The Matrimonial Advertisement
Author Mimi Matthews has been on my radar ever since the release of her début novel, The Lost Letter in 2017, but this is the first time I’ve read one of her books. The Matrimonial Advertisement is the first in her Parish Orphans of Devon series, and as the title suggests, the story is a variation on the mail-order-bride theme. I enjoyed the author’s prose style; Ms. Matthews writes with elegance and precision, and she has created two sympathetic, engaging central characters, but the second half of the novel lacks any real sense of drama or romantic conflict – and what there is, is manufactured. Ultimately, the great first half isn’t enough to compensate for the weakness of the second, and the story feels unbalanced as a result.
Former army captain Justin Thornhill has recently acquired the imposing and remote Greyfriars Abbey in the area of North Devon where he grew up. He fought in India where he was caught up in the Siege of Cawnpore, captured and tortured; and now he wants to live the quiet life of a country squire. But he’s having trouble staffing the abbey owing to the rumours that continue to dog him about the part he may have played in the death of the estate’s previous owner, an uncaring reprobate who drank hard, played hard and thought any female within his orbit was fair game. After the departure of the latest housekeeper, Justin’s steward suggests he needs a wife and that perhaps he should place a matrimonial advertisement – and so he finds himself faced with the prospect of ‘interviewing’ possible brides.
Justin is clear about the sort of wife he wants:
“I have no interest in courtship… nor in weeping young ladies who take to their bed with megrims. What I need is a woman. A woman who is bound by law and duty to see to the running of this godforsaken mausoleum. A woman I can bed on occasion.”
– and Helena Reynolds most definitely doesn’t fit his idea of a capable, sensible wife. She’s stunningly beautiful and is obviously well-bred – and right from the off, he can tell she’s hiding something; why else would such a lovely young woman want to bury herself in the middle of nowhere and marry a complete stranger? When he asks her that question, she calmly tells him that she’s been told he knows how to keep a woman safe; which tells him she’s clearly frightened of someone or something, but a first meeting isn’t the place to enquire. Besides, Justin finds he wants Helena very badly. And, he reflects, she isn’t the only one keeping secrets.
Helena was desperate to get away from London, and knows that marriage is just about the only way she can protect herself. A married woman belongs to her husband in every respect, and Ms. Matthews does an excellent job of drawing attention, through Helena’s character, to the very limited options and freedom of woman at this period of time, and commenting on the unfair laws that stripped married women of all rights and property and opened them up to all sorts of abuse. The solicitor in London with whom she’d communicated briefly has assured her that Justin is a good, decent man who will be able to protect her, and now she has met him, Helena can judge for herself that those statements were true.
The first part of the story is beautifully done, showing the gradual development of love and trust between Justin and Helena as they bond over shared interests and gradually come to realise that their marriage of convenience has the potential to be something far more than either of them expected. They agree fairly early on that there should be no secrets between them, something I really appreciated, and both their stories are heart-breaking; Helena has been betrayed in the worst way by those who should have cared for her, while Justin carries wounds, both physical and mental, as the result of the torture he suffered in India, and his own survivor’s guilt. The author’s research is impeccable and she incorporates both characters’ backstories seamlessly into the narrative. She also makes excellent use of the remote coastal setting, creating a brooding atmosphere reminiscent of the gothic romances of the time with her evocative descriptions of the remote clifftop house, the crashing waves and the incessant rain flooding the roads which isolates the Abbey even further.
The romance that develops between Justin and Helena is sweet and tender, and it proceeds at a gentle pace, thankfully devoid of the excessive mental lusting that appears in so many romances. There’s a strong attraction between them, yes, but they’re attracted to each other for more than looks; Helena’s quiet inner strength and resilience, combined with a sensibility that seems appropriate for a young woman of her station makes her feel very much of her time, while Justin’s crusty exterior hides a decent, kind man, and together, they’re a couple it’s easy to root for. Love is uncharted territory for both of them, and Ms. Matthews does a splendid job of showing, through their actions and words, that they’re falling hard for each other. But then, just after the half-way point, things come to a stuttering halt, and all the tension the author has built up in the first part of the book just disappears. The focus shifts, pushing the romance into a secondary role while Justin and Helena are forced to return to London in order to save their marriage and save Helena from the clutches of those out to harm her. But the thing is that they don’t really do anything; they have to show themselves in society to quash some of the rumours that have been circulating about Helena, but otherwise they pretty much wait around for things to happen, and the whole thing is very sedate with hardly any plot development. And then, despite their agreement that there should be no secrets between them, Justin pulls the ‘I am not worthy’ card – which is one of my least favourite plot devices of all time.
I enjoyed The Matrimonial Advertisement, and had the story continued as well as it began, I’d have awarded it a solid B, maybe a B+, but as it is, I can only offer a qualified recommendation. It has a lot to offer – excellent research, strong period feel, a tender romance and two well-rounded principals – but the second half doesn’t live up to the promise of the first, and in spite of all the things the book has going for it, I came away from it feeling a little disappointed.