|Most romances set in Regency England deal solely with the small upper class that ruled the country from their luxurious town houses in London or their palatial mansions in the countryside. The lives of the vast majority are barely mentioned. Most romances that use the Napoleonic Wars as a backstory offer tales of spies and derring-do and pay little attention to the human cost of the war. The novels of Carla Kelly are often an exception to these general rules.Kelly is one of the few Regency authors who creates heroes and heroines not from the noble or genteel classes. When she talks of the war and its effects, Kelly does not shrink from its realities.
The Surgeon's Lady thus is a "typical" Kelly romance. And it is a very good example of what makes her books so special.
This is the sequel to Kelly's last novel, Marrying the Captain. That book told the story of a young woman of questionable birth who met and married one of the navy's finest captains, Oliver Worthy. Nana was the bastard daughter of one Lord Ratcliffe who did not abandon his by-blows but rather had them educated at a girls' school in Bath. However, he was not motivated by paternal love; when his daughters became old enough, he expected a return on his investment: namely, he planned to sell them to the highest bidder. Nana fled to her grandmother in Plymouth rather than fall in with his schemes. At the end of the story, Nana discovers that she has two half-sisters, one older and one younger. The Surgeon's Lady is the story of the older sister, Laura.
When she was eighteen, Lord Ratcliffe had summoned Laura to London and informed her that she was to marry Sir James Taunton, a widower 30 years her senior whose first wife had failed to provide him with an heir. Having nowhere to turn, she agrees to her father's plan. For four years, he treated her as a brood mare without any care for her feelings. She was released from this torture when he suffered an apoplectic stroke and for three years, Laura cared for her invalid husband. Now a wealthy widow, she receives the news that she has sisters and an invitation from Nana to visit. After some hesitation, she decides to accept.
At her sister's home, she meets Lieutenant Philemon Brittles, a surgeon in the Royal Navy. Although an officer, Lt. Brittles comes from ordinary folk. His father is sailing master on Nana's husband's ship and he himself joined the navy at an early age. His talent for healing obvious, Captain Worthy sent him to Edinburgh University to study to become a surgeon. He has become a fine one. But, despite his rank and profession, he lacks social status. (Interestingly, in 1809, physicians were gentlemen and surgeons weren't.)
Philemon feels an instant attraction for the lovely Laura, but knows that Lady Laura Taunton is above his touch. But fate and Laura's undoubted skills as a caregiver bring them together. They share a common concern for the well-being of those sorely wounded in the king's service. But can their love overcome the shadows of Laura's past?
Laura has little reason to like or trust men. Her father's betrayal and her husband's ill-usage have left her with little self-esteem and a real fear of intimacy. Philemon understands perhaps better than most her fears and offers her both love and a chance to discover exactly how valuable she really is when he challenges her step out of her comfort zone and find useful work in the naval hospital. Laura rises to the challenge and finds herself and her happiness.
Let me be frank; this is not a book for the faint of heart. Kelly describes in great detail the horrors of medical care during the Napoleonic Wars. But this realism helps the reader to understand both the hero and the heroine and makes their growing love even more meaningful.
Carla Kelly has long been one of my favorite authors and I am glad that she has found a publisher again after a significant hiatus. But Harlequin Historicals have a short shelf life and I always fear that she will once again disappear. So if you appreciate well written romances that deal with real people in real circumstances, please go to Amazon or somewhere and buy this book. We romance readers cannot afford to lose Kelly's unique romantic voice.