Touring the Derbyshire countryside in the summer of 1806, Jane Austen, her mother, sister Cassandra and cousin Rev. Edward Cooper are staying at the Rutland Arms in Bakewell, in the Peak District. While on a day excursion out into the country with Mr. Cooper and his friend Mr. Hemming, the gentleman enjoy angling along the River Wye and Jane pursues her passion for a country walk, shortly ending in a disturbing discovery. A young gentleman is found “foully and cruelly” murdered on a crag near Millers Dale with a bullet in his head, his entrails torn from his body and his tongue cut out. Jane and Mr. Cooper are tourists to the area and the victim is unknown to them. Mr. Hemming, a local solicitor also claims not to recognize the young man. All three are deeply disturbed by the grisly discovery, but Mr. Hemming strangely acts out of character insisting that the body be transported a distance to Buxton and not to Bakewell the town under proper jurisdiction to the local Justice of the Peace and Coroner. After some uneasy discussion, Mr. Hemming reluctantly concedes to allow the corpse to be taken Bakewell, but Jane cannot help but notice that he is acting like a man burdened with guilt.
The local surgeon Mr. Tivey is summoned from his blacksmith duties and examines the deceased. He recognizes the victim immediately, suspecting some kind of evil mischief afoot. The young gentleman is no gentleman, he is a lady, one Tess Arnold, the stillroom maid of Penfolds Hall, the country estate of Mr. Charles Danford near Tideswell, only one mile north of where the body was discovered. Tivey is quick to spread the shocking details among the villagers of the vicious extent of her wounds. He claims it is a ritual killing related to an act of revenge conducted by the Freemasons when one of their own is betrayed. The local Justice of the Peace, Sir James Villiers, arrives and interviews Jane and her cousin Mr. Cooper. The Coroner’s Inquest will be called in three days. Run by the disgruntled Mr. Tivey who has been very liberal with his derogatory opinions of the murder by the Freemasons after they rejected him as a member. The “evil weight of a jealous tongue” has turned the villagers into an angry mob who want justice. Sir James entreats Jane to remain in town and relay her story of discovering the mutilated corpse.
At the Coroner’s Inquest, the parties connected to the young victim Tess Arnold are called to be questioned. Jane and her cousin relay their story, but oddly, the third witness in the discovery, Mr. Hemming, does not appear when called. We learn more about the victim and her duties as stillroom maid, and, her disreputable character. Her former employer Charles Danforth, who is in mourning the recent death of his wife and child, recognizes the clothing found on the corpse as his own, but cannot explain how she had possession of them. His personal connection to the victim is scrutinized by the coroner and he storms out of the proceedings. The Housekeeper is questioned and reveals that Tess had been dismissed on the same day as her death. Feigning heart trouble, or is it purposeful swooning, the proceedings for the day are stopped to assist the housekeeper. As the inquest disperses, Sir James invites Jane for nucheon to discuss her opinions on the case and an old friend unexpectantly arrives.
At that moment, the rustling in the passage increased and the parlour door was thrust open. I turned, gazed, and rose immediately from my chair. A spare, tall figure, exquisitely dressed in the garb of a gentleman, was caught in a shaft of sunlight. He lifted his hat from his silver hair and bowed low over my hand
“It is a pleasure to see you again, Miss Austen. We have not met this age.”
Nor had we. But I must confess that the gentleman had lately been much in my thoughts.
“Lord Harold,” I replied a trifle unsteadily. “The honour is entirely mine.” Page 86
What a grand entrance for the Gentleman Rogue! Bathed in sunlight like a God? LOL! What? No twinkling stars in his eyes and blinding white teeth?
Jane and the Stillroom Maid is the fifth Jane Austen mystery, and for those unfamiliar with this series, the narrative is from a fictional diary written by Jane Austen and discovered in 1992 in a Georgian manor house near Baltimore. Inspired by actual events in Jane Austen’s life, historical fact and cultural detail, each of the novels has Jane Austen using her keen observational skills of human nature as a sleuth in a murder mystery.
This narrative is set in Pemberley country, that palatial country estate of Mr. Darcy, the hero of Austen’s famous novel Pride and Prejudice. Well, we don’t really know where in the county of Derbyshire the fictional Pemberley estate is, but we do have some clues from Austen that it was near Bakewell, where Jane and her family are staying in his story. It has long been suspected that Jane Austen modeled Pemberley after the famous Chatsworth House, the seat of the Duke of Devonshire and the Cavendish family since 1549. It lies only three and a half miles from Bakewell. The fact that Lord Harold is a guest at Chatsworth and takes Jane there as his guest to be served ratafia, route cakes and rumors of indiscretions, that may of lead to murder, is a delicious coincidence. It is delightful to imagine that Jane Austen could have toured the Peak District in the summer of 1806 and visited Chatsworth and modeled her Pemberley after it.
Each of the chapters is prefaced by a recipe from the Stillroom Book of the victim Tess Arnold. Stillroom maids were a combination of herbalist, apothecary and food preserver on large estates. Because of their skill at curatives and elixirs, stillroom maids were often accused of being witches, even in Jane’s time during the early 1800’s. Some of the recipes are disturbing to modern sensibilities: adding brains of four cock sparrows or mourning doves into a fruit tart to give someone courage, ew! But the recipes added to the charm of the era and brought home how far we have evolved with modern medicine and education.
The mystery was intriguing, but I think I figured out whodunit too soon. It did not spoil one moment of my enjoyment. Barron excels at historical detail, early 19th-century language and fabulous characterization. Her portrayal of Jane Austen is so natural and engaging that I lose myself in the character and forget that this is just fiction. Jane’s friendship with Lord Harold is exciting and tragic. I want them to be a couple, but realize that his being the second son of a duke and she an impoverished gentleman’s daughter, that it cannot happen. I also enjoy finding allusions to Jane Austen’s own characters in Barron’s own and laughed-out-loud at her interpretation of Mr. Edward Cooper, Rector of Hamstall Ridware, Staffordshire, Jane’s first cousin, supercilious singing toad and Mr. Collins knock-off. His reaction when being interrupted while fishing by Jane’s announcement of a murder is hilarious:
“A corpse?” Mr. Cooper exclaimed, with a look of consternation. “Not again, Jane! However shall we explain this to my aunt?” page 31
5 out of 5 Regency Stars
Jane and the Stillroom Maid: Being the Fifth Jane Austen Mystery, by Stephanie Barron
Bantam Books (2000)
Mass market paperback (336) pages
This is my fifth selection in the Being a Jane Austen Mystery Reading Challenge 2011. You can still join the reading challenge in progress until July 1, 2011. Participants, please leave comments and or place links to your reviews on the official reading challenge page by following this link.
Author Stephanie Barron has generously offered a signed hardcover copy of Jane and the Stillroom Maid to one lucky winner. Leave a comment stating what intrigues you about this novel, or if you have read it, who your favorite character is by midnight PT, Wednesday, May 25, 2011. Winner to be announced on Thursday, May 26, 2011. Shipment to US and Canadian addresses only. Good luck!
© 2007 – 2011 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose