Monday, January 10, 2022

Review: The Siren of Sussex by Mimi Matthews

Mimi Matthews is an excellent raconteuse. I was rivetted by her prose, held spellbound by the story she was telling. The Siren of Sussex is so beautifully realized—the characters, the setting, the language, all combine to tell a complex tale. Like the smooth gait of an Andalusian horse, there is superb kinetic pacing to the story that ebbs and flows with the emotions and motions of the heroine.

At twenty-three, Evelyn Maltravers has just arrived in London from the Sussex countryside for her first season. Unlike her older sister who scandalously ran away with a baronet’s heir to live abroad unmarried, Evelyn is determined to snag a wealthy aristocratic husband to pave the way for the successful futures of her younger sisters. Orphaned at a young age, she and her sisters were brought up by a spinster aunt. She feels fortunate that her eccentric, Victorian spiritualist uncle is willing to sponsor her. Her passions are horses and fashion, and she intends to harness both in her bid to cut a dash in London society.

Ahmad Malik is a dressmaker, currently working out of a gentleman’s tailoring shop making bespoke riding habits for the ladies of the demimonde. He dreams of opening his own ladies’ dress shop, designing unique gowns to fit each lady’s body and personality. Perfection in tailoring and minimalism in embellishments is his trademark, which he hopes to bring into fashion in London society.

Evelyn and Ahmad meet when she arrives at his shop to commission a riding habit. As they work together on her clothes, he is proud how his clothes make her beauty visible to all, and he is proud that she thinks his clothes are beautiful and magical and can transform a person into something extraordinary. She, in turn, is proud that he has made her beautiful and is proud to showcase his designs to Society. She is never shy to drop a word here and there to bring him new business.

As an Anglo-Indian, Ahmad was brought up on the outskirts of British colonial life in India. He was not raised as a Muslim but was brought up on a watered-down, hastily cobbled together version of Christianity, with which he has never known what to do. As a child of a white British soldier and an Indian woman, he was not accepted in Indian society, nor in British society, to which he was reluctantly brought as a teen. Matthews depicts Ahmad’s struggle for identity and sense of self with great care.

Learning to love someone is looking at them the right way. This is not learning to love by acting a certain way. It is simply by looking at them a certain way. Evelyn always sees Ahmad as her equal. She sees his race and learns about his humble life and only sees him as a man she is attracted to, a man to admire—her equal in every way. It never occurs to her to see him otherwise. On the other hand, Lady Heatherton, an upper crust white woman looks at Ahmad and sees a “native” man who is beneath her, who is only good for an intimate encounter and to make her gowns—someone to be used.

This is Ahmad’s reality in London life. He is used to being used. But instead of allowing this to beat him down and keep him mired in the squalor of the East End, he rises above it by sheer dint of integrity, hard work, and desperate courage to become a dressmaker to women of the ton. He isn’t afraid of having to work hard for a living and doesn’t think it is lowly to be employed. He is seduced by beautiful fabrics and elegant tailoring, not soft living. He loves Evelyn, not for her comfortable living style, but for her acknowledgment of him as an equal in every way and for her bravery in loving him back despite his background.

LL Cool J has said, "You can't let your past hold your future hostage." Evelyn is determined to rise above her genteel, white British country upbringing to become a modern Victorian woman who is building a life with an Anglo-Indian tradesman in racist, colonial Britain. How she goes about making it possible for them to marry while securing the futures of her sisters, I will leave it for you to discover. Evelyn’s growth over the novel is her building awareness that the journey between who you once were and who you are now becoming is where the dance of life really takes place.

bell hooks has said, “Love is the necessary foundation enabling us to survive the warts, the hardships, the sickness, and the dying with our spirits intact. It is love that allows us to survive whole.” It is this forever love that Evelyn believes in. As the story moves along, she convinces Ahmad that what his life was or wasn’t, isn’t important; he is always he—her beloved, and her love is not just a verb—it is her looking into his soul.

An accomplished horsewoman herself, Matthews instinctively knows that the human relationship with the horse is the critical difference between merely riding a horse and being at one with the horse. Where Society is focused on their riding clothes and riding crops, Evelyn is focused on her seat, her leg, and her gentle but strong hands to instinctively know how to guide Hephaestus, her Andalusian stallion. Scenes where Hephaestus features are nearly poetic in their beauty.

Matthews does not shy away from depicting an accurate picture of British racism and colonialism, which had a "tendency to dehumanize, demonize, exoticize, or infantilize Indians [and Anglo-Indians]," as Matthews says in her Author's Note. Most historical romances gloss over these uncomfortable details, but Matthews confronts them head-on, and in so doing, tells a complex and authentic historical tale.

I highly, highly recommend The Siren of Sussex. It is one of the best historical romances I have read in a long time.


Janine Ballard said...

Hey Keira,

This book sounds intriguing and the latter part of the nineteenth century is a period I love to read about. I have a couple of questions though.

I know fashionable riding habits existed in this era and there were male designers who designed fashionable outfits for high society ladies (Charles Frederick Worth of the House of Worth in Paris comes to mind) but I haven’t heard of any of them being in England. I know a fair bit about the period but fashion isn’t a strong suit in my knowledge base, so I think you might know more. It’s the kind of thing I love to learn about!

My other question is whether the term haute couture, which is used in the blurb, appears in the book itself. It would be an anachronism which is the kind of thing I can be picky about in language. To clarify, i don’t mind a few, or even a handful, but one every ten pages is probably getting into the area of too much for me. More information would be helpful to my decision-making process.

(PS The cover doesn’t do the book any favors!)

Keira Soleore said...

You ask such good questions. I didn't know "haute couture" was a term used in the blurb. Looks like some newbie copywriter hired by the publisher. The term does not appear in the text of the book, as far as I know, nor do any anachronisms that I could catch. The book feels very period with good research. I couldn't tell you about Victorian English fashions. Isobel Carr is my go-to for fashion history. Do you know her?

Janine Ballard said...

I know Isobel enough to chat with on Twitter. I am trying hard to stay away from Twitter as much as possible though.

Keira Soleore said...

Mimi Matthews has a large section in her Author's Note about Victorian Fashion. It is fascinating reading. In fact, her entire Note is detailed about many aspects of her book. Definitely worth reading.