TBR Challenge: Carla Kelly’s MISS CHARTLEY’S GUIDED TOUR, Or What Happens When the Itinerary Is Tossed

Miss_Chartley's_Guided_TourMiss Bates shares an ambivalent relationship with Carla Kelly’s historical romance fiction. She enjoys them, doesn’t love them. She reads them from cover to cover, but experiences moments of restlessness, or boredom. When she ends a Kelly romance, she’s glad she read it. They resonate, but reading one is preceded by feelings of obligation and an “it’s-good-for-you” pep talk. Why is that? Because Miss Bates finds an unappealing preciousness to Kelly’s characters. Her characters’ “buck up” attitude to disasters that befall them tend to the farcical. Though historical details are accurate, the ease with which class distinctions are discarded, while ethically appealing, makes Miss B. squirmy with discomfit. Yet Miss Bates loved Kelly’s Miss Chartley’s Guided Tour. She loved it because it calls on the hero and heroine to engage with life, even after horrific events befell them and they “bucked up” to make the best of lives gone wrong. Kelly writes about how a time to weep gives way to happiness … and the means of that happiness are to open the heart and to serve others. The best way that Miss Bates can think of to describe Kelly’s appeal is that her romances exemplify Christ’s notion that to find your life, you must lose it. Miss Bates loved Miss Chartley’s Guided Tour … despite the ragged hole of implausibility in its fabric.

Miss Omega Chartley, 26, spinster schoolmarm (Miss B’s favourite kind), travels from Plymouth in the south of England to take a position as English grammarian at St. Elizabeth’s School for Girls in Durham. Along the way, she’ll sightsee with the aid of her trusted guidebook. At King Richard’s Rest, lesson plans abandoned in her inn room, the countryside’s beauty and fresh scent call to her to take a walk. She meets a grubby, if well-dressed, boy named Jamie Clevenden and her life goes awry from thereon. We learn that Miss Chartley harbors a dark and difficult past: abandonment at the wedding altar, a father’s suicide, and fallen fortunes, survival ensured thanks to her teaching.

Omega is a great character: she keeps to herself, soldiers on, does her best by her pupils, but guards her heart and time to herself. She doesn’t let anyone in, her wounds deep and fears dominant. But Jamie Clevenden, educated and wealthy, has run away from an abusive uncle. He’s running to his mother’s brother, the Viscount Byford, to ask for shelter and succor. Kelly’s characters are often called to act the Good Samaritan and in doing so are opened to life’s possibilities, to hope and love. They seem to have faith in abundance, or their inner resources sustain it, or help them find it. We learn everything we need to know about Omega that first evening at the inn: kneeling by her inn bed, she prays for, among others, Matthew Bering, the man who abandoned her at the alter.

Omega is thus called by her faith and sense of right and compassion to help Jamie Clevenden, to do so challenges her to leave her comfort zone. At that moment, the novel’s title points to Kelly’s theme of leaving the beaten path, tossing the itinerary, abandoning the well-constructed life for the perils of love and hope. Where much is at risk, much will be rewarded. Saving Jamie from Timothy Platter, a Bow Street Runner hired by his evil uncle, Edwin Rotherford, Omega loses everything, her money, clothes, and grammar book, and intangibles like her respectability, but also her listlessness. Her life turns to a desperate, if farcical, escape from Platter. Kelly never deviates from the notion that people are decent: the irrepressible Jamie and spirited Omega find help in the form of one-handed, down-and-out-lately-of-Waterloo soldier, Hugh Owen, and Angela, a camp-follow’s daughter he cares for, her family and his soldier-companions dead.

How plausible is it that Omega and Jamie’s chance meeting, her resolution to help him reach his uncle, their subsequent encounter with their protector, Hugh, and huntress of dinner rabbits, Angela, lead them to Viscount Byford, Matthew Bering, Jamie’s uncle and the MAN WHO ABANDONED OMEGA AT THE ALTAR EIGHT YEARS AGO? Or, as Omega rightly says, “dreadful coincidence and awful fate.” The reader must be complicit in Kelly’s coincidences? Or is it Providence that people are brought together in this way to save each other from loveless lives and redress a life gone wrong eight years ago? Even Hamlet, when finally resigned to his fate, says, “there is special providence in the fall of a sparrow … the readiness is all.” Kelly’s characters, a little broken, a little flawed, are ready to answer love and duty’s call. Matthew Bering’s story is a terrible one: he ought to be the villain for treating Omega so, but knowing something of the terrible night that occurred before his wedding day renders Matthew’s actions understandable.

[SPOILERS AHEAD.] When Matthew’s response to Jamie is less than generous (after Omega’s shock that she’s looking at her cruel fiancé ebbs and Hugh punches Matthew and knocks him out in Omega’s defense), Jamie runs away, still determined never to return to his Uncle Rotherford. Omega, worried to distraction about Jamie, starts out after him, falls down the stairs, and mangles her ankle. Then, Matthew rises to the occasion, succors the people-flotsam of life’s cruelties that have entered his perfectly ordered universe and tells Omega what happened eight years ago by way of explaining why he can’t help Jamie. Eight years ago, the night before Matthew and Omega’s wedding, Edwin Rotherford (the very uncle who physically abused Jamie), Matthew, and some of Matthew’s friends, went to one of London’s seedier neighbourhoods to drink themselves into a stupor. Edwin brought a 14-year-old prostitute and, at his and the others’ urging, convinced Matthew to strip down and “perform.” Matthew failed miserably and passed out; when he awoke, he and the girl were in bed: he was covered in blood and she was dead. Edwin helped him “cover up” the deed and holds it over him these many years; hence, Matthew’s fear of helping Jamie. Matthew has been an exemplary landlord and justice of the peace since, true to Omega, his guilt and remorse hidden behind a life of order and probity. Since that night’s failure, he is, as he confesses to Omega, impotent. Matthew’s tragic story is sensational and melodramatic. It points to Kelly’s and the romance novel’s roots in this literary tradition. Matthew’s conscience sends him after Jamie and turns him into the hero he can be: no one in his home, not children, wounded warrior, or spinster will go unprotected.

How romantic can a romance novel be with this mess going on and an impotent hero? Omega and Matthew are sympathetic characters, forgiving and loving. They’re intelligent. They’re reasonable. They’re capable of gentleness and compassion. But are they romantic? In a sense, Omega doesn’t have to be: her love for Matthew, Jamie, Hugh, and Angela is evident in hugs and kisses, gentle brushes of hair and face, in a word, tenderness. Matthew’s gentle ways with the children, his care for Omega’s ankle, her comfort, the company he keeps her, the respect he affords her … bespeak his kindness. The romance lies in what Omega discovers of Matthew’s love for her over these eight years. Miss Bates thought there was more romance in what Omega discovers of what she’s meant to Matthew than pages of minute descriptions of love-making. When Omega first arrives at Byford Hall and is taken to her room, she finds that Matthew furnished the room for his future wife, her. The room is of great comfort and arranged for what Omega loves, quiet corners of contemplation, windows onto the garden, spots where a couple may spend serene time together. It also contains a full, if a tad outdated, wardrobe. Matthew did this for her, with love, care, and time, in preparation for her arrival. When Omega ventures into Matthew’s room, she finds her miniature on the side-table next to his reading-chair. When she looks to leave him a note in the library, she finds a drawer-full of unfinished letters to her … dated EVERY DAY since the day he left her at the altar. Miss Bates rejoiced that admitting their love was easy for Omega and Matthew. Yet, “let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.” Omega and Matthew have a marriage of true minds … it’s the other kind they don’t have. Matthew refuses to hold Omega to a life without the marriage-bed: Miss Bates liked that eros was important to this novel, that agape was equally important, but not supreme. This is fitting; this is balanced and what a true marriage is: the joining of hands, flesh, minds, souls in a shared life with others.

An interesting and, for Miss B., still successful occurrence transpires in the second half of the novel. With Omega’s transformation from circumspect spinster to Samaritan and lay-my-heart-on-the-line woman, laid up with a sprained ankle, she recedes and Matthew’s story takes precedence. The presence of Jamie, Angela, Hugh, and Omega bring Matthew back to life … hmmm, resurrection themes in Kelly’s romances, future post? … and his confession to Omega has him thinking about the night of the prostitute’s death and his nightmare. He realizes that Rotherford’s role is suspicious. He sets out to establish the truth, to set himself free one way or another, innocent, or guilty, and to reclaim his life, or lose it. It’s a romance, folks, the HEA is de rigueur. With the Bow Street Runner’s help, who turns out to be a more interesting character than at his first caricaturish appearances in Omega’s rescue of Jamie, Matthew frees himself from that awful night and clears his name. Does he get the girl? Of course. His impotence is miraculously and not terribly convincingly cured. Cue in “ragged hole of implausibility in the novel’s fabric.” And yet … if providence takes precedence over plausibility, and if romance fiction celebrates purposefulness, hope, love, and possibility, then, why not?

Have you read Kelly’s romances? Are you fan? Or, do they leave you cold? If you enjoy Kelly, which of her romances are your favourites and why?

24 thoughts on “TBR Challenge: Carla Kelly’s MISS CHARTLEY’S GUIDED TOUR, Or What Happens When the Itinerary Is Tossed

  1. Because of Willaful’s review earlier this year, I read The Lady’s Companion, and truly liked it despite my reservations regarding the class (education/conversation) differences between the protagonists.

    In all honesty, I am not sure I could read this one–too much melodrama in the plot for me, I fear, and I haven’t had that much luck with several of the historical romances I’ve read lately. No need to force a break up with the genre; it’s probably best to give it some time.


    • Strangely, Miss B. likes the melodrama … she thinks that a lot of the context of historical romance is in melodrama and sensationalism. And because she has a penchant for the 19th century novel of melodrama and sensation, she doesn’t mind seeing these elements in a romance. The implausible aspect to the story was the magical virgin cure for Matthew’s impotence. But she liked these two and the secondary characters; Kelly’s writing, OTOH, is serviceable and yet within her simple, clean prose, a reader can be immersed in the narrative.

      Miss Bates agrees with you: her relationship with historical romance being written now is fraught with dissatisfaction, boredom really, including Kelly’s, her earlier stuff, like Balogh, seems to be her best. Miss B.’ll try not to give up her historical romance love, but she is leery of trying anything new, even of beloved authors’.

      (She does have a copy of The Lady’s Companion in the TBR!)


  2. Lovely review. I remember having some of the same problems you had with Miss Chartley’s Guided Tour. Am I fan of Carla Kelly? Well, I’d have to say I am but with a qualifier. I’m a fan of most of her earlier traditional regencies but not so much of the latter ones, the exception being Beau Crusoe.

    I loved to pieces Reforming Lord Ragsdale because Ragsdale undergoes a very believable transformation over the course of the book. I mean, he’s indolent to the point of irresponsibility, drinks too much, neglectful of his duties. The only thing he’s not guilty of overindulging is gambling. But he *exerts* himself to rescue Emma, an indentured servant AND Irish to boot. Plus I thought he was worth the effort of redeeming because he *agrees* to be reformed by Emma. That, to me, says he’s undergone an honest self-evaluation and self-examination but has struggled with how to correct the things he doesn’t like about himself. She’s the kick in the pants that he needs to begin to change. There was lots of spark in their banter as these two are figuratively at daggers drawn in the beginning. But it’s lovely to watch them become friends and then lovers. It’s the slow-building simmering type of romance that I love so much, and I think was done so well here. Emma, at the end, not only loves Ragdsdale but also *likes* him. It’s that element that adds to the believability in a HEA for them.

    I also loved Libby’s London Merchant. I’m going to have to re-read this one because now I’m not sure I loved it for what it is or because it was the first time I’d read a romance in which the guy who wins the girl was the antithesis of your standard romance hero. I’m not particularly fond of love triangles but this one didn’t make me grind my teeth in frustration. That probably has more to do with how both Nez and Anthony were drawn as characters. I felt both were worthy contenders (until Nez made his proposition to Libby). It was so unusual that Nez, handsome, wealthy, flirtatious, charming guy (until he discovers Libby’s origins) loses his quest for Libby’s affections to Anthony, the rather clumsy, plain, slightly overweight doctor whom I was pulling for from the beginning. I guess I just love the underdog. Also, Anthony not only ‘loves’ Libby but he needs her, and I think that was essential part to ensure her happiness. To be needed and loved.


    • “It’s funny you should say this … ” A wonderful comment, so astute about Kelly’s appeal and “unappeal.” Miss B. has tried to think about this. For her, it’s the writing … Kelly’s writing is so serviceable, so prosaic and yet, her strength is very much what you describe here: the characterization and the way characters are captured at life-altering moments. Everything is a cross-roads for Kelly and this may be Miss Bates’ favourite fictive moment, whether in romance or not. This is Kelly’s appeal and why, even when Miss Bates doesn’t LOVE every one of her books, she’ll continue to read them.


  3. Big Carla Kelly fan here. I have read all of her books, many of them multiple times. There are some that don’t quite work for me, but I will buy and read anything she writes.
    I quite enjoyed ‘Miss Chartley’ and had no problem getting sucked right into the story (plot implausibilities and all).
    I am especially fond of The Wedding Journey–a MOC story that involves two journeys: a physical road trip and our hero and heroine’s journey towards a true marriage.
    I am also a big fan of two of her newest books (The Double Cross, Marco and the Devil’s Bargain) especially because of their unusual setting–1780’s New Mexico!
    I have also learned to keep the box of tissues handy while reading her books. She is one of the few authors that can consistently provoke an emotional response from me.
    Kathy mentioned Libbie’s London Merchant above. The following one, ‘One Good Turn’, is the story of Nez’s redemption. Warning, it is a very dark story and concerns the horrors of war. But it is one of my favorites.
    I apologize for this being so disjointed.


    • No apologies necessary! Miss Bates loves to read a reader’s perspective on a beloved author: you’ve made her appreciate Kelly in a new way. Kelly’s methodical and consistent and a thinker of a writer: most importantly, Miss B. was thinking in the car today that Kelly is one of the great contributors to romance fiction. Her work as a whole has done interesting things: its very rawness is unique. And one thing that Miss Bates loves about her is the “angst” is not that false “baby, baby” kind where the woman is infantile and the male is the worst caricature of the alpha. Her characters’ pain comes from real places and situations even if its contexts are sensational, unlikely in their coincidences, and melodramatic. Miss Bates, thanks to you and Kathy, looks forward to reading more Kelly … she just can’t manage a Kelly “glom,” but in smaller measures.


  4. I love With This Ring, Libby’s London Merchant, and The Lady’s Companion. Kelly doesn’t write the regency period perfectly, but her characters are so heartfelt that you forgive the errors in things like titles of the nobility!


    • LOL, Miss Bates is no expert on the nobility’s titles, so she’d never pick up on the errors, nor does she care all that much. When Kelly is good, she’s one of the best. Miss Bates is really looking forward to your recommendations! 🙂


  5. I’m a pretty big Kelly fan, I admit. I enjoyed this one although it’s not a favourite and the whole “zero to hero” *wink* thing put me in mind of Steve Martin in “L.A Story” (in bed with a much younger woman, yelling “I’m young again!”)

    I recently read one of Kelly’s newer Harlequin / Mills &Boon titles, “Marrying the Royal Marine’, which I thought was a stupendous book.


    • Miss Bates laughed and laughed at this: she’d forgotten Steve Martin’s … ahem … performance, but you’re right, it was a hoot! Miss Chartley felt like it was virginal self-offering magically cures performance-less hero from a life without the pleasures of the marriage-bed. Boom … she “takes him into her body” and choirs of angels sing the hallelujah chorus for them both! 😉

      Miss B. is so happy to hear about Marrying the Royal Marine: she read and enjoyed the first two in the Channel Fleet series, Marrying the Captain and The Surgeon’s Lady, especially the latter, and has saved that one for a rainy day. She’ll doubly look forward to it now!


    • Miss Bates is quite fascinated with the … yes! … matter-of-fact “tone” to Kelly’s narratives. She finds it off-putting at first, but is then captured by character and plot. So, it must work on some level for her. She’s so interested in seeing how differently readers react to books and authors’ voices.


      • I’m an unabashed lover of Carla Kelly’s Regencies. What I love most about her books is that, in everything from that “matter-of-fact tone” to the plots and characters, they show different aspects of the Regency period than most of the other Regencies you encounter. I’ve often seen it written that her deviation away from titled characters and the ton is what makes her books so special, but it’s more than just that.

        One of my favorite books of hers is “Marriage of Mercy,” (I reviewed it here: http://sweetrocket.wordpress.com/2012/05/29/book-review-marriage-of-mercy-by-carla-kelly/) which hinges on the American prisoners of war held at Dartmoor during the War of 1812. The book was by no means perfect, but I don’t think I’d ever read a Regency that even mentioned the War of 1812 before reading “Marriage of Mercy,” so this was a real revelation.


            • Miss Bates found it last night! Her romance fiction is scattered among a Kobo Aura, Kindle Paperwhite, and Kobo Touch and plain old-fashioned paper … but she found it. Also, the War of 1812 was important to Canada before it was Canada: yet another reason to make it interesting to her! Thank you!


            • My word, Miss Bates! Your reading is more scattered than mine! Let us know how you like the book. In the meantime, I will listen to some Rush to celebrate for you 😉


            • LOL: yes, it is crazy … Miss B. has bags of ratty HQs all over the house and basement too. But she’s never found a Carla Kelly original 😉

              Also, she’s sadly lacking in pop culture knowledge (hopefully, it’ll never be a Jeopardy category she has to worry about); she had to Google Rush, but glad to see they’re CANADIAN!


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