As a disgustingly rich member of upper class society, many of Alvenia “Alvy” Lexington quirks can be forgiven as eccentricities. But there is some gossip that no amount of wealth can keep suppressed. Where Alvy is concerned, it is the fact that, under the sumptuous dresses and impeccable maquillage, there is, quite simply, a man. Unable to accept the constant fetters of polite society, Alvy takes rooms in a rougher part of London. There, he begins to experiment living life on his own terms. He even has a cover story to explain away his departure from the family home: becoming proprietor for a new broadsheet. Little does Alvy suspect that his long-time friend, Laura, will be determined to join him.
Laura is beginning to appreciate that she is far too modern for most of her clientele. Afterall, who would want a governess that teaches children about rebellion and other scandalous things? That her best friend has started up a printing business suits Laura’s needs just fine. The new job even takes her mind off a magical evening she spent at a masquerade, dancing with the most dashing man dressed in white as a chevalier. Laura is smitten with her partner, but the man escaped before she could learn who he truly was. She decides to post an open letter at the local post office in an attempt to discover the identity of her Christmas chevalier. This, however, strikes Alvy with horror. Not because Alvy begrudges Laura a chance at happiness, but because Alvy himself was that very same chevalier. Now, Alvy realizes that he never made it clear to Laura that it was he who was the chevalier. And now it is he who must break Laura’s heart, for how could she ever forgive him for not immediately identifying himself as her friend? However, confession might just break his own heart as the whole fiasco has Alvy seeing Laura in a much different light than mere friend.
The Christmas Chevalier is the first book in the new Christmas Masquerade series by Meg Mardell. This story is set in later Victorian-era England and focuses on the wealthy Alvy as he explores being what we would probably call transgender in today’s terms. From the very start, Mardell makes conspicuous use of gendered pronouns in reference to Alvy. I’ll admit, it took me a while to pick up on Alvy being transgender because of the changing pronouns. Being rich means Alvy can afford the best clothes and, when the price is right, questions won’t be asked. But there is a difference between having the clothes and being able to freely walk about in them. Not just because Alvy is concerned with “passing,” but because all his social circle might positively identify him even when dressed in men’s attire, but he’s not necessarily well-versed in moving in lower social circles, etc.
I very much enjoyed the back-and-forth between Alvy and Laura. For readers who like slow burns and friends-to-lovers, I think you’ll enjoy how their relationship develops. Despite being set in Victorian London, both Alvy and Laura have very modern ideas about life and love. Their interactions make them very equally matched in terms of personalities—Alvy has the ideas and chutzpah to get them started, Laura has the wherewithal to see them properly managed. But there is also the slow realization that they like more than just one another’s company. While there is a bit of mistaken identity when Laura dances with Alvy while Alvy is in disguise, the story does not focus so much on Laura’s daydreaming of reconnecting with a mysterious dancer. The more time Laura and Alvy spend working on getting their press up and running, the more they seem to discover they actually have a spark of attraction for one another. It’s easy enough for them to write it off as nonsense at first, but it grows. And despite Alvy’s preoccupation with the past and not coming clean about his identity at the masquerade immediately, Laura is smart enough to figure things out…but neither one knows when or how to confess what they know or feel for the other.
In addition to Alvy and Laura getting embroiled in a misunderstanding of their own making, Mardell includes a nominal villain in the story in the form of Ivor Carver. He is a society fop who seems to be out to expose Alvy for the man he is and, while his is a rather minor inconvenience, I think his conniving offers a lovely and uplifting chance in the story for Alvy to experience unconditional love from his mother (to whom Carver was trying to out Alvy) and Laura (to whom Alvy had decided needed to hear the truth from his own lips, consequences be damned). And it all worked out well. My only complaint is that I couldn’t quite tell if Alvy’s mother’s reaction was meant to be an actual demonstration of unconditional love, or the sort of magnanimous acceptance of what one cannot change (read: I take this as Alvy’s coming out to his mother, but there was no grand declaration of such).
Overall, this is a positive imagining of transgender life in the 1880s. Compared to other historical romances, I thought the “fear of discovery” and the idea of non-heteronormative relationships being taboo was vastly underplayed. As a benefit of that, I feel like the story really focused on Alvy coming into his own, albeit slowly and not in all company or all the time. It ends on a positive note with a happily ever after and positive affirmation of Alvy as a gentleman. For readers who enjoy holiday romantic mystery (masked balls), unrequited love (falling for your best friend), fear of rejection (from said best friend), and a bit of drama via a nosy noble, I think you’ll enjoy this cozy historical romance very much.