Title Discrimination Aid:
Marrying the Captain: He’s sick, she’s pretty.
Marrying the Royal Marine: He’s pretty, she’s sick.
The Surgeon’s Lady: Everyone’s sick, she’s pretty, his bedside manner is excellent.
I love a back catalogue to make my way through and Carla Kelly does not disappoint. The Sisters Trilogy focuses on the three born-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-blanket daughters of Earl Ratcliff. Each of the women – Nana, Laura, and Polly – finds herself involved with a member of the Royal Marines during the Napoleonic Wars. Not just a bonnet and corset layered over a contemporary story (not that there is anything wrong with that), Kelly’s books have strong historical elements and make the reader feel genuinely immersed in a specific time and place. I even looked up “Regency navy sailor’s quarters”, “Royal Marine“, and assorted similar terms in hopes of gaining a better understanding of the heroes’ lives. Never say romance novels don’t teach one anything.
Marrying the Captain:
Nana Brandon has no dowry and does not expect to marry. Years ago, her otherwise absent and disinterested father tried to sell her to the highest bidder to pay his debts. Literally walking away from everything she knew, she returned to her grandmother and has lived with her since. Content, although admittedly often hungry, helping to run a failing seaside inn, it’s about five years into the fight with Napoleon and Nana’s town has a constant turnover of sailors as their town is the one into which ships sail for dry dock repairs and revictualling; nonetheless, they are not doing well until Captain Oliver Worthy is sent their way. Suffering from a common sailor’s complaint (no, not an STD, a throat infection), Oliver needs a place to stay and recover while he drags himself back and forth to the repair yard.
Nana and Oliver take to each other instantly. They are kind, well-intentioned people, but each has a stumbling block between them and a future together. Nana is painfully aware of the social stigma of being illegitimate and Oliver has sworn never to marry, not in some ridiculous rakish gesture, but because he has seen the toll that separation and loss takes on both the men under his command and their families at home. As they come together, Nana and Oliver must learn to adapt to and accept their times apart as a price to pay for their happiness. Because of Kelly’s realism, the book ends when there are still several years of war ahead and thus potential disasters for the couple.
The Surgeon’s Lady:
Laura Brandon is the unfortunate daughter who was indeed sold to the highest bidder to cover her scurrilous father’s debts. She endured an abusive marriage before her husband suffered a debilitating stroke and she then nursed him for three years until his death. Free at last, and financially secure, Laura does not know what to do with herself. Despite her comforts, her home feels like a prison. Visiting her sister Nana, Laura meets Philemon Brittle (biblical name for the win!), a surgeon at the local naval hospital. After seeing Laura in action as a caregiver, he offers her a job.
Phil is an affable man and patient with the capable and determined, but wounded, Laura. I loved the medical detail in the story, even though it was laden with the knowledge that this generation doesn’t know what a germ is and might do more harm than good. Deciding to marry, despite the damage from her first marriage that is still healing, like Nana and Oliver, they must balance their own relationship with a country at war. Laura and Phil do their best to give what comfort is available to the soldiers and each other.
Clearly, in another time, Laura could have pursued a formal medical career, but it felt realistic for her to be satisfied to afford what help she could. It might seem clear to the reader that Laura should have a profession, but it would not necessarily occur to her.
Marrying the Royal Marine:
Like another Carla Kelly book I really enjoyed, Miss Whittier Makes a List, Marrying the Royal Marine features characters with a large age difference. Having neither of her sisters’ good looks, Polly Brandon has avoided the attention of her monstrous father. Having just finished school, she is still a teen and handsome Hugh Junot is in his thirties. Even accepting that a Regency teenager is very different from a contemporary one, Kelly’s plot matures and puts a lot of mileage on Polly in a short time, making the age difference acceptable to a modern reader and within its context.
Sailing to Portugal to live with her sister, Laura, at a field hospital, Polly is struck down by an incapacitating case of seasickness. Hugh takes care of her, a bond forms, and, though they are mutually-attracted, he is warned off by Polly’s protective sibling. Events conspire to not only bring them back together, but require them to masquerade as husband and wife while under enemy control. The adventure cements their relationship and now all that is left is to hope for their chance to start a life together. I don’t usually like an adventure plot, but I really enjoyed the portrait of a Portugal during war time and the misery of Hugh and Polly’s experience of it.
Uncommon for Regency romances, Kelly writes about every day people and there is not a peer in sight. At the mercy of political events beyond their control and that will continue for years to come, it’s clear that Kelly respects this sacrifice and she makes no effort to sugarcoat it. The historical element takes nothing away from the reality of a loved one either far away or beholden to service, and I wondered while reading, if military members and/or their partners would enjoy these books.
I recommend all three of the novels, but I think I liked Marrying the Royal Marine best. I read them all in a delighted cluster, so it’s hard for me to say,
A complete summary of Carla Kelly’s catalogue, with recommendations, can be found here.