The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen, by K.J. Charles

6 Mar
Illustrated cover for The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen; on a blue field, there are drawings of different plants and animals one might encounter on the Marsh, along the vertical sides. Between these, the title. Below that, two men crouch facing each other. One is clearly white, with blond hair; the other has longish black hair and darker skin.

I had been waiting for this book since it was first announced; the cover reveal just upped the ante. I was therefore pretty close to ecstatic when I managed (through sheer luck) to get an ARC.

As expected, I loved it.

Of course, this being a K.J. Charles book, there are a few warnings to get out of the way (her author tag is “romance with a body count”, after all).

Reader beware: death of parents as backstory; parental neglect, parental abuse; explicit sex; threat of sexual violence against a young woman; actual violence and murder; and racism.

The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen, by K.J. Charles

The first of The Doomsday Books, this is another one of those books where I got lost from the first page. Just lost in the world, and the people, and the language. The author recreates a whole world in a specific moment in time, with its own traditions and history, around Dymchurch, in Romney Marsh, Kent.

This matters not only because The Marsh is more character than setting, but also because the politics of the time (1810, the recently dubbed United Kingdom was at war with Napoleon’s France) have more than a little to do with who the people living there are.

The publisher’s blurb clearly sets out the situation our two main characters, one, reluctant baronet, and the other, leader of a smuggling gang, find themselves in as the novel starts:

Abandoned by his father, Gareth Inglis grew up lonely, prickly, and well-used to disappointment. Still, he longs for a connection. When he meets a charming stranger, he falls head over heels—until everything goes wrong and he’s left alone again. Then Gareth’s father dies, turning the shabby London clerk into Sir Gareth, with a grand house on the remote Romney Marsh and a family he doesn’t know.

The Marsh is another world, a strange, empty place notorious for its ruthless gangs of smugglers. And one of them is dangerously familiar…

Joss Doomsday has run the Doomsday smuggling clan since he was a boy. When the new baronet—his old lover—agrees to testify against Joss’s sister, Joss acts fast to stop him. Their reunion is anything but happy, yet after the dust settles, neither can stay away. Soon, all Joss and Gareth want is the chance to be together. But the bleak, bare Marsh holds deadly secrets. And when Gareth finds himself threatened from every side, the gentleman and the smuggler must trust one another not just with their hearts, but with their lives.

So, to get the obvious out of the way: of course all the smuggling brought Poldark to mind–how could it not? (see footnote 1) Mind you, while there’s a lot of talking about smuggling, planning runs, what happens once the goods are on land, and so on, we don’t really see any actual smuggling happening.

The family dynamics are fascinating, and stark, and, frankly, painful. On the one hand, without family, you are unmoored, and lonely, and often always the outsider in other people’s lives. On the other, when you have family, you also have a boatload of cares and responsibilities and conflict–whether said family cares for you or not.

So while Gareth breaks my heart, being always the unwelcome, unwanted, out of place ‘other’ (“All along, his father had had so much time and interest and attention to give, and he’d devoted it to beetles.” (chapter 3)), Joss’ position isn’t by any means enviable. It’s not just that he’s the one responsible for everyone else’s safety and wellbeing, which is its own hell, but there are snags in the pecking order that rub everyone wrong.

Aside: you may have noticed that I tagged this one ‘interracial romance’, and while it’s a bit of a stretch, Joss’s grandfather is a formerly enslaved Black man from Georgia, and this has some weight on the Doomsdays family dynamics, and so I stand by the tag.

As for the language, there have been many conversations about how accents shouldn’t be written in novels, because so often writers will insert a clichéd word or phrase in a different language, or write things like, ‘he made a Welsh/Spanish/Scott sound”, or use broken English (usually reserved for foreigners, either visitors or immigrants), and that can be the sum total of characterization (often with implied derision and/or moral judgement).

However, it is a fact that people speak the same language differently, far beyond accents, and I love seeing that in conversations between Joss and Gareth; specifically the discussion around ‘middling’ (“Yes, but I speak English” says Gareth), and I couldn’t help laughing my head off, thinking of Mexicans saying “ahorita”, and watching every other Spanish speaker get it wrong at least half the time.

Speaking of conversations: far too often, especially in historical romance, there are assumptions about what both ‘the common man’ and ‘the quality’ would feel about everything from the crown to the colonies, that is divorced from any examination of the injustices and cruelty of the political system in which these characters lived.

Which is why it’s so great to have these two discuss, among many other things, politics, patriotism and war. As Joss says to Gareth, “What’s it to me which rich man runs the country?”

Which brings me to: the romance between these two characters is lovely, and heartbreakingly poignant.

At first glance, Gareth seems to be too vulnerable and too emotionally needy for them to have a relationship of equals; but as the story unfolds, Joss realizes that he too has some growing up to do.

One of the things Ms Charles does really well is writing community, so that the secondary characters are people with their own baggage, opinions, feelings and hopes, rather than two-dimensional figures who clearly only exist to serve the plot. There is a rather large cast of characters with speaking parts, but it is a story that covers a lot of miles. A few of the characters are developed through the novel–Catherine, Sophie, Luke–and others are drawn more through their influence on those around them than by direct on-page interactions–Ma Doomsday, Joss’s grandfather Asa, Henry and Lionel Ingliss, Cecily.

And finally, there’s the action. I read this in one long sitting, staying up until after 3am to finish it. I would have finished earlier, but I had to stop reading a few times to breathe, because the stakes felt all too real.

The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen is everything I have come to expect of a K.J. Charles book, and I can’t wait for the second book (A Nobleman’s Guide to Seducing a Scoundrel) to come out. 9.25 out of 10

* * * *

1 For those too young to know, I’m talking here about the series of novels by Winston Graham, and the first series adaptation of the same, filmed in 1975. That first adaptation was aired in Mexico in 1984, and it was an event for my family: we watched the sixteen episodes religiously, and boy, were the conversations afterwards lively!

16 Responses to “The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen, by K.J. Charles”

  1. willaful 06/03/2023 at 7:09 PM #

    Woo hoo, can’t wait!

  2. whiskeyinthejar 07/03/2023 at 12:34 PM #

    The vernacular and language Charles chose to use for Joss stuck out to me, too. I loved it and it did help to create the atmosphere. So excited that the next book stars Luke!

    • azteclady 07/03/2023 at 12:43 PM #

      I really liked how different characters speak; notice how Asa speaks v how all other Doomsdays do. And notice how Catherine, born in the Marsh, but part of the ‘quality’ families therein, spoke much like Gareth.

      • Miss Bates 10/03/2023 at 7:31 PM #

        Makes it doubly moving, because of the referrers Joss has to explain to Gareth, when Joss refers to Gareth as “marsh”, one of us…I was QUITE weepy.

      • azteclady 10/03/2023 at 7:40 PM #


        That got me coming and going–for Joss, it’s him basically making a public declaration of his feelings for Gareth; for Gareth, is understanding Joss’s feelings for him, an acceptance he’s felt nowhere else since his mother’s death.

        Feelings up to my ears.

      • Miss Bates 10/03/2023 at 9:09 PM #

        It really was a superb moment.

  3. Miss Bates 10/03/2023 at 7:18 PM #

    Hello, my friend, I didn’t read your review till tonight, after I finished reading and reviewing, and saving the delight as a reward. I may have liked this a little less than you, mainly because Joss’s character never quite captured me. But I loved Gareth and I, like you, thought the world Charles creates, natural, social, familial, national was fantastic. Despite my quibbles, I too am looking forward to the next book (I LOVED “Goldilocks” and his whole arc)…and I continue to hoard my Will Darlings for when I might “need” something fantastic to read.

    • azteclady 10/03/2023 at 7:20 PM #


      I just said this in a comment to your review! Also, have you seen the cover for the next one?

      • Miss Bates 10/03/2023 at 7:21 PM #

        I HAVE! It’s beautiful. I don’t know who did the covers, but Sourcebooks should give them a beauty-bonus.

      • azteclady 10/03/2023 at 7:24 PM #

        I like that the more I look at the cover for this one after reading the book, the more I see the novel within, if that makes sense? Which makes me all the more more antsy for the next one!

      • Miss Bates 10/03/2023 at 7:28 PM #

        Yes, I agree, it’s cleverly done. It makes your eyes roam from object to object in the margins and then focus on the characters. The use of colour is equally wonderful and in keeping with what Charles intended. It’s one of the best romance novel covers, both of them, I’ve ever seen. Memorable.

      • azteclady 10/03/2023 at 7:30 PM #

        It does take the whole, “oh but illustrated covers suck” thing and flips it on its ear–and I say that as someone who’s not a fan of much of the cartoonish covers we’ve seen flood genre romance in the past few years.

      • Miss Bates 10/03/2023 at 7:32 PM #

        Oh, that is so true. I’m not a fan of the cartoon covers, but this is beautiful because, hmmm, I think b/c of its use of line. Cartoon covers are muddy, this is so clear and crisp.

      • azteclady 10/03/2023 at 7:42 PM #

        Line and color, and the symbolism of each element within the story–the fox and hare at the top? Who is why, at what point? The ripples of water/grass as Gareth and Joss crouch on the foreground. The light of the house, set isolated in the vast plane of the Marsh…

      • Miss Bates 10/03/2023 at 9:10 PM #

        And that house, it looks just like the Marsh pictures I scoured. It’s both totally like and totally belonging organically to the story.

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