In "Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron," by Stephanie Barron, Jane and her brother, Henry, embark on an expedition to the seaside to recover their spirits after the passing of Henry's wife, Eliza. In the spring of 1813, Brighton was a "glittering resort and "the summer haunt of expensive Fashionables," including the profligate Prince Regent and his cronies. Although Jane is at first is aghast at the thought of staying in a vulgar place devoted to "indecent revels," she realizes that "Henry would never survive his grief by embracing melancholy."
Jane, who is thirty-seven ("the autumn of my life is come--my hopes of happiness long since buried in an unmarked grave"), knows that, where she is headed, men and women will be parading about in their finery, while she will be clad in dark-colored clothes and limited to activities appropriate for one in mourning. Her thoughts turn in another direction, however, when Jane and Henry, on the way to their destination, rescue a fifteen-year-old girl named Catherine Twining from the clutches of Lord Byron, who had abducted and tied her up "in a manner painful to observe." Even though the celebrated poet had many paramours, he was selfishly determined to add Catherine to his list of conquests, whether she willed it or not.
Jane and Henry's stay in Brighton proves to be unsettling. A brutal murder takes place, for which Byron may very well hang, and Jane and Henry collect information that will help them learn the truth of the matter. Throughout, Ms. Barron lavishly describes "the frivolity and display, the pretty and available women, the horse races and the crowd of gamblers at Raggett's Club." Included in the large cast are: Lady Desdemona, Countess of Swithin, the niece of Jane's late, lamented Lord Harold Trowbridge; General Twining, Catherine's bitter, rude, and extremely strict father; Hendred Smalls, an unctuous and unappealing clergyman who hopes to win Catherine's hand; Lady Caroline Lamb, a madwoman who ostentatiously throws herself at Byron even though he repeatedly rejects her; and, hovering over them all is the Prince Regent, who enjoys wine, women, and the gaming tables.
Barron is a student of all things Austen, and her research into the life of this great novelist enriches the narrative. However, it should be noted that the premise is a product of the author's imagination; there is no record of Austen having ever visited Brighton or, indeed, having met Lord Byron. Although "Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron" is mildly entertaining, it is also excessively talky, overly cluttered, and somewhat slow-moving. In addition, the mystery is neither believable nor particularly suspenseful. Jane Austen is observant, sharp-witted, and anxious for justice to be done, but she does not stand out as a fully developed character in her own right. The novel's value lies mainly in Barron's meticulous description of the personalities, fashions, and mores of the upper classes during the Regency period. Readers who wish to immerse themselves in the pursuits, debaucheries, and eccentricities of the wealthy and infamous in early nineteenth century England may find this work of fiction diverting.