Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor, Being a Jane Austen Mystery (Book 1), by Stephanie Barron – A Review

Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor, by Stephanie Barron (1996)Imagine being present when Jane Austen’s unknown personal journals are discovered in an outbuilding on an ancient Maryland estate, Dunready Manor. Your friends the Westmoreland’s are distantly related to the authoress, and after restoration, they place the manuscripts in your care before they are donated to a major library. They recount years of Jane Austen’s life and personal experiences that we know little of, the lost years after 1801 when she, her sister Cassandra and her parents move from their lifelong home at Steventon rectory in Hampshire to Bath. Filling in gaps in life events, missing letters thought destroyed by her sister after her death, and mysteries that she encountered and solved in her lifetime, you are mesmerized. You are allowed to study, edit and transcribe the journals. What unfolds is an intimate and highly intelligent account, blending Jane’s personal life and criminal observations as an amateur detective.

In 1802, fleeing a broken engagement with Harris Bigg-Wither of Manydown Park, Jane seeks to forget her troubles in a ‘whirlwind of frivolity’ accepting an invitation to visit her newly married friend Isobel Payne, Countess of Scargrave. Isobel has recently returned from her wedding trip to the Continent with her husband Frederick, Earl of Scargrave, a gentleman of mature years. To celebrate their recent nuptials the Earl is throwing a bridal Ball in his wife’s honor at their estate in Hertfordshire. In attendance is the Earl’s nephew and heir Fitzroy, Viscount Payne, the only son of his younger brother. Jane observes, ‘As a single man in possession of a good fortune, he must be want of a wife.’ Decidedly handsome, but proud and aloof, she instead spends a good deal of the evening dancing with a young cavalry officer, Lieutenant Thomas Hearst, the second son of the Earl’s deceased sister. Jane learns from a young lady, Miss Fanny Delahoussaye, that Hearst has a bit of reputation having recently killed a man in a duel of honor. She also reveals that Hearst is also a rake, prompting Jane to proceed cautiously. ‘My wordless confession made him hesitate to utter a syllable; and thus laboured in profound stupidity, for fully half a dance’s span. But all things detestable, I most detest a silent partner – and thrusting aside my horror of pistols at dawn, I took refuge in a lady’s light banter. “I have profited from your absence, Lieutenant, to inquire of your character,”’ and so begins and tête à tête between the Lieutenant that must have inspired Jane in her later writing. ;-)

Even though this is a festive and joyful event, trouble is brewing. Jane is concerned for her friend when Isobel is alarmed by the uninvited arrival of Lord Harold Trowbridge who is pressing her to purchase Crosswinds, her father’s troubled estate in Barbados. She also overhears an argument involving George Hearst, Thomas’ elder brother, and the Earl over a woman. Within minutes after the heated discussion, the Earl toasts his bride to his guests, downs his drink, and doubles over in acute pain. He would never recover. Isobel is a now widow. A cruel twist of fate for a young bride, however, bereavement is the least of her worries after she receives cryptic missives accusing her and the Earl’s heir, Viscount Payne, of adultery and murder. Terrified of scandal Isobel entreats her dear friend Jane for help. Top on Jane’s list of suspects are the many guests in attendance at the Ball, a collection of characters that all seem to benefit from the Earl’s death. Like any good detective, Jane follows the clues which lead to Isobel’s former maid, Marguerite. Soon, she too is dead, her neck cut in one of the outbuildings on the Scargrave estate. With a second death, most definitely a murder, the authorities are also involved and Isobel is facing murder charges. The investigation will call upon all of Jane’s perceptive acumen leading her to the House of Lords and Newgate Prison, a place fit for no clergyman’s daughter unless it is in pursuit of the real murderer to free her dear friend.

It has been fifteen years since I first was introduced to Jane Austen detective when this novel took me quite unawares in 1996. The notion of “my” Jane as a sleuth is still surprising, even after reading ten novels in the series, but it only takes a page or two before I am smiling and in total awe of Barron’s skill at channeling my favorite author. And channel she does. I know of no other that can rival her skill at early nineteenth-century language and humor. Blending events from Jane Austen’s actual life with a fictional narrative, this detective story is in itself a mystery as I hunt for clues to known facts from Jane’s life and allusions to her future characters in her novels. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Austen’s famous romantic icon Mr. Darcy will recognize Barron’s gentle nod to him in Viscount Fitzroy Payne. Possessed of aloof pride and haughty silence, ‘Everyone wants to know him, but few truly like him.’ Barron has Jane play her future heroine Elizabeth Bennet by taunting her Darcy-like character. “I detect a similarity in the turn of our minds, Viscount Payne,” I persisted, in some exasperation. “We are both of a taciturn, ungenerous nature and would rather be silent until we may say what is certain to astonish all the world.” There are several passages of dialogue that will send a spark of recognition with other characters too, but the story is entirely Barron’s own darling child. This is, after all, an homage, a pastiche to Austen, her life, and her works. In total respect and with perfect pitch, Barron blends our Jane with a cleverly crafted mystery, infused with historical detail and cutting wit. Jane Austen may have only written six major novels in her short life, but Barron can certainly be credited as the next best thing to perfection.

5 out of 5 Stars

Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor: Being  a Jane Austen Mystery (Book 1), by Stephanie Barron
Random House (1996)
Mass market paperback (318) pages
ISBN: 978-0553575934


Author Stephanie Barron has generously offered a signed hardcover copy of Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor 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, January 26, 2011. Winner to be announced on Thursday, January 27, 2011. Shipment to US and Canadian addresses only. Good luck!

Further reading

© 2007 – 2011 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

40 thoughts on “Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor, Being a Jane Austen Mystery (Book 1), by Stephanie Barron – A Review

Add yours

  1. WONDERFUL review, Laurel Ann! I agree, Barron pays homage to Austen with perfect pitch and tone, it is a pastiche of the highest order! My favorite character is Lord Harold…oh, I love him! :)


  2. Great review! After reading this, I definitely want to start reading these Jane Austen mysteries! I can see Jane as a detective–she is such a good observer of human nature, that it seems natural to her. Thank you for introducing me to something that will bring lots of pleasure and fun reading all year!


  3. It’s funny but I just checked out this book from my library (going through a Jane Austen kick) and, so, imagine my surprise when I see it reviewed on this blog! It makes sense to me that good writers make good detectives – they are both observant and pay attention to small details. I can’t wait to start reading this!


  4. I’ve read many P&P derivative novels but not one where Jane’s personal life is threaded through. I must admit it sounds very intriguing. I’m always in for a great mystery.


  5. Great review, Laurel Ann! I am reading this book right now and loving it! This is my first Stephanie Barron novel and I am so glad I joined this challenge!!


  6. I have been meaning to give this series a try. While I have read a large amount of Austen inspired literature…I have yet to read any of the mystery/detective genre. I also like the fact that Jane’s real life seems to be included so heavily. I think I may have to break and it give it and possibly the challenge a try. Thanks for the giveaway!

    Stiletto Storytime


  7. I’ve never read a Jane Austen mystery, but would like to. I’m just intrigued about the idea of Jane solving a mystery, like a female Sherlock Holmes.


  8. Thanks for the thorough look at Scargrave, Laurel Ann–I’m so glad it still proves interesting after fifteen years! For those of you new to the book, I’ve posted a few Reading Group Questions on my blog at the end of my post on this first Jane Austen Mystery. Hope they prove useful as you experience the book!


  9. This is a GREAT series! Ms. Barron did a great job and really tried to keep Jane’s timeline true. I also enjoyed Lord Harold. Now I feel the need to get these for my Nook.


  10. Jane as a sleuth? I never thought I would like the idea of a mystery novel about Jane but your review has me wishing that I was reading this right now! Thanks for yet another great review!


  11. Having never read any JA mysteries, this certainly could be my introduction into this new land! 6 out of 5 stars, this looks very promising indeed! I’ll have to keep my eyes open for this one!


  12. I have to say, Lord Harold is by far my favorite, however much of a rogue his is! I absolutely love the blending of historical fact with fiction. I spend some time following up on footnotes and seeking out locations on maps!


  13. 6 out of 5 stars? Looks like someone really impressed you, Laurel! I’ll be sure to get my hands on it after I am finished with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society (sounds like I’m duelling with books!).


  14. Six out of five stars?! My goodness, what intrigues me most about this one is how much you adored it! (And the fact that Austen’s journals were discovered in Maryland, my home state — love it!) Definitely want to get my hands on this one — it’s been on my wishlist for ages. Thanks for a great review and giveaway!


  15. Dear Meg: I should mention that the “discovery” of Austen’s journals is complete fiction–what writers call a framing device for the subsequent story. Rather like Arthur Conan Doyle creating Dr. John Watson, who informs the reader that he has transcribed his eye-witness memories of his friend Sherlock Holmes’s cases, I created the character of myself as editor–of Jane Austen’s detective adventures. I decided to place them in the United States because one of Jane’s niece’s descendants emigrated to this country; I chose Maryland in particular because an old friend of mine, Philip Carroll, grew up in the old Carroll Manor near Baltimore (his ancestor was Charles Carroll of Carrollton, who signed the Declaration of Independence). Phil at the time was renovating the old overseer’s house on the property, and he showed me the original drylaid stone foundation as it was being prepared for a concrete overlay. I was fascinated by the age of the house and its relatively undisturbed state–it seemed the perfect place to find a treasure trove of lost documents. I changed Phil’s name to Paul Westmoreland, and went on from there. I hope this background information helps as you delve into the first Jane Austen mystery. Happy Reading!


  16. Ooh, I would love a copy!

    I’m intrigued because it has earned 6 out of 5 stars, and that does not seem terribly common from you. Also, it sounds very true-to-Austen in the best of ways, and well, even if I don’t win, I’m going to have to buy it now.


  17. What a coincidence! I just finished this book. I read a review of Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron & decided to start at the beginning. I absolutely loved it. My favorite character is Jane, of course. (Though I wouldn’t mind an encounter with “the grey-haired Lord.”) I can’t wait to get my hands on the rest of the series.


  18. This series is my favorite in terms of Austen spinoffs and standalone mysteries. I read several of these books before I actually read my first Jane Austen novel. In my opinion what makes the series so great is Stephanie’s ability to make the reader feel like they are right alongside Jane in the Regency era. Her Jane is just so real. Jane is definitely my favorite character, but Lord Harold runs a close second.


  19. Who done it? The heir? But he’s been accused of murder most foul and adultery to boot–unless he’s engineered the accusations to make himself look less culpable.
    I’m dying to find out who, in fact, did it and how Jane uncovers the villain(s)!
    I’m also eager to read the dialogue because you speak of the book’s wit. I’m pretty sure Jane’s friend did not commit adultery with the heir.


      1. Dear Laurel Ann,

        Those were rhetorical questions not meant to be answered. What I wrote was in response to the following:

        “Author Stephanie Barron has generously offered a signed hardcover copy of Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor 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, January 26, 2011. Winner to be announced on Thursday, January 27, 2011. Shipment to US and Canadian addresses only. Good luck!”

        Everything I said was merely my letting whoever it may concern know what intrigued me about this mystery novel, which I have not read, but of which I learned from reading the review of it on this webpage, which I understood, from the quote above–perhaps errorneously–was what was being sought from those commenting here on said review, who have not read the mystery.


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