We are very excited to welcome Austenesque author Stephanie Barron to Austenprose today for the virtual book launch party of her new novel, Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas, the twelfth installment in the fan-favorite Being a Jane Austen Mystery series.
Ardent readers of Austenprose will remember that I am a huge fan of this fabulous series featuring Jane Austen as a sleuth – so much so that we celebrated 2011 with the Being a Jane Austen Mystery Reading Challenge, including all eleven novels in the series to date. It was great fun only dampened by the possibility that the eleventh mystery, Jane and the Canterbury Tale, might be the last in the series. Imagine my delight when I heard the news that Soho Press would be publishing the next mystery!
The three year wait was torture, but now Stephanie Barron’s darling child has arrived in grand style. We are so thrilled that she has honored us with this fabulous guest blog revealing her inspiration to write the novel based on actual history, and Jane Austen of course.
Christmas Eve, 1814: Jane Austen has been invited to spend the holiday with family and friends at The Vyne, the gorgeous ancestral home of the wealthy and politically prominent Chute family. As the year fades and friends begin to gather beneath the mistletoe for the twelve days of Christmas festivities, Jane and her circle are in a celebratory mood: Mansfield Park is selling nicely; Napoleon has been banished to Elba; British forces have seized Washington, DC; and on Christmas Eve, John Quincy Adams signs the Treaty of Ghent, which will end a war nobody in England really wanted.
Jane, however, discovers holiday cheer is fleeting. One of the Yuletide revelers dies in a tragic accident, which Jane immediately views with suspicion. If the accident was in fact murder, the killer is one of Jane’s fellow snow-bound guests. With clues scattered amidst cleverly crafted charades, dark secrets coming to light during parlor games, and old friendships returning to haunt the Christmas parties, whom can Jane trust to help her discover the truth and stop the killer from striking again?
- “Vivid characters propel the subtle plot to its surprising conclusion. The first-person narration captures Austen’s tone as revealed in her letters: candid, loving, and occasionally acerbic.” – stared review by – PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
- “[A]n excellent period mystery for all historical fiction fans … Jane Austen devotees will especially appreciate immersing themselves in the many biographical details about Austen that accompany the fictional murder mystery.” – LIBRARY JOURNAL
- “Sings with not just a good plot but courtly language and an engaging group of characters worthy of the famed novelist herself … a first-rate mystery with so many twists and turns that you can hardly blame a reader who doesn’t figure it out until the end.” – THE DENVER POST
PLEASE JOIN ME IN WELCOMING STEPHANIE BARRON
Keeping Christmas with Jane
This year on December 24th we celebrate not just Christmas Eve, but a very special bicentennial: the two hundredth anniversary of the signing of…the Treaty of Ghent.
Signing of the Treaty of Ghent, by Amédée Forestier (1814)
Alert history buffs will note immediately that two of the men pictured above are vaguely recognizable. At center is John Quincy Adams, then serving as US Ambassador to Russia. Shaking his hand is Admiral of the Fleet, James Gambier—or “Dismal Jimmy” as he was called in the Royal Navy. The Admiral was known for his pious habits and dour command of Britannia’s waves. Standing behind him are his lieutenants—let’s call one of them John Gage. He’s holding a dispatch case, which eventually proves his undoing.
The treaty signed that Christmas Eve ended the War of 1812. We remember the conflict for two things: Dolley Madison hustling through the burning White House with George Washington’s portrait under her arm, and Francis Scott Key setting a national anthem to an old tavern song. But the British knew this was a war that should never really have happened. It was a waste of their time from start to finish, despite the razing of our nation’s capital. The Royal Navy suffered surprising defeats that suggested we might one day challenge their mastery of the sea. The Treaty of Ghent proved largely in America’s favor. And the Duke of Wellington fretted over the fact that his brother-in-law was killed in the conflict, while his crack Peninsular troops were marching far too far from home.
Portrait of Jane Austen
Even Jane Austen was annoyed by the whole thing. She wrote to Martha Lloyd September 2, 1814, that the Americans “cannot be conquered,” and that by engaging them on land and sea, “we shall only be teaching them the skill in War which they may now want. We are to make them good Sailors & Soldiers, & gain nothing ourselves.” She went on to say that she placed her faith in the fact that England was improving in religion, despite all its evils, which she could not believe true of Americans; so much for her good opinion.
Jane kept up with the political and international news of the day because she had two brothers in the Royal Navy. She also was quite familiar with Dismal Jimmy. Admiral Gambier was one of Capt. Frank Austen’s patrons, and he was married to Louisa Mathew, whose cousin Ann was James Austen’s first wife. The Gambiers and the Mathews formed part of the closely interwoven society of northern Hampshire, the area around Steventon where Jane spent her girlhood—and indeed, spent the Christmas Season of 1814. I had only to connect Dismal Jimmy, the treaty, and Jane Austen to realize there was a book in the business somewhere. The result is JANE AND THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS.
Which brings us to the real point of this essay: Parties.
The Georgian Christmas was nothing like ours, which is essentially an invention of Queen Victoria and her German Albert. The Georgian—and by extension, Regency Christmas—began on Christmas Day and carried on with games and dances and multi-course meals and gifts and great clothes until Twelfth Night, the eve of January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany. During those twelve days, everyone paid calls on one another, drifted innocently under pagan sprigs of mistletoe, drank rum punch against the bitter cold, and got up impromptu parties in various drawing-rooms. They also planned their costumes for the culminating treat: the Twelfth Night Ball. This looked a lot like our Mardi Gras. Social norms were inverted; master became servant, servant became master, ladies paraded as gentlemen and gentlemen teetered in high heels beneath their gowns. Children played Kings and Queens and had toddlers for their Court. Jane’s Ball is held at The Vyne, home of the Chute family and one of the great houses in the Steventon neighborhood.
Illustration of The Vyne in Hampshire, England circa 1800
William Chute was a member of parliament, but is best remembered as Master of the Vyne Hunt, of which James Austen was an enthusiastic member. The Vyne Hunt traditionally met on the Feast of St. Stephen—December 26th, now known as Boxing Day in England. Seen below are the Heathcotes of Hursley Park: Sir William, 3rd baronet, and his sons Thomas and William, in their Vyne hunting jackets. William Heathcote married Jane’s friend Elizabeth Bigg in 1798 and widowed her, sadly, only four years later.
Heathcoastes of Hursley House, Hampshire by Daniel Gardner circa 1790
A blizzard and the unexpected arrival of John Gage with his dispatch box forestall the Hunt’s plans in JANE AND THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS. There are compensations, however. Jane enjoys her stay at The Vyne, with its excellent conversation, its flowing wine, its comfortable fires and its consoling library—not to mention one intriguing fellow guest: Mr. Raphael West. The eldest son of the Royal Academy founder and revered artist, Benjamin West, Raphael has journeyed into Hampshire to paint William Chute. But when a body is discovered in the snowy drifts of the park, Jane gives full rein to her suspicions. Is West merely a painter? Or adept in the art of murder?
Here he is, left, in a portrait by his father.
Raphael West and Benjamin West Jr., Sons of the Artist, by Benjamin West, c. 1796
Stephanie Barron is the author of JANE AND THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS, the twelfth in the series of Jane Austen Mysteries, which Kirkus hails as “charming, literate and unequaled,” the New York Times calls “genteelly jolly,” and Entertainment Weekly applauds for “echoing the rhythms of the Austen novels with uncanny ease.” Oprah put Jane on her list of “Ten Mystery Novels Every Woman Should read,” while Publishers Weekly simply says: “Superb.”
A graduate of Princeton and Stanford, Stephanie studied European history and spent four years at the CIA. She also writes as Francine Mathews; the New Yorker called Mathews’ JACK 1939 “the most deliciously high-concept thriller imaginable.” Ian Fleming gets the spy treatment next in the forthcoming World War II thriller TOO BAD TO DIE. Stephanie/Francine lives in Denver, Colorado, where she is currently writing JANE AND THE WATERLOO MAP, set at Carlton House In the autumn of 1815.
Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas: Being a Jane Austen Mystery, by Stephanie Barron
Soho Press (2014)
Hardcover & eBook (336) pages
Cover image courtesy of Soho Press © 2014; text Stephanie Barron © 2014, Austenprose.com