A Holiday by Gaslight: A Victorian Christmas Novella, by Mimi Matthews – A Review

Holiday by Gaslight Matthews 2018 x 200What better way to get yourself into the holiday spirit than with a Victorian themed Christmas romance. Set in the Dickensian London of the 1860’s, 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 marry 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 over protective 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
ISBN: 978-0999036471

PURCHASE LINKS:

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | Indiebound | Goodreads

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

Rational Creatures: Stirrings of Feminism in the Hearts of Jane Austen’s Fine Ladies, edited by Christina Boyd – A Review

Rational Creatures 2018 x 200Having long been credited as the grandmother of the romance novel, it is an interesting notion to ponder if Jane Austen can also be attributed as an early feminist writer. Did she gently inject progressive thinking into her female characters to bring about the equality of the sexes? While we have been admiring Austen’s style, wit, and enduring love stories, were we missing the subtext that Austen’s strong female characters were also way ahead of their time?

Rational Creatures, a new Austen-inspired short story anthology edited by Christina Boyd posits the possibility. Sixteen Austenesque authors have been challenged with the task to create original stories inspired by Austen’s ladies—both heroines and supporting characters—revealing details, back stories, and asides that could have been part of the narrative.

If you are doubtful of the feminist infusion gentle reader, then let’s take a closer look at the famous quote from her final novel Persuasion, that obviously inspired the title of the anthology.

“But I hate to hear you talking so, like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days.”

In the foreword Prof. Devoney Looser explains how for two hundred years we have turned to Austen to “reflect on the world’s unfairness, and to laugh at its trivial absurdities…to avoid unequal marriages…and seek Austenian combinations of inventiveness, wisdom and entertainment.” I could not agree more. In an era when women were treated like tender plants, Austen bravely portrayed her ladies’ vulnerabilities and strengths. In this collection there is a wide variety of stories from heroines and minor characters who exhibit intelligence, patience, resilience and grace to advance their own causes. Here is a brief description of the stories that await you: Continue reading

A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts, by Therese Anne Fowler – A Review

A Well Behaved Woman 2018 x 200For years, I thought Gilded Age New York socialite Alva Vanderbilt’s ferocious ambition was only rivaled by Jane Austen’s Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice as the most grasping, husband hunting mother imaginable, however my assumptions have been proved totally unfounded in A Well-Behaved Woman, a new bio-fic by Therese Anne Fowler, New York Times bestselling author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. 

Applying her skill at thorough, in-depth historical research and thought provoking fictional characterization Fowler has re-imagined Alva in my mind.

Alva Erskin Smith was born in 1853 into a privileged but impoverished southern aristocratic family. Educated in France, her mother died young and her father, also gravely ill, returns with his children to New York city in hopes of re-connecting with family and friends. One of his daughters must marry well to save their starving family. Alva sets her sights on the Vanderbilt clan, industrial tycoons who are new money to the standards of New York’s social elite. William Kissam Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelus Vanderbilt, was soon her best bet. Like many challenges in her life, those in her radar are soon overtaken, and they marry in 1875. Their union would be the social event of the season, and help improve the Vanderbilts social standing.

As we watch Alva pull the Vanderbilts up the steep social ladder of New York in the Gilded Age, a fascinating story emerges revealing her many talents. With the Vanderbilt money behind her, she builds mansions, has three children, heads up charitable organizations and throws lavish parties. Her drive to raise the Vanderbilt’s social standing culminates in her obsession of her daughter Consuelo’s marriage to an English lord. History has not been kind to Alva on that front preferring to only remember the scandalous divorce that ensued, but there is much of her life that warrants the well-behaved woman that the title of this book teasingly professes. Continue reading

Love & Friendship, by Whit Stillman – A Review

Love and Friendship Wit Stillman 2016 x 200From the desk of Tracy Hickman: 

Lady Susan is my favorite of Jane Austen’s minor works. A scheming widow who also happens to be “the most accomplished coquette in England,” Lady Susan Vernon is intelligent, attractive, and unscrupulous, agreeing with her immoral friend Alicia Johnson that “Facts are such horrid things!” (256) Her letters to Alicia detail her plans to snare wealthy husbands for both herself and her daughter Frederica, while causing pain and suffering to those she deems detestable. As she includes her own daughter in this camp, calling her a “stupid girl,” she has no qualms in forcing Frederica to marry a decidedly silly man with a large fortune. Lady Susan is a terrible person, but a wonderful character. While the novella lacks the depth of later works, it is a wickedly funny short story in epistolary form; its tone is reminiscent of the snarky comments found in many of Austen’s letters.

Who better to capture Austen’s witty social commentary than filmmaker and writer Whit Stillman?  His first film, Metropolitan, was one of my favorites from the 1990s, but I confess that I didn’t catch its similarities to Mansfield Park until many years later. Now Stillman has written a companion piece to his latest film Love & Friendship in straight narrative form. He introduces a new character to the story: Rufus Martin-Colonna de Cesari-Rocca, Lady Susan’s nephew. Rufus has penned his “true narrative of false-witness” to expose Austen’s supposed hatchet job on his aunt. His loyalties are made clear with the novel’s subtitle, “In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated (Concerning the Beautiful Lady Susan Vernon, Her Cunning Daughter & the Strange Antagonism of the DeCourcy Family).”

Readers familiar with Austen’s Lady Susan will notice an inversion of good and evil from the outset. Rufus has dedicated his novel to none other than the Prince of Wales, mimicking Austen’s dedication of Emma to the Prince Regent, but in a much more effusively toad-eating style. After two knowing winks from Stillman in two pages: consider yourself warned. Rufus is the quintessential unreliable narrator, writing his rebuttal of Austen’s version of events from debtors prison in Clerkenwell in 1858. The vindication of his maligned aunt, riddled with inconsistencies and bizarre logic, is peppered with tirades on a range of subjects: history, theology, and grammar. These make for some of the funniest passages in the novel. Continue reading

The Summer Before the War: A Novel, by Helen Simonson – A Review

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson 2016 x 200From the desk of Debra E. Marvin:

Discovering just-released fiction on my library’s New Audiobooks shelf makes me feel as if someone has let me slip in at the front of a long line. When I found Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War, I was delighted she’d chosen another charming English town (I’d quite enjoyed her debut Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand) and the summer of 1914. Whether she planned it or not, the timing may help some of us adjust to the end of a ‘certain’ British historical drama, though enjoying this novel can’t be limited to Downton Abbey fans. What better time than the centennial of The Great War, to revisit its impact.

Protagonist Beatrice Nash is a young woman of high intellect, low tolerance for the superficial, and a middle-class income stymied by the death of her beloved father. Mr. Nash’s academic profession provided his daughter an unusual upbringing ripe with experiences beyond England, and making Beatrice independent, resilient, and practical. She was “not raised to be shy, and had put away the fripperies of girlhood.” All very good indeed when she takes a position as Latin teacher for the local children and is tested by the restrictions and social expectations of small town life in this delightful corner of Sussex. She simply must succeed or risk returning to her wealthy aunt’s suffocating control.

If this novel was a miniseries, she’d be the lead in an outstanding ensemble cast. To her left, Mrs. Agatha Kent, mentor, and “of a certain age when the bloom of youth must give way to strength of character, but her face was handsome in its intelligent eyes and commanding smile.” To Beatrice’s right, Hugh Grange, likely the most uncomplicated man in town…who happens to be a brain surgeon. The residents of Rye create the rich background we so enjoyed in Ms. Simonson’s debut, and Rye itself rounds out the cast as quintessential England. I had no trouble balancing the many characters who exit the other side of the war—the autumn after the war, so to speak—forever altered. Just as it should be. Continue reading

A Man of Genius, by Janet Todd – A Review

A Man of Genius Janet Todd 2016 x 200From the desk of Shelley DeWees:

Once as a child he’d had himself electrocuted to see how it would feel. He’d let the current course through him. He’d felt vibrant. 

Perhaps he’d never been the same since, just full of sparks. Perhaps touching him she’d taken on some of his electricity, only instead of making her more alive, it had singed and dulled her.

Confident, theatrical, and opinionated, the genius anti-hero of Janet Todd’s novel—which is a departure from her well-known nonfiction work on Jane Austen and others—positively reeks of potential for unusual behavior, right from the start. He’s fussy and aloof; he gets upset if he is forced to walk through pale-colored soil in dark boots; he balks at tea cups that are “coarse” or “thick” and favors a more delicate model of his own choosing. He is Byronically volatile and tense, but in Ann’s eyes, Robert James is the picture of perfection, a man she simply cannot ignore. Their first meeting at a party in 1816 leaves her reeling with desire to hear more of his rhetoric, and to become familiar with his not-so-attractive yet completely arresting face—for this face, in that moment, becomes the face to Ann. “Robert James,” she acknowledges within five pages, “changed everything.”

And it’s true. At the beginning of the story, Ann St Clair is a different person. She’s plainly-dressed—relying as she does on her Gothic writings as her only source of income—and “not dissatisfied with her mode of life” in her small lodgings. Yet as soon as she connects herself to Robert James, she must change, first by demurring to his opinions of proper dress, and later, far more destructively, by abandoning her life in order to accompany him to Italy. This, in fact, is the point in the story where the relationship begins to degrade in haste: With one snide comment after another, one slight, one violent outburst, one mad musing after another, Ann and Robert James fall apart. Quality of life deteriorates for both of them, and in a long crescendo we are swept to the inevitable conclusion of a relationship built on half-truths and unspoken grievances. Yet you need not worry that it will be predictable; rather, it’s quite surprising how it all shakes out in the end. Continue reading

Love, Lies and Spies, by Cindy Anstey – A Review

Love Lies and Spies by Cindy Ansley 2016 x 200From the desk of Katie Patchell:

Espionage. Matchmaking Mamas. Pretend Romances. Ladybugs!

Who would have thought that these four things are closely related? Yet these tantalizing details (and much more!) can be found in April’s latest Regency novel involving spies and traitors to the English crown, conniving young heiresses, dashing rescues, and one very independent, insect-loving heroine. In Cindy Anstey’s debut, Love, Lies and Spies, readers are whisked away from the chill and rain-streaked windows of early spring to the shores of Devon, crowded streets of London, and glittering, secret-filled ballrooms of Regency England. 

Love, Lies and Spies opens onto a scene of danger and a dramatic cliffhanger—a quite literal moment of cliff-hanging peril, underwent by the brave (and very embarrassed) heroine, Juliana Telford. Up until her buggy overturned and she found herself dangling far above the English Channel, Miss Telford had managed to avoid potential scandal. For eighteen years she had grown up with only her scientist father for company, running the estate and filling her spare hours with her favorite pursuit: studying the ladybug. But her growing dread that she’ll die before completing her plans is calmed at the hope-boosting sound of approaching footsteps. Continue reading