The Matrimonial Advertisement, by Mimi Matthews

7 Feb
Cover for The Matrimonial Advertisement; on a grey brocade wallpaper, an oval frame of the same color. The painting shows a woman's upper back and head, hair in a complex bun, looking out at a background of mountains and sea.

My second book by Ms Matthews, and the first in a four book series, the Parish Orphans of Devon; this is another Victorian era-set romance with some kisses, lovely sexual tension, and great writing.

However, reader beware: there are some description of the abuse-cum-torture, inflicted on people in private ‘mental asylums’, during the Victorian era in Britain; and some description of the torture of a white man by Indian sepuys during the Indian rebellion of 1857.

The Matrimonial Advertisement, by Mimi Matthews

This a Beauty and the Beast retelling, wherein the beast served the Empire in India, where he was held prisoner (and tortured), while our beauty is running away from physical abuse, and the certainty of being locked in an asylum by a greedy uncle with a sadist brute for a henchman.

BY JOVE, IT’S A GOTHIC.

(Okay, there’s no paranormal entity or haunted old pile, but really, that setup is pure Gothic.)

The blurb:

She Wanted Sanctuary…

Helena Reynolds will do anything to escape her life in London, even if that means traveling to a remote cliffside estate on the North Devon coast and marrying a complete stranger. But Greyfriar’s Abbey isn’t the sort of refuge she imagined. And ex-army captain Justin Thornhill–though he may be tall, dark, and devastatingly handsome–is anything but a romantic hero.

He Needed Redemption…

Justin has spent the last two decades making his fortune, settling scores, and suffering a prolonged period of torture in an Indian prison. Now, he needs someone to smooth the way for him with the villagers. Someone to manage his household–and warm his bed on occasion. What he needs, in short, is a wife and a matrimonial advertisement seems the perfect way to acquire one.

Their marriage was meant to be a business arrangement and nothing more. A dispassionate union free from the entanglements of love and affection. But when Helena’s past threatens, will Justin’s burgeoning feelings for his new bride compel him to come to her rescue? Or will dark secrets of his own force him to let her go?

The writing voice is as engaging as ever; Ms Matthews shows her command of the period without bogging down the narrative or generally info-dumping, and I always appreciate the author’s notes at the end, with all the historical references goodness.

It’s worth noting that Ms Matthews takes care to be neutral about the British occupation of India 1; there’s a moment or two of condemnation for the brutal retaliation by the British against innocent Indians after the massacre of Cawnpore, and indeed, one of Justin’s reasons for returning to England after is that he “sympathized with them”, which makes other British soldiers believe he didn’t fought hard enough to save the victims:

“I never thought we should be in India. Who could blame them for hating us? We disrespected them. Treated them like animals.” One of his fists clenched. “I had friends among them. Decent men and women. I did business with them. Even invested some of my earnings. (Page 32, kindle edition)

However, one wonders whether a white British man in India, under the East India Company, could build his fortune ethically. (No, no, he couldn’t. Not one of them did.)

But I get ahead of myself.

The setup is again excellent, and the scene where Justin and Helena meet does a fantastic job hooking the reader in, revealing just enough about the characters and their circumstances. In due course, we are introduced to a number of secondary characters, most of whom are fleshed out into fully realized people, and little by little we learn about Helena’s and Justin’s pasts.

Helena’s mother suffered from what seems to be postpartum depression, and her father locked her up in an asylum for ‘treatment’, where she died. It’s a couple of decades later, her father is dead, her brother has been declared dead, and her uncle is using her mother’s history of ‘insanity’ to strip Helena of the immense fortune her brother left her.

Justin’s father, a local baronet, “debauched” (which could be interpreted as seduction or violence) his mother, a child of 15 working as scullery maid at the Abbey; later, his mother moves away, leaving him to be raised, along with other of his lordship’s by-blows, in a local orphanage. It’s mostly a grudge against his father that fuels Justin’s drive to ‘make his fortune’, as it were.

This anger is the most important part of Justin’s character arc; he must learn to see life from an entirely different perspective. And while Helena is the one the world at large see as more fragile, she ends up basically who she was before the events of the last couple of years.

I have to say, I was put off by the use of torture as part of Justin’s backstory, as it feels pretty gratuitous. I would have expected him to have at least some form of PTSD. Even the couple of mentions of survivor’s guilt felt more superficial than formative, if that makes sense. It’s his parentage and the mistreatment he suffered at both the orphanage and during his apprenticeship, rather than what was done to him in India, that have made him the man he is when he meets Helena. 2

I really like how Ms Matthews writes sexual attraction between her main characters, while keeping the actual sex off the page; I can absolutely believe that these two desire each other, and that, eventually, they’ll have a very satisfactory sex life.

This is a sweet, low burn romance about good people dealing with some pretty serious issues; both of them are living with serous trauma, physical and mental, as well as learning to communicate with each other. More than “love heals everything”, Justin gives Helena the space, time, and feeling of safety to deal with her fears, and Helena gives Justin a different view of his past, and his future.

The Matrimonial Advertisement gets a 8.50 out of 10.

* * * * *

1 There is no sense of imperialistic sentiment from either of the main characters, if that makes sense.

2 See Lori Green’s comment below the review, she articulates what I was trying to say here much better.

4 Responses to “The Matrimonial Advertisement, by Mimi Matthews”

  1. Lori 07/02/2022 at 1:04 PM #

    This was my weekend read and I howled seeing you review it here. Also, I do agree with everything you said.
    Justin’s traumas are multi-level and his awareness of his mother’s most likely rape by his father and then the abuse he himself dealt with by the father, the orphanage and the town in general was deep. The India back story lacked the immediacy of emotion.
    I loved Helena’s growth and ultimately her bravery at the end to go get her happiness and have her HEA was delightful.
    I’m so grateful you introduced me to this author.

    • azteclady 07/02/2022 at 1:37 PM #

      Synchronicity of great minds!

      And yes, exactly this, all of it, you put it down beautifully.

  2. willaful 07/02/2022 at 3:07 PM #

    How irritating to discover she has books in KU on the day my subscription ends! (There’s plenty at the library, but I like being able to support the author more directly.)

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