I had the privilege of speaking with Mimi Matthews, the author of the Belles of London Series. This romance series began with The Siren of Sussex and continues now with the recently published The Belle of Belgrave Square. Matthews spoke with me about feminism’s place in the Victorian Era, outdated medical treatments like bloodletting and radioactive moisturizers, and Julia’s story in The Belle of Belgrave Square.
Note: This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
At the beginning of COVID, I began reading these Victorian romances for the first time because they’re a perfect escape. For readers who haven’t had the chance to grab your books yet, could you share with us what this series is about and, more specifically, what we can expect from The Belle of Belgrave Square?
The Belles of London series is about four friends in Victorian-era London in the early 1860s, and they’re sort of bluestocking-esque and they have never exactly fit the mold of what debutantes are supposed to be like, which is why some of them are on their second and third season. They haven’t had much success finding a husband and part of that is because they have reasonable standards. They want to choose somebody worthwhile … they’re not just waiting to be chosen.
What they all have in common is they are all very competent equestrians, they each have a horse, and they ride, and they are very empowered through their riding. It’s a skill and a sport and, through that, the four of them have made friends with each other and really support one another. Each of the books is a story of one of the individual young ladies.
The Belle of Belgrave Square is about the second young lady in the series, Julia Wychwood, who suffers from pretty intense social anxiety, which she combats by reading. Julia reads a lot. She escapes into books, which give her so much comfort and sort of allow her to experience all the exciting things that happen, but with a buffer. She also gains a lot of confidence when she’s on her horse. It’s like being a part of a team, Julia and her horse, and that really helps her through her social anxiety as well. During the course of her season, Julia meets a notorious, battle-scarred war hero who sets his sights on her. This book is about their relationship and how Julia takes her fate into her own hands and proposes to him. It’s like a Victorian sensation novel meets 19th century version of a fairy tale like Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, or Hades and Persephone.
I thought this book was especially fun to read because going into a romance novel, you sometimes feel they follow a formula where you can kind of guess what may happen. In Belle of Belgrave Square, however, there was a twist I thought I had figured out… but by the end of the book, certain parts of the story flipped on me and I was left thinking “Wow, that’s definitely not how I saw that going.”
I feel like there were two mysteries in this story, and the first is the one you think is the mystery, and then the second one is the actual mystery.
I was inspired to write this story, firstly, because I really love fairy tales, and I love the elements in classic fairy tales and classic stories from 19th-century literature. I like to do callbacks to those in all my books. But also, this story specifically was inspired by Victorian sensation romances. I know some people who have read this story say it’s like a gothic novel, which is true because a sensation novel is a lot like a gothic novel. It deals a lot with sort of spooky things but not supernatural; it was fear of a loss of bodily autonomy, which is what Julia experiences, which I feel is super relatable to all of us today. This was something a lot of Victorians were frightened about in this era, and this is why you have a lot of books about women being committed to asylums against their will. [Loss of bodily autonomy] was something that was in the public consciousness as a real-life terror.
[Another terror was] about people’s [true] identities, because how did you know who to trust? Like the people closest to you. You’ve married a guy; how do you know he’s not really a villain? So, the hidden identities of people not being who they say they are or misrepresenting themselves to you… that was also a big theme in sensation novels. [People during the Victorian Era] didn’t really have the means of knowing who was who back then and it was all based on an introduction by a trusted person, and that’s all you really had to go on. So, you just really didn’t know [if a person was who they said they were], especially for women in that era, having so little power they had to take so much on faith. Once you married somebody, they had control of your fortune, your body, everything. If you couldn’t really trust them and they misled you in some way, you were sort of in big trouble. That’s what’s happening in Julia’s situation.
As I was reading this book, I could see the struggle Julia has with wanting her independence but being anchored down by societal and familial expectations. However, with almost every obstacle she faces, Julia manages to overcome and defy what is expected of her. How difficult is it to write a regency-era novel while interweaving feminist aspects?
What I find mostly, because I research so much into the Victorian Era, is that there were some really bold women. Not just in my book, but in other books too, you see women being more independent and doing things that feel more modern to us, and it’s not as anachronistic as you might think. There were a lot of trailblazers then, but it doesn’t fit the popular mold of the perception of women of that period of being so proper and straight-laced and behaving a certain way. [This perception] is ingrained in all of us from movies, Jane Austen, and Charlotte Bronte, but there were a lot of women who were kicking at the door, trying to get through and expand the size of their world little by little. What may seem to us as small acts of rebellion or independence at the time had a huge, cumulative effect. So writing Julia’s story and with some of the things she does, I felt like even with the books she reads, the fact she’s a novel reader, though her parents and society frown on it, she is still using that to assert herself and expand the idea of what it means to be happy, independent, and free in life.
I feel there are so many ways you can weave in things that are relatable to us — modern women trying to gain our independence or freedom, our bodily autonomy — to things that actually did happen in the Victorian Era. … The more you see, the more you realize the human experience is very much the same.
I noticed how you were able to relate present-day issues and struggles to those of the past and it made the characters and story feel relatable. Was there something taking place politically or socially at the time of your writing that influenced what you wanted to say, or does the story kind of lead you when it comes to the messages you choose to include?
With the literature of the day, there is a lot that went to male editors or male publishers and there were things that were adjusted to maybe not be as controversial. But there were definitely — and I hate to reduce it to calling women rebels — but women really were asserting themselves in ways that were more than just a monolith of a certain type of restrained Victorian lady abiding by the rules: getting married, settling down, having kids.
There were so many different kinds of women in that era, and it was a really unique time. It was an era of change, drastic change, in almost every piece of society, technology, transportation, and medicine, so it was an era where a lot of things were happening. I think a lot of women were a part of the change that was happening, asserting themselves in different ways in the home, and in the workplace, wanting to go out and keep their own wages when they worked if they were married.
Of course, [change is] never as quick as we would like it to be. Some of the issues, when they’re familiar [to us], we wonder, “Why haven’t we got this figured out?” Sometimes, it seems like we are dealing with the same stuff, just in different ways, because it never gets resolved in a way that is equitable for women. This is frustrating as a woman. When I am researching, I’m like, “Oh great, well, I guess this is something where the fight goes on.”
I was very interested to learn what you know about the Victorian views of novel reading and its associated dangers.
It’s not that all of society … universally thought of [novel reading] as bad, but there were enough voices in this era that spoke on the dangers of novel reading. You can find these quotes everywhere of all the ways it was bad, especially for women, because the idea was [novel reading] prompted them to daydream, to be unhappy with their lot in life, and to think “I can have romance, too” or “I can go on an adventure” or “I can do this or that” as opposed to believing you needed to be concerned with your husband, your children, and the house. Or, if you were more middle-class or a working-class girl, you needed to be concerned with doing your duties and work; you can’t just be ducking off to read a book or imagining all these crazy things because it would overstimulate you.
I’m very excited about Lady Anne’s story. When can we expect to see it published?
I just turned it in! I finished it and did my edits on it and sent it to my editor. The final version went off, so I believe [The Lily of Ludgate Hill] will be coming in January 2024.
It was lots of fun to write and very different from Julia’s story. Anne is strong, she’s pretty aggressive, and she’s confident in what she’s doing. The man in her life, Felix Hartford… he’s not the tall, dark, and handsome man of few words type. I mean, he’s tall and handsome. But he’s more of the teasing, jokester, sort of guy friend you have. There’s so much chemistry between Anne and Felix. I compare their story to a cross between Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Taming of the Shrew or Much Ado About Nothing.
It was lots of fun writing their story and I hope that readers will love it because each of the Belles is so different from the other and I think each of them will appeal to different people in different ways.