Carla Kelly’s Marrying The Royal Marine presented a mess of problems for me, and I struggled quite ridiculously to finish it. Had this Regency historical romance been the first book I read by the author I suspect it may have remained the last.
1812. The illegitimate daughter of a national war hero, eighteen-year old Polly Brandon has felt unwanted all her life. Her newfound sisters are loving but married and have their own lives. Hoping to be of service in the army hospital in Oporto where her brother-in-law is chief surgeon, she is billeted aboard a navy frigate bound for war-torn Portugal. When she falls violently seasick the task of caring for her is assumed by the only other passenger - a man.
Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Philippe d’Anvers of the Royal Marines is voyaging out to the troops in the Peninsular war on an information-gathering mission. As he looks after Polly he begins to see beyond her spectacles, and she beyond his handsome looks, and they become friends. But once in Portugal their responsibilities and uncertainties about the other person’s affections conspire to separate them. Until they meet by chance during a dangerous trip upriver to retrieve patients - and their capture by the enemy forces the pair to invent a marriage to protect each other.
The setup of Marrying The Royal Marine assumes familiarity with the two previous romances in the trilogy. I have read the first, Marrying The Captain, but not the second, The Surgeon’s Lady, which meant not only that some of the references in Marrying The Royal Marine puzzled me, but also, since scant clues are provided, that I never figured out exactly how or when Polly had been reunited with her sisters. As it turned out, this missing background was the least of my issues.
For a love story to hold credibility for me when either of the parties is very young and the age difference is significant, I have to believe that the younger person possesses a good dose of independence and intelligence, and that this is what draws the older person to him/her. Jane Eyre is a classic example: the heroine’s trials and tribulations have matured her beyond her years and her passionate nature is combined with a strong, independent, gifted spirit. Joanna in Here Be Dragons by Sharon Penman is allowed to mature before the marriage is consummated, and the road to that point (and beyond it) is realistically thorny.
Marrying The Royal Marine is not quite a May-December romance, but at the age of 37, Hugh is nineteen years older than eighteen-year old Polly. By the end of their sea voyage he has decided that he wants her to “mother his children” (page 88). Now, during much of this trip Polly has been ill and helpless. Hugh has had to both wash her and help her dress. Once she recovers sufficiently to go up on deck, she is still too weak to do much beyond lounging in a canvas chair. He comforts her when she fears the ship will sink in bad weather and teaches her how to walk and retain her balance aboard a rolling ship. In all this, he is kind and does his best to put her at ease. He could have done no better had he been a doctor or a relative.
He is not, however, a doctor or a relative. Yet even after Polly has recovered, he presumes to cup her cheek, chuck her chin, button the back of her dress, push up the spectacles on her nose. Nobody, including Polly, seems to see anything improper in this intimacy.
In an era when the touch of an ungloved hand breached the boundaries of propriety unless the persons involved shared long familiarity, Hugh and Polly's forced interactions behind closed doors should put them in an awkward position. To offer succour to a person in need is expected; for Hugh to unbidden continue touching a woman to whom he is not engaged, is asking for her reputation to be ruined. Fortunately for the two, it never occurs to the crew on board the frigate to so much as send a wondering glance in their direction. Every last British soldier is nobly compassionate and innocent of a single ungentlemanly thought. Or do they consider Polly a child?
If Polly had been shown to be Hugh’s equal in some way during the voyage, or even if she had directly solicited his touch, the historical unlikelihood of their obliviousness to social etiquette would have bothered me less; Regencylandia is amply peopled by characters who behave according to modern standards. But throughout most of the book Polly is shown as someone in dire need of protection, weak and defenseless. With the steep age gap added, and little explanation of exactly how and why Hugh’s care-giving has developed into a wish to father her children – “Maybe it was the wistful way Polly Brandon had spoken of snapdragons” (p. 66) – the imbalance in their relationship leaned toward the unhealthy for me from the beginning.
It does not help that Polly is the romance version of a Disney heroine. From her first moments in Oporto (now Porto), children and distrustful young rape victims (casualties of French war atrocities) flock to her like the animals in the forest to Snow White. When she is enlisted for solitary night duty in the the hospital wing where the rape victims reside, she is immediately able to soothe their nightmares and calm them back to sleep with “her tender sympathy” (page 109) without any prior instruction or experience. Moreover, the matter of Polly’s illegitimacy seems to serve no plot purpose other than to make her doubt a man like Hugh would want her as wife. Hugh dismisses any thought of her birth being an issue from his head the moment it occurs to him.
As for Hugh, his full name was a source of a distraction for me. When I learned that the hero of Marrying The Royal Marine is called Hugh Philippe Junot, I was intrigued yet not very pleasantly amused. Intrigued, because a British officer with a French name in a story that plays out in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars raises the possibility of interesting internal conflicts; perhaps torn loyalties of some sort? Indeed, there is a justifiable plot reason for naming him thus, although it is a decidedly unexciting one. I was also unpleasantly amused. Deliberately or not, “Philippe Junot” evokes associations to the relationship between the young Princess Caroline of Monaco and a seventeen years older Frenchman by the name of, yes, Philippe Junot. (This much-gossiped-about marriage lasted two years.)
Speaking of the Napoleonic Wars. The brutish conduct of French troops during the Peninsular War has been documented, and Kelly exploits this for Marrying The Royal Marine. In her description of the violence of war and its consequences not only for the fighting troops but the women and children of occupied areas, she enters territory few currently writing historical romance writers have dared explore. It brings blood-soaked realism and plenty of emotional drama to the story, and Marrying The Royal Marine is, I think, the stronger for it.
Yet there is a glaring discrepancy in the general portrayal of the French versus the British (the Portuguese play only a supporting role in the story) that diminished Kelly’s accomplishment for me. For more than half the novel the word “French” rarely appears without appendages such as "murderous" or "raping"; and once French characters enter the story, they live down to history with gusto. By contrast, the British are depicted as honourable, brave, and self-sacrificing to the last man. There is not a hint anywhere, as the war is discussed, that would indicate rueful awareness that British soldiers might ever, somewhere, have committed similar offenses. In an early nineteenth-century teenage girl such as Polly this naivety is understandable, but in a veteran officer from an expanding colonial power it smacks of double standards or obtuseness, especially after he has regaled Polly with stories of his campaigns in India. By the time glimpses of redemption began to be seen in one of the French characters I had lost so much patience with the overall black and white characterisations that I no longer cared much.
Incidentally, up until page 167, the point at which I started skimming, nobody had bothered ruminating on the fact that neither the British nor the French do, in fact, belong in Portugal. (The Portuguese, on their part, were in the same period colonising Brazil.) Historically, the Portuguese were forced to remind the British of this when, after peace had been concluded and the French had withdrawn from the country, the British decided to remain as administrators. The Portuguese kicked them out eight years after the events described in Marrying The Royal Marine – a rebellion which started in Oporto.
Finally, when an author decides to pinpoint a specific location for his or her story, it helps me enormously as a reader to immerse myself in the setting if I receive some descriptions of scenery. Unfortunately, all I got were building names and Portuguese words paired with trite declarations like “the view of Oporto took his breath away” and “I have never seen anything so magnificent” and “the canyon was breathtaking in its wild beauty”. The army hospital of Oporto is situated in a convent, and one nun in particular becomes a prominent supporting character, but since not even the Order was specified, I was unable to visualize her person clearly (her face, yes). Social customs of the Portuguese are not entered into other than in connection with the attitude toward rape victims. For any idea of what Oporto may have looked like, other than the presence of the River Douro, I had to look up photographs. One of the rare descriptions is of an old chapel (page 96), which contains an error that conflates several centuries of mediaeval history : “[...] incense-darkened ceiling, low and decidedly pre-gothic. What did they pray about then? Polly asked herself. The Black Death?”
After this litany of complaints it should be obvious to anyone who has not yet expired from apoplectic outrage (the author has acquired an iconic status among many romance readers) that I and Marrying The Royal Marine failed to connect on any level. Although One Good Turn is one of my favourite Regencies, and Carla Kelly’s compassionate characters and touching tales of redemption have resonated deeply with me in the past, I have come to see that my tastes align only randomly with her writing. I regret that this was not one of those times.