In the winter of 1807, we find Jane Austen in the seaport of Southampton living in hired lodgings while her brother Francis Austen’s new residence is made ready for them at Castle Square. The Austen women (Jane, sister Cassandra, their widowed mother, and a dear family friend Martha Lloyd), will all be residing together under her brother’s kind graces. He is at present a landlocked Royal Navy post-captain anxiously awaiting his next assignment, and his first child.
News has reached Frank of a possible new ship, but the circumstances of its availability are a two-edged sword. Its previous captain is a personal friend, Thomas Seagrave, who has been charged with violating the Articles of War by murdering an unarmed French captain during a siege. The prime witness to the assault is Seagrave’s first lieutenant, Eustace Chessyre, an older officer who has been passed by many times for promotion. The case against Seagrave is “compelling in the extreme” and if he is court-martialed, he will hang. Frank would lose a fine friend but gain in the assignment of his ship the frigate HMS Stella Marisand, and the possibility of fame and fortune.
Both Frank and Jane feel Seagrave is innocent and set out to discover the true killer. A prisoner from the seized ship held at the Wool House goal in Southampton may have the evidence to save his life. Jane’s skill at observation and deduction could save Seagrave from the gallows.
Barron supplies us with another enthralling case in the Jane Austen mystery series written from the famous authoresses perspective from her diaries that she has edited. It is all fiction mind you, but so convincing in its tone and historical detail that it reads like a true rediscovered journal in Austen’s own hand. In the previous novels, Jane’s brothers Henry and Edward have assisted her ably in her detection of murder, but I must admit to being swayed with a “fine naval fervour.” Reveling in the time spent with her brother, post captain Francis “Fly” Austen, and his Royal Navy world, I searched through my library for my C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian novels so I could continue the theme.
Even though the narrative got waylaid a few times in slow-moving details, minor characters like self-absorbed Mrs. Seagrave and matter-of-fact Dr. Hill were interesting and finely drawn. Happily, wet blanket sister Cassandra was away in Kent staying at brother Edward’s estate Godmersham, so Mrs. Austen more than made up for any lack of Austen womanly opinions. She spends much of the story in her sickbed bordering on valetudinarian territory only breached by Austen’s own over-anxious parent Mr. Woodhouse from her novel Emma. I am awestruck by the prospect of five women cohabiting at Castle Square together in peace and harmony. Captain Austen must have been very relieved in April 1807 when he received his next ship, the HMS St. Albans, a third-rate ship of the line. He was back in the game, and out of the house!
5 out of 5 Stars
Jane and the Prisoner of the Wool House, Being a Jane Austen Mystery (Book 6), by Stephanie Barron
Bantam Books, New York (2002)
Mass Market paperback (384) pages
- Read my review of Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor
- Read my review of Jane and the Man of the Cloth
- Read my review of Jane and the Wandering Eye
- Read my review of Jane and the Genius of the Place
- Read my review of Jane and the Stillroom Maid
Cover image courtesy of Bantam Books © 2002; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2011, Austenprose.com