“A Holiday by Gaslight”, by Mimi Mathews

2 Feb
Cover for "A Holiday by Gaslight", showing a white woman in half profile, dark hair in an updo, wearing a long, full-skirted gown with long, not too-lose sleeves and a slightly loose neckline, walking on snow.

Last year, the most lovely Olivia Dade tweeted about this novella, when it was free for the very first time, saying, “This was my first Mimi Matthews book, and after reading it, I went on to buy pretty much her entire backlist, if that tells you something?”. So, of course, I grabbed it on the spot.

Dear reader, please keep in mind that this is a chaste story, with only a few kisses on page; also, there’s mention of a stillbirth (potentially miscarriage) and infant mortality.

First things first: I am not a fan of Christmas stories. Like, at all. However, here the setting is a house party, which happens to take place during the holiday, rather than one laden with the “miracle” of “the season” and so on. And, while there’s a vicar present during the festivities, the only mention of him speaking is in reference to the recent death of Prince Albert and to Queen Victoria’s mourning.

With that out of the way…

“A Holiday by Gaslight: A Victorian Christmas Novella”, by Mimi Matthews

The first chapter is an example of a masterful, economic setting up of the conflict and introduction ot the characters. We learn a lot about each of them, enough to realize their main problem is that they don’t know each other–just as the relationship between them is ended.

Except, not quite.

The blurb:

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.

Oh, there’s so much goodness in here!

Our heroine is 23, the eldest daughter of an impoverished baronet whose only claim to greatness is his family’s ancestral state. Sophie has long known that her duty is to marry money, which will allow her younger sister to marry up, and to marry for love, and which will ensure her father has the means to continue “modernizing” the estate. She doesn’t expect undying love and devotion, but she hopes for liking and affection.

Agency and independence ahoy!

While she feels attracted to Mr Edward Sharpe, Sophie has come to realize that, after two months of frequent, if not constant, interactions, she knows as little about him as she did on the first day. Being a sensible person, decides to end the association, and save everyone involved time and effort.

For his part, Edward is not just “in trade”. An only child, he was raised in Cheapside, where his parents still reside. Without a strike of sheer luck, in the form of an investment that paid off, he would still be working at his parents’ draper shop, rather than owning interest in cotton mills and railroads.

At 31, Edward has idly considered the issue of marriage, but a casual introduction to Sophie moves him to act. She’s “a beautiful creature” 1 for sure, but much more importantly, her bearing and carriage proclaim a depth of character that attracts him deeply.

The thing is, he’s just as aware of the class difference between them; Sophie’s father makes no secret that Edward’s fortune is the only thing that renders him acceptable to pay his addresses to the daughter of a baronet, even one in dire financial straits. Utmost adherence to the formalities seems the safest course of action, lest his lack of pedigree and education put the lady off.

Only, the lady was apparently put off anyway.

And it’s here that things turn really interesting.

Sophie begins to regret ending the courtship almost as soon as she does. The more time passes, the more she regrets missing the potential within the potential that their courtship represented. And so, she concocts a plan: going to his place of business, she invites Edward to attend the Christmas house party he had originally been invited to, on the condition that they’ll be candid with each other, rather than continue hiding behind the rigid façade of high society manners that has so far acted as a barrier between them.

That conversation is fantastic. There’s so much character development happening there, so many subtle undercurrents in phrasing and posture and gesture.

The use of deep point of view in the writing is fantastic. We see things from Sophie’s perspective, then from Edward’s, as they happen, without spending pages upon pages on navel gazing. Their relationship develops organically, and though the time span in the novella is fairly short, by the end it is easy to believe that Sophie and Edward will have a happy marriage, one where they’ll love an talk to each other.

The language is lovely; there’s enough in the formal structure of the dialogue, both between the characters and internal, to situate the story in the Victorian era, without making it artificially inaccessible.

And there’s so much story, packed in relatively few pages! 2

A world that’s changing rapidly while simultaneously clinging to the ‘glorious traditions’ of an Empire already in decline.

The very real sacrifices it meant for young ladies of the lower gentry to marry money. The daughter of a duke might marry for money and continue to be accepted in society; the daughter of a baronet won security for her family and earned shunning by her relatives and friends for herself.

The very real price paid by a wealthy man “marrying up”, knowing that his money was the sum total of his worth to his in-laws–and often, also to his wife–who rarely felt the need to hide their blue-blooded disdain for his person, feelings or dignity.

The family ties that mean the less-pretty, more pragmatic daughter knows her sister’s happiness is more cherished by her family than her own. The amorphous hopes for a future that crystallize on one person, only to realize there’s so much more beyond the image. The tensions of a class rising in power against one losing its influence as it had long lost most of its wealth.

And, for those of you who prefer a lot of heat in their romance: the few kisses in this story pack a lot more heat than some quite graphic full-length novels do, because there’s a lot of tension, attraction, desire, and restraint behind them.

I have too many books already in the TBR print and digital cordilleras of doom, to rush off to buy all of Ms Matthews’ backlist, but I’ll say I already bought another of her books. 3

“A Holiday by Gaslight” gets 9.50 out of 10.

* * * * *

1 Do read the author’s note at the end; and keep your eyes out for a few other nods to Gaskell’s North and South in the text.

2 Amazon says this is 174 pages long, but what with the front and end material, I doubt “A Holiday by Gaslight” is much over 150 actual pages.

3 Okay, two, but I’ll be holding firm there at least for a little bit.

7 Responses to ““A Holiday by Gaslight”, by Mimi Mathews”

  1. Miss Bates 02/02/2022 at 4:29 PM #

    High praise, indeed! It’s in the TBR and I might save it for Wendy’s challenge!

    • azteclady 02/02/2022 at 5:27 PM #

      It really is a lovely novella, I hope you like it too.

  2. willaful 02/02/2022 at 5:28 PM #

    Curse you KU, for conning me into reading the quite horrific _Erasing Sherlock_ when I could have been reading this instead…

    • azteclady 02/02/2022 at 6:22 PM #

      I’m not even going to look; I’ll just reiterate that this one is good. I hope you let me know what you think of it, if you do read it.

  3. Lori 03/02/2022 at 12:11 PM #

    I’m going to get it now. Sounds amazing and amazing is what I need now.

    • azteclady 03/02/2022 at 1:12 PM #

      It was exactly what I needed, Lori. I hope you like it too!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Marrying Winterborne, by Lisa Kleypas | Her Hands, My Hands - 30/05/2022

    […] in a move that reminded me of “A Holiday by Gaslight” (though this novel actually predates that novella by a couple of years), Helen decides to inform […]

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