Miss Bates Reads Regency Romance: Carla Kelly’s LIBBY’S LONDON MERCHANT

Miss Bates dislikes romance where the heroine has to choose between two suitors. She prefers her romance protagonists to know this is the one, no matter how antagonistic or impossible their relationship seems to be, whether thanks to external, or internal reasons, or both. But romance authors have time and again humbled Miss Bates by proving that her most hated tropes can be redeemed. Carla Kelly’s Libby’s London Merchant redeems the two-suitor trope most finely.

As with most Kelly romances, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. Kelly uses the genre’s formulaic narrative arc and conventions to dress her most beloved themes: her young, intelligent, but inexperienced heroines have to learn the lesson that hard work and purpose go hand in hand with finding a person to love and share their lives with. In Libby Ames’s case, her struggle to figure out who she loves, the Duke of Knaresborough, Benedict Nesbitt “Nez”, who comes calling as the chocolate merchant “Nesbitt Duke”, or her neighbour and friend, Dr. Anthony Cook, is also the story of Libby’s coming-of-age, taking on adulthood by figuring out what will make life as meaningful as it is love-filled. 

Despite its modest length, Kelly’s Libby manages to tell a lot of stories: the story of a young woman realizing who she truly loves, as well as stories of guilt, repentance, and expiation. The novel opens on a scene of silliness and dissipation. Benedict and his friend, Eustace Wiltmore, Earl of Devere, have been on a multi-day bender. Eustace bemoans his affiancéd state, and begs Benedict to travel to Kent to check out his bride, Lydia Ames, Libby’s cousin, while Eustace cowers in Brighton. Benedict agrees and travels to Kent semi-inebriated, disguised as a chocolate merchant to check out the potential bride. When he arrives at Lydia’s and her father’s estate, Benedict takes one turn too many on the drive and flings himself off the carriage he’s driving. With Lydia, Libby’s mother, and Uncle away in Brighton, Libby is left to care for the household, brother Joseph, and now injured, mysterious house-guest. She summons the good doctor and thus begins our story of how Libby’s “London merchant” disturbed every moment of what was, up to now, a serene, placid existence.

As Nez is on his way to Kent and the carriage accident that’ll see him change his life, Libby looks forward to the solitude, to devote herself to her painting. For a moment, she considers her unmarried state: ” ‘I would like to be someone’s lady, … But mostly, I want some peace and quiet.’ ” Famous last words! Libby’s life is turned as upside down as Nez’s carriage. As Libby and Anthony nurse Nez’s wounds, Anthony comes to realize that the good chocolate merchant is “a drunkard”. Thus, with the good doctor’s advice and Libby’s nursing, Nez begins to travel the long road back from addiction. He rails, throws things, and suffers horribly, all the while the good doctor and Libby stand by him, “Libby Ames set about her task of stitching the Duke of Knaresborough’s broken body and spirit back together.” And he emerges ducally perfect and charming.

As with many a Kelly romance, her characters carry war wounds, internal and external, in this case, Nez’s are from the loss of his men at Waterloo: ” … when he was full of Scotch or gin … There were no sudden sounds … of his dying men, ghosts a year now, pleading for help that he couldn’t render … wine allowed responsibility to slip from his shoulders and … he could forget … ” As Miss Bates said originally, Kelly manages to tell a lot of stories in Libby’s London Merchant, one of them is how Nez forgives himself, acknowledges his addiction, repents of past behaviour, and begins the long road to expiation. Before that, however, he falls in love with Libby and, considering his good looks and ducal revelations, Libby too, carried away by Nez’s glamour and wit, falls in love with him. They both have a lot of growing up to do … and all the while, the good doctor stands by, helping Nez and everyone in his community, and loving Libby, knowing he cannot compete with Nez.

Dr. Anthony Cook is a wonderful character, with that humorous, buck-up officiousness that expects and often receives and inspires the best in others. Libby, in her immaturity, finds him endearing, amusing, and kind, but has never seen him as someone she could love. Nez, once the DTs and nightmares recede, also recognizes the doctor’s qualities: “The doctor’s whole face seemed to beam out benevolence and a quiet capability that spoke louder than words. For no real reason, the duke felt a sudden twinge of envy … ” Rightly so does Nez feel envy: there are depths and considerations to Anthony Cook that he cannot fathom, experience, nor is capable of.

The summer goes by, Nez heals while Libby and Anthony strike a friendship based on respect and working side by side to heal others, for the good doctor and Libby find themselves in situations where rescue and doctoring are called for, by neighbours, friends, and Libby’s brother Joseph (who, since a head injury, has never been able to grow up as other young men do). As Nez heals, Libby grows up, thanks to the shared purpose of being of service to others. When her frivolous cousin Lydia returns, affiancéd no less to Eustace, whom she serendipitously met in Brighton, Libby realizes the cousins no longer have anything in common: ” … she knew that a page in her book of life had turned.”

In the course of the summer, Lydia’s life lessons have included not only the sense of purpose and usefulness she experienced with the doctor, but the painful lessons of betrayal, by the very man she loved and who, she believed, loved her. While Nez does show signs of moral as well as physical improvement, he delivers a blow to Libby that is one of the genre’s great betrayal scenes. Here is a mere snippet of Nez and Libby’s conversation as Libby rebuffs his offer: ” ‘I suppose we both assumed too much,’ he concluded. ‘Or not enough, my lord,’ she said … ‘Libby, don’t be a fool,’ he said quietly. ‘In future, I shall try not to be, sir,’ she said.” Our Libby is smart and articulate, but she still has to learn the lesson of “know thyself”.

While Miss Bates hasn’t really given Anthony Cook his due, it’s mainly because Nez and Libby have so much maturing to accomplish. Anthony is a man given wholly to serving his patients. He’s funny and warm and kind of fun, with his bumbling ways, sharp mind, perceptive understanding of others, and propensity to eat too much and knock expensive vases off their pedestals. Once Libby gives Nez his walking papers, Anthony does no less than propose to her, but Libby’s heart and pride are broken and she wonders: “He was kindness itself. Perhaps she could like him someday, but love him?” At this point, Miss Bates and any reader worth her romance-reading salt root for Anthony over the duke. But the duke goes a long way to redeem himself, atoning for his betrayal and turning towards a life of purpose himself. Libby’s final choice? Well, dear reader, as Miss Bates has indulged in several spoilers, she’ll leave you only with this tantalizing bit of dialogue: ” ‘ … what on earth can he possibly have to offer that I cannot give?’ ‘Only this, sir: his whole self.’ “

Except for a certain teeter-tottering to Nez’s character, Kelly’s morality-tale-romance-and-coming-of-age novel is perfect. Miss Bates and Miss Austen say, “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma. Carla Kelly’s Libby’s London Merchant was originally published by Signet in 1991. It has been reissued by Intermix (Penguin) and may be found at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates purchased the novel for herself and let it languish in the TBR for too long.

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