December 2010, European Historical Romance (Regency England)
Harlequin Historicals, #1021, $5.99, 288 pages, Amazon ASIN 0373296215
Annie Burrows is an author who manages to enthrall me whenever I read one of her books. Several have been tearjerkers for me, as Annie Burrows does not shy away from showing selfish and callous behavior and describing deep unhappiness. Yet often I found the novel flawed after Iíd finished them: a Big Mis that was drawn out too long, or characters who almost wilfully misinterpreted what another said. With A Countess by Christmas, the author has created a little jewel: a story that is both deeply moving and a plot that had me convinced all the way through (with one little exception).
The story begins with Helen Forrest travelling with her aunt Bella to Alvanley Hall, seat of the Earl of Bridgemere, where they are to celebrate Christmas. Aunt Bella is an independent spinster who took in orphaned little Helen when no-one else wanted her, and used to look after her own financial interests to the great chagrin of her domineering brother. Now she has lost all her money after the bank failed, and will have to ask her distant relative the Earl of Bridgemere to support her. Helen, no blood-relative to the earl, has already found a position as a governess and is to start directly after Christmas. Aunt Bella is exhausted after the long journey to Cornwall and collapses on the Hallís doorstep. Helen snaps at an arrogant footman to assist her; when he has carried Aunt Bella to her room itís stark, cold and in a remote part of the house. Finally itís up to Helen to get the fire going and organize some food from the kitchen. She has another run-in with the footman (and heís quite attractive, actually), getting more and more worked up about the snobbish earl and his attitude towards his recently impoverished relative.
It comes as no surprise to the reader, but a great shock to Helen, to discover that her ďfootmanĒ is no other than the earl. The treatment she and Aunt Bella received is due to a series of accidents, and soon they find themselves lodged in a comfortable room and involved in the Christmas festivities. And here is where the novel really hits its stride. Annie Burrows always includes fairly nasty characters, so you encounter them here, too, but soon Helen finds friendly faces and kindness in some of the guests. Bridgemere holds himself aloof most of the time, no wonder considering the selfishness of some of his relatives, and the social gap between him and Helen is huge. Yet they manage to communicate, and these scenes are the more profound because they are so precious to each of them.
I loved Helen. She is strong-minded and has a temper occasionally, yet she is deeply protective of her aunt and others she takes under her wing. At the same time, she is utterly clear-sighted about her prospects in life and her position in society, without ever becoming a doormat. Bridgemere (and Iím not revealing his first name her on purpose: the scene when he does so is just too lovely and doesnít permit any spoilers) is more of an enigma, and we spend comparatively little time inside his head. Yet slowly he is revealed as a deeply caring man who just doesnít reveal this side of his character except to a chosen few. I should add that I found him remarkably plausible as a rich and influencial peer with huge responsibilities. The one thing I didnít like was the matter of his succession, which, if it is not a historical blunder, should have been explained more clearly.
The story is quite thoroughly romantic, with more than one minor character showing unexpeced facets (either to the good or to the bad). The luscious but not overwhelming descriptions of the Christmas festivities drew me right in.
But what was best: Not everyone mutates into a loving person due to the magic of Christmas by the end. So A Countess by Christmas is the perfect read if you think that even at Christmas, some relatives have to be endured as they cannot be changed, but that it is possible to find some kindred spirits even in the most mixed of parties, and enjoy a happy Christmas with them.
-- Rike Horstmann
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