2 Birds/1 Stone — All Things Austen/Series Spotlight

27 Feb

This week I decided to combine All Things Austen and Series Spotlight by featuring Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen Mysteries.

Series Inspiration (from the author’s website):

Pregnancy, I firmly believe, is a hallucinatory state.

When I was five months gone with my first son, I began to neglect my dog. I had repeated car accidents. I left the groceries standing by the side of the curb, while I drove away toward home; and I even managed to hear voices.

One of them was Jane Austen’s.

I had been rereading Austen’s oeuvre, as I do nearly every winter. Her prose is peculiarly suited to the winter months: to sharp frost twitching the nose, reddened fingers, a sofa or chair pulled up to a good fire, a glass of sherry at hand. I love to read Austen when it rains – particularly if the book is Persuasion, her last and most autumnal novel. The damp seems to seep directly from Kellynch and the shingle of Lyme, from the foxed pages of an old volume, to pool around one’s feet as the chapters slip by.

This particular winter – February, 1994 – I had read Austen to such an extent that her syntax and oddities of speech had infiltrated my own. The third-person narrative voice of Austen’s novels is passive in its construction; and the dialogue always operates on about four different levels, replete with meaning. It is utterly at variance with the operative mode of our day – the sound-bite – which in its didactic simplicity, communicates nothing. I reveled in Austen’s speech. I adopted it as my own.

I was, I am convinced, channeling Jane.

I sat down to write what she told me.

And what emerged was Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor, a fictional edition of Austen’s long-lost journal, recently unearthed in the cellar of a Georgian manor on the outskirts of Baltimore.

(I am fortunate enough to possess a beloved friend by the name of Philip Carroll, whose Georgian ancestor, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, built just such a manor. It is the perfect sort of place for an American cousin to deposit, and forget, Jane’s private diaries.)

I had studied Napoleonic France during my undergraduate years at Princeton; I now undertook to master its corollary, Regency England. I knew Austen’s books, Austen’s characters – but very little about Austen’s life.

I turned to the primary source on Jane: her collected correspondence; and to the excellent secondary sources on her life that fill the bookshelves of most libraries in the world. In the letters, however, I discovered the best character of all: Jane herself.

Jane AustenWhen Austen wrote to an intimate – most frequently her sister, Cassandra – she was Jane Unbound: caustic, funny, judgmental, dismissive. She possessed and dominated everyone she knew by subjecting them to her wit – and she delighted in the past time. This was a Jane remarkably equipped to investigate murder, a Jane who understood the power of motivation and the essence of the human heart. She delighted in the absurd, punctured the ridiculous, and demurred for no man. She was heroine to die for. [This watercolor of Jane was done by Cassandra in about 1810, when Jane was 35; this is the only known representation of Jane’s features. Credit: The World of Jane Austen by Nigel Nicolson.]

I wrote Scargrave Manor well before any of the films of Austen’s work –Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice, Emma, or Mansfield Park – appeared on the screen. But the book’s publication in the spring of 1996 appeared perfectly timed to capitalize upon the rediscovery of Austen’s fiction. For this apparent prescience and monetary aim, I was at times castigated; and at others, ignored. With each subsequent novel – there are presently eight, with a ninth currently in the works – Jane’s audience, however, has grown.

I think that she would have been delighted. Novel-writing, in Austen’s day, was regarded as a frivolity, for the simple reason that it depicted life as it was actually lived – and because its primary readers were women. Mystery novels fill a similar gap in the twenty-first century: in stories of detection, we study conflict and its resolution; we reimpose order on a chaotic world. Had she lived, Jane would be writing detective novels today. How much better, then, to star in them?

My Impressions:

Barron’s series now features 10 books, with the newest being Jane And The Madness of Lord Byron. I still have 5 books to go; 3 are on my TBR shelves. Barron’s mysteries are evocative of the time and life of Jane Austen. The fictional Jane is very believable — especially in her relations with family and the problem of her spinsterhood. Through the course of her travels, Jane encounters people and places that could easily have been the inspiration of the real Jane’s novels.  And if you love the romance that Austen described in her books, you won’t be disappointed in fictional Jane’s romantic encounters.  While the books will satisfy an Austen junky, the mysteries will keep you reading into the night.  Check out The Jane Austen Mysteries — you’ll love them.

About The Author (also from her website):

Stephanie Barron was born Francine Stephanie Barron in Binghamton, NY in 1963, the last of six girls. Her father was a retired general in the Air Force, her mother a beautiful woman who loved to dance. The family spent their summers on Cape Cod, where two of the Barron girls now live with their families; Francine’s passion for Nantucket and the New England shoreline dates from her earliest memories. She grew up in Washington, D.C., and attended Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, a two hundred year-old Catholic school for girls that shares a wall with Georgetown University. Her father died of a heart attack during her freshman year.
In 1981, she started college at Princeton – one of the most formative experiences of her life. There she fenced for the club varsity team and learned to write news stories for The Daily Princetonian – a hobby that led to two part-time jobs as a journalist for The Miami Herald and The San Jose Mercury News. Francine majored in European History, studying Napoleonic France, and won an Arthur W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship in the Humanities in her senior year. But the course she remembers most vividly from her time at Princeton is “The Literature of Fact,” taught by John McPhee, the Pulitzer Prize winning author and staff writer for The New Yorker. John influenced Francine’s writing more than even she knows and certainly more than she is able to say. If there were an altar erected to the man in Colorado, she’d place offerings there daily. He’s her personal god of craft.

Francine spent three years at Stanford pursuing a doctorate in history; she failed to write her dissertation (on the Brazilian Bar Association under authoritarianism; can you blame her?) and left with a Masters. She applied to the CIA, spent a year temping in Northern Virginia while the FBI asked inconvenient questions of everyone she had ever known, passed a polygraph test on her twenty-sixth birthday, and was immediately thrown into the Career Trainee program: Boot Camp for the Agency’s Best and Brightest. Four years as an intelligence analyst at the CIA were profoundly fulfilling, the highlights being Francine’s work on the Counterterrorism Center’s investigation into the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, and sleeping on a horsehair mattress in a Spectre-era casino in the middle of Bratislava. Another peak moment was her chance to debrief ex-President George Bush in Houston in 1993. But what she remembers most about the place are the extraordinary intelligence and dedication of most of the staff – many of them women – many of whom cannot be named.

She wrote her first book in 1992 and left the Agency a year later. Fifteen books have followed, along with sundry children, dogs, and houses. When she’s not writing, she likes to ski, garden, needlepoint, and buy art. Her phone number is definitely unlisted.

You can also find out more info at Barron’s blog.  Click here.

2 Responses to “2 Birds/1 Stone — All Things Austen/Series Spotlight”

  1. Alice March 5, 2011 at 10:57 am #

    Thanks for the review, I love the background on these. I read several of them years ago and really liked them. This inspires me to look for the ones I haven’t read (and maybe revisit the others).

    • rbclibrary March 5, 2011 at 11:50 am #

      Thanks for stopping by. I have had books 6-8 on my shelf way too long.

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