A Holiday by Gaslight
Sophie Appersett is engaged to Edward (Ned) Sharpe. She’s the daughter of a baron; he’s a very wealthy merchant, and their alliance is built over a massive class chasm, one that she’s trying to cross with continued conversation, while he remains silent and withdrawn in all of their outings together. Sophie decides she’s not willing to continue the engagement because they don’t suit. She wants more for herself, and from his behavior she’s pretty sure he doesn’t like her.
So, in the beginning of this story, Sophie goes to break off her engagement in person, at his workplace, without telling her parents – who are, later, understandably upset by her decision. Her family is in severe financial straits, in part because her father (more on him in a moment) is terrible with money, and because her sister is spoiled and gets new dresses every season while Sophie and her mother make do with altering old ones. Ned shows very little reaction to the break up, which leads Sophie to believe she’s made the right decision. (Of course, there’s all kinds of roiling emotions beneath his taciturn surface. You know that. I know that.)
The scenes between Sophie and Ned were lovely. I believed the conceit that a man marrying above his class would worry about all the unspoken signals of society and conversation, and would buy a book to try to correctly conduct himself. (Of course it’s impossible to get it all right.) I also liked that Sophie is not as willing as her mother to ignore and dismiss her father’s poor financial decisions, and instead is trying to secure her own measure of happiness.
Sophie and Ned both question the world around them, the rules they operate within, and how that world is changing – I found that part fascinating. Sophie is reading Darwin, and questioning the evolution of people, and whether people can grow and change beyond their birth – a large and complex question, including when that question is applied to a marriage across very firm class lines. Though Sophie’s conversation about Darwin can get a little preachy and even unrealistic, she’s intelligent and curious, plus considerate, kind, and determined – all traits I enjoy in a character. Ned is quiet and observant, unsure of himself but certain of his decisions and his desires, and he was hoping that in Sophie he’d found a partner for his life – and he’s pretty sure he botched everything by following the advice in that book he bought.
The solution: house party! Every year, Sophie’s family hosts a big holiday house party at their over-improved country estate, and this year, Sophie invites Ned to give their engagement one more try, to see if they can find common ground and mutual understanding in the time they have at the party. The party itself goes through some last minute changes due to current events of the time, and so there is a Lot Going On around them both as they try to focus on one another.
The problem for me is everyone around the two of them. Ned and Sophie remained consistent throughout the story, for the most part. Their romance is (hello, catnip) focused on two people who must reveal their true selves and personalities in order to create the partnership they both want. She’s capable, smart, and empathetic; he’s equally capable, equally smart, and utterly confused by the rules of conduct that surround her. It’s almost like two people who speak the same language but at the same time very much do not.
But the characters around them are wildly inconsistent to the point of being disruptive. One example: her sister is a spoiled idiot in once scene, and deeply, heartlessly cruel in the next. I’m trying not to spoil too much, so let’s say she says some typically callous and unkind things, is overheard, and then regrets it. But she is redeemed (not in my opinion, but an attempt is made within the plot) and given a happy ending that I don’t think she earned. I never saw her remorse or her amends to the person she hurt, nor did I believe the final change of heart and major renovation of personality that occurred at the end. She moves from self-absorbed to self-sacrificing without any progress between, leading me to think she’s just all around terrible. The other characters who represent obstacles to the main protagonists’ happy ending shift abruptly, too, or remain the same in a terribly dissatisfying way. The lack of resolution for some of the surrounding issues was ultimately very frustrating.
I liked the central romance, and I really liked Sophie and Ned. I liked the contrast in their conversations from before they agreed to be mutually candid and afterward. There were some moments I found incredibly charming, and some development of the story that was heartfelt and genuine. Alas, in the end, despite the charm, I found too many mismatched character progressions and too many oddly developed elements to enjoy this novella.
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