Friday, January 2, 2015

The Haberdashers Tales by Sue London

Fortune Said
My Experience:  A
Synopsis:  When the earl’s valet falls desperately ill with a fever the household isn’t sure what to do, until one housemaid steps forward to care for him. 
Sissy Devonport has known her share of grief. Her family was laid low by a fever that only she survived. Now a member of her new household appears to be suffering from the same illness and she is the only one sure she can care for him without falling ill herself. 
Whit Whitman is a known flirt. A clever man who prefers to tease and gossip rather than do anything of substance. To his surprise, his illness has upset the household. And garnered the attention of one woman he thought he could never have.

Common Christmas
My Experience:  A
Synopsis:  A young woman, desperate to have one last lovely Christmas, brings the spirit of the season to the Harrington household. 
Grace Ashman has lost everything: her mother five years ago, and now her father and her home just a week before Christmas. She lives on the streets until one kind man invites her inside for a meal before the holiday. What she couldn’t know is that his kindness will change her life forever. 
Joshua Dibbs has been the butler at the Earl of Harrington’s London town home since 1809. If there is one thing Dibbs is known for, it is doing things properly. At least until now. Alas, when the earl arrives unexpectedly, the butler is reliant on help from a homeless woman to keep the household running until the staff returns!

I must admit, I do not normally read “holiday stories” and I generally avoid novellas as well, so it was out of character for me to choose these two books to read in the first place.  I haven’t read any of the Haberdashers or Sue London but Fortune Said caught my eye as I was searching for a book I'd read long ago, then I found myself also purchasing the one that comes before, Common Christmas.  Yes, of course, I read them out of order - that is typical of me.  It isn't essential to read them in order or have any knowledge of the larger series to thoroughly enjoy these tales.

Author’s Note is important here: This story isn't about the Haberdashers per se, but rather about some of the employees in the Harrington household … while the Haberdashers books are hot (explicit), the Haberdashers Tales are sweet (just kissing). Would hate to have anyone going between the two and surprised that they were so different.  

The book descriptions of the “hot” series did not interest me.  I couldn’t wrap my head around the premise.  Knowing I would never be the character wielding the sword but most certainly the one mopping up the mess, I welcomed these two tales of how the other half lived, and loved.  Both novellas are under a 100 pages.  They are utterly charming, reminiscent of Allison Lane or Carla Kelly, though the details of daily life are, of necessity, skimpy.  I would have enjoyed an expanded version of these tales, and paid more for such.
Two cousins, Joshua Dibbs and Whit Whitman, are heroes I admired.  Though neither is titled, wealthy or galloping through the Parks in dashing attire, they are steady, loyal, braver than many, and possess a rueful sense of humor that makes a man more attractive.  Dibbs is a butler, Whit is a valet.  Grace and Sissy, are enchanting heroines, both have fallen on hard times and are finding their way.  Grace is from the merchant class, Sissy from minor gentry.  Each has a determination that not only fascinates Dibbs and Whit, but enables them to make life better, even at its most challenging.

My one complaint with the Tales was how both women were forced from their previous lives and becoming a servant was painful for them [unlike Dibbs and Whit].  Grace doesn’t actually remain a servant at all. The prejudice against the idea a woman that was a lifelong servant could be a heroine remains firmly entrenched in romantic fiction.  I don’t believe that will ever change.  Men, even written by women, are able to be so much more than a woman, even now.  I do not refer to what a character does, but who they are - that uniqueness that makes them a hero or heroine in a tale, story or novel.  That courtesans and mistresses have become a trending heroine but not the housekeeper - unless she is destined to be a nobleman's wife - says more about our current mode of thought than the reality of the Regency, at least in my humble opinion.

There is acknowledgement of the work involved but we are also shown the sweet minutes and hours here and there where life was lived.  I especially enjoyed the fact propriety has a place in their lives, but it is expected that *self* control is adequate to the times genders are together.  If not, Dibbs is ready to address that situation.  For this reason, the romance is able to advance quicker than in conventional Regency stories. I did not find myself resenting how quickly love came to these couples as I have, perhaps too often, when noble couples are only allowed 15 minute calls and no more than 2 dances and the occasional drive in the park before they’re so in lust they forget everything they’ve known their entire lives.

I found the writing as charming as the story.  The characters were well developed, the secondary characters neither too cut-out nor too overwhelming.  There were sniffle inducing moments in both tales, and sighs that made me forget chocolate exists.  Whit’s after hour hobby was an excellent fit for the man and the times. The intrusion of the series characters did not disturb the flow of the tale.  The fellowship that is restored between the cousins and is begun between the women was perfect icing to both tales.

I hope there are more of these charming tales to come, as genuinely written about the characters involved and not as mere teasers for the larger series.  There is a thirst for such stories, though I doubt any one has figured out how to put a naked butler chest and half dressed parlor maid on a cover without it shrieking porn.  The loverly images used for covers for these two Tales were in keeping with the themes and from what I can see, they are selling, maybe there is hope!  There *were* millions of people living in the world during the Regency period, life wasn’t easy for them, but it was and remains, stories worth telling and reading.  I hope more authors take the risk of enchanting us with characters that, like most of us, work for their living - squeezing love and laughter between the daily grind.

In the meantime, I earnestly recommend these two tales now on my Keeper Shelf.

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