The Wedding Journey
The Wedding Journey is a rather whimsical title for a book that so clearly juxtaposes humanity’s potential for both great good and terrible evil. A more accurate, if less appealing, title would be Retreat Into Hell. That would better convey what these characters have to confront and overcome.
Elinore “Nell” Mason is the daughter of ne’er-do-well Captain Bertie Mason. She has spent all eighteen of her years following the drum and trying to manage a household on funds Bertie keeps gambling away. Her situation, while never good, becomes perilous when her mother dies and her father’s largest creditor, Major Bones, calls in his debts. Since Bertie does not have the money to repay Bones, Bones offers him the option of giving him Nell in lieu of payment. Bones promises to marry her after the military retreat is over and they have reached Portugal.
All of the staff of Marching Hospital Number Eight know exactly what this will mean for their beloved Nell: complete and utter ruin. They have watched her grow up and have worked side by side with her through numerous battles and are loath to see her suffer. Captain Jesse Randall, who has been in love with Nell for years, is particularly pained by what he sees happening, and so, when it looks like she will have no other options, he offers to marry her so that she can escape Bones.
In vindictive fury at being thwarted, Bones chooses a bitter revenge. He arranges the order of march so that Marching Hospital Number Eight is left entirely behind. Jess is saddled with the difficult burden of getting himself, his new wife and the assorted wounded to Portugal without any horses, equipment, medical supplies or weaponry. And, if that’s not enough, he also has to convince his young wife that she isn’t one of his burdens, but, instead, a blessing.
As the title implies, this is a road romance. Much of the story is devoted to the adventures and misadventures of Jess and his companions, and they are many, varied, interesting, and occasionally horrific. The body count in this Regency Romance is rather high, and Kelly does not gloss over the violence of war or the suffering of the wounded. The English, Spanish, and French all make an appearance and none of them are vilified or beatified. Kelly’s clear objective is to show the horrors of war and how military machines are comprised of human beings, all of whom are capable of either violence or healing.
Kelly’s writing is smooth and the story moves along at a good pace. As usual she fills her narrative with little moral touches. Her characters learn about themselves, about each other, about the nature of suffering and the capacity for joy. Both Nell and Jess are truly noble and heroic, if rather ordinary, protagonists. Nell is young and not particularly well educated, but her experiences have lent her maturity. Jess is the antithesis of the romance novel hero, at least physically. He’s short, slight, not amazingly attractive, and has red hair. Yet his compassion and integrity make him a real catch, and Nell is amazed at her good luck in marrying him. She does not give two snaps for his appearance, except to note what elegant surgeon’s hands he has.
If the book has a weakness it’s that the details of Marching Hospital Number Eight’s retreat overshadow the romance. Nell and Jess are too busy dealing with what is happening to them to concentrate too much on each other and their new relationship. Though obviously they deserve each other, the certainty of their feelings for each other arrives a bit prematurely. They do have a number of tender moments together, but somehow the romance wasn’t absolutely convincing. Perhaps it’s because the characters aren’t as vivid as their surroundings or their circumstances.
Still, this is Carla Kelly. If The Wedding Journey isn’t quite up to the standards of, say, The Lady’s Companion in greatness, it’s still very good and the best traditional Regency I’ve read in 2002. Kelly’s books are always interesting, multi-dimensional, and full of thoughtful insights. She should be mandatory reading for every lover of the period. Buy multiple copies of this book so that Kelly will be persuaded to keep writing and receive the remuneration she so deserves for her wonderful stories.