I always approach a new-to-me author with trepidation; like Captain Wentworth, I am “half agony, half hope”. Matthews did not disappoint, however; au contraire, I may, with a heavy heart for my least favourite rom-heat-designation, “closed-bedroom-door,” have discovered another historical romance autobuy.
Reading Matthews’s The Work Of Art, I was pleasantly surprised, often delighted, definitely engaged, and intellectually stimulated. In a nutshell, for the most part, I loved it. The play on the heroine as a “work of art,” the “My Last Duchess” allusions, and the tropish-goodness of marriage-of-convenience drove me to request the title. What kept me reading, however, was everything Matthews did with it. The premise in and of itself is compelling: zoophilic, penniless, and orphaned heroine, Miss Phyllida Satterthwaite, is brought to London by her uncle and heir to her beloved grandfather’s estate, Mr. Edgar Townsend, to début and put on the aristocratic Regency ton’s marriage mart. A generous gesture on his part, perhaps. But Philly is a deeply introverted young woman who prefers walking her dogs (various injured and decrepit strays she rescued over the years), reading, playing pianoforte, over balls and gossip. She finds a kindred spirit in one of her uncle’s guests, the hermetic former soldier, Captain Arthur Heywood, beloved second son, who keeps his own counsel, and still suffers physical and emotional war wounds.
Philly, unaware what a rare beauty she is, indeed akin to “a work of art, relates to the sophisticates around her with diffident honesty and naïveté. Her socalled generous uncle has nefarious plans for her: he makes a “deal,” with great financial gain to himself, to marry her to one Duke of Moreland, aka The Collector, a connoisseur of fine art, an aesthete with a cruel streak. When Moreland takes Philly riding in the park, Philly is delighted by his two fine-bred dogs. When the dogs displease the Duke, he cuffs them. Philly is horrified. I was horrified. Philly realizes this is how he would treat anyone under this purview; as his wife, Philly is terrified of her fate. In desperation, she turns to the one person she connects with, Arthur.
When Philly refuses the Duke’s offer, she knows she must flee, or be forced to wed Moreland. Arthur offers to marry her. Though they both have stirrings of friendship, affection, and compatibility, Philly gratefully agrees to this marriage-of-convenience and Arthur, despite his dour demeanour, is glad. Arthur rescues the damsel and brings her to his Somersetshire estate where they grow close, find passion and care in the marriage-bed, and experience the growing pains of getting to know the person you’ve precipitously wed. In the background is Arthur’s fear of retaliation on the uncle’s, or spurned duke’s part. There are times when Arthur turns overprotective he-man and occasions when Philly borders on the TSTL where-angels-fear-to-tread distressed damsel. To Matthews’s credit, she threw a few red herrings in the plot and surprised me with her resolution.
What remained unwavering is a beautifully developped love between two admirable, interesting, deserving people. They never play coy, consistently admitting and discussing their feelings and enjoying each other’s company. They don’t always agree and they’re not always fully forthcoming, but they don’t stumble on the road with any Big Mises. Their dialogue is drollishly affectionate: they’re playful as much as they are serious and somber when occasion merits. There are lovely sequences where they care for each other’s bodies and they care for each other’s souls. Their marriage will contain friendship, difference, and compatibility. They love the outdoors, animals, and each other. They’re good stewards of the land and household. They will make good parents. They’re believable together and apart.
Lastly, Matthews is a lovely writer, elegant and subdued in places, like her characters, playful in others. Here are two samples I cannot resist sharing. The first brings Pemberley to mind. It recounts the moment when Philly first sees Arthur’s home: her response and his pride bode well for this marriage between two relative strangers:
“Do you like it?” Arthur asked. “Very much,” Philly said. “Very much indeed.” As the coach advanced smoothly up the expansive drive, she could see even more how the countryside had grown up around the massive house. It was as wild and rustic as a wilderness garden, lending Heywood House an air of enchantment, as if it had been untouched by human hands for several generations, frozen in time under some magic spell.
It is wonderful how Matthews twists the fairy tale trope: it is Arthur, broken by war and guilt, who’s lived in a fog of war these last few years. Philly’s love and care set him free, as they do her many strays.
Secondly, a passage that proves Matthews’s banter-ish know-how and makes Philly and Arthur utterly lovable:
Arthur bent his head and kissed her, “And yet you love them all regardless.” “So I do.” “Horses. Dogs.” His voice deepened. “Husbands.” “Especially husbands.” “Every moody, unpredictable last one of them.” Philly’s mouth lifted in a rueful smile. “Yes, well … you did say once that I had a particular fondness for disagreeable brutes.” Arthur returned her smile with a rare smile of his own. “A lamentable situation, to be sure” …
Is there a lovelier exchange? Teasingly affectionate, with a deep sense of knowing, loving, and appreciating each other? It was exchanges like these that saw me loving Matthews’s The Work Of Art and, with Miss Austen, saying here is “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Mimi Matthews’s The Work Of Art is self-published. It was released on July 23rd and may be found at your preferred vendors. I received an e-galley from the author, via Netgalley.