I bring you a book by an author I’ve been intrigued about for quite a while. This is a novella, very seasonal, and a perfect introduction to her work.
A Holiday By Gaslight: A Victorian Christmas Novella by Mimi Matthews
“Readers will easily fall for Sophie and Ned in their gaslit surroundings.” –Library Journal, starred review
A Courtship of Convenience
Sophie Appersett is quite willing to marry outside of her class to ensure the survival of her family. But the darkly handsome Mr. Edward Sharpe is no run-of-the-mill London merchant. He’s grim and silent. A man of little emotion–or perhaps no emotion at all. After two months of courtship, she’s ready to put an end to things.
A Last Chance for Love
But severing ties with her taciturn suitor isn’t as straightforward as Sophie envisioned. Her parents are outraged. And then there’s Charles Darwin, Prince Albert, and that dratted gaslight. What’s a girl to do except invite Mr. Sharpe to Appersett House for Christmas and give him one last chance to win her? Only this time there’ll be no false formality. This time they’ll get to know each other for who they really are.
USA Today bestselling author Mimi Matthews writes both historical nonfiction and award-winning proper Victorian romances, including Fair as a Star, a Library Journal Best Romance of 2020; Gentleman Jim, a Kirkus Best Indie Romance of 2020; and The Work of Art, winner of the 2020 HOLT Medallion. Mimi’s novels have received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, and Kirkus, and her articles have been featured on the Victorian Web, the Journal of Victorian Culture, and in syndication at BUST Magazine.
In her other life, Mimi is an attorney. She resides in California with her family, which includes a retired Andalusian dressage horse, a Sheltie, and two Siamese cats. Her next romance, The Siren of Sussex, will be out in 2022 from Berkley/Penguin Random House. To learn more, please visit www.MimiMatthews.com
I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (author, check here if you are interested in getting your book reviewed) and thank her and the author for this opportunity.
I have read many great reviews for Mimi Matthews’ novels before, but I hadn’t read any yet, and when I got a copy of this novella very close to Christmas, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to put that to rights.
This is a pretty short book (for those who get hold of the e-book version, the actual novella ends at around the 90% mark, and readers get a teaser of another one of the author’s books, The Matrimonial Advertisement, which I confess I found quite enticing).
This is a historical romance novella, set in the Victorian era, as the title indicates, in 1861, shortly before Christmas, a period of mourning for Queen Victoria and the whole country, following Prince Albert’s death. The story is full of wonderful historical titbits and vivid descriptions and details of everyday life in the era, which help create a picture in the readers’ minds and make them feel as if they were also living in that period, especially because of the focus on the social mores and accepted behaviours of the time. This is not surprising as the author also writes non-fiction historical books, articles, and publishes a blog on the subject, and she evidently has a talent for immersing herself and those who read her in the past.
The central romance (because there are two couples who fall in love in this novella) concerns two characters, Sophie and Ned, with a strong sense of duty and propriety, to the point that they almost ruin the chances of their relationship ever working. Ned, who in this case is wealthy (a self-made man) but of a lower class than Sophie, tries to behave as he thinks is expected of him, according to the rules of etiquette. Of course, he knows nothing of Sophie, other than he liked her at first sight and thought they would be well suited. Sophie, on the other hand, knows his money would help with the financial difficulties her father has got them into (he is obsessed by making improvements to their Derbyshire state, including the gaslight of the title, and he is prepared to sacrifice his daughters’ dowry and anything else to achieve his goal), but finds it impossible to connect with Ned at a meaningful level. She thinks he is cold and does not feel anything for her. After a big scene at home, she goes to his office and discovers that there are depths of feeling hiding there, and that makes her invite him, his family, and his best-friend and business partner, Walter, to spend the Christmas holiday at their estate.
As readers might imagine, the course of true love does not run smoothly, and there are difficulties all around, from Sophie’s sister, Emily, who is spoilt and selfish (pretty much her father’s daughter), to Ned’s mother, a rather strict, hard, and undemonstrative woman, with little patience for new ideas, and anything she sees as frivolous or light-hearted. Sophie’s father and his madcap plans for Appersett House don’t help matters, but she is determined to try to evolve and adapt to the changing times and circumstances (she has been reading Charles Darwin and finds merit in his ideas). And Ned has a few things to learn about her and about himself in the process too.
Although I don’t want to go into a lot of detail to avoid spoilers, I can reassure readers of the genre, that yes, there are no big surprises when it comes to the ending, at least for the main couple. Some readers felt disappointed because, as I have mentioned, there is another romance that also develops during the novella, and it might seem as if it takes the shine out of the protagonists’ own story. Personally, I think that side-story, or at least its consequences, help make the love story between Sophie and Ned more rounded, as it removes some extra pressures from their shoulders, but this being a pretty short book, it might appear like quite a sudden development and not fully explained.
I have mentioned the historical details and the Victorian Christmas atmosphere which are some of my favourite things in the novella. I also like the main characters, especially when we get to learn a bit more about their circumstances and backgrounds (not in too much detail, but enough to give them some depth). Although Sophie is interesting, independent, and strong-minded, she does not behave in a way out of character to the period, especially as this was a time of major industrial, scientific and social changes in society. Ned’s behaviour is also in keeping with the time the story is set in. The writing flows well, with some sparks of humour and great dialogue, chapters told from the two main characters’ points of view (clearly differentiated and narrated in the third person), and the author’s research extends to the language used as well. I am not a big reader of romance (I tend to read it occasionally when I need a break from heavier subjects or a story particularly rings with me), and I am not too keen on over the top sweeter than sweet romantic characters, so this story, especially the main protagonists, hit the right note for me. I am also not a fan of explicit sexual scenes, and there aren’t any here. I would class it as a “clean” romance but I’ve seen some reviews complaining about profanities, so although I didn’t find anything particularly offensive, be warned some people did.
I am not sure there was anything I disliked. I wasn’t a fan of the secondary characters, some because we don’t get to know them enough, and others, because what we know of them seems to be mostly negative, but I must admit that I have loved novels where I didn’t particularly like any of the characters (or they were terribly flawed), and I kept thinking of Jane Austen, despite the different time-period. Matthews explains in her author’s note at the end (another one I recommend reading) that she was inspired by Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, and its admirers can find some references to it, so that would be another recommendation. This novella works well, but I think it had the scope to become a longer novel if other characters and aspects of the story had been developed in more detail.
This is the perfect read for somebody looking for a short clean romantic story, set on Christmas during the Victorian period. There are no big surprises, huge dramatic events, or an overemphasis on unrealistic romantic notions, but there is plenty of atmosphere, two main protagonists who are genuine and likeable, and a great sense of place and time. My interest in the author’s work has increased, and I am sure this won’t be the last of her stories I read. I am eager to try one of her full-length novels next.
Thanks to the author for her novel, thanks to Rosie and the members of her team for their support, and especially, thanks to all of you for reading, for being there, and for commenting and sharing. You keep us all going. Stay safe and keep smiling!