From the desk of Jenny Haggerty:
The holidays make me nostalgic for past times I’ve never actually experienced, so I leapt at the chance to spend the Yuletide season with Jane Austen. Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas is the twelfth installment in a series that features one of my favorite novelists as an amateur sleuth, but so far I hadn’t managed to read one of them. It seemed high time to rectify that lapse, especially since author Stephanie Barron studied European history in college and then worked as a CIA analyst, highly suitable credentials for writing a story of intrigue set in the past.
The book opens on a blizzardy, bitterly cold evening with Jane Austen, her mother, and her sister Cassandra traveling by coach to the home of Jane’s eldest brother James and his family in Hampshire. Unfortunately when they reach the end of the public line the women find that James has sent an unlighted open horse cart for the last few miles of their journey, even though it’s dark outside and blowing snow. Both Jane’s mother and sister have their heads bowed to prevent the snow from stinging their faces, so it’s only Jane who sees the rapidly approaching carriage heading straight for them. There’s a terrible crash and the ladies are thrown to the floor of the now ruined cart, but almost as shocking is the language of the gentleman in the carriage. Raphael West comes gallantly to their rescue and certainly acts with consideration and grace, but he proves he must be some kind of freethinker by swearing in front of them without reservation. Jane is intrigued.
It’s Christmas Eve of 1814 and this trip is a homecoming of sorts because James lives in Steventon Parsonage where Jane grew up, but with James in charge it’s not the lively, loving place it was when their father was alive. James is stingy about lighting fires in the chilly rooms, contemptuous of Jane’s writing career, and broadly dismissive of most holiday traditions believing they aren’t Christian enough. Except for enjoying the company of her niece and nephew it might have been a dismal visit for Jane, but fortunately they are all invited to join a large party celebrating Christmas at The Vyne, the beautiful ancestral home of the wealthy, generous, and politically connected Chute family. The Vyne is also the place Raphael West was heading when his carriage crashed into the Austen’s cart.
Their hosts at the Vyne are William Chute, an amiable older country gentleman who’s been prominent in Parliament for two decades, and Eliza Chute, William’s energetic much younger wife who’s a longtime acquaintance of Jane’s. On being properly introduced Jane discovers that mysterious Mr. West is the son of a famous artist and is visiting The Vyne to sketch William Chute for his father. Or is he? Miss Gambier is another guest who interests Jane. She’s highly fashionable but being in her late 20’s is well on her way to spinsterhood and she has an almost forbidding reserve that suggests things hidden.
With Napoleon banished to Elba and the war with America going well there’s lots to celebrate, but festivities have only just begun when a nasty anonymous poem upsets Miss Gambier during a game of charades. Then a courier carrying an important political message for William Chute dies in what appears to be an accident, but Jane finds evidence to indicate it was murder. Since the storm has shut down the roads someone at The Vyne must be guilty, heightening the tension. As Jane quietly investigates she discovers that several among their party have secrets, including the enigmatic but appealing Raphael West.
Penned with evocative prose that allowed me to feel and see the story, I was shivering on my perfectly warm couch while Jane rode in an open cart through the blizzard. Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas has a rich and well realized historical setting with all the fun, food, and games of a pre-Victorian holiday celebration interrupted by murder. I love that the mystery includes several important issues of the day, and it gave me a thrill to hear characters discussing Jane’s recently published novels.
As in Austen’s books, Barron’s story is full of wit and wonderful company, but Jane is older than her heroines, romance is not a large part of the plot, and the story’s undertones are somewhat dark. Set less than three years before Austen’s death, Jane and her sister Cassandra are much how I imagine Lizzy and Jane Bennet would be if they had never married, and Jane’s sharp eye and well developed understanding of the human heart make her the perfect sleuth. Though I hadn’t read Barron’s earlier Jane Austen mysteries I had no trouble jumping into and thoroughly enjoying this one.
5 out of 5 Stars
Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas: Being a Jane Austen Mystery, by Stephanie Barron
Soho Press (2014)
Hardcover & eBook (336) pages
Book cover courtesy of Soho Press © 2014; text Jenny Haggerty © 2014, Austenprose.com
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