I listened to an audiobook The Christmas Hirelings written by Mary Elizabeth Braddon and narrated by Richard Armitage and was completely impressed on three levels. This review will have my thoughts on the story itself, the author, and the platform from which I got the audiobook. I remain impressed by listeners or readers who can benefit from audiobooks. Usually, I am not one of them. If the audiobook is too long, I fall asleep. If I try multi-tasking and the task is in any way important, I either have to “rewind” the audiobook to review points unclear to me or I have to repeat steps in the task I was doing because I was more interested in the listening experience and I missed the exit. Vowing never to try multi-tasking, I am back at fighting off sleep. With this four-hour presentation, I didn’t even doze, let alone sleep. I listened to it in one session and remained interested in every chapter.
The story has no surprise ending. A prologue sets the stage; chapters one, two, and three of the story are flashbacks of the lives of key characters. I believe that by the end of chapter three of the eight-chapter presentation, every listener will realize how the story will end. This does not spoil the story because what is fascinating is the process of getting to the predictable conclusion. The process takes place in the context of Victorian society, a structure that could serve as the definition of a patriarchy. That women were second-class citizens and near chattels will not surprise many listeners. My first surprise came when I realized that the senior patriarch, the Lord of the Manor, the patron and sole owner of the nearby village and all its institutions (church, school) did not realize or appreciate his two daughters until they were nearly five years old.
The Story: The narrator describes the opening scene as taking place in a library with three main characters present. Sir John Pen-Lion is the old, rich, self-important class-conscious curmudgeon who rules his environment completely be either dictating what will happen or by ignoring anything that annoys him. Ms. Adele Hallberg is his household manager of twelve servants. The third, and most complex, character is Richard Danby, who initially appears as a free spirit dedicated only to his own whims. He has no permanent address and goes from home to home of his many friends who support him with food, clothing, and shelter. For more than forty years, Danby has never held a job but is so entertaining that his invitations from friends stretch three years into the future. The three are discussing Christmas, a holiday Sir John finds distasteful due to its varied social demands on his time and money. Adele believes it should be a special season of goodwill. Danby comes up with an idea to make the season special.
What is Christmas without the joy and happiness displayed by children? Sir John’s children have long since gone. Adele is unmarried. Children would not suit Danby’s lifestyle at all. But it is Danby who came up with a plan to celebrate Christmas this year. Sir John would give money to Danby and Danby would hire children to populate the Pen-Lion mansion for the celebratory season of about two weeks. They would be children from the better class of people, families that were in need of money and would welcome the chance to earn money and give their children a holiday rich with presents and food. Danby assured Sir John that the children would have the best of manners. They would be educated, know how to properly dress, and would be aware of their place in a strict, very conservative, well-disciplined, English society.
The plan was carried out. The children arrived, were clothed, fed, and housed. They were allowed to play but only quietly. As long as Sir John didn’t have to leave the library where he read his magazines, newspapers, and books; merriment could silently proceed. The children, of course, would never enter the library. Three children, brother and two sisters, arrived. Brian and Lassie were the oldest and their characters have important parts to play. But it was the not-quite-four-year-old Mary (Moppet) who would bring change to all their lives.
The Author: I don’t usually pay attention to authors as much as I did with this one. My interest began when I wanted to find a print version of this story because I could not determine how to spell the names of the characters. I felt there were different spelling variants suggested by the audio presentation and I wanted to see the names in print. I couldn’t find anything in print. But I found that Mary Elizabeth Braddon was a remarkable woman, author, playwright, and stage actor. Sources indicate she was an author who wrote in the genre “sensation,” and was a person known to and friends of other well-known authors such as Wilke Collins (The Woman in White). She wrote more than eighty novels, short stories, and plays (but I couldn’t find this one). She was a single mother (shock!) and a stage actor at a time when actors (and actresses) were thought to make their living by prostitution when more artistic employment was not available. Her most famous novel, one which made her financially independent for the rest of her life and able to buy a villa, is Lady Audley’s Secret, written in 1862. Attesting to the novel’s success, Braddon named the villa Audley Lodge. The novel was partially based on the case of a serial killing famous a few years earlier. The novel is 483 pages in its Kindle edition and I plan to both read and listen to it although I don’t know how a novel of that length translates into audible hours. Sleep is a possibility.
My Source for the Audiobook (with Disclaimer): I prefer Audible.com, a division of Amazon when listening to a novel. When I post a review of something I listened to, I include a link to Audible.com at the end; it is an affiliate link so if someone clicks on it, I think I get money (it has never happened). That is not my purpose here. I want to describe my experience with Audible because I find it rare to have good experiences with those seeking my money by using clever promotional tricks. When I initially subscribed to Audible several years ago I felt it overpriced. But they had the types of books I liked which I could then find nowhere else. My preferred genre was history, not historical fiction.
From the time I subscribed to present, the price has not changed but the offerings have increased substantially. I get a news roundup from the Wall Street Journal. I use a laptop for listening and the application that comes with Windows 10 is great. There are audible channels that feature TED talks, comedy offerings, book reviews that come across like community book club meetings, and Audible Original stories. On the first Friday of each month, I am offered two Audible Original stories from a curated list. The list changes monthly. All of these items were added gradually over the years from my original subscription, one which allowed one “free” audible choice for my monthly subscription fee, a fee that has not increased.
Which brings me to this book. For the past three years, Audible has sent a “gift” to each subscriber. I have been conditioned to look forward to these gifts. This selection was the best of all their annual offerings. I discovered a new “old” author and found I could actually stay awake if the story was interesting enough. This story will make listeners feel good during this holiday season. Ho, ho, ho, and have a good holiday.