The Holly and the Ivy
Charles Thornton Baxter, fifth Viscount Balfour, also known as Lord Thorn, dislikes Christmas. This particular Christmas season is even more irritating than usual because he has lost the services of his valet, Temple, a man who was closer to him than his own father. Now, in addition to the other Christmas annoyances, he must train Temple’s hapless son. While training Temple, Charles meets his neighbor Mary Rivers, the daughter of a dairy farmer, who has come to London to care for her ailing grandmother. Despite his wealth and privilege, Charles is grumpy. Despite Mary’s poverty and loneliness she is cheerful. Whatever the other sources of conflict, this difference instigates the chemistry between the two.
Charmed by Mary’s fresh innocence, Charles invites her and her grandmother to the theater. When a friend assumes that Mary is his mistress, Charles is initially appalled but eventually comes to believe that Mary may well be angling for that position. He propositions her only to have his request mistaken for a marriage proposal. When Charles’s solicitor presents the settlement papers to her grandmother, Mary realizes the nature of Charles’s offer. She repulses him, leading to the main conflict of the story.
An unusual hero, Charles’s isolation from those around him is his most touching quality. Unlike so many regency heroes, he is not a rake nor a man who leaves a trail of mistresses in his wake. Nothing is said of Charles’s past romantic or sexual history, but I would not have been surprised to discover that he was a virgin. The source of Charles’s coldness is his estrangement from his parents. Charles’s history with them is explained in enough detail to let us sympathize with his dislike of the holiday season.
Unfortunately, Mary is less interesting. She is pretty, kind and cheerful. It seems that there is nothing negative one could say about her. Mary is also young, innocent and lonely for her family which makes her cheerfulness admirable. Mary never expects to be noticed by a Viscount and from the first reminds herself that a man of his station would not be interested in her.
My main problem with The Holly and the Ivy is that author seems to be stretching a rather small amount of material to fill up a two-hundred and nineteen paged book. The description of Charles and Mary’s initial meeting, their carriage ride and trip to various shops seem overly drawn out. We observe every detail of Charles and Mary’s interaction, but we also hear more than I wanted to know about hats and stationary blowing across the street, the intricate details of buying a coat for Charles and addressing envelopes for a Christmas Ball. There are lots of cheery, flirtatious conversations which are fun, but there are also duller ones with “Gran” over things like new handkerchiefs.
The Big Misunderstanding, which develops when Charles is persuaded that Mary is a potential mistress, is unconvincing. Charles’s friend believes that Mary and her grandmother are angling for her to become a kept woman. This is based on little more than the color of her dress (red) and the fact that Mary is from humble circumstances. Nevertheless, when Mary reveals to Charles that she accepted his gifts thinking that they preceded a wedding, I could not help but cringe at her humiliation and feel her deep sorrow and disappointment in him.
The Holly and the Ivy is a pleasant enough Cinderella Christmas story complete with a handsome Scrooge who becomes a Prince. While I found the pacing a too slow and the plot unconvincing, if you are looking for a traditional Regency Romance with a sweet, uncomplicated heroine and a stuffy hero who needs softening, you might enjoy it.