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Snow covers graves and other things,
snow covers leaves and even wings.

The winter pansy and the rose
resist their night of dark repose

and in the morning shake red heads
between the whitely powdered beds.

Pink cheeks, bright eyes of cobalt blue
conspire galacticly to show

though while snow covers graves and wings
the flower that is heaven sings.

Ronald Westbrook (my family poet)

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I’m not religious and I don’t do much over Christmas, but one thing I’ve done for years is to attend a performance of the Messiah. I’ve attended performances in concert halls with huge choruses and orchestras; and a memorable performance in York Minster during the power cuts of the early 1970s when we all kept on our gloves and hats and one very short intermission at which we all dashed out to the nearest pub for warming drinks. Last national_cathedral_002-2Saturday I heard Messiah at Washington National Cathedral, performed with a baroque orchestra and an “authentic” chorus of a children’s choir plus male voices. It was really spectacular and in a gorgeous setting.

Handel, however, composed it for Easter, and it’s still performed then. It has never waned in popularity–Mozart, Carl Maria von Weber, and Mendelssohn introduced it in Europe and the rise of choral societies in the later nineteenth century ensured its popularity. The world record for an unbroken sequence of performances is held by the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic, which has performed it annually since 1853!

Handel composed the work in 1741 in a breathtaking 24 days, despite a difficult relationship with librettist Charles Jennens:

Messiah has disappointed me, being set in great haste, tho’ [Handel] said he would be a year about it, and make it the best of all his Compositions. I shall put no more Sacred Words into his hands, to be thus abus’d.

Six months later Jennens was still unimpressed:

‘Tis still in his power by retouching the weak parts to make it fit for publick performance; and I have said a great deal to him on the Subject; but he is so lazy and so obstinate, that I much doubt the Effect.

250px-Neal_Music_HallMessiah premiered in Dublin on April 13, 1742 as part of a series of charity concerts in Neal’s Music Hall in Fishamble Street near Dublin’s Temple Bar. Right up to the very date of the premiere the performance was plagued by technical difficulties, and the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Jonathan Swift (under whose aegis the premiere was to be held) postponed it. He demanded that the revenue from the concert be promised to local asylums for the mentally ill. The performance was sold out, with gentleman requested not to carry swords or ladies to wear hoops, to make more room in the hall. Handel led the performance from the harpsichord with his frequent collaborator Matthew Dubourg conducting the orchestra.


Ticket for a benefit performance of the Messiah

Handel continued to work on the score and excerpts were performed in 1749 to raise funds for the Foundling Hospital in London (of which Handel was a founder). In 1750, the final  version was presented there and remained the fundraising vehicle for the institution.

Messiah is famous for the Hallelujah Chorus in which the audience stands, a tradition allegedly started at the first London performance on March 23, 1743. King George II rose, and so of course the rest of the audience had to follow. However, there are no eyewitness accounts, and the first mention of it comes 37 years later. Confusingly, it seems that audiences of the time liked to stand to certain pieces of music, such as the Dead March from Saul, and an audience member of a 1750 Messiah noted that the audience stood for the “grand choruses” (note the plural):

Audiences may have been spontaneously standing not because of royal example, but because of the confusing oddity of Handelian oratorio, and the additional oddity of Messiah itself. Handel’s hybrid of sacred subjects with operatic style, moving Bible stories into secular venues, had already struck some puritanical Britons as curious, or worse; Messiah went further, its libretto (by Charles Jennens) not even a dramatic narrative, but a theologically curated collection of Scripture passages.

“An Oratorio either is an Act of Religion, or it is not,’’ complained one anonymous critic on the eve of the London premiere of Messiah. “If it is one I ask if the Playhouse is a fit Temple to perform it, or a Company of Players fit Ministers of God’s Word.’’ The sermon-like atmosphere of Messiah may have triggered audiences’ churchgoing reflexes, and they may have felt compelled to respond, standing for choruses as if they were hymns – better to be piously safe than sorry. Read more

Tell us about your favorite Christmas music!

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This coming Monday, November 24, is launch day for my latest novella release, A Christmas Reunion! is available for preorder now at all the major ebook retailers.

ACR cover

Gabriel Shepherd has never forgotten his humble origins. So when he discovers a war orphan at Christmastime, he resolves to find a home for her—even if that means asking help from the very family who found and raised him, only to cast him out for daring to love the wrong woman.

Lady Catherine Trevilian has spent five years poring over the British Army’s casualty list, dreading the day she sees Gabe’s name. She’s never forgotten him, and she’s never forgiven herself for not running away with him when she had the chance, though she’s agreed to a marriage of convenience with a more suitable man.

When Gabe returns home on Christmas leave just days before Cat’s wedding, a forbidden kiss confirms their feelings haven’t been dimmed by distance or time. But Cat is honor-bound to another, and Gabe believes she deserves better than a penniless soldier with an orphan in tow. How can Cat reconcile love and duty? She must convince Gabe she’d rather have him than the richest lord in all of England…

Here’s an excerpt I hope will whet your appetite. Cat’s fiance Anthony has just witnessed her reunion with Gabe, and he has questions…
“Catherine,” he said abruptly, “what is Captain Shepherd to you?”

“What do you mean?” She strove for a light, steady voice. “He grew up with Richard and Harry, so I think of him as a cousin, even though we’re not of the same blood.”

“No.” He huffed out a breath and stepped away from the hearth, watching her carefully. “You don’t fidget and breathe faster every time Richard comes within a yard of you. You and Harry don’t dart glances at each other and turn red every time you happen to look at the same time.”

Cat sighed. Curse Anthony’s perceptiveness. If only Gabe had arrived an hour or two before him, she would’ve had time to school her face and body to calm in his presence. “Very well,” she said. “The reason my uncle sent Gabriel into the army is that he kissed me under the mistletoe, and we were caught at it.”

“Five years ago. That would’ve made you eighteen and him…?”

“Twenty. He’s a few months younger than Harry.” She wished Anthony wouldn’t loom so, but she refused to stand up, lest this conversation become even more of a confrontation.

His eyes narrowed. “Sending him off to war for a mere kiss seems rather extreme. Surely a pretty girl of eighteen and a good-looking lad of twenty under the same roof exchanging a kiss isn’t so shocking, as long as it doesn’t get out of hand.”

His tone and a certain ironic lift of his eyebrow suggested suspicions the kiss had indeed got out of hand. Cat took a deep breath and considered her next words. She was not going to tell Anthony where she and Gabe had been when they were caught, nor how they’d been touching each other.

Instead she turned to one of the lectures her aunt had given her when she’d wept over Gabe’s exile. “That’s just it, you see. Some of my Trevilian relations hadn’t liked it when I came to Edenwell after Papa died because there were three young men in the household. They thought it too dangerous, that I might end up compromised or maneuvered into marrying Richard or Harry whether I freely consented or not. They weren’t so very far wrong, after all. My uncle wouldn’t have gone so far as to force my consent, but he certainly used every lawful means at his disposal to try to convince me to wed Harry.”

“He must’ve been mad. Anyone could see the two of you are entirely unsuited.”

Cat bit her lip and traced a pattern in the rug with one slippered foot. Anthony was so alert to all the little games people played within society. If she claimed that her—call it her infatuation—with Gabe had begun as a game, would it deflect him from suspecting it had become far more? She lifted her chin and met her betrothed’s eyes. “Ah, but Gabriel was much worse in everyone’s eyes. He was entirely unsuitable.”

Anthony studied her in silence for a moment. Then he visibly relaxed, and one corner of his mouth twitched in amusement. “Why, Catherine! You deliberately struck up a flirtation with him to defy your uncle. You did.”

She shrugged. “Uncle Edenwell might have been my guardian until I came of age, but I wanted him to know he couldn’t rule my heart or my mind.”

“Ha! Well done. And a lesson to me never to allow myself to become a dictatorial sort of husband.”

“You’d do well to remember that,” she said archly, then shook her head. “Though it wasn’t well done of me at all, when you consider the consequences. Before that night my uncle had intended for Gabriel to become steward of the family properties when he was a little older. No one had ever thought of the army for him, and I’ve spent the past five years in fear of seeing his name in the casualty lists. If Uncle Edenwell had been in less of a temper, he might’ve sent Gabriel away for a few years to one of his more distant estates to practice his profession, but that wasn’t my uncle’s way. He was never one to be satisfied with merely doing enough, when a more extreme solution was available.”

“Hmph. So Richard often gave me to understand.”

Cat suppressed a sigh of relief. It pained her to speak so lightly of Gabe, who had been her dearest friend even before he became her first love, but at least she thought she had calmed Anthony’s suspicions.

“But he must have meant something to you, beyond a means to annoy your uncle,” he probed, “or you wouldn’t be so—so struck by his presence now.”

Or, perhaps not.

Another excerpt and buy links for A Christmas Reunion are available at my website. And if you’re looking to fill your virtual stocking with festive reads, my short holiday novella from 2013, Christmas Past, is still available too.

A quick post today, because this is shaping up to be one of the busiest falls of my life–not least because starting next month I have two new releases just six weeks apart. My holiday novella, A Christmas Reunion, releases on November 24, and I just got the cover for my January 5 release, Freedom to Love.

FTL cover

Isn’t it gorgeous? I think it may be my favorite cover of mine to date. That said, my first thought upon seeing it was, as always, “That’s not what they look like!” Because, you see, I can’t download the images in my brain for the art department’s benefit, and the celebrities I name on my cover art information forms as the closest approximations are unlikely to give up their lucrative careers in acting, pro football, and the like to take up romance novel cover modeling. (In this case I listed Tom Hiddleston and Rashida Jones.)

Here’s a question for you all…if you could persuade a favorite celebrity or two to start moonlighting as a cover model, who would you pick? In addition to Hiddles, I’d want my new TV secret boyfriend, Tom Mison, and my favorite non-Seahawk NFL player Cam Newton.

In other news, I’ve started an author newsletter, which you can sign up for here. I promise not to spam you. Other than release day announcements, it’ll be no more than quarterly. And I’m giving out signed books to randomly selected subscribers who join before Nov. 24–some of my books (I have print editions Carina printed for Rita entries) and some I’ll be picking up at the Surrey International Writers Conference later this month.

Having finally finished the clean-up from Thanksgiving (the wedding crystal goblets I have to wash by hand tend to decorate the kitchen counter for days), I am now looking ahead to the next holidays, and more meals to be planned in celebration. Special occasions and special food always go together. Do you have a traditional holiday food you make or fondly remember? For Christians, this past Sunday was the first Sunday in Advent, the season leading up to Christmas, and in some parts of England, is also known as “stir-up day” –the day you are supposed to stir-up the batter for your Christmas cake or pudding so it will have enough time to age properly. (The day can also be the last Sunday before the start of Advent.) There’s a double meaning to the name, as one of the old texts used by the church for the start of Advent begins “Stir up , we beseech thee O Lord” and one site claims “this activity of stirring-up the ingredients symbolizes our hearts that must be stirred in preparation for Christ’s birth.” Christmas cakes (aka fruitcakes) have a pedigree as long as the technique of using rum or brandy to preserve food. “Plum Pudding” was also around long before the Victorians popularized it as “Christmas pudding”. Either one could include meat with the dried fruit in their early forms, but one is baked and the other was boiled –steamed in later times.

For someone who’s not a great cook, maybe it’s ironic that I’ve always been interested in period food, but it comes honestly from my interest in the daily life of other times. The Regency isn’t my only pet period –I’m a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism and indulge in medieval interests, too. I collect cookbooks on period food, and recently added Dinner with Tom Jones: Eighteenth Century Cookery Adapted for the Modern Kitchen, by Lorna Sass (1977, the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Sass also wrote To the King’s Taste (Richard II) and To the Queen’s Taste (Elizabeth I).

Cover-Dinner with Tom Jones.jpgI can’t believe I found this treasure in my church yard sale!! I recommend it as a research gold-mine; it has notes about menus, how dishes should be arranged on the table, and all sorts of extra goodies besides the recipes, and while it covers a period slightly earlier than our beloved Regency, back then things did not change as rapidly as they do now. Casting about for what to feed our characters, a ragoo of asparagus or heavens, yes, a chocolate tart(!) might be just the thing we need to serve them. And the book is illustrated with delightful sketches of county life by Thomas Rowlandson (behaving properly for a change).

Cover-Dinner with Mr DarcyOn my Christmas list is another cookbook just released last month which should also be of great interest to us all —Dinner with Mr Darcy by Pen Vogler, a new addition to the existing canon related to food in Jane Austen’s books and life. Besides recipes inspired by Jane’s novels and letters, it also promises notes about table arrangements, kitchens and gardens, changing mealtimes, and servants and service, etc.

Both of these books use Hannah Glasse’s first cookbook, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747), as a chief source. A reviewer of Vogler’s book ( says this was “one of the first commercial cookbooks to capture the public imagination and was used by middle-class families like the Austens well into the 19th century.” Does food history interest you? Do you care about what our story characters eat? (The book I’m editing now for reissue, The Captain’s Dilemma, has a running joke about the family’s inventive but not very good cook.) What are some of your favorite resources?

I wish you all very happy holidays and some memorable meals with friends and family, whatever you celebrate!

P&P Dinner Scene

Mr Collins (Tom Hollander) distracts Elizabeth Bennett (Keira Knightley) from her meal in the 2005 ‘Pride and Prejudice’ -Photo Credit: Rex Features/Everett Collection

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