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Wednesday 23 December 2015

Book review - Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor

This is the first Jane Austen mystery penned by Stephanie Barron (1996). In the manner of other ‘recently found manuscripts’ – stretching from Watson MD, to Flashman and plenty in between, this is a detective adventure penned in the famous author’s ‘own words’ in diary format.

Francine Stephanie Barron Matthews had published two cop mysteries before embarking on this book. Since then she has been quite prolific, also writing a spy series based on the CIA.

There are at present twelve novels in the Jane Austen series, the most recent being Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas (2014), so she has doubled the output of the erstwhile author she emulates!

It is December 1802 and Jane Austen is staying with her recently married friend Isobel, the Countess of Scargrave. Unfortunately, the Earl of Scargrave is taken gravely ill and dies, purportedly from overindulgence. Yet Jane observed that ‘It was not an excess of claret that plagued the Earl, but a surfeit of family; and of this, no one was likely to cure him.’ (p35) Poor Isobel’s misfortune is compounded when she receives an anonymous letter accusing her of the murder of her husband.

I’m no expert on Austen, though I’ve read her books, but it seems to me that Barron exquisitely captures the voice: ‘The living ever feel unease, when the dead are in residence… The Earl is to be buried tomorrow. These two days past, he has lain in state in the hall, a vast and draughty place peopled by his ancestors, as though all the dead of Scargrave have assembled for this dreary wake…’ (p37)

Throughout, apparently aided by study of Austen’s letters, Barron invests her heroine with wit and acute observation: ‘The lot of woman is indeed a cruel one – either die an old maid, reviled and unprovided for, or die of hard work and childbed, both too liberally bestowed.’

The Earl is not the only one to die, either. On discovering a body amidst the hay, Austen recoiled, but was still made of stern stuff: ‘… and something very like terror held me in its grip for the space of several heartbeats. But I recoiled at the knowledge of my faint head, and determined to go on rather than back. I reached a gloved hand to the hay and pulled it aside.’ (p147)

And she is not averse to playfully throwing in an aside: ‘Fanny and the Lieutenant. So little sense, allied with so much sensibility.’ (p162)

Towards the end, Jane visits a friend in prison and again we’re exposed to her feelings and her keen sense of observation: ‘London’s afternoon fog curls now beyond Scargrave House’s many windows, blotting out the forms of carriage and horse as they pass in the street below. There is a like obscurity in my soul, a darkness bred of too much sadness; I have spent the better part of the morning enshrouded in perpetual night, in the depths of Newgate prison. That I rejoice in my deliverance from that place, I need hardly add… but I carry something of Newgate with me still, in the grime and odour of the interior, which sits heavily upon my person.’ (p253)

To sum up, Jane proves herself a firm friend and a persistent detective. As one character observes, ‘Friends, in my experience, are like ladies’ fashions, Miss Austen. They come and go with the seasons, and are rarely of such stout stuff as bears repeated wearing. I am glad to find you formed of better material.’ (p316)

I found two infelicities, no doubt due to Barron being American: I doubt if Jane Austen would refer to the Christmas season as the ‘holiday season’ (p158) and an English Lord would not refer to the ‘British Navy’ but rather the ‘Royal Navy’ (P363). In every other sense, she has captured the idiom and voice of the period, and she is a joy to read.

And there are at least eleven more diary entries to savour: wonderful news, indeed! Stephanie Barron’s website is here

If, after reading this book and its sequels, you still want more Austen style reading matter, you could try Pride and Regicide by Cathy Bryant (‘the first Mary Bennet mystery’) here
as it has to date 5 good reviews on Amazon.

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