The Wedding Journey
Carla Kelly’s The Wedding Journey is the story of a marriage of convenience made during wartime in order to protect the heroine from the threat of being sold off in marriage to pay her father’s debts. In the hands of this author, however, the story is so much more than the story of two people thrust unexpectedly into marriage; set amid the slaughter and chaos of the Peninsular War, it’s also a story of the struggle to survive against the odds and of how the most ordinary person can call on reserves deep inside to achieve the truly extraordinary.
Elinore Mason – Nell – has followed the drum for as long as she can remember. Her father, a captain, is a hard drinker and gambler who doesn’t spare a moment’s thought for his wife and daughter – other than for what they can do for him – and the time Nell doesn’t spend with her ailing mother is spent in the hospital tent, tending to the sick and wounded and helping however she can. Captain Jesse Randall is a highly competent surgeon, widely respected, well-liked, but quiet and shy – and has been hopelessly in love with Nell for years.
The smarmy Major William Bones also has his eye on Nell, but his intentions are not at all honourable. After Nell’s mother dies, her father, who is deeply in debt to Bones, agrees to give Nell to him as payment – but to prevent this, Jesse steps up and offers to marry her instead. He doesn’t have any hope that Nell will ever return his love, but he knows she likes him well enough; and in any case, they can have the marriage annulled at a later date.
Bones, furious at having Nell snatched away from him exacts his revenge in a most appalling way. With the army preparing to retreat from Burgos into Portugal, Marching Hospital Number Eight is packed up and ready to go the next morning – and awakens to discover that they have been abandoned thanks to Bones’ machinations. The unit’s commanding officer, Major Sheffield, Jesse and Nell are left with a handful of sick soldiers and army stragglers to fend for themselves and make their own way into Portugal without transport, supplies or protection – and with the French army not far behind them.
The Wedding Journey is probably the most unusual marriage of convenience story I’ve ever read. Jesse and Nell are both likeable, sensible and determined people and there’s never really any question that they are meant to be together, but the circumstances in which they find themselves continually test them and the bonds they forge as they face danger, sickness, great tragedy and even a madman are perhaps all the stronger for everything that they are forced to go through together.
As is the case with all of Carla Kelly’s books set during the Napoleonic Wars, she doesn’t sugar-coat the difficulties her small band of brothers are facing and nor does she pull her punches when it comes to gritty reality, unafraid to show the terrible consequences of war in all its dirt, blood and horror. But while the odds against Jesse and Nell are overwhelming, Ms. Kelly still manages to find time for them to talk and learn about each other and even to share the odd joke to lighten the mood.
The book is narrated almost entirely by Jesse, who is, quite simply, the most adorable beta hero. He’s a ginger-haired Scot, with a dry sense of humour – his inner monologue with Hippocrates is funny and allows us to learn quite a lot about him – he’s resourceful, kind and protective, and is thoroughly dedicated to doing the best for those under his care. He’s also got a steel backbone and an innate authority that he doesn’t use very often and didn’t really know he had, but which makes him a natural leader and someone who inspires trust in others and makes them want to do their best for him. With the bulk of the story told from his PoV, the reader is able to really connect with him and to see and understand the depth of his compassion and his love for Nell, whom he would do absolutely anything to keep safe.
We don’t spend as much time in Nell’s PoV, so she feels a little less well-developed, but it’s easy to see that she’s clever, strong and resilient and that she’s a little bit smitten with Jesse, but, believing herself to have nothing to offer him besides bad luck and a wastrel father, hadn’t ever thought to look for anything more than friendship. But as they journey through a Spain laid waste by two opposing armies, she comes to love him as he loves her, the respect and admiration she has long-felt for him morphing into something far deeper.
I suppose the one criticism I can level at the book is that the adventures and misadventures of Marching Hospital Number Eight overshadow the romance somewhat. Jesse and Nell have so much to deal with that although they spend a lot of time together and clearly make a great team, they don’t have a lot of time to explore their feelings for each other or their new relationship.
The Wedding Journey encompasses high-stakes drama, tragedy, trauma and a very realistic portrait of the sufferings wrought by war, but at the same time, it’s uplifting and imbued with warmth and humour. The love story between Nell and Jesse is tender and sweet and the writing is intelligent and devoid of sentimentality and yet emotionally satisfying.