This is the third in Stephanie Barron’s series featuring Jane Austen as an amateur sleuth, the first two being Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor (1996) and Jane and the Man of the Cloth (1997). I admit I can be quite dubious of series like this, as they don’t always work very well – the meshing of real life people into fictional worlds is a tricky one and the same goes for continuation novels which carry on character’s lives further. However, this series by Barron is definitely one of the exceptions which do work really well. Barron is meticulous in her accuracy of depicting Regency England and I think Jane Austen is a natural candidate for amateur sleuthing, as Austen has in my opinion the potential for being unconventional and she wouldn’t be the first amateur sleuth in fiction to be a writer. Her humour and wit are an added bonus.
In a similar way to some Holmes continuation novels, Barron’s tales are written as “recently discovered” diary entries by Austen, which again works very well in this context. Jane and the Wandering Eye (1998) is set in Bath in 1804 during winter and at this point Austen turns 29 years old. The story begins with Austen going to the Dowager Duchess of Wilborough’s masquerade ball (being held in honour of a local theatre company), with her brother Henry and his wife Eliza. Though it seems she is not going purely for pleasure as it turns out that Lord Harold Trowbridge (a key character from the first novel in the series) has given her tickets to the ball in order that she may spy on his niece Lady Desdemona who has fled to her grandmother, the dowager, after she has turned down the Earl of Swithin’s marriage proposal. Concerned she will be prey to fortune hunters in Bath, Trowbridge wants Austen to give him information concerning the men who talk to Desdemona. However, Austen has much more than this to report when during a recital from Macbeth by Hugh Conyngham (one of the principal actors from local theatre company), the theatre manager, Richard Portal (who was also very chummy with Desdemona) is found murdered in an adjacent anteroom. Even more astounding is that Desdemona’s brother, Simon (Marquis of Kinsfell) is found next to the body with the bloodied murder weapon in his hand. He claims the assailant must have fled the room through the open window. But with no confirmation from the sedan chair carriers outside this window, combined with the fact Simon was seen arguing with Portal prior to the murder, it is inevitable that the magistrate, Wilberforce Elliot arrests him.
Aside from the open window, there is also a servant door into the anteroom and I liked the brief moment where fun is poked at the murder mystery trope of secret passages when Elliot says, ‘You are plainly no friend to intrigue and romance… For of what use is a passage, if it be not dank and cobwebbed, and descending precipitately to a subterranean cell?’ Simon’s arrest is of course an awful moment for his family, who are convinced he is innocent, regardless of the very damning circumstantial evidence. Jane Austen is also of a similar mind so it is not surprising that when Lord Harold arrives in Bath to prove Simon’s innocence that she also agrees to help, resuming their former detecting partnership established in earlier stories. There are a number of other possible murder suspects for Lord Harold and Jane to investigate but the two top candidates are Swithin and Hugh’s sister, Maria. Swithin looks especially suspicious with his quick appearance in Bath after the murder, more so because he is seen by Jane conversing with Hugh in the Pump Room, coming across as a foreboding man and she hears snippets of their conversation. Phrases such as ‘near the gallows’ are mentioned and there is a reference to some letters Swithin is keen to retrieve. There is also a suggestion that Swithin is not best pleased with Desdemona for rejecting him and that he means to ‘break’ her. Consequently there are a plethora of reasons for Swithin being the killer, but Maria also comes under suspicion as it seems she may have been involved with Portal. When he switched his affections to Desdemona, did Maria’s jealousy overwhelm her?
A key piece of evidence is a necklace miniature which Simon removed from the corpse. Intriguingly it does not show a face but only an eye – a genuine fashion of the Regency period, started by Richard Cosway (who also features in the book). But whose eye is it? Why will Simon say no more about it? Is it the killer’s or has it been left there to implicate someone else? Conversation is a key element of Austen and Trowbridge’s detective work, although some ‘role-playing’ is required when Jane creates a diversion at the theatre. Readers may worry that a mystery novel featuring Jane Austen will be quite prim and staid, but Barron includes a lot suspense and maintains reader interest throughout. There is an underlying theme of blackmail running through the story and the guilty in this tale do not just wait to be caught. Instead they respond the only way they know how and it is hard for either the characters or the reader to decide how they will strike next and who will be affected, with Austen having a very close shave herself. Like in many mystery novels the crucial problem for the detecting duo is finding sufficient proof to vindicate their theory. But will they run out of time? And will Austen’s reputation survive, as her frequent outings with Lord Harold begin to be noticed?
In Austen’s own novels, she often cautions against trusting outward appearances and I liked how this is paralleled in the story, where appearances are certainly deceptive and it is hard to categorise the good characters from the bad. Interestingly, Lord Harold says to Jane, ‘You have lived long enough in the world, my dear, to know that appearances are everything,’ when he explains how his proposed actions will force the guilty to react. She responds to this saying ‘Even, perhaps, when they are meant to deceive,’ revealing her own scepticism surrounding the external appearances of things. Barron pulls a number of clever red herrings in this tale and she adeptly casts suspicion over a wide number of characters which is not dissipated until the end of the story and I enjoyed how a game of charades reveals the guilty. As I will discuss more below the relationships between characters and the very characters themselves are expertly drawn and have real depth to them, making this an addictive series in some ways as I have definitely got attached to Jane, keen to see what she does next. The depth of Jane and Lord Harold’s characters is particularly well explored in their reactions to capturing the guilty and the consequences their investigation has had on others. It is interesting that in this novel, as in the others I have read, detective work and relationships are shown as complicated and as emotionally messy.
Although there are very poignant moments in the story there is also a lot of enjoyable comedy especially in Jane’s relationship with her mother and father, who arguably are milder versions of Mr and Mrs Bennet (key parental figures in Pride and Prejudice (1813)). For example Jane’s mother is often deploring of her spinster status and disapproves of her interest in murder:
‘You have a decided predilection for violence… and if the habit does not alter, no respectable gentlemen will consider you twice.’
Moreover, she is also not impressed when rumours are spread about Jane and Lord Harold, which is exemplified on Jane’s birthday:
‘Though quite out of charity with all my beloved family, I was nonetheless treated to some remembrances of the day – an embroidered needle-case from dear Cassandra… from my father, a handsome set of Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent… and from my mother, who learned somehow of the slyness of the Bath Chronicle, a lecture on the foolishness of impropriety in one so nearly beyond the marriageable age.’
Jane’s father is also quite amusing but in a different way such as when he replies to Jane’s mother’s comments on the vulgarity of stabbings:
‘A knife will always be vulgar, particularly in the drawing room. The kitchens and the dining parlour are its proper province; but when it seeks to climb so high as a Duchess’s salon… we may consider ourselves on the point of revolution.’
A witticism which also reflects contemporary issues surrounding class.
Jane’s relationship with Lord Harold is also very interesting to explore as Lord Harold himself is an unconventional male protagonist since he is not your typical hero and is very ambiguous morally at times as to him the ends always justify the means. We are told that he has a conflicting reputation as although he is used by government figures for undercover work, society deems him quite dubious. Alternative names for him reflect this such as ‘dark angel’ and also ‘Gentlemen Rogue’. Jane’s relationship with Lord Harold is professional on the whole but again it can be quite ambiguous and hard to pin down, with the personal creeping more into their relationship. I also noticed in this story that they actually have a number of similarities as both of them at points suffer from boredom or ennui and can find society’s strict social rules confining, though of course Lord Harold has much more opportunity for breaking these conventions.
Overall Barron is good at reflecting and capturing Jane Austen’s character (as implied in her real life letters) and her prose carefully mirrors that of the time period. This series is certainly a treat for Jane Austen fans, as it does include references to Austen’s novels, but I think general mystery readers will also enjoy the books. Although I would recommend starting from the beginning of the series so the back story between Jane and Lord Harold makes more sense. I also thought Barron did a very good job at adding in details, events and people from Austen’s own life and from the Regency period in general. She blends fact and fiction seamlessly and you definitely get more than a mystery in this novel, as it is also a hugely readable and enjoyable window into another time period and way of life.