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Anne Perry

Genre: Historical Romance

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Anne Perry's Christmas Journey

Celebrates the Spirit of the Season

By Diane Snyder

You won't find mistletoe or caroling in A CHRISTMAS JOURNEY, bestselling historical mystery novelist Anne Perry's new Victorian novella. But you will find one of the author's favorite characters from her Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series—Charlotte's stately great-aunt Lady Vespasia CummingGould.

"She's always been one of my favorite characters, and she's who I would like to be," the soft-spoken Londonborn author said, during a recent book tour that brought her to the United States. "She has courage for life, she has wit, she has intelligence and grace and auty, but her beauty is more than just a matter of her features, it's something within her."

Set some 50 years prior to the Pitt novels, A CHRISTMAS JOURNEY (Ballantine) shows Vespasia as a 30-year-old wife and mother, attending a weekend house party in early December without her family. The genteel atmosphere is shattered when one of the guests, young widow Gwendolen Kilmuir, jumps to her death, and the others ostracize another widow, Isobel Alvie, whose nasty insult they believe drove Gwendolen to suicide.

But their host, Omegus Jones, offers Isobel a chance for redemption—social ostracization being almost equivalent to death—inspired by the medieval idea of expiation: If Isobel takes Gwendolen's last letter to her mother in Scotland and divulges her responsibility in the young woman's death, she will be cleansed of her sin and forgiven. Vespasia generously accompanies her friend on what becomes a tedious and treacherous journey. Along the way, a mystery unravels, but it's a why-dunit rather than Perry's usual whodunit.

Perry, who's been a Mormon for 35 years, says she wanted to write about the real meaning of Christmas, and she's dedicated this book "to all those who contribute to the gift of friendship." "If Christ stands for anything, he is the friend who will make our journey of expiation with us and give us hope that we can start over," she says earnestly.

It's something the 65-year-old author, who in conversation presents the same poise and grace as one of her aristocratic characters, has had to do in her own life. As teenager Juliet Hulme in 1950s New Zealand, she was convicted of murder and served 5H years in prison for helping her friend Pauline Parker kill Pauline's mother. At 21, she was released and given a new identity. But the 1994 film HEAVENLY CREATURES, inspired by the case, led to public discovery that Perry, by then a popular author, had been Hulme.

It's hard for Perry to see anything advantageous resulting from the revelation. "Honestly, it's something I would rather forget," she says quietly. "I suppose the only positive thing is it's not a black cloud over the future. The worst has already happened; there's nothing as bad that can happen again."

That disclosure hasn't hurt Perry's popularity with readers, who have praised her intricate plotting and keen sense of setting and character. Historical romance and mystery author Jennifer Ashley (aka Ashley Gardner) counts herself as one of her fans. "She has one of the best historical voices in the business," Ashley says. "She incorporates events and figures of the time with an enviable skill, yet doesn't overwhelm the reader or overshadow the story with her research. She takes her readers to Victorian London and submerges them there."

This year, Perry's also been submerging them in other settings, with the first book in her five-part World War Iera mystery series, No Graves as Yet (Ballantine), which made the New York Times bestseller list, and her second fantasy novel, Come Armageddon, the follow-up to 1999's Tathea (Ace). Ballantine also released Seven Dials, her 23rd Pitt mystery, and next year will publish the 14th novel in her other Victorian mystery series, featuring amnesiac detective William Monk and his wife, Hester.

For now, Perry will be producing just one Pitt or Monk novel annually, while she concentrates on her WWI series, about the Reavley family, brothers Joseph and Matthew and sisters Hannah and Judith. The books take place in successive years of WWI, 1914 to 1918, and besides the mystery, focus on the siblings' personal journeys. After the Reavleys' parents are killed in a car crash in the debut book, an important document their father had goes missing, prompting Matthew, an intelligence officer, and Joseph, a minister and Cambridge professor, to investigate.

Perry wanted to explore how individuals responded to enormous social changes. "And I don't think we've had anything quite as traumatic in western history as World War I and the extraordinary changes that occurred," she says.

Especially where women were concerned. "In 1914, [a woman] has a dress almost down to her ankles—not very easy to get around in; long hair, which takes a lot of looking after, piled up on her head; relatively less educational opportunities; she wasn't suited for work, unless it was domestic service; and she certainly couldn't vote," Perry observes. "Look at her five years later: She's got short hair, much shorter skirts so she can get around more easily, more educational opportunities, much more opportunity and necessity for working, and she'll have the vote. That's an incredible change."

But Perry is quick to point out the
losses that came with those gains. "A lot
of women would not marry and have children because they would not have the chance," she says. "And when you gain responsibility, you lose a certain innocence. Responsibility has considerable burdens—not only did women have the opportunity to work, a lot of them had the necessity to work."

While Perry never married or had
children, she does keep close ties with
her family, and they're not far from her home in the small Scottish village of Portmahomack. (The house, an old
sandstone barn, overlooks the sea and
has been photographed for an upcoming issue of Architectural Digest.) Her brother, who has been her full-time research assistant for three years, comes by every day, and their mother, who used to live just down the road, is in a nursing home about 25 miles away.

"I have a garden that's two acres and cats and dogs and lots of people around me that matter to me," Perry says.

And the memory of those no longer around. Joseph Reavley, her protagonist
in No Graves as Yet, was also the name of Perry's maternal grandfather, who was a chaplain in the trenches of WWI. Although the author maintains that her character is fictional, he also takes on that role during the war.

"Joseph is on a spiritual journey to try to be the man he needs to be," Perry says. "He cannot heal most people's injuries, he can't stop [the war] from happening, all he can do is be there with people. And I think that call is to everybody. There are lots of pains and griefs we can't do anything about, but we can be there. When somebody's bereaved or dreadfully ill,
it's natural to say, 'I don't know what to do for them, I won't go.' But when we are in deep trouble, if there's somebody there who'll hold out their hand and take yours no matter what, that's sometimes the best thing you can do."

Lady Vespasia would probably agree.

Visit the Victorian World of Pitt and
Monk section of Perry's website to
learn more about this historical era:

Excerpt from Anne Perry's A CHRISTMAS JOURNEY

Lord Salchester saw Vespasia and acknowledged her appreciatively. Lady Salchester smiled with
warm lips and a glacial eye. "Good evening, Lady Vespasia," she said with penetrating clarity. "How charming to see you. You seem quite recovered from the exertion of the season." It was a less-than-kind reference to a summer cold that had made Vespasia tired and far from herself at the Henley Regatta. "Let us hope next year is not too strenuous for you," she added. She was twenty years older than Vespasia, but a woman of immense stamina who had never been beautiful.

Vespasia was aware of Lord Salchester's eye on her, and even more of Omegus Jones's. It was the latter that tempered her reply. Wit was not always funny, if it cut those already wounded. "I hope so," she answered. "It is tedious for everybody when someone cannot keep up. I shall endeavor not to
do that again."

Isobel was surprised. Lady Salchester was astounded.

Vespasia smiled sweetly and excused herself.

Gwendolen Kilmuir was talking earnestly to Bertie Rosythe. Her head was bent a trifle, the light shining on her rich brown hair and the deep plum pink of her gown. She was widowed well over a year now, and had only recently taken the opportunity to cast aside her black. She was a young woman, barely twenty-eight, and had no intention of spending longer in mourning than society demanded. She looked up demurely at Bertie, but she was smiling, and her face had a softness and a warmth to it that was hard to mistake.

Vespasia glanced at Isobel and caught a pensive look in
her eye. Then a moment later she smiled, and it was gone.

Bertie turned and saw them. As always he was gracefully polite. Gwendolen's pleasure was not as easily assumed. Vespasia saw the muscles in her neck and chin tighten and her bosom swell as she breathed deeply before mustering a smile. "Good evening, Lady Vespasia, Mrs. Alvie. How nice it will be to dine together."

"As always," Isobel murmured. "I believe we dined at Lady Cranbourne's also, during the summer? And at the queen's garden party." Her eyes flickered up and down Gwendolen's plum taffeta. "I remember your gown."

Gwendolen blushed. Bertie smiled uncertainly.

Suddenly and with a considerable jolt, Vespasia realized that Isobel's interest in Bertie was not as casual as she had supposed. The barb in her remark betrayed her. Such cruelty was not in the character she knew.

"You remember her gown?" she said in feigned surprise. "How delightful." She looked with slight disdain at Isobel's
russet gold with its sweeping skirts. "So few gowns are remarkable these days, don't you think?"

Isobel caught her breath, a flare of temper in her eyes.

Gwendolen laughed with a release of tension and turned
to Bertie again.

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