Though I don’t read as much historical romance as I used to, Mimi Matthews is one histrom author whose books I’d never miss. They’re elegantly written, with finely-drawn characters, and thoughtful themes; her protagonists’ journey to the HEA is sigh-worthingly romantic. Her heroes and heroines are beautifully compatible, showcasing Matthews’s ability to match characterization to plausible future happiness. Her ethos agrees with mine and mine with hers.
Matthews’s novella, “Fair as a Star,” (“A Victorian Romance”) is a wonderful introduction to her work if you’ve yet to read her and thoroughly satisfying an addition if you have and are a fan. Matthews’s Victorian Era is neither idealized, nor villified; if the HEA is an argument for the idyllic over the realistic/pragmatic, this is why I read romance. To follow, verbatim, the blurb-ish summary of “Fair as a Star”:
After a mysterious sojourn in Paris, Beryl Burnham has returned home to the village of Shepton Worthy ready to resume the life she left behind. Betrothed to the wealthy Sir Henry Rivenhall, she has no reason to be unhappy–or so people keep reminding her. But Beryl’s life isn’t as perfect as everyone believes. As village curate, Mark Rivenhall is known for his compassionate understanding. When his older brother’s intended needs a shoulder to lean on, Mark’s more than willing to provide one. There’s no danger of losing his heart. He already lost that to Beryl a long time ago. During an idyllic Victorian summer, friends and family gather in anticipation of Beryl and Sir Henry’s wedding. But in her darkest moment, it’s Mark who comes to Beryl’s aid. Can he help her without revealing his feelings–or betraying his brother?
Help her he does, over and over again. Beryl’s “mysterious Paris sojourn” is hardly mysterious to her family. Aunt Hortensia took Beryl to Paris hoping to see her recover from “melancholy”, an inexplicable sadness besetting Beryl. While in Paris, we learn Mark wrote to Beryl daily, letters of gentle humour, full of village happenings. They sustained Beryl and now Mark’s presence does so again. Matthews shows sensitivity in depicting what we would understand as Beryl’s depression. Mark’s friendship, care, and encouragement, neither diminishing nor putting off what Beryl feels, neither weakening nor infantilizing her, is one of the novella’s most powerful aspects. Matthews draws wonderful scenes and dialogue for our protagonists. In one of the earliest of these, Mark comes upon a crying Beryl by the riverside:
” … this sadness — I want you to leave it with me for a day or two.” Her chest constricted. She was grateful for his kindness. It was well meant, however wrong-headed. “It’s not something I can hand off at will. And even if I could … ” Her eyes met his. “You can’t fix this, Mark. You can’t fix me.” He gave her a brief, lopsided smile. “Of course not,” he said. “You’re not broken.”
Mark’s “you’re not broken” turns the entire novella around, from an impasse to a light at the end of a tunnel, for Beryl, for his unrequited love, and even for his brother, the stern, “I-know-what-is-best” brother and Beryl’s fiancé, Sir Henry. Before we come to the fiancé problem, Mark goes about helping Beryl. He brings her a journal to write in and a snaggle-toothed, undisciplined ball of dog-fluff to care for. Beryl saves “Ernest” and his dependence and adoration are a comfort, as is her journal, needlework, and involvement in the village fete preparations.
One of the things I loved best about Matthews’s novella was how Beryl found truth and strength to put her life on the course she truly wanted: Mark, their love borne of friendship, family, and community. Mark helps Beryl, but he doesn’t rescue her. She has to put things right with Henry, tell Mark how she feels, and understand what the aftermath may bring to a small village, given the revelations about their most beloved members. Beryl’s melancholy may stall her, halt her, but, in the end, it’s not the only thing that defines her. Mark helps her see that, but she has to help him too, see how she feels about him. Beryl isn’t the only one who has realizations, Mark too has to experience a turning-point. Matthews renders it beautifully:
He felt something fracture inside of him, Long-held beliefs about who was first and best in her heart. He misinterpreted things. Got them all backward. It wasn’t Henry she feared losing. It was him. The realization struck his composure a devastating blow.
And resulted in a magnificently “first-kiss” scene. As for the rest, Mark and Beryl are wonderful people, caring and careful of others and each other. Their HEA is a Julian “all shall be well, and all shall be well”, everyone where and with whom they belong and everyone belonging. Right and true, as is Matthews’s lovely novella.
Mimi Matthews’s “Fair as a Star” is self-published. It was released in July 2020 and may be procured, and I encourage prompt procurement, at your preferred vendor. I received an e-galley, via Netgalley.