Christmas in October

If you are one of those people who think Christmas should not come before Halloween, then maybe this is not the post for you. However, in both the US and the UK, retailers are bringing out their Christmas displays. So, you may ask why Regina Jeffers, a normally Bah-Humbug type of person, is so looking forward to the holiday season. My most compelling reason is that this year I shall share it with my first grandchild. My son Joshua and his wife Stephanie are expecting their first child at the beginning of November. Secondly, my newest “baby,” Christmas at Pemberley, hits the stores late October in the UK and mid November in the US. (Amazon has it listed for November 15, but the publisher says October 27.)

In January 2011 (notice this is after the Christmas holiday), my publisher, Ulysses Press, pitched me an idea for a Christmas Pride and Prejudice sequel. As is normal, Kelly, the acquisition editor, sent me an email and asked if I would be interested in doing a Christmas story line. Luckily, our relationship is strong enough that once I have accepted their proposal, they pretty much leave me to my own devices. I can take the story in any direction. Unfortunately, Ulysses idea of a Regency Christmas and my knowledge of the time period did not quite immediately coincide. (Of course, I did not expect it to. I am a Jane Austen freak. They are not.) That fact is obvious when one looks at the first cover Ulysses pitched to me. Although the scene around the Christmas tree is perfectly lovely, it is not the Regency Period.

When most people consider a Regency Christmas, they are really envisioning a Victorian Christmas. The Regency Christmastide began with Christmas Day and ran through Twelfth Night celebrations. There are few references to Christmas day celebrations in Regency literature. English Christmases of the time were entrenched in religious observances. One must remember that in the 16th Century, to prevent subversion, the government banned Christmas celebrations. According to the Jane Austen Centre Magazine, “We have accounts from early 19th Century journals of Christmas days where the writer mentions the holiday but makes absolutely no fuss about it. Likewise, there are records of newspapers, published on December 25 that do not even contain the word Christmas.” (http://www.janeausten.co.uk/magazine/index.ihtml?pid=387&step=4)

The gathering of greenery–rosemary, holly, laurel, and mistletoe–to decorate the household appears often in period literature. The mistletoe-kissing ball became quite elaborate during the Victorian Period. Many believe the tradition remained below stairs in the servants’ quarters during the Regency Period, but it is a plot device several authors who write Regency romance use. A Yule log to burn throughout the festive days would have been common, as well as the “Christmas candle.” Groups of performers–mummers–date back to the Middle Ages. They sang and performed short plays, and because of their lack of education, they often mixed bits of history with the British Napoleonic heroes. Of course, Saint George remained a staple of these plays. Parlor games entertained houseguests, but there were no caroling or stockings or Christmas trees. Gifts were limited and often took the form of charitable acts by the aristocracy.

With all this in mind, I was not given much upon which to build a gripping holiday story. So, what could I do, but improvise? I set the story two years into the Darcys’ marriage. Elizabeth has been plagued by several miscarriages, and she is haunted with the idea that the “shades of Pemberley had been thus polluted” by her inability to give Darcy an heir. She is struggling with whether she is worthy of his devotion. Encouraged by her physician to bring some joy into his wife’s life, Darcy has invited the Bennets and the Bingleys to spend Christmastide at Pemberley. Darcy has taken Elizabeth with him on a business trip to allow time for his invited guests to arrive. Upon their return to Pemberley, the Darcys are, unfortunately, unable to outmaneuver a blizzard, and Darcy and Elizabeth are stranded at a small inn, along with a young couple, whose name ironically is Joseph and whose first child is likely to be born during the night.

Meanwhile, Georgiana tries desperately to manage the chaos surrounding her brother’s six invited guests (Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Kitty, Mary, Jane, and Bingley) and the eleven unscheduled arrivals, including Mary Bennet’s betrothed Mr. Grange (who Mrs. Bennet invited without asking the Darcys), Lady Catherine (who has not been at Pemberley since that infamous argument with Elizabeth and whose sudden presence will only confirm Elizabeth’s feeling of inadequacy), Anne De Bourgh, Mrs. Jenkinson, Mr. and Mrs. Collins (who Lady Catherine invited without anyone’s knowledge), Caroline Bingley (who decided to spend the holidays with the Bingleys rather than the Hursts), Mr. Winkler (the local minister who, during the storm, escorts the Collinses to Pemberley, but who is really there to woo Kitty Bennet), Colonel Fitzwilliam (who has returned from the American front), his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Southland (whose cousin once held the living at Rosings Park and who is “fascinated” with the De Bourgh family), and an American, Beaufort Manneville (who the colonel has been ordered to escort to London, but of whom he is suspicious).

With a mix of eclectic characters all residing under one roof, it is not surprising that bitter feuds, old jealousies, and intimate secrets quickly rise to the surface. Has Lady Catherine returned to Pemberley for forgiveness or revenge? Will the manipulative Caroline Bingley find a soul mate? Shall Kitty Bennet and Georgiana Darcy know happiness? And what does all the disorder have to do with the Prince Regent? Yes, I even work our favorite indulgent monarch into the story line. Despite the bedlam, for all involved, a reminder of the love, the family spirit, and the generosity, which remain at the heart of Christmas, prevails.

(Spoiler: The characters from this book are the ones involved in my newest mystery The Disappearance of Georgiana Darcy, slated for a Feb. 2012 release.)

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