Libby's London Merchant
by Carla Kelly, regency (2001, 1991 reissue)
Signet, $5.99, ISBN 0-451-20461-1

I confess that I have been very unfair to virtuous heroines of Regency London. I have encountered so many addle-pated dumb ninnies whose actions and thoughts I could see coming a thousand miles away that I start to think that all Regency women have put too much mercury in their facial cream and completely gone braindead. Then comes Carla Kelly and I remember how I actually love the Regency era.

Seriously, I have just finished reading this non-fiction book that describes all the gritty and nasty things English people of the 15th to 19th century do to themselves - 13 inch waists, mercury in face cream, adulterated food (you wouldn't believe some of the things they put in coffee), and the ever popular cure for syphilis - that I am sure I will never read a Regency-era romance without going green in the face again.

But Libby's London Merchant is cute and quaint. The heroine Elizabeth "Libby" Ames may be a virtuous dame, but she has brains too. There's the usual cheerful younger relative, this time a cousin, the earnest young brother, the pompous Squire, the drunk/rake war hero hero... yes, yes, been there done that. But it's still a fresh read because the author gives her characters and stories enough tweaks and depths to make them stand out.

Benedict Nesbitt, the hero, is some sort of Duke, is in a hangover-induced romp in the bedroom with his buddy Eustace Wiltmore (don't ask) when he makes this promise to go undercover to the country to check out Eustace's intended bride. Eustace wants a report - how pretty, how buxom, how docile, you know, what a man is interested in a woman - and Nesbitt will fake a road accident and gets himself admitted into the house for some snooping.

Eustace's intended is Libby's cousin. Cousin, however, has gone on a holiday, leaving Libby alone in the house except for the old coot of the staff and her brother Joseph. Then comes a handsome "Mr Duke", a candy merchant, who apparently suffers from a carriage accident, and Libby finds herself going "O-er!" at that man.

Libby is a smart one. She isn't married yet not because she is too busy wailing over her financial circumstances or too busy running all over the country healing people who step all over her. She is just poor and her father is a tabacco merchant, so that's it - nobody who's anybody will even want to marry her.

Except the bumbling but earnest Dr Anthony Cook.

But Libby, the practical one, just have to fall for the drunkard rake Nesbitt instead.

Yes, I like Libby, and Nesbitt will be tolerable if the story does a little bit more to make him more than that charming man in the bed. But Dr Cook - oh my. What a nice man. What a sweet, earnest, and kind man who says such pretty words. I really get rather annoyed at the way he is given the short stick in this story. Ms Kelly lets Cook keep his dignity by the end - thank you - but in essence, he is used by both Nesbitt and Libby to work out their feelings for each other. Poor Dr Cook - awww.

Okay, okay, I confess that Libby's London Merchant is a very good read. Characterization is above average, none of that stale Regency token characters hogging the limelight here. The plot moves along fine, except that as it progresses, my darling Anthony gets more and more shafted. It is a testament to Ms Kelly's writing skill that I actually believe...

Okay, there is a wonderful conclusion that wraps up the story of Cook, Nesbitt, and Libby. But you know what? I'm still peeved about how Cook is treated.

Rating: 87

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