The editors of anthologies have a tendency to lump stories of uneven quality together. Sometimes one story is such a stand-out that it redeems the whole book. It seems unfair to plant “a lonely little petunia in an onion patch,” but the other stories don’t come off so well either -- they appear even weaker in contrast.
That’s the situation in A Regency Christmas Present, the 1999 model of Signet Books’ annual Regency Christmas anthology. Carla Kelly’s many fans will not be surprised to learn that this exceptional author of Regency romances has written a real winner. Unfortunately, the other stories do little more than take up space.
The first story, “Heart’s Desire” by Allison Lane tells the tale of Emma Fairlawn, a penniless widow hoping to obtain a position as a governess and Craig Curtiss, a war hero, recently succeeding to an earldom, who fears coming home because he will have to confront his fearsome grandmother who has dominated the entire family for decades. When the coach they are traveling in lands in a ditch, he learns that she nursed his best friend through his final illness and invites her to accompany him home.
This story proves that dysfunctional family gatherings around the holidays are nothing new. Emma demonstrates her worthiness -- and gains love and security -- by giving Craig the courage to face the many challenges ahead. I couldn’t help noticing, however, that Emma seems to be just as managing as the Dowager. It’s possible that Craig is marrying a girl just like the girl who married dear old grandpa. As a matter of personal opinion, I didn’t care for the ending of this story. It seemed mean-spirited for a Christmastime story.
“Christmas Wish List” by Barbara Metzger is the story of a whole gaggle of characters who for mostly greedy, self-serving reasons are determined to get a rare breed of kitten. Geraldine Selden, whose baronet father left her and her brother nearly destitute, will not allow just anyone to have one of her kittens; she wishes to be certain that they are going to a good home. Lord Boughton, who wants one for the sick little daughter he has only recently noticed, has not proved that he can provide such a home.
In what could be described as a romp, the surprisingly large cast of characters maneuvers and manipulates to position themselves to get a kitten so that they can achieve their own selfish goals. Naturally, everything comes right in the end, but the seasonal spirit of generosity gets roughed up in the process.
The third story, Carla Kelly’s “An Object of Charity,” is beyond doubt the best in the anthology. The characters are typical of her Regencies -- the honorable military man and the intrepid miss who find love and hope for the future in one another.
Captain Michael Lynch’s ship has been badly damaged in an accident on the blockade and several crewmen, including his first mate David Partlow, were killed. The ship is now going into dry dock in Portsmouth for repairs, and Lynch, weary and depressed, will be residing as a half-pay officer at his usual rooming house. Sally Partlow and her young brother Tom come to the rooming house looking for their uncle who has been named their guardian. Lynch informs them of his death and only later realizes that they are completely penniless. Unable to abandon the relatives of his friend, he conceives the idea of taking them to his family home for Christmas, the home he has not visited in twenty-two years. What he will discover there will change his life.
The fourth story is “A Christmas Canvas” by Elisabeth Fairchild. Artist Maitland Gregory has traveled to paint Dorothea Savage; the portrait will be a gift for elderly Lord Lovell, whom she is to marry. Although he first distrusts her, Maitland cannot fight his attraction for the beautiful and gentle Dorothea, but she is promised to his uncle. It is obvious that the Savage coffers are empty and that the marriage will repair the family’s fortunes. Maitland wonders if there are deeper motives at work.
The final story, “The Last Gift” by Edith Layton, is a reworking of the Sleeping Beauty legend. Skylar Cameron, Lord Cameron, wants an old-fashioned girl. While staying at a friend’s cottage in Wales, he meets a couple of strange crones along a road and soon comes upon a well-hidden castle where all the inhabitants are asleep. He kisses the lovely girl asleep on her bed, and she, as well as all the others, awaken. His curiosity is aroused by some odd remarks, but the lovely Mirabelle is exactly the kind of girl he has hoped to find.
All of the stories revolve around a Christmas setting. “An Object of Charity,” the story by Carla Kelly, however, is the only piece in the anthology to feature a seasonal perspective beyond gathering mistletoe, dragging in the Yule log, or planning a holiday ball. Ms. Kelly’s story has a theme of forgiveness and new life that provides an additional dimension.
Those readers who have enjoyed Regency anthologies in the past might wish that the other four stories were more memorable, but a new Carla Kelly story is a special present indeed. Many will consider that sufficient reason to seek out this book in spite of its over-all three-heart rating, Because of this one five-heart story, A Regency Christmas Present is likely to find a place on many readers’ keeper shelves.