Miss 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?