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.