Miss Billings Treads the Boards
Carla Kelly’s 1993 trad Regency features a most unlikely romance hero: Henry Tewskbury-Hampton, Fifth Marquis of Grayson, has thinning hair and an expanding waistline. Since leaving the army after fighting in the Peninsular War, he has become lazy, bored, and afraid that he is no longer likable. Traveling north to a houseparty he is not interested in, he agrees to carry a message from his solicitor, one of the few people he trusts, to Miss Katherine Billings, another of the solicitor’s clients. He is attacked en route on the road (to reveal more here would be straying into spoiler territory) and finds refuge with Bladesworth’s Traveling Company of actors.
Meanwhile, Katherine Billings is about to embark on a new life as a governess. She spent the last few years with her late father, a clergyman, on the Continent, where he indulged in his passion for art and lost all his money assembling an almost worthless collection. On the stagecoach she is told that her future employer is a lecher, and when she gets off the stage, she is accidentally picked up by member of the self-same Bladesworth’s Traveling Company. Completely at a loss about what to do, she accepts their offer of hospitality as far as Leeds and even appears on stage in a small part in The Taming of the Shrew.
Katherine fascinates Henry – her magnificent bosom first of all, and then the rest of her – from the start. Partly to have an excuse to stay with Katherine and the company, and partly out of a sense of mischief, he pretends to have enemies who may attempt to kill him again. Soon a Bow Street Runner turns up to investigate the whereabouts of the missing Marquis, and Henry pretends to be Hal Hampton, actor and husband to Katherine, now called Kate.
Meanwhile the Bladesworth Company finds itself in serious financial trouble, but thanks to the message Hal carried, Kate is in a position to assist them. The rest of the book is mostly concerned with how the Bladesworths, Kate, and Hal try to solve the company’s problems, and how their actions and the developing relationships between the characters change both hero and heroine. This may not sound very exciting, but in the hands of a master like Carla Kelly it is fascinating to read and easily the best part of the novel.
Kate, the entire Bladesworth family, Gerald the playwright, and even the Bow Street Runner, are utterly charming and lovable. This made the book a pleasure to read, but it was also a touch too sweet for my taste at times.
The main themes of the novel are self-doubt and self-confidence, and they are dealt with convincingly in the main characters. Both Hal and Kate experience a remarkable amount of personal growth in the course of the book, and both have a long way to go. This leads me to the one problem I had with Kate: For the 24-year-old daughter of a negligent parent, having traveled with him all over Europe, she is too immature and timid at the beginning. From the little we hear about life with her father, it seems unlikely he would have sheltered her from disagreeable innkeepers and the like. Making her a homeless traveler is a necessary plot device to explain why she does not have any social circle to fall back to in England, but it felt contrived and unconvincing to me.
Hal is more problematic. He is so manipulative that he appears a selfish brat at times. The author gives reasons for his behavior, among them his wicked sense of humor and his wish to give Kate space to find her inner strength, but it is too much. In order to proceed with his plans, he is prepared to let others suffer through a remarkable amount of stress and unhappiness. He gets his comeuppance at the end, but for a long time in the middle of the novel, I kept wishing to give him a good kick. Mind you, I still thought him charming, but I could not like him that much.
My final complaint is with the many coincidences that occur during the course of the novel, particularly at the beginning of the book. Kate just happens to travel on the stage not with one, but two women who know lots of details about her new employer’s lechery – no matter that they get off long before she reaches her destination. Hal’s attacker just happens to find him on the road. Hal and Kate just happen to both end up in the tiny hamlet where the actors are performing that night. The Bow Street Runner just happens to turn up (and wait until you hear how he got there!). It’s quite hair-raising, and to some extent spoilt my pleasure in the book. It does get better by the time everyone arrives in Leeds, but the harm is done.
Even though this is not Carla Kelly’s best book (Miss Milton Speaks Her Mind and Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand are my own favorites), it still is a novel worth reading. Unfortunately it has been out of print for years, but if you can lay hands on a copy, you are in for an unusual and, for the greatest part, enjoyable Regency Romance.