Review: The Matrimonial Advertisement by Mimi Matthews (2018)

Posted May 14, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This was so close to being a five star read – an intriguing premise, fascinating characters, an atmospheric setting and lots of promise for dramatic revelations – what could go wrong? I’ll get to that.

Here’s the premise: Justin Thornhill has managed to hoist himself up from humble beginnings to buy a run-down house in the West Country. All he needs is a wife to help him run the place. Helena Reynolds needs to escape from London, and she’s desperate enough to answer a matrimonial advertisement. She’ll marry a complete stranger if he’ll keep her safe. I find this a fascinating premise. It’s obvious that both these two have dark stories to tell. Justin is an ex-soldier with scars and burns covering his body. Helena has bruises to hide, too. But they accept each other as they are, and they quickly marry.

Instantly, Helena’s past turns up to disrupt them, and Justin’s fears that she’s too grand to be marrying the likes of him are fully realised. But he does what he has agreed to do, and gets rid of the men who would take her back to London and all the horrors she wanted so badly to escape from. I won’t spoil things by going into details about either her past or Justin’s, but suffice it to say that she is being pursued by a very powerful person.

Up to the halfway point, this is a fascinating story, beautifully realised and steeped in atmosphere and mystery. The two main characters are wonderfully real in all their interactions (a bit of a beauty and the beast vibe going on there), and the clifftop abbey and its odd inhabitants suitably gothic. I did wonder if it always rained quite so much in Devon, and maybe they could have just the occasional balmy day, but it was certainly atmospheric.

But the second half, where Helena and Justin go to London and do all sorts of conventional things – balls, morning calls, the theatre – is much less interesting, and at the very end, the biggest problem of all – an outbreak of I’m-not-worthy-itis from Justin, so that he takes off back to Devon and Helena’s not invited. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, even more than a Great Misunderstanding, it’s a hero who simply assumes he knows what’s best for the heroine. Look, selfless heroes everywhere, treat your heroines with a bit of respect, all right? They’re sensible people with hopes and fears and feelings too, so ASK what they want before self-righteously sloping off and leaving them with a broken heart.

But other than that, I don’t have much to grumble about. This is set in the Victorian era, not the more familiar (to me) Regency, so some things that seemed odd to me might be quite legitimate. The talk of annulment, for instance – very much not a thing in the Regency, but maybe it’s fine by the mid-Victorian era. I did wonder that the 6th Earl was so easily declared dead on the say-so of just one person. Usually with titles, the fear of making a mistake kept the title in abeyance unless there was an actual body. And I disapproved hugely of leaving the money that usually supported a title to someone else entirely. Being a peer was an expensive business, and the poor man was supposed to live in a manner appropriate for his station, not in penury. And why was the income from the estate not tied to the entailed land, in the form of rent-paying tenant farmers, as was usual? So I wasn’t quite sure how that worked.

Still, these are trivial points. The book is beautifully written, it feels authentic to its time (and I loved the way Helena’s big skirts were a constant reminder of that) and the two main characters were wonderful. Justin, in particular, is a true hero. Only that stupid last-minute outbreak of unworthiness annoyed me enough to keep it to four stars. And now I’m going straight on to the next book in the series to find out just what did happen to Giles.


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