What better way to get yourself into the holiday spirit than with a Victorian-themed Christmas romance. Set in the Dickensian London of the 1860s, and in Mr. Darcy territory of Derbyshire, A Holiday by Gaslight, by Mimi Matthews offers everything that a Victorian-era Christmas love story should. A snowy Palladian country manor house to set the idyllic scene: holiday traditions of bringing family and friends together to celebrate by decking the halls, sleigh rides, and yule logs—all culminating in a Christmas ball. Mix in a dutiful daughter of a baronet whose ill-founded assumptions of her suitor result in her rejection of their courtship, and you have a second chance love story reminiscent of North and South (1855). Like Elizabeth Gaskell’s classic tale of social division and misconception, the hero and heroine of this novella have both pride and prejudice.
Pressed by her family’s sinking finances into courting a prosperous cotton merchant below her social standing, Sophie Appersett and Edward “Ned” Sharpe’s relationship was doomed from the start. She does not want to marry, and he, after being raised in an austere household does not know how to woo a lady, relying on a stuffy etiquette manual for advice. No matter how much it would please her father to marry him, she thinks him too taciturn and dull and does not suit her expectations of a future husband. He, on the other hand, overlooks her family’s grasping need for her to marry money and only sees her fine character. When she calls it off, he seems unmoved at the loss. She is relieved. Her father is furious.
Placing her doubts and her pride in her pocket, Sophie ventures out to his Fleet Street business attempting to offer an olive branch of reconciliation. Would he, his family, and his business partner attend the Appersett Christmas holidays at the family estate in Derbyshire? She reasons that they could be honest with each other and give the courtship a second chance. Ned is doubtful, and his judgmental mother even more so – yet how could they pass up the opportunity of ten days in the country at the home of a baronet?
The secondary characters help frame the story. Our heroine Sophie’s father is straight out of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, channeling Sir Walter Elliot to a T. He is also a baronet who goes through the family fortune, including his daughter’s dowry, without a care of the consequences. Passionate to improve his ancestral home in Derbyshire, his latest modernization, extravagant gas lighting throughout, includes building a gas factory to supply a rural household with the new form of illumination. Next up in this roundup is Sophie’s little sister Emily. She is the most beautiful of the Appersett sisters. Proud, arrogant, and spoiled, Emily’s tearful objections to her sister’s suggestion of economies to reign in her father’s profligate spending dominate the family dynamic. (Sound anything like Elizabeth Elliot in Persuasion, Janeites?) On the hero’s side, Edward Sharpe’s parents come from humble stock and are linen drapers in Cheapside, London. A self-made man, he has built his fortune without a college education or wealthy social connections. His cold and critical mother is determined that her son marries within his own social class, objecting to his desire to marry a woman of quality. Readers of North and South will see a strong resemblance to John Thornton’s mother in her dour concerns and overprotective manner.
Now, enough with the literary comparisons. There is plenty of originality in this story too. The social context immerses the reader in the rapidly changing environment of the newly industrialized England transitioning from an agriculturally based economy to mechanization. At this time the aristocracy and their feudal heritage were beginning to break down and new money earned from ingenuity and hard work by those who had not inherited their wealth was making head roads into society. The theme of adaptation to change and re-adjustment to expectations runs throughout, and in the end, those who change are given a happy ending. The gently unfolding love story has surprises, twists, and rewards that readers will find both engaging and heart-warming.
While A Holiday by Gaslight embraces the classic Victorian Christmas meme, it does not get bogged down in tinsel, treacle and twee. Its only downside was its redundant epilogue, unfortunately, the last scene left in the readers’ mind of what was, over-all, a delightful holiday-inspired short fiction.
Swoon-worthy and captivating, this endearing story’s protagonists are what enchant. Their love story is a teasing reminder of how powerful a backward glance, a silent pause, or gentle kiss can be. Only the most talented writers can conjure this elusive and bewitching spell.
5 out of 5 Stars
A Holiday by Gaslight: A Victorian Christmas Novella, by Mimi Matthews
Perfectly Proper Press (2018)
Trade paperback & eBook (172) pages
Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Cover image courtesy of Perfectly Proper Press © 2018; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2018, Austenprose.com