights her rescuer. So does her person and her personality. As he falls more and more under Felicity's spell, he more and more frantically tries to locate the missing fortune.

I am certain that lovers of the Regency romance will enjoy this book immensely. In addition to the romances, the stories include lots of tidbits about the way the English celebrated Christmas two centuries ago. These sweet and sentimental stories are just right for putting one in the holiday spirit. I just don't understand why the publishers release their Christmas books when the nearest holiday is Halloween. So buy this book now and save it till December. It is sure to engender a feeling of "peace on earth, goodwill towards men."

--Jean Mason

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