Among romance writers, Carla Kelly has few equals. Now that Mary Balogh, Edith Layton, Mary Jo Putney and Joan Wolf are no longer writing "short" Regencies, in this sphere no one else even comes close. That's why the publication of a new Carla Kelly Regency is such an anticipated event among her legions of fans. That includes me.
What do I love about Carla Kelly's Regencies?
I love her heroes and heroines.
They're people of innate goodness which distinguishes them from most of the other characters. They may have wretched beginnings like David Wiggins in The Lady's Companion or experienced some terrible disaster as Emma Costello in Reforming Lord Ragsdale or facing a personal crisis of horrible dimensions as Roxanna Drew in Mrs. Drew Plays her Hand, but whatever the challenges they may face, they face them with courage and compassion.
The admirable characters of her heroes and heroines are clearly delineated, and each of them recognizes the essential nature of the other even if no one else can. Ms. Kelly achieves this even in her short stories.
In "Something New" Major Redpath denounces those who consider a little girl an embarrassment. "It reflects on no one but hypocrites," he declared roundly, "people who are happy enough to have us keep them safe from Napoleon, but who have no charity for the weakest among us, the children of war, whatever side."
In "Make a Joyful Noise," Rosie Wetherby tells Lord Chard, "What you also are is humble, and I think it must be so rare that no one recognizes it."
I love her humor.
I love the way even the darkiest of Kelly's stories are illuminated by flashes of wit. The irrepressibly cheery Hannah Whittier in Miss Whittier Makes a List (my personal favorite!) takes on the entire British military even to the extent of telling Lord Wellington that he wouldn't get so many holes in his socks if he trimmed his toenails. When Lord Ragsdale is on his way to ask for Clarissa's hand in marriage, he is dismayed that a tidal wave hasn't roared in and floated them out to sea before they could arrive at the Partridge home. The newlywed David Wiggins tries to get in a little lovemaking during his busiest season of the year saying, "I'll have you know that old Lord Bushnell himself once complimented me on my organizational skills. Don't just stand there laughing at me, Suzie. Take off something!"
Ms. Kelly's wonderful characters are present in Miss Milton, but this is her saddest, darkest story yet with very little of her unique humor.
Jane Milton is the ultimate Poor Relation. Rescued from the workhouse at a young age, she resides in the home of her elderly cousin, Lord Denby, whose infirmities provide him with an excuse to retreat to his bed whenever his sister Lady Carruthers is around. Jane was first sent to the kitchen to labor as a scullery maid by Lady Carruthers, but even though Lord Denby meant for her to live abovestairs, her position is scarcely any better there. She is downtrodden and over-burdened with the weight of menial duties assigned to her, and she is the frequent target of Lady Carruther's verbal abuse.
Twelve years earlier Andrew, the son of Lord Denby's son and heir Blair, was placed in her arms shortly after his birth, and Jane loved him instantly. When his mother died soon after in an accident and his father frequently absented himself from home, Jane (whom he calls Miss Mitten) became his only loving relation. She became his substitute mother as well as his governess. Now Blair has been dead six months of a wound received at Waterloo after a gruesome lingering illness. Jane, nearly thirty years of age, is still suffering emotionally from the circumstances surrounding his death.
Her only friend is a neighbor, Mr. Scipio Africanus Butterworth, who, despite his humble origins, has become a successful mill owner with progressive ideas that shock the established upper class. Lady Carruthers scorns him for his common birth.
Lord Denby has written a book of essays concerning ethical conduct among the military. Jane and Stanton, the butler, decide that they should hold a reunion of Lord Denby's fellow military officers who were comrades in battle against that ragtag bunch of colonials in the American Colonies in the previous century, and Jane enlists Mr. Butterworth's assistance in issuing the invitations.
Rumors have persisted that Andrew's mother's death was a result of her feeling of guilt over Andrew's not being Blair's actual son. Jane has tried to protect Andrew from the cruel rumors, but in light of his aunt's vicious nature (she's trying to advance her son Cecil as Denby's heir) and even the vicar's acquiescence, Andrew feels animosity from most of the neighborhood residents.
Over Jane's objections, Lord Denby and Lady Carruthers insist that Andrew attend the vicar's Latin school in preparation for being sent away to school. After Andrew suffers one day of verbal persecution from the other boys, Jane turns to Mr. Butterworth to instruct him in Latin. Mr. Butterworth is fond of Andrew and willing to help, but he advises Jane that she stand up for herself.
Lady Carruthers arrives with her son Cecil, a worthless fribble if there ever was one. (Incidentally, I have serious doubts about the possibility that Cecil could inherit Lord Denby's title and any entailed estates through his mother.) For the first time Jane confronts Lady Carruthers who doesn't even recognize her sarcasm.
Mr. Butterworth invites Jane and Andrew to spend Christmas with his sister and her family at his home in another city. Lord Denby orders her to decline, but with Stanton's assistance and the connivance of the local doctor, Cecil and his mother are restricted to his sickroom, and Jane and Andrew escape. The courtesy and congenial treatment they receive from Mr. Butterworth's family is in sharp contrast to what they've known at home. It's during their visit that the depth of Jane's sorrow is explored. But eventually calamity occurs at home, and a letter from Stanton as well as the upcoming reunion pulls them back into their previous situation.
What makes Jane a more pitiful character than other of Ms. Kelly's heroines is that she has suffered emotional deprivation for nearly all her life. She has the inherent goodness of other Kelly heroines but not their spirit. Impoverished origins and a barren present existence have stripped her of any self-confidence and defenses against the cruel treatment by her cousins. Sadly, she believes herself unloved by all except Andrew. In fact, she is loved by two men, but they have not taken the needed steps or spoken the words to show it.
Mr. Butterworth is a complex hero whose humble origins have affected his ability to respond to Jane. He's unable to ignore the differences between them and focus on their mutual needs. His nobility of character makes him the moral superior to many members of a higher social class. But why does it take him so long to help Jane?
Stanton is the most unbutled butler ever to grace a Regency. Virtually the only humorous episode in the entire book concerns how Jane and Stanton manage to outwit Lady Carruthers and Cecil. Stanton's butlerish inscrutability becomes thinner and thinner as he conspires against family members to ease Jane's burdens. Nevertheless, for nearly twenty years Stanton has kept his distance, and Jane has felt isolated in the household.
As you can probably tell, I was disappointed by Miss Milton because it wasn't the story I had been anticipating. My favorite Kelly books aren't going to have to jockey for position to make way for this newcomer. A reviewer, however, doesn't rate a book against the others by the same author but on its own merits among all others within the genre. On that basis, Miss Milton clearly deserves a five-heart rating.
Let me illustrate. Imagine for a moment that you're walking into a room. You're dressed to kill. Slinky black dress, strappy high heels, a discreet display of diamonds. You sail through the door gracefully, elegantly. The room is redolent with luxurious atmosphere and exotic ambience.
Now imagine that you're walking into a room. You're dressed to kill etc. etc. Then you trip on the threshold and land on your nose. Is the room any different? Nope. You blew the grand entrance, but it's still the same room.
So here I am rubbing my bruised nose, but I'm still in the Carla Kelly room. And it's decorated in hearts. All in clusters of five.
I whole-heartedly recommend Miss Milton, but I warn you not to expect it to parallel her previous books. Do expect it to be a moving and engrossing story you won't soon forget.