Sorry I’m late handing in this Carly Kelly tribute, but every time I opened a Carla Kelly novel to see if I could find an example, I ended up settling down for a good read.
In case you’re not a fan yet, allow me to introduce Ms. Kelly. She is the author of over forty books and short stories. Most famous for what she dubs “dukeless” Regencies, her plots usually revolve around ordinary people in stories set during the United Kingdom of the early 1800s. She also writes Westerns, but the books I’ve read, and try to force other people to read, are her Regencies. During the '90s she won all sorts of prizes, including a couple of RITAs.
At long last, her early books are available for e-readers. My favorites are the ones featuring naval heroes because she’s so good at setting the scene. I also have a soft spot for Beau Crusoe, about a hero who’s been stranded on a desert island for a few years. She does damaged men so well in all her books.
Hold on, I just got to check this scene in Marrying the Captain for what? Non-anachronistic language. Yup, she’s good at her world-building, yeah, that’s a given. She’s a real historian by training. And there aren’t info dumps, the historical bits are so firmly woven into the plot you won’t notice them. (No one does the tone of life on a sailing ship better. I’m looking at you, Patrick O’Brien.) No, wait, I forgot that I’m looking for…
When I think Carla Kelly’s Regency romances, the word “sexual” isn’t the first thing to pop into my head. Passion and sexuality is there, of course, discreetly covered, just the way a lady’s ankle should be hidden. You can find good doses of tension, of course. In Austen, ladies have trouble raising their eyes to meet the ardent gaze of gentlemen.
Kelly is more graphic than Austen, but still, her characters’ attitudes feel appropriate for their time. Don’t get me wrong—I like flat out undisguised sexual fun as much as anyone, but I’m not always convinced that Regency characters, at least the gently bred ones, would allow sexual appetite to form the basis of their intercourse with the opposite gender.
As Hartley said, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." We’re all animals, of course, with the same set of urges, but they were trained up differently than us and I think a lot of writers have trouble conveying that long-lost norm for genteel society.
In a Kelly book, a gentleman notices a lady’s fine, neat figure but, unless they’re intimate, or about to be, he’s not going to wonder how her breasts will feel in his hands, or if he does, it’ll be a passing thought that perhaps embarrasses him. They don’t objectify one another.
A good example is in Marrying the Royal Marine, the hero undresses and baths the heroine when she is vilely seasick. He notes her discomfort and her bravery. He doesn’t dwell on her body, although of course he does notice her.
With their honor, valor, honorable intentions, yadayada her heroes and heroines should be a bunch of dull Mary (or Marty) Sues, but she makes sure they’re human. It’s just that with all that decency and discretion Kelly characters sometimes seem like a sub-species, creatures far rarer than the standard Romanticus Heroii. They certainly don’t come across as anything modern, so that’s all part and parcel of her writing about a time that’s not our own.
Yet maybe her world is just as much of a fiction as any historical in which young virgins openly cavort with gentlemen and don’t lose their reputation. In Kelly’s case, the fairy-tale is that her main characters are unfailingly decent and upright (and get your mind out of the gutter, that’s not the upright they mean), even when they’re ardent or passionate or in lust.
I love spending time with them, even if they do seem more alien than many of the vampires and shape-shifters I’ve read lately.
Kate Rothwell writes romance using her own name and the pseudonym Summer Devon. She lives in Connecticut with four men (three of whom are her sons). You can out more about her at KateRothwell.com and SummerDevon.com.