This is the first book in the Jane Austen Mystery Series by Stephanie Barron.
In a newly discovered secret journal, Jane Austen documents her adventures as an amateur sleuth. In 1802, twenty-seven year old Jane visits her good friend, Isobel Payne, Countess of Scargrave, in Hertfordshire. Scargrave Manor seems the perfect place for Jane to recover after the embarrassment of accepting and then rejecting the marriage proposal of Mr. Bigg-Wither, and to celebrate the Christmas season with young and beautiful Isobel and her husband of three months, the elderly Earl of Scargrave. However, when the Earl suddenly dies from a mysterious illness and Isobel becomes the main suspect, Jane cannot refuse her friend's plea for help and uses her wit and her brilliant abilities of perception to solve the mystery and clear Isobel's name.
I love mysteries and historical novels, almost as much as I love Jane Austen, but I was afraid that the idea to cast Jane Austen as a detective would be too far-fetched and the book would be like so many disappointing and irritating sequels and rewritings of my favorite authoress. Luckily I couldn't be more wrong, as Stephanie Barron has created a gripping mystery plot, brilliantly set in Austen's time, with a very convincing Jane as its heroine. As the story is narrated by Austen in her journal and her letters to her sister Cassandra, the language is very similar to her existing letters and so realistic that reading it, I would often forget that it is indeed a work of fiction. The atmosphere of both rural Hertfordshire and London is excellent, drawn with beautiful imagery and historical detail. The well developed characters are based on the types of characters created by Austen herself, and thus are very convincing and typical of their time.
In addition, the book includes excellent and very useful footnotes by Stephanie Barron, explaining some references to Austen's life and some social, political and legal customs of the time, in the form of "editor's notes".
I loved everything about this mystery; it is well written, gripping, and to my amazement, it is actually plausible, especially considering how little we really know about Austen's life.
Into the growing sub-genre of mysteries involving real people as fictional detectives Stephanie Barron adds Jane Austen. "Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor," being the first in this series, finds the yet to be famous authoress away from home after having accepted and then rejected the marriage proposal of Harris Bigg-Wither. Jane is visiting the Hertfordshire estate of her friend Isobel Payne, Countess of Scargrave. However, after Jane's arrival the elderly Earl suddenly suffers a most horrible death due to a mysterious illness, leaving Isobel a widow after only three months of marriage. When a letter arrives accusing Isobel and the Earl's nephew of adultery and murder, Jane becomes involved in the investigation. The suspects are the late Earl's guests, a collection of characters who could easily have been lifted from one of Austen's novels--but then that is exactly the point here.
Barron is not only trying to write in the style of Jane Austen, a daunting enough task to be sure, she is also interested in shedding light on the writer's life and work. After all, the idea that Austen's heroines always found the love in life that was denied their creator is rather depressing. Barron has fun suggesting that the characters in this novel might have served as the model for those in Austen's novels: e.g., that Lord Pitzroy Payne, who catches Jane's eye, is the model for Mr. Darcy in "Pride and Prejudice." Obviously Barron is interested in trying to create the great secret love of Austen's life, although our fascination with such an idea is tempered by the fact that Jane would die a spinster.
The irony here is that the more you know about the life and writings of Jane Austen, the more likely you are to either enjoy Barron's creative speculations or to be somewhat appalled at her presumption. Barron is obviously a devout fan of Austen and her writing so your enjoyment of this book is going to be predicated entirely upon your ability and/or willingness to go along for the ride. I found the writing style to lack the refined restraint and measured wit of the real Austen, who has a much better sense of picking the moment for her barbs and insights. Of course, Barron is handicapped by the requirements of the mystery genre, which necessarily requires extended questioning and heated exchanges.
Actually, the best imitation of Austen's style I have read to date is found, rather surprisingly, in the opening chapters of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Mauritan novel "Desolation Island," which finds the boys trying to live the high life on shore. Then again, they did not have a mysterious murder to solve. Barron certainly makes a good faith effort that pays attention to the life and times of Jane Austen and seeks to bring her to life in a way her books and letters can only suggest.
on 14 January 2011
Imagine being present when Jane Austen's unknown personal journals are discovered in an outbuilding on an ancient Maryland estate, Dunready Manor. Your friends the Westmoreland's are distantly related to the authoress, and after restoration they place the manuscripts in your care before they are donated to a major library. They recount years of Jane Austen's life and personal experiences that we know little of, the lost years after 1801 when she, her sister Cassandra and her parents move from their lifelong home at Steventon rectory in Hampshire to Bath. Filling in gaps in life events, missing letters thought destroyed by her sister after her death, and mysteries that she encountered and solved in her lifetime, you are mesmerized. You are allowed to study, edit and transcribe the journals. What unfolds is an intimate and highly intelligent account, blending Jane's personal life and criminal observations as an amateur detective.
In 1802, fleeing a broken engagement with Harris Bigg-Wither of Manydown Park, Jane seeks to forget her troubles in a `whirlwind of frivolity' accepting an invitation to visit her newly married friend Isobel Payne, Countess of Scargrave. Isobel has recently returned from her wedding trip to the Continent with her husband Frederick, Earl of Scargrave, a gentleman of mature years. To celebrate their recent nuptials the Earl is throwing a bridal Ball in his wife's honor at their estate in Hertfordshire. In attendance is the Earl's nephew and heir Fitzroy, Viscount Payne, the only son of his younger brother. Jane observes, `As a single man in possession of a good fortune, he must be want of a wife.' Decidedly handsome, but proud and aloof, she instead spends a good deal of the evening dancing with a young cavalry officer, Lieutenant Thomas Hearst, the second son of the Earl's deceased sister. Jane learns from a young lady, Miss Fanny Delahoussaye, that Hearst has a bit of reputation having recently killed a man in a duel of honor. She also reveals that Hearst is also a rake, prompting Jane to proceed cautiously. `My wordless confession made him hesitate to utter a syllable; and thus laboured in profound stupidity, for fully half a dance's span. But all things detestable, I most detest a silent partner - and thrusting aside my horror of pistols at dawn, I took refuge in a lady's light banter. "I have profited from your absence, Lieutenant, to inquire of your character,"' and so begins and tête à tête between the Lieutenant that must have inspired Jane in her later writing. ;-)
Even though this is a festive and joyful event, trouble is brewing. Jane is concerned for her friend when Isobel is alarmed by the uninvited arrival of Lord Harold Trowbridge who is pressing her to purchase Crosswinds, her father's troubled estate in Barbados. She also overhears an argument involving George Hearst, Thomas' elder brother, and the Earl over a woman. Within minutes after the heated discussion, the Earl toasts his bride to his guests, downs his drink and doubles over in acute pain. He would never recover. Isobel is a now widow. A cruel twist of fate for a young bride, however, bereavement is the least of her worries after she receives cryptic missives accusing her and the Earl's heir, Viscount Payne, of adultery and murder. Terrified of scandal Isobel entreats her dear friend Jane for help. Top on Jane's list of suspects are the many guests in attendance at the Ball, a collection of characters that all seem to benefit from the Earl's death. Like any good detective, Jane follows the clues which lead to Isobel's former maid, Marguerite. Soon, she too is dead, her neck cut in one of the outbuildings on the Scargrave estate. With a second death, most definitely a murder, the authorities are also involved and Isobel is facing murder charges. The investigation will call upon all of Jane's perceptive acumen leading her to the House of Lords and Newgate Prison, a place fit for no clergyman's daughter, unless it is in pursuit of the real murderer to free her dear friend.
It has been fifteen years since I first was introduced to Jane Austen detective when this novel took me quite unawares in 1996. The notion of "my" Jane as a sleuth is still surprising, even after reading ten novels in the series, but it only takes a page or two before I am smiling and in total awe of Barron's skill at channeling my favorite author. And channel she does. I know of no other that can rival her skill at early nineteenth-century language and humor. Blending events from Jane Austen's actual life with fictional narrative, this detective story is in itself a mystery as I hunt for clues to known facts from Jane's life and allusions to her future characters in her novels. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Austen's famous romantic icon Mr. Darcy will recognize Barron's gentle nod to him in Viscount Fitzroy Payne. Possessed of aloof pride and haughty silence, `Everyone wants to know him, but few truly like him.' Barron has Jane play her future heroine Elizabeth Bennet by taunting her Darcy-like character. "I detect a similarity in the turn of our minds, Viscount Payne," I persisted, in some exasperation. "We are both of a taciturn, ungenerous nature and would rather be silent until we may say what is certain to astonish all the world." There are several passages of dialogue that will send a spark of recognition with other characters too, but the story is entirely Barron's own darling child. This is after all, an homage, a pastiche to Austen, her life and her works. In total respect and with perfect pitch, Barron blends our Jane with a cleverly crafted mystery, infused with historical detail and cutting wit. Jane Austen may have only written six major novels in her short life, but Barron can certainly be credited as the next best thing to perfection.
Laurel Ann, Austenprose