By Carla Kelly, 1989 (reissued with Miss Libby's London Merchant 2001), Regency Romance
Signet, $3.99, ISBN #0-451-16060-6
A young woman, left at the altar by her vanished fiancÚ, is forced to become a teacher when her family suffers a major financial loss. Years later, while traveling to another position, she meets up with her ex-betrothed, now a nobleman. Does this sound like any number of Regency romances you've read? Well, when the author is Carla Kelly and the book is Miss Chartley's Guided Tour, the book is not the expected regency romp.
Miss Omega Chartley is touring the Cotswolds before starting a new job at St. Elizabeth's Academy for Young Ladies in Durham when she helps runaway Jamie Clevenden and finds herself on the wrong end of the law. Jamie is escaping a Bow Street Runner hired to bring him back to his abusive guardian, and he and Omega join forces with Hugh Owen and Angela. Hugh is a former Army sergeant who lost his hand at Waterloo, and Angela is the Spanish war orphan Hugh's Army unit had collectively adopted. The four eventually reach the home of Jamie's uncle, who turns out to be Matthew Bering, the man who jilted Omega eight years before and left London without a word of explanation. All this by page 68 of a 223-page novel.
By the end of the novel, of course, the lovers have been reunited, justice has been served, Jamie is settled in a new home, and everyone (except the villain) ends up happier and more prosperous. But the ins and outs of a complex, well-crafted plot are only part of what makes Carla Kelly's works such a joy to read.
We first meet Matthew Bering traveling, belatedly, in a rented hack to his own wedding. He is obviously distraught over events from the previous night, and when he sees his bride leave the church in tears, he can't "leave London fast enough." It is not until the middle of the book that we learn the two reasons - "one terrible and the other no better" - for his behavior. Matthew's grief and shame are palpable, yet Kelly doesn't hit us over the head with them. Instead, they are reflected in subtle nuances - the smell of his cologne haunting the room in which Omega stays, the years of letters started but never finished that she finds in his office.
Omega Chartley, self-described "spinster educationist," holds her own with the best of Carla Kelly's heroines. She is clear-eyed about her life, having made her own way in circumstances far different from the ones she expected at eighteen. She expresses her righteous anger when she meets up with Matthew after all those years, then allows herself to fall in love with him again, despite her belief that nothing will come of it. It's a genuine pleasure to see these two characters get their happy ending.
All of Kelly's characters shine, from her hero and heroine down to the smallest child. In this case, that's the ever-resourceful Angela, whose traveling sack holds salt, soap, needle and thread, fishing line, and "Napoleon's prayer book," which at one point is bartered away for dinner. Her traveling companion, Hugh Owen, would have made a fine hero himself. In fact, he's an early prototype of David Wiggins, the bailiff hero of Kelly's The Lady's Companion.
Another of Kelly's strengths is her honest portrayal of the totality of Regency English society. The Bow Street Runner, Timothy Platter, is enlisted by our heroes to help solve the appalling crime that was at the heart of Matthew's disappearance from Omega's life. The descriptions of his family and their London neighborhood speak volumes about lower class life of the time. Likewise, Hugh's predicament as a disabled and unemployed former soldier reflects a truth that is rarely found in the balls and routs of a typical Regency romance.
This book, like most of Carla Kelly's works, has been out of print for years and is extremely hard to find. I was thrilled to hear that Signet will be publishing a new novel by Kelly, as well as re-releasing both this book and the equally phenomenal Libby's London Merchant, at the end of 2001. In the meantime, if you can't wait until November to read Omega and Matthew's story, get thee to a library.
Order Libby's London Merchant and Miss Chartley's Guided Tour in one volume
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