Here’s the premise: Felicity Pennington is being threatened with a sixth season in London by her rich, indulgent Aunt Agnes, better known as baronet’s widow Lady DuFrayne. Felicity wouldn’t mind, but it’s surely time her younger sister Lucille, aka Lulu, had her chance. She’s a bit of a madcap hoyden, but perhaps she could make a smaller debut in their home town of Bath over the winter to prepare her – nothing could go wrong, could it?
Aunt Agnes reluctantly agrees, and instantly Lulu gets into trouble at her debut event, managing to tip a water-filled vase over herself. But all is not lost, for appearing miraculously on the scene to rescue her from total ignominy is Oliver Stanhope, who’s everything that’s desirable in Lulu’s eyes, and isn’t at all censorious, despite being the son of a bishop. There’s only one problem – he’s already as good as betrothed to the humourless Miss Almeria Bliss, an inapt name if ever I heard one.
Into all this arrives the person of Sir Gavin DuFrayne, the inheritor of Aunt Agnes’s husband’s baronetcy and the estate but not the fortune, which went to Aunt Agnes. Now that his father has died, he’s sold the plantations in Barbados and has returned home to try to wrest some of that fortune for himself, or at the very least, stop his aunt blowing the whole lot on the deeply unworthy Pennington family. Although he has to admit that Felicity Pennington is good fun, with her sharp mind and willingness to spar with him.
It’s obvious at this point where the story is going, and so it does, with few surprises, but every step of the way is filled with charm and humour and a delightful lightness of touch. The only darker note is the discussion of slavery, where Gavin tries to recruit Felicity to his cause of helping his own freed slaves to come to England, which he isn’t able to do because he stupidly tied up all his money for several years (which is the only misstep in the entire book, because he’s far too smart to do that before he’s done what he promised for the freed slaves; serious plot manipulation there).
Apart from the main characters being anti-slavery (which is a very common theme in modern Regencies and barely worthy of comment, even though there was far more controversy about it at the time), the book is actually quite subversive. For one thing, Aunt Agnes’s husband leaves only the entailed property to his heir, and gives all his money to his widow. Nor does she have it only for her lifetime – it’s hers absolutely. She could give it all to the Penningtons if she wants, or an orphanage, or spend every last penny, leaving the baronet in relative poverty. That would be regarded as wicked in an age when male primogeniture was everything, and a man with a title was expected to live expensively. We’re not really told why he did this, although it’s hinted that Gavin’s father was something of a reprobate, but it’s still a drastic step to take.
The other unusual arrangement is that Oliver Stanhope is his father’s heir, despite being the middle of three brothers. Again, it’s almost invariably the eldest son who inherits, but here it’s shown as an agreement between the men of the family. The eldest and youngest sons wanted to follow their father into the church and Oliver didn’t, so he gets the money. Although I have to say that his delight in his new estate and the enthusiasm with which he threw parties there were delightful. He has so much joie de vie, it’s obvious he’s a perfect match for the exuberant Lulu.
The story eventually winds its way to Christmas and the mistletoe test of the title about which I will say nothing except that it’s all lovely. I would have liked a little more followup with Gavin and Felicity, who were supposed to be the main characters but got pushed into the background by Lulu and Oliver far too often. I liked that the minor characters got their turn in the spotlight, but I wanted to see a bit more of the majors. In particular, I wanted to see a lot more of them falling in love. But that’s not really a complaint. This was a lovely traditional read that put a smile on my face almost from start to finish. Beautifully written, with lots of humour and charm, I can’t give it less than five stars.