One thinks of Jane Austen as a retiring spinster who writes secretly, prefers her privacy and enjoys quiet walks in the Hampshire countryside. Instead, she has applied her intuitive skills of astute observation and deductive reasoning to solve crime in Stephanie Barron’s Austen inspired mystery series. It is an ingenious paradox that would make even Gilbert and Sullivan green with envy. The perfect pairing of the unlikely with the obvious that happens occasionally in great fiction by authors clever enough to pick up on the connection and run with it.
Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron marks Stephanie Barron’s tenth novel in the best-selling Jane Austen Mystery series. For fourteen years, and to much acclaim, she has channeled our Jane beyond her quiet family circle into sleuthing adventures with lords, ladies and murderers. Cleverly crafted, this historical detective series incorporates actual events from Jane Austen’s life with historical facts from her time all woven together into mysteries that of course, only our brilliant Jane can solve.
It is the spring of 1813. Jane is home at Chawton Cottage “pondering the thorny question of Henry Crawford” in her new novel Mansfield Park and glowing in the recent favorable reception of Pride and Prejudice. Bad news calls her to London where her brother Henry’s wife Eliza, the Comtesse de Feuillde, is gravely ill. With her passing, Jane and Henry decide to seek the solace and restorative powers of the seaside selecting Brighton, “the most breathtaking and outrageous resort of the present age” for a holiday excursion.
At a coaching Inn along the way they rescue Catherine Twining, a young society Miss found bound and gagged in the coach of George Gordon, the 6th Baron of Byron, aka Lord Byron, the notorious mad, bad and dangerous to know poet. Miffed by their thwart of her abduction, Byron regretfully surrenders his prize to Jane and Henry who return her to her father General Twining in Brighton. He is furious and quick to fault his fifteen-year-old daughter. Jane and Henry are appalled at his temper and concerned for her welfare.
Settled into a suite of rooms at the luxurious Castle Inn, Jane and Henry enjoy walks on the Promenade, fine dining on lobster patties and champagne at Donaldson’s and a trip to the local circulating library where Jane is curious to see how often the “Fashionables of Brighton” solicit the privilege of reading Pride and Prejudice! Even though Jane loathes the dissipated Prince Regent, she and Henry attend a party at his opulent home the Marine Pavilion. In the crush of the soirée, Jane again rescues Miss Twining from another seducer.
Later at an Assembly dance attended by much of Brighton’s bon ton, Lord Byron reappears stalked by his spurned amour, “the mad as Bedlam” Lady Caroline Lamb. Even though the room is filled with beautiful ladies he only has eyes for Miss Twining and aggressively pursues her. The next morning, Jane and Henry are shocked to learn that the lifeless body of a young lady found in Byron’s bed was their naïve new friend Miss Catherine Twining! The facts against Byron are very incriminating. Curiously, the intemperate poet is nowhere to be found and all of Brighton ready to condemn him.
Henry grasped my arm and turned me firmly back along the way we had come. “Jane,” he said bracingly, “we require a revival of your formidable spirit – one I have not seen in nearly two years. You must take up the rȏle of Divine Fury. You must penetrate this killer’s motives, and expose him to the world. (119)
And so the game is afoot and the investigation begins…
It is great to have Jane Austen, Detective back on the case and in peak form. Fans of the series will be captivated by her skill at unraveling the crime, and the unindoctrinated totally charmed. The mystery was detailed and quite intriguing, swimming in red herrings and gossipy supposition. Pairing the nefarious Lord Byron with our impertinent parson’s daughter was just so delightfully “sick and wicked.” Their scenes together were the most memorable and I was pleased to see our outspoken Jane give as good as she got, and then some. Readers who enjoy a good parody and want to take this couple one step further should investigate their vampire version in Jane Bites Back.
Barron continues to prove that she is an Incomparable, the most accomplished writer in the genre today rivaling Georgette Heyer in Regency history and Austen in her own backyard. Happily, readers will not have to wait another four years for the next novel in the series. Bantam is publishing Jane and the Canterbury Tale next year with a firm commitment of more to follow. Huzzah!
5 out of 5 Stars
Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron: Being a Jane Austen Mystery, by Stephanie Barron
Bantam Books (2010)
Trade paperback (352) pages
Cover image courtesy of Bantam Books © 2010; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2010, Austenprose.com