The spring of 1811 finds Jane in London staying with her banker-brother Henry Austen and his sophisticated wife Eliza at their residence on Sloane Street preparing her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, for publication. While attending a performance of Macbeth at the Theatre Royal at Covent Garden, it is difficult to determine who is the bigger draw to the audience; the esteemed actress Mrs. Siddons on stage, or the beautiful Russian Princess Evegenia Tscholikova in a box. That very week, her private letters to her married lover Lord Castlereagh had been published in a London paper for all to read. Such a shocking scandal for a Tory Minister is sure to have serious repercussions, but finding the lifeless body of the Princess strewn across the his front steps the next morning with her throat cut should not be one of them. Jane and Eliza are shocked, but certain that it is not the suicide that the paper reports.
Confident that the coroner’s inquest will disclose the truth, Jane and Eliza soon learn that they are the prime suspects in the murder after attempting to help the Comtesse d’ Entraigues discreetly sell her jewels. This act of kindness for Eliza’s friend places them in an incriminating position. The authorities disclose that the jewels belong to the dead Russian Princess and not the Comtesse. Why were Eliza and Jane set up? Who is benefitting from the Princesses death? How will they save themselves from the gallows?
Jane negotiates a seven day reprieve to discover the truth and begins the investigation through London’s fashionable Ton, dubious politicians, and their intimate circle of powerful women – the Barque of Frailty.
For those of you not in the know on Regency era colloquialisms, in common cant, Barque of Frailty is a woman of easy virtue, a mistress, or a prostitute. There are interesting “fallen women” who factor into this story, including the infamous Society supplicant Harriette Wilson, and the one hit wonder Julia Radcliffe. Harriette was a real “demi-rep” (woman of ill repute) who kept important statesmen tucked in her décolleté like a favorite scented lace hanky. Julia is fictitious, but cut from the same cloth.
Not far from these highly desirable “light skirts” are the men of the Beau Monde (fashionable society) and government circling their flame: Emmanuel, Comte d’Entraigues, Francis Edward Rawdon-Hastings, Earl of Moria, Charles Malverley, George Canning, and Robert, Lord Castlereagh to name a few, and there are many to remember in this tale of political intrigue, and passions spent and spurned.
Jane and Eliza are the key players through the political subterfuge and romantic dalliances in deducing the mystery. Some of their exploits require a total suspension of disbelief for a clergyman’s daughter and a bankers wife. However, this adventuresome energy swiftly glides you through a masterful story that at times, reminded me of a Georgette Heyer novel. But, in due deference to Ms. Barron’s skill as a mystery novelist, every time I hear the name Freddy, and there is a Freddy Ponsonby in this tale, it reminds me of Freddy Standen in Cotillion!
As we have continued through this series we have sleuthed with Jane in the country, by the sea-side, and in Town. I think I enjoy her temperament more in these novels away from London. I have always thought she preferred the county to Town. When visiting London in 1796, she wrote to her sister Cassandra, “Here I am once more in this Scene of Dissipation & Vice, and I begin already to find my Morals corrupted.” In her novels bad things seem to happen to characters in London. Marianne gets jilted by Willoughby there in Sense and Sensibility, the married Maria Rushworth cheats on hubby with Henry Crawford and runs away with him in Mansfield Park, silly, selfish Lydia Bennet elopes with Wickham, doesn’t marry, and lives with him in sin there in Pride and Prejudice, and Mr. Knightley escapes Highbury to Town to forget Miss Woodhouse in Emma!
Is Jane trying to tell us something? In Jane and the Barque of Frailty, we certainly meet with Dissipation & Vice. If a bath by fire is redemption for the reader after 235 pages of the dark underworld of “muslin company,” then the final decadent scene set at the Cyprians Ball, an anti-Almacks soiree for the “high-water courtesans” and their entourage of moths, is a refreshing denouement. Jane (thirty-five year old spinster and country girl) and her sister-in-law Eliza (outrageous flirt and party girl) gain entrance for a scandalous subterfuge as masked “ladies of the night” to assemble all the key players into one room for the final show down. After the shocking conclusion, the mystery is solved, but the words used to describe those ladies who lived off their looks and charms are still rolling through my head…doxy, cunning jade, bird of paradise, celebrated Impure, Paphiana and trollop. Like Jane, I am glad I live in the country.
5 out of 5 Stars
Jane and the Barque of Frailty: Being a Jane Austen Mystery (Book 9), by Stephanie Barron
Bantam Books (2007)
Mass market paperback (368)
Cover image courtesy of Bantam Books © 2007, text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2011, Austenprose.com