I had never heard of The Christmas Hirelings, written in 1894 by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, but an audiobook of it was Audible‘s free Christmas gift to members, so I tried it out. I loved it! Braddon is known for more “sensational” writings: from what I understand, this is the only story of its kind that she wrote. But it hits all the right notes for a classic Victorian Christmas tale.
The story opens with Sir John Penlyon, his niece Adela, and his good friend Danby. As Sir John grouses about how boring Christmas is, Danby says “Nobody knows how to enjoy Christmas if he has no children to make happy. If one has no children of one’s own, one ought to hire some for the Christmas – week.” He then proposes to do just that, with Sir John’s permission. There’s much discussion about what kind of children should be brought, and Sir John finally tells Danby he can do anything he likes as long as he doesn’t bother Sir John about it.
Then the author switches to Sir John’s backstory and how he came to be a gruff old man alone in his mansion, and his story unexpectedly touched my heart. He was no Scrooge: he was generous and kind, unless crossed. But life’s circumstances had sapped all the joy from his life. At one point he said, “My life was barren, but peaceful. What more did I want?” Much later in the book, Danby said one reason he proposed this experiment was to prove to Sir John that he did indeed have a heart.
The children and Sir John get off on the wrong foot at first until the youngest, four-year-old Moppet, bravely attaches herself to him. One of my favorites of their exchanges:
Moppet: “Little girls sit on their fathers’ knees, don’t they ?”
Sir John: “Sometimes.”
“I mean good little girls. And that isn’t being forward, is it ?”
“No, Moppet, no. Fathers are made to be sat upon.”
The joy of having children around and doing for them enlivens the whole house and all its occupants, until tragedy strikes.
I had an idea where the story was going and who the children actually were by chapter three, but I still enjoyed seeing if I was right (I was) and how everything would play out (not like I expected!)
Oddly, there’s not a Kindle version, but the text is online here. The audiobook was superbly read by Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies). I nearly forgot at one point that one man was voicing all the characters. Here’s a bit of background for Audible’s recording with Armitage:
Another free audiobook is available from Librivox. Although the narration can’t compare to Armitage’s, it does have the advantage of a preface from Braddon telling how the book came to be and who Danby and Moppet are based on. The Librivox narration is also on YouTube here.
Thanks so much to Audible for introducing me to this lovely story.
(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Carole’s Books You Loved)
Thanks for letting me know. I grabbed it and told my mom too. Are you aware of other free Audibles available right now? Thank you.
Audible chooses one free book to give to members each Christmas, and this year it was The Christmas Hirelings. I don’t know of any other free ones except that they’ve started something called Audible Originals, and members get two free from the list of what they’re offering. But I haven’t looked into that too much, so I don’t know much about them – I think some of them are shorter stories or similar to podcasts. I hope you and your mom enjoy The Christmas Hirelings as much as I did!
This sounds like a terrific story — thanks, Barbara!
Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be available in my region – nothing shows up when I search for it. Richard Armitage is a fantastic narrator, so it’s a double bummer!
This sounds like a good read. Thank you, Barbara, for sharing.
How sweet! Perfect time to indulge in a comforting taste of the past …
Great timing on that Chrsitmas-themed audiobook… I just went and “bought” it myself (it’s still free).
This sounds like a really good read. I love anything that’s Victorian + Christmas. 🙂 At just under 4 hours… I wonder if I might be able to fit this into my own listening pleasure this month. Hmm?!
Also, may I ask how you found out from Audible about their free gift? I’ve heard rumors that they give away a download like that from time to time, but I’m wondering if there’s a reliable way to find out about each freebie.
I get emails from Audible about sales and specials, and this particular one said this was their free gift to members. They also have changeable header pictures on their web site and included it there for a while, but I didn’t see it the last time I was there.
Thanks, Barbara! I do have an Audible account, but they don’t send me extra emails like that… I’ll see if I can sign up for their newsletter.
I had seen this freebie, too, but the description didn’t interest me. However! Having read your review, I’m sorry to have missed it (freebies have a limited window as gifts to members).
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Thanks, Barbara, I downloaded the free audible!
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