The Lady’s Companion by Carla Kelly

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Available digitally for the first time.
Miss Susan Hampton never imagined she would have to make her own way in the world. But when her reckless father gambles away the family estate, and she becomes an unpaid servant of her aunt, she flees in search of a better life.

Taking the position of companion to a temperamental dowager, she finds herself in dangerously close contact with the dowager’s handsome bailiff, David Wiggins, who is everything a man should be—except a gentleman. Though she tells herself he is a thoroughly unsuitable suitor, his irresistible charms could make her forget she was ever a lady…

RHL Classifications:

Heat Level: 1 (kisses and sexual references)
1820’s – post Napoleonic
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Originally published in 1996, this is a review of the new ebook edition published by Intermix, 2012.

Review by Caz

The words that immediately spring to mind when writing about this book are “charming”, “warm” and “honest”.

The story opens on the twenty-fifth birthday of Susan Hampton, only daughter of inveterate gambler Sir Rodney Hampton. He has lost almost everything of value that they own, and Kelly very skilfully draws a picture of the Hamptons’ impoverished circumstances. Susan’s relationship with her father at the outset reminded me somewhat of that of Amy Dorrit and her father; loving but by no means blind to his faults – yet she is finding it increasingly hard to contain her exasperation with his persistent, misplaced optimism that his next hand of cards or turn of the roulette wheel will restore their fortunes.

When he loses their home, Sir Rodney and Susan are forced to turn to her Aunt Louisa for help. She takes them in, but it is quickly clear to Susan that if she does not act, she will become little more than an unpaid companion and drudge to her aunt.

Despite having no money, Sir Rodney is bent on maintaining appearances and is therefore horrified when Susan announces she will seek employment. By a stroke of luck, she finds her way to Joel Steinman’s employment agency. He immediately takes her to see Lady Bushnell, a widow about to remarry and who is looking for a companion for her mother-in-law. Susan is engaged, although with the knowledge that Lady Bushnell the elder does not want a companion and has quickly turned off all those who have gone before her.

It’s not hard to guess how things for out for Susan – but the real delight of the book is seeing the way the characters interact and how their relationships develop. Susan is a delightfully refreshing heroine – straightforward and honest with a wry sense of humour, and no tendency towards missishness when Lady B or others make what in tonnish circles, may have been regarded as a risqué remark.

While the estate’s baliff, David Wiggins, is sceptical about Susan’s suitability for the post of companion, the way she refuses to be intimidated by the lady’s initial coldness and the way she stands up to him and gives back as good as she gets draws his admiration. David has a chequered past, but his devotion to Lady Bushnell is clear and he begins to help Susan to find ways to overcome the lady’s reluctance to have anything to do with her. He is not your usual romantic hero; he’s a soldier-turned-farmer, has no family and has to work – and work hard – for his living. Kelly paints an accurate picture of the seasonal nature of farm life and pulls no punches about how hard it is. David works all the hours under the sun and then some – and is clearly well-liked and respected. He may not be a gentleman, but he is a gentle man – unfailingly honest (for the most part), forthright and kind; and it’s not long before Susan finds herself falling for him.

Their relationship is a delight and I especially liked Susan’s growing awareness of her own sexuality and the nature of desire for a man. Perhaps it’s something that comes from life on and around a farming community, where the cycle of birth, life, death is ever present – but there was an earthiness about the attitude to sex in the book that was a real breath of fresh air. Jokes abound about plowing and Susan decides that the last thing she needs to tell her sheep-farmer-baliff is that the smell of lanolin makes her feel randy! That said, the actual sex scenes are pretty tame by today’s standards, but it’s clear that both partners are enthusiastic and delighted with each other.

This is a story about friendship and love found in the most unlikely places; and about honour and rebirth. Through Lady Bushnell’s letters and some of David’s recounting, Carla Kelly gives the reader a set of snapshots of army life around the time of Waterloo; how it was hard and messy and brutal and not-at-all glorious. David has devised his own, eminently practical yet quite beautiful way of dealing with the horrors he experienced, yet he insists on keeping one, last secret from Lady B, because he can’t bear to break her heart.

There is so much to enjoy in this story. Susan and David are perfect for each other, despite the social gap between them (and the scenes which show the reaction of Susan’s father and aunt to the news that she is to marry so far beneath her are gut-wrenching), and their love and care of Lady B is truly touching.

A really beautiful book – highly recommended.

About me

I’m a musician, teacher and mother of two girls and have always been an avid reader. I was introduced to the novels of Jean Plaidy at the age of eleven and have never looked back! I love good, meaty, well-researched historical fiction – whether it’s about real figures (Sharon Penman) or fictional ones (Dorothy Dunnett), but I’m a sucker for a well-written historical romance, too. I post all my reviews at my Goodreads page so please come and say hello!

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