Interview with Mimi Matthews - The Siren of Sussex
high society’s most daring equestrienne finds love and an unexpected ally in
her fight for independence in the strong arms of London’s most sought after and
devastatingly handsome half-Indian tailor.
Evelyn Maltravers understands exactly how little she's worth on the marriage mart. As an incurable bluestocking from a family tumbling swiftly toward ruin, she knows she'll never make a match in a ballroom. Her only hope is to distinguish herself by making the biggest splash in the one sphere she excels: on horseback. In haute couture. But to truly capture London's attention she'll need a habit-maker who's not afraid to take risks with his designs—and with his heart.
Half-Indian tailor Ahmad Malik has always had a talent for making women beautiful, inching his way toward recognition by designing riding habits for Rotten Row's infamous Pretty Horsebreakers—but no one compares to Evelyn. Her unbridled spirit enchants him, awakening a depth of feeling he never thought possible.
But pushing boundaries comes at a cost and not everyone is pleased to welcome Evelyn and Ahmad into fashionable society. With obstacles spanning between them, the indomitable pair must decide which hurdles they can jump and what matters most: making their mark or following their hearts?
MM: I’m so glad you enjoyed reading The Siren of Sussex! I found the Pretty Horsebreakers inspiring for several reasons, the first of which was their talent on horseback. Add to that their fashion, charisma, and the fact that they drew every eye in Rotten Row—often to the detriment of more respectable young ladies—and you have the beginnings of a fascinating story.
EKM: The Siren of Sussex is different from most historical romance novels in that neither the hero nor the heroine is a member of the aristocracy. What was the impetus for writing a historical romance that showed readers a different view of Victorian society?
MM: I rarely write about the aristocracy in my novels, simply because I don’t find aristocratic characters and settings to be as interesting. I’m more interested in regular people. The Victorian era was so much more than stuffy drawing rooms or glittering society parties. There was diversity of race, class, and opinion, all set against the backdrop of a world that was changing at an astounding rate. I love to explore how characters deal with these changes on both a broader scale and within their own families and communities.
EKM: Evelyn uses her skills as a horsewoman to make her mark in London society. What are the inherent risks for her in taking this route? Especially given the reputation of the Pretty Horsebreakers.
MM: One of the most fascinating things I learned during my research for this novel (and a fact that helped serve as the inspiration for the story) was how well-to-do young ladies tried to “ape” the Pretty Horsebreakers’ style in order to catch the eye of eligible young men. This meant copying the way the Pretty Horsebreakers rode, dressed, and even the way they spoke. Of course, one of the dangers in this strategy was being accused of being “fast.” In Evelyn’s case, she runs the risk of being mistaken for a courtesan herself.
EKM: To secure her younger sisters’ future, Evelyn embarks on her first and only London season. I liked that Evelyn was so practical about it. Do you think her quest for a wealthy husband misguided?
MM: Ultimately, yes. However, this is what her older sister, Fenny, had been expected to do—to marry well and secure her younger sisters’ future. In the wake of Fenny’s failure, Evelyn (who loves her family and takes her responsibilities seriously) was just attempting to shoulder the burden as best she could. At the time, there seemed to be only one solution to the family’s problems and that was for one of the sisters to find a rich husband.
EKM: Evelyn hates it when people refer to her as a ‘bluestocking,’ although she clearly is one. She struggles with the restraints that are put on women, what they can talk about, and how they look. What was it about the label ‘bluestocking,’ that could hurt a Victorian woman and dim her marriage prospects?
MM: Unfortunately, not every Victorian gentleman appreciated an intelligent and opinionated woman. Wives were supposed to be gentle, biddable, and willing to defer to the judgment of their husbands. A bluestocking generally had opinions and interests of her own, making her more difficult to control. Not the best candidate for an obedient Victorian wife!
EKM: Ahmad first appears in A Modest Independence, part of the Parish Orphans series. What was it about him as a character that made you think he was the right hero for Evelyn in The Siren of Sussex?
MM: I’d always meant to expand on Ahmad’s story. For one thing, he and Mira are the only characters I’ve written who actually share my half-Indian heritage. For another, he had so much rich personal history to draw on. He was perfectly suited as a hero for Evelyn because, like her, he possesses an incredible gift. His dressmaking skills rival her skill as an equestrienne. This is one of the things that first draws them to each other—talent recognizing talent. There’s something incredibly attractive about a person who’s the very best at what they do.
EKM: Ahmad feels out of place in both England and India, and you don’t shy away from the racism that he experienced daily. Do you feel that he uses his talent as a dressmaker to create a place for himself in a world that sees him almost less than human, as well as to reclaim the spoils of colonialism?
MM: Most definitely. Working with the fabrics as he does, transforming them into something both beautiful and something that was uniquely his, is a powerful act. In fact, everything he does with his fashion comes from a position of power and vision—a refusal to submit to the status quo.
EKM: Evelyn and Ahmad are not only a mixed-race couple but also a cross-class couple. It was interesting to me that you didn’t shy away from them having tough discussions about what it would be like as a married couple in Victorian England, that they had very frank discussions about what it would mean for them. What challenges do you think they are going to face now as a married couple?
MM: Most of their challenges will arise from a loss of community for Evelyn. This is an expected result from marrying out of one’s class, as much as it is from marrying someone from a different race. The fact is, not everyone in society will be willing to accept or welcome them. Among some, she’ll be treated as if she’s simply ceased to exist. A social death, if you will. Though, I honestly don’t think this will bother her a great deal. The people who matter to them do accept them, and those who don’t are the ones who, ultimately, don’t matter at all.
EKM: Ahmad works as a tailor, but his ambition is to become a dressmaker, like Charles Frederick Worth. What drew you to giving your hero such an unusual occupation? What do you say to readers who think that it might have been an unrealistic ambition in the 19th century
MM: My love of Victorian fashion played a large part in crafting Ahmad’s occupation. I was also inspired by Worth’s career trajectory. Ahmad’s own ambitions weren’t unrealistic at all, though he might have found it more difficult to break into the business because of his race and class. In the beginning, he was limited in who he could interact with, which is why the spiritualism movement appeared as a subplot in the story. The class-mixing that occurred at some of the spiritualist gatherings ultimately allowed for Ahmad to get his big break.
EKM: I loved the friendship between Evelyn, Stella Hobhouse, Lady Anne, and Julia Wychwood. How supportive of each other they were. All four women are not what one thinks of as typical Victorian women for various reasons. How important was it for you to portray women who are a little bit unusual, who fall outside what is normally expected of Victorian women?
MM: I find people who don’t fit the stereotypical mold profoundly more interesting than people who do. That’s as true in life as it is in fiction. We all have our little quirks and idiosyncrasies. Seeing these play out in Victorian characters is fascinating to me. I hope it’s equally interesting to my readers.
EKM: In The Siren of Sussex, the reader gets to see parts of London that are outside of the fashionable areas of Mayfair and Belgravia. How important was it to show readers another, darker side of the city?
MM: This, again, just goes to my own personal interests. I suppose I’m a selfish writer in this way. I like to explore, so my characters have to trudge along with me to the cliffs of Devon, the seaside resorts of Margate, the bleak Yorkshire countryside, and now from the ballrooms of Mayfair to the East End slums and beyond. For Ahmad and Evelyn’s story, this change of scene was especially important because Ahmad’s life in London started out in poverty, and he hasn’t abandoned the connections he made when living among people of the poorest classes.
EKM: In the epilogue, it is revealed that Ahmad has received a royal warrant from Queen Victoria. Given England’s history in India, and Ahmad’s own feelings about colonialism, should Ahmad have refrained from doing business with the Queen and the Court?
MM: One of the qualities I most admire in Ahmad as a character is his ability to reframe the way he interacts with the world around him, so he’s not consumed by the injustices he experiences. My feeling was that he would use this dressmaking opportunity to advance himself and his family even as he kept himself morally separate from the Queen and her problematic policies.
EKM: I was intrigued by the inclusion of the spiritualist movement in the novel. You manage to present both points of view, believers, and non-believers. What do you think fueled society’s passion for all things occult? Was it more than just the war in Crimea and the death of Prince Albert? Do you think that fashionable society used seances to further their own social agenda?
MM: I absolutely believe this. Spiritualism was a fashionable diversion as much as an earnest pursuit. It was also a means of garnering social power. At the height of the movement, the attendance of the right medium or crystal gazer at a party could transform a simple gathering into the social event of the season. Belief in the practice itself ultimately had little to do with it.
EKM: You’ve written both fiction and non-fiction set in the Victoria era. What is it that you find so fascinating about the era?
MM: It was an era of enormous change. I love to see how my characters grapple with these changes. I also love the general ambiance—the fashion, the manners, the gaslight, the hansom cabs… I could go on.
EKM: What is your research process like? How many months of research do you do before you start writing?
MM: I’ve worked so much with Victorian history that, thankfully, I don’t have to do a lot of research on the general basics. It’s the specifics of each book that end up taking a lot of my time. Some of the research I do in advance, but most of my “file” for each book is built as I go. I don’t write to an outline, so I often don’t fully know what I don’t know until I get to a certain point (if that makes sense!).
EKM: I’m looking forward to the next book in the series, The Belle of Belgrave Square which features Julia Wychwood. Will Stella and Lady Anne also have books as well?
MM: Yes! I’m working on Lady Anne’s book now. Stella’s book will hopefully come later, but that mostly depends on how well the first three books do.
Mimi is also hosting a fantastic giveaway!
“…a tender and swoon worthy interracial, cross-class romance in Victorian London…Readers will delight in this paean to women’s fashion and horseback riding.”— Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Matthews brings the Victorian era to vivid life with meticulously researched details and an impossible romance made believable and memorable.”— Booklist, starred review
“Matthews deftly underscores racial and gender discrimination in Victorian London in this excellent start to ‘The Belles of London’ series; rather than overshadowing, it propels the romance. Romance aficionados who love fashion and animals will delight in this tender romance and will be excited to see Evelyn’s friends in future installments.” — Library Journal, starred review
"Unflinching, tender, and moving, the delicately crafted The Siren of Sussex might just be my favourite work from Mimi Matthews; it certainly is one of my favourite historical romance reads this year."— Evie Dunmore, USA Today bestselling author of Portrait of a Scotsman
USA Today bestselling author Mimi Matthews writes both historical nonfiction and award-winning proper Victorian romances. Her novels have received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, and Kirkus, and her articles have been featured on the Victorian Web, the Journal of Victorian Culture, and in syndication at BUST Magazine. In her other life, Mimi is an attorney. She resides in California with her family, which includes a retired Andalusian dressage horse, a Sheltie, and two Siamese cats.