A Holiday by Gaslight
Mimi Matthews’ A Holiday by Gaslight has a familiar premise: a wealthy tradesman hopes to marry an aristocrat’s daughter. I always look forward to romances where the heroes aren’t aristocrats. Even better, this one begins with the heroine telling him she doesn’t want to marry him, so I settled in to enjoy the ride.
Sophie Appersett knows she’ll have to marry to fill the family coffers, which are constantly at a low ebb thanks to her father’s determination to modernize their family home. His latest idea is to install gaslights throughout the house, but never fear, he’s got plans for the plumbing as well. Accustomed to being the practical one who darns her stockings to make economies, Sophie approaches the matter of marriage the same way – except her intended, Edward Sharpe, hardly ever talks to her. After two months of courtship, she’s not even sure he likes her.
I don’t usually like destitute heroines who declare they will only marry for love, but Sophie is different. For one thing, she doesn’t expect love, just consideration:
She’d been ready to love him. It would have taken so little encouragement. A fond glance. A kind word. An affectionate touch.
For another, it’s clear that although Sophie is a warm, kind and generous person, she’s not a martyr or a doormat. Deciding it’s best to let Edward know where she stands before he wastes his time at the house-party her family plans to hold for Christmas, she tells him that she doesn’t believe they will suit each other. But although Edward accepts her decision with a stoicism that makes him look completely unemotional, he’s secretly devastated. He fell in love with her a long time ago, but has no idea how to show it.
Sophie then breaks the news to her parents, who let her know about the extent of their financial problems, which are so bad that her father has used up her dowry. She has to marry a man who can make a difference here. So she goes to Edward and lets him know that the invitation to the house-party still stands. Perhaps they can use that occasion to get to know each other, and to make more of a relationship than a dutiful business transaction.
But the recent death of Prince Albert has cast a pall over society, and several of the aristocratic guests decline to attend. Sophie has no choice except to make up the numbers with Edward’s business partner (a stonemason’s son), and with his parents, who not only live in Cheapside but who don’t exactly consider her the perfect wife for their son.
One of the things I liked about this novella is its realistic treatment of the class differences and how they affect the characters. People from all walks of life have faults; this is not a romance where the working class are all loving, accepting, salt-of-the-earth folks. Edward’s knowledge of the social gap between himself and Sophie, for instance, contributes to his tightly controlled reactions to her during their disastrous courtship. As he becomes more comfortable with her, and with showing her who he is, he opens up and has a few delightfully romantic things to say. And it’s also great to see a hero whose flawed approach to love is molded by his parents’ example – but who still cares about his parents, gets along well with them, and comes off as mentally healthy in general. Even Sophie’s profligate father isn’t demonized.
That said, although I read this novella less than a week ago, when I started to write this review, I couldn’t remember much of the plot. The story is atmospheric, Christmas glows from the pages, and you can smell the pine boughs and gingerbread. Ms. Matthews knows her history and describes it well. But plot-wise, all I recalled was Edward’s business partner’s secondary romance with Sophie’s spoilt, snobbish younger sister, because this starts out with the sister saying what she thinks of him when she doesn’t realize he’s listening. That was plenty of conflict, and I looked forward to seeing how they overcome it, but unfortunately most of their relationship happens off-page.
Still, A Holiday by Gaslight was an enjoyable read that thoroughly immersed me in not only Christmas but also the history of that time. Readers looking for a warm, festive story will find plenty to charm them in this one.