Lord St. Claire’s Angel by Donna Lea Simpson

For December’s prompt of a Holiday Read, I went with this Traditional Regency which is, on the surface, your basic fairy-tale type story of a plain-Jane who finds love with a handsome rake. But Donna Lea Simpson has turned that familiar plotline into something that transcends the trope. Our sometimes not-at-all likeable hero really IS a rake; a self-absorbed, all-round selfish bastard, until he falls in love with a young woman whose goodness and unconditional love set him on the path to becoming a better man. Ms. Simpson took quite a chance in making him so unpleasant at times; prone to self-deception, he will always take the easy path if there is one – but St. Claire’s many faults somehow make him more real, even though there were times I wanted to smack him around the head. Our heroine, Celestine Simons, is one in a long line of down-on-their-luck ladies forced to take employment who has learned to expect little from life. It’s once again a tribute to the author’s storytelling and her ability to create complex, believable characters that while Celestine does occasionally seem bent on martyrdom, there’s more to her than a stereotypical goody-two-shoes; she’s come down in the world, but is determined to make her own way in life and stand on her own two feet, no matter how hard it may be.

Lord St. Claire Richmond, younger brother of the Marquess of Langlow, is handsome, charming, wealthy and, at the age of thirty-two, has managed to avoid the marital noose and intends to keep it that way. He’s not damaged or brooding, but as a second son, he wasn’t brought up to have responsibilities or any purpose in life, so he devotes his time to pleasure. He is making his annual Yuletide visit to the family estate for the weeks-long Christmas house-party and anticipates the usual round of respectable games and activities – and hopes for some not so respectable ones with some of the widows and bored wives likely to be in attendance. He is fond of his brother, although he regards the marquess as somewhat hen-pecked by his wife, Elizabeth, and certainly doesn’t envy him his social position and attendant responsibilities.

Gently-born Celestine Simons found herself in straightened circumstances around a year earlier after the death of her father, and took a position as governess to the Langlows. At twenty-eight, she is unprepossessing and suffers with an arthritic condition that can badly affect her hands, Celestine recognises she’s destined to remain a spinster and that working with children is the closest she will ever come to having a family of her own. Even so, she is somewhat hurt when she overhears the Marchioness telling her husband that one of the main reasons she hired Celestine was because she is plain and therefore unlikely to attract the attentions of Lord St. Claire when he visits – unlike the previous governess who plainly set her cap at the handsome devil the year before and had to be dismissed.

St. Claire may be many things, but he’s not stupid. As soon as he sees the drab Celestine, he is immediately wise to his sister-in-law’s machinations and, refusing to be outmanoeuvred, decides to strike up a flirtation with the governess anyway. In one of the most condescendingly obnoxious thought processes I’ve ever read in a romance hero, he reasons to himself that she will be grateful for the attention from a handsome lord, and that if he can steal a few kisses, he’ll be giving her something pleasant to look back on in the long years of spinsterhood ahead.
But Celestine isn’t stupid either. While she isn’t blind to St. Claire’s charms, and in fact comes to realise that there is an intelligent, thoughtful man behind the rakish exterior, she also suspects he’s playing a game with her when he markedly singles her out – and really wishes he wouldn’t. She can’t afford to lose her position, and St. Claire shows no sign of realising just what damage his notice of her could do.

But when, out of devilment, he accompanies Celestine and a couple of the other servants to a choir practice at the local church, he suddenly finds himself out of his depth. He is utterly spellbound by the unexpected beauty of Celestine’s singing voice; by the passion and the strength of spirit on display, and is profoundly affected by it. It’s an important turning point for him – although, I hasten to add, he doesn’t become a reformed character overnight. But from that point onwards, the reader is with him on his journey towards that reformation, a journey on which he makes mistakes, doesn’t always follow through on his decisions and sometimes deliberately sets out to sabotage his own good intentions. Ms. Simpson does a superb job of showing the reader that he’s falling in love without being aware of doing so – all St. Claire knows is that Celestine is far from the dowd he initially thought her and that she is possessed of great inner beauty and strength. It’s not until fairly late in the book that he finally wakes up to the truth – and his brutal honesty and determination to fight for the woman he loves go a very long way towards mitigating his earlier immaturity and thoughtless actions.

Both central characters are very well drawn, and even when St. Claire is acting like an idiot, there is still something about him that is engaging and that draws the reader to him. The same is true of Celestine – without the idiocy! – she’s an intelligent, generous and loving young woman who wants to do what she can to help the people in her life, and the author really does get to grips with exactly what life was like for a woman in her position, neither servant nor family and completely dependent on the goodwill of her employers.
There are lots of stories out there featuring rakish heroes who finally turn their lives around when they meet the right woman, but Lord St. Claire’s Angel is one of the best examples I’ve read. I said at the outset that making St. Claire selfish and unlikeable was a risk, but it contributes to the overall believability of the tale; had he not been like that, his transformation would not have been so dramatic and we wouldn’t be rooting so hard for him to see the error of his ways.

While the festival itself doesn’t play a large part in the story, the ideas of love and redemption that are so strongly associated with Christmas are major themes throughout the novel. Combined with a tender, deeply-felt romance, well-drawn secondary characters and a lovely, wintry feel, Lord St. Claire’s Angel is the perfect seasonal read.

– Caz Owens

Note: This book was originally published in 1999, and then reissued with some revisions by the author in 2013. Just a tad annoyingly – and the author has done this in some of her other books – some of the names have been changed; the hero in the old print version is named Lord Justin St. Claire, whereas in the new version, he’s Lord St. Claire Richmond. His brother, Lord Langlow was originally Lord Ladymead, and the heroine’s aunt Emily is now Lady Sedgley rather than, as she was originally, Lady Delafont. (Incidentally, Emily’s book, Lady Delafont’s Dilemma, has been reissued as Married to a Rogue.)

I have referred to the characters by the names they have been given in the 2013 version.

Grade: A-                  Sensuality: Kisses

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Christmas Beau by Mary Balogh

I know holiday romances tend to be a love-it-or-hate-it phenomenon with lots of readers. Personally, I love to sink myself in Christmas and other holiday romances. This year just hasn’t felt as festive, so I have to admit that I haven’t read as many as usual. However, the TBR Challenge was the perfect excuse to dust off an old Mary Balogh regency from my bookshelves and give it a whirl. Christmas Beau (now available in a collection together with A Christmas Bride) is not her very best, but there is a certain charm to the story that made me enjoy it.

I love second chance at love stories, and that’s really what lies at the heart of this book. As a young girl, Judith Easton’s parents arranged a marriage for her with Maxwell, later to become the Marquess of Denbigh. Silent and moody Max found himself quietly falling in love with Judith and he was devastated when Judith broke the betrothal and eloped with another. For her part, Judith had misinterpreted Max’s reserve for coldness and a lack of feeling but now, eight years later, Judith is a widow and she finds herself back in Max’s orbit.

At 26, Judith Easton is a widow with two children and after living through a disillusioning marriage, she is rather wiser than during her first London Season. Upon her return to town following her scandalous elopement, she goes out for the first time only to run into her former betrothed quite by chance. We soon learn that this meeting has given Max an idea to plan revenge on Judith for the heartbreak of years earlier. Given the level of pain that her actions caused Max, I could understand his anger at first.

However, as Max spends more time with Judith, it becomes obvious to both him and the reader that she has matured a great deal over eight years. We see her treating Max kindly even though their history makes his frequent encounters with Judith’s family uncomfortable for her at times. We see Judith befriending her lonely sister-in-law and being a great mother, and regretting some of her decisions of years past. In other words, Judith moves beyond being “the woman who wronged the hero” and she starts to look more like a human being and a rather decent one at that. As one watches Judith’s character develop, one can still understand why Max might want to talk about the past and get an apology but his calculated scheme for revenge starts to look a lot less attractive.

Not only that, but as we get to know Max, his strong need for revenge starts to look less probable. As the storyline moves through the Christmas festivities, we see Max interact not only with Judith, but with many other people. And through those interactions, one sees the character of a deeply compassionate, kind man developing. He isn’t just nice when others are watching; he is decent even when he doesn’t have to be.

The secondary characters also make this book. Many of them are “type” characters: We have the elderly aunts who dote on children, Judith’s children who are sweet without being cloying, and so on. Even if they don’t always have tons of depth, Balogh’s secondary characters work in this story because she places them so well in the book, almost like setting up a floral arrangement. Lots of sweetness here, an incurable bore there, and so on. To top it all off, there’s also a secondary romance that was just poignant and lovely.

So, why is this not the best Christmas regency ever? It all goes back to the revenge plot for me. I could buy Max and Judith being older, wiser and more mature for their second chance at love. I could even accept Max having to deal with all of those old wounds upon seeing Judith again. However, the calculated revenge scheme just left me cold. Even so, I quite enjoyed myself as I read this one.

 

Grade:   B                           Sensuality: subtle

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