In her six previous novels in the bestselling Pink Carnation series, Lauren Willig has furnished us with an assortment of dashing heroes thwarting Napoleonic spies while romancing clever heroines. There are your alpha heroes and your beta heroes, but none qualify as a vegetable hero except Reginald “Turnip” Fitzhugh! He is long on looks and short on brains; but it does not signify. From his very first bumbling scene in The Mischief of the Mistletoe when he knocks down our heroine Arabella Dempsey and literally, but not figuratively, sweeps her off her feet, he will steal your heart. How our unlikely hero will prove to our practical heroine that he is as honorable as he is lucky in deducing espionage is the charm of this Christmas tale brimming with burlesque comedy and romance.
Set in 1803 Bath, Arabella Dempsey’s dear friend Jane Austen thinks her life would make “an excellent premise for a novel.” She certainly sounds like heroine material. Since her mother’s death at age twelve, Arabella has been living in London with her wealthy Aunt Osborne. More a piece of furniture than a companion, the family had high hopes of her becoming her aunt’s heir until she married Captain Musgrave, a fortune-hunter half her age. Thrown back on her family, Arabella is reunited with her ailing father Rev. Dempsey and her three younger sisters Margaret, Olivia and Lavinia, all living in genteel poverty in Bath. Happily her particular friend Jane and the Austen family are residing nearby offering support and the witty advice that she is famous for.
Realizing that she must earn a living, Arabella is fortunate to obtain a junior instructress position at Miss Climpson’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies in Bath. At school she does not expect to literally bump into Reginald Fitzhugh, “Turnip” to his friends, in the hallway while he was delivering a Christmas hamper to his younger sister Sally. They had met and danced in London. Awkward, tall and shy, Arabella is not a striking beauty, but she is clever and capable. Turnip is amiable and handsome, but not the “brightest loaf in the breadbox.” He does not remember her, but that was par for the course of her career as a wallflower in London.
Their adventure is set into motion by a Christmas pudding and a mysterious note written in French tied around it. Turnip has had some dealings with spies and espionage having once been accused of being the infamous “Pink Carnation” and he is keen to follow the clues and solve the mystery. Arabella is not so sure, but her charges at Miss Climpson’s: Miss Sally Fitzhugh, Miss Agnes Wooliston, Miss Lizzy Reid and the scandalous Miss Catherine Carruthers are a teenage force of nature and talk a good case. We follow Arabella, Jane and Turnip in a phaeton ride to a frost fair in the picturesque ruins of Farley Castle to encounter more pudding clues placed on stone effigies, experience an hysterical Christmas pageant at Miss Climpson’s that goes terribly wrong, more spy evidence, meet a suspicious French language teacher and an equally doubtful Italian music instructor, and travel to Girdings House, the principal seat of the imposing Dowager Duchess of Dovedail for her famous twelve days of Christmas festivities for more antics. Along the way Turnip and Arabella stumble upon clues, save England, and fall in love.
The Mischief of the Mistletoe takes place after The Seduction of the Crimson Rose but before The Temptation of the Night Jasmine in series order and readers will recognize many characters interlaced in the narrative. I was absolutely delighted in the paring of the kind hearted Turnip, famous for his absurdly embroidered waistcoats and bumbling antics to our sensible and responsible heroine Arabella. Even though Turnip is thought of as the one who is slower on the uptake, he sees what is important and is attracted to wallflower Arabella while she is sidetracked by Christmas puddings, spies and the social chasm she thinks separates them. How they come together (and you know that they will) is a pleasure to discover.
Rivaling the burlesque comedies of Georgette Heyer and the spy thrillers of Baroness Emma Orczy, I can think of no other contemporary author who can handle high comedy, historical accuracy and espionage as brilliantly as Lauren Willig. I hope that her storyline working in Jane Austen and her unfinished novel The Watsons will send readers off to discover or re-read the original. That gentle readers is a Christmas present rivaled only by the receipt of this novel. “Righty-ho”
5 out of 5 Regency Stars
The Mischief of the Mistletoe: A Pink Carnation Christmas, by Lauren Willig
Hardcover (352) pages
Further reviews of Lauren Willig’s books