Claiming Mister Kemp
Authors who create homosexual partnerships in an historical setting have to walk a very fine line between expressing a deep love between same sex characters while keeping in mind just how dangerous their relationship could be. Emily Larkin manages that tightrope with ease in her novella Claiming Mister Kemp.
Lucas Kemp and Thomas Matlock have been friends ever since their school days at Eton. Tom always appreciated Lucas’s companionship and the invitations to spend holidays at his family’s estate, where the Kemp’s welcoming household allowed him the freedom to express the artistic talents that were ignored by his parents, who barely spared a thought for their youngest son. As Lucas and Tom grew up their bond became something more than friendship but neither one could truly put a name to the feelings the other brought out in them. Fortunately, any awkwardness that would have caused was easily removed by Lucas’s twin sister Julia’s or their cousin Leticia’s more outgoing personalities. The group of four remained close even as life began pulling them each into different directions; with the women entering society, Lucas becoming a man of property and Tom joining the officer ranks in General Wellesley’s fight against the French.
The contentment each man achieves in their personal pursuits is disturbed by a few significant events. The violence of war changes Tom’s outlook on what is most important in his life. When a musket ball almost kills him, Tom admits certain truths to himself and decides to make the most of every opportunity he’s given. Julia’s fearless nature catches up to her while jumping her horse and her death puts Lucas into a deep depression. A year blurred with alcohol and laudanum doesn’t help Lucas find any acceptance for the loss of his twin. On his birthday the overwhelming feeling that a central piece of himself has been ripped away pushes Lucas to again drink himself into oblivion. Tom, on leave in England to give testimony at an inquiry into Wellesley’s operations in Portugal, goes to his friend’s lodgings to support Lucas on a day he knows will be difficult for him. Finding Lucas alone, inebriated and still grieving for his sister, Tom drops any pretense of only seeing Lucas as his friend. Seizing a chance when Lucas doesn’t reject an embrace from him, Tom shows Lucas the depth of his feelings in a moment of sexual release.
The impact of what Tom does shakes Lucas to his core. Trying not to think about the previous night, Lucas meets up with friends for an evening of drinking and gambling, but when Tom arrives the matter cannot be ignored. Lucas learns that Tom had been inches from death while fighting and it upsets him so much that he has to leave the room. When Tom follows he does not allow Lucas to retreat but instead forces him to confront the frightening emotions unlocked by Tom’s actions. As Lucas’ anger and fear subside, his long suppressed feelings for Tom come to the surface and the two men share a passionate moment in each other’s arms. Unfortunately, the horror of discovery or being labeled a sodomite crushes Lucas’ budding sexual awakening, leading to another fearful retreat. Tom’s experience at outmaneuvering an opponent serves him well as he will not let Lucas hide from their attraction any longer. He pushes against Lucas’ defenses to show his friend that their feelings for each other are worth any of the risks they’d take to be together.
Lucas and Tom were first introduced in Trusting Miss Trentham and the events of this novella run concurrently to the earlier story. Both characters spent time with Leticia Trentham as she sorted out her own feelings for Icarus Reid and there were several conversations between her and both men that had an undercurrent readers were only given partial access to. In Claiming Mister Kemp, readers get the other side of the story, so we are able to understand what Tom and Lucas felt about their changing relationship while Leticia was kept unaware. Tom’s frustration at Lucas’ reluctance to admit his attraction to men is disguised in a discussion with Tish about how some men cannot admit when they care for someone. Lucas’ confusion about just how much he loves Tom comes out in a frank declaration to his cousin that the person he cares most for could be his salvation or his doom. It’s almost painful how much these two men want and need the advice and acceptance from their friend Leticia but cannot be open about who they are pining for.
Ms. Larkin does not shy away from explaining to readers just what consequences Lucas or Tom would face if their relationship were ever discovered. While Tom could be classified as bisexual and has maintained relationships with both women and a man, Lucas is only attracted to men and has long been suppressing that side of himself so as to conform to society’s rules. Even though Lucas and Tom are closer to each other than even brothers, I understand Lucas’ reluctance to admit his sexuality and I felt Tom’s strong approach may have been a little too much. What saves Tom is his patience when Lucas does succumb to his advances; he allows the other man to explore what had always been forbidden to him. There are several intimate scenes that are quite erotic but not in the hard-core sense of the word. They are truly moments of sexual freedom with a person who is unashamed to share their body and soul in the most visceral way possible.
In some ways, I wish that Claiming Mister Kemp wasn’t so tied to the events of the previous book and other stories in the Baleful Godmother series. It can be difficult to appreciate the love story of these two men without an understanding of the magic and other people within this world. New readers should still consider perusing this story as a wonderful expression of love finding a way and perhaps they’ll be enticed to pick-up the rest of the series.