In the summer of 1805, we find Jane Austen visiting her wealthy brother Edward and his large family at their palatial country estate Godmersham Park in Kent, enjoying the comforts of living above “vulgar economy,” and the privileges of ease and splendor. Her father Rev. Austen had passed away the following January, displacing herself, her sister Cassandra and their mother from their rented residence in Bath. This was the beginning of their wilderness years, when the Austen women would shuffle about from relative to relative, homeless genteel vagabonds, dependent on the generosity of their families for a roof over their heads. While Jane visits in Kent, her sister Cassandra resides nearby at Goodnestone with Mrs. Bridges, the mother of Edward’s wife Elizabeth, and Mrs. Austen is in Hampshire.
Jane wastes no times in enjoying their opulent society with an outing to the Canterbury Races to picnic on the green and watch her brother Henry’s latest folly with the Sporting Set, his magnificent race horse Commodore, who is set to take his paces against the local favorites. Among the festivities, it is hard not to notice a beautiful young woman in a scarlet riding costume siting in a phaeton near their own carriage. As she lashes out injuring a young man with her driving whip, Jane is shocked by her wild behavior. Her sister-in-law Elizabeth Austen explains that she is the notorious Francoise Lamartine Grey, the spirited young wife of a wealthy local banker who owns the grand neighboring estate The Larches. Besides being a Frenchwomen in England during the height of the “Great Terror,” when many feared Bonaparte’s invasion of the English coast, she is disliked by everyone in the neighborhood because of scandalous behavior. While Henry’s horse loses the race, Mrs. Grey loses her life.
Brutally strangled by her hair ribbon and striped of her red riding costume, she is found in the carriage of her former lover Denys Collingworth, a man of “slim means, illiberal temper and general disfavor of the whole neighborhood.” As the local Justice of the Peace, Edward Austen steps forward and takes command of the investigation, aided by the observant eyes of his sister Jane, his wife Elizabeth and their governess Anne Sharpe, they are able to recount the events of the day involving Mrs. Grey’s movements. But something is awry. How could she lie dead in the carriage and then later be seen on horseback recklessly jumping the racecourse rail, chasing after the galloping horses, collecting the winners cup, and then promptly departing in her phaeton? All eyes are on Collingworth who feigns absence corroborated by a witness. He points the finger at family friend Captain Woodford and Elizabeth Austen’s brother Rev. Edward Bridges who are both deeply in debt to Mrs. Grey. Later we learn that her husband does not mourn Francoise’s death, nor does he attend her funeral. As the suspects add up, Edward and Jane are uncertain that what appears to be a lovers quarrel gone terribly wrong, in fact involves international espionage and Bonaparte far reaching ambitions.
Jane and the Genius of the Place, is the fourth Being a Jane Austen Mystery, by Stephanie Barron, the very popular series involving British novelist Jane Austen as an amateur sleuth paralleling actual events from her own life. It is told in a first person narrative from Jane’s perspective edited from her personal journals discovered by the author in an outbuilding on an ancient Maryland estate. They blend the factual and the fictional, incorporating known events and facts from Austen’s letters, history, culture and politics with a clever mystery story. This is my fourth of the series and I found it fascinating. The storyline introduces many of the social pursuits that a Regency gentleman would aspire to: horse racing, “improvement of the estate,” cultivation of the manor house and family. In addition to the return of Jane’s favorite brother Henry Austen, we are introduced to her elder brother Edward, his wife Elizabeth, daughter Fanny and the brood of their other eight children. Governess to the two daughters is Anne Sharpe, who Jane will develop a lifelong friendship with. Barron did superb job with Elizabeth “Lizzy” Austen as companion and sounding board to Jane and the investigation. Elegant, intelligent and composed, Lizzy is the kind of mother, sister-in-law or friend that we all should have in our lives, but rarely do. It is understandable how her death in 1808 was such a shock to Jane and her family.
I loved the introduction of the Austen’s governess Anne Sharpe, who we know little about other than a few surviving letters, and that Jane valued her friendship enough to give her a presentation copy of Emma when it was published in 1815. In this story she has a flirtation of such with landscape designer Julian Southey, which I wish had been played out more. The aesthetic movement of the “improvement of the estate” is woven into the plot in detail, and as a landscape designer myself for many years, I appreciated the beautiful descriptions of the transformation of English countryside into the picturesque visions made popular by designers Humphrey Repton and Capability Brown.
Even though Jane Austen is criticized for not broaching politics in her novels, she did talk about them in her letters and followed the Napoleonic Wars through her two brothers in the Royal Naval. Politics, international espionage and French spies factor heavily into this novel in a clever way. In addition, with the introduction of new characters I did not miss the lack of Cassandra Austen, who seems to be a killjoy in the series, nor Mrs. Austen who is a bit of a downer for “our” Jane. Even thought the mystery drove the plot, I found myself guessing whodunit early on. It really didn’t matter in the least. The writing is so entrancing, the descriptions so mesmerizing and the characters so enjoyable, that nothing was wanting – well, except the shortage of Lord Harold Trowbridge, Rogue, Flirt and personal Infatuation. I patiently await his return.
5 out of 5 Regency Stars
Jane and the Genius of the Place: Being the Fourth Jane Austen Mystery, by Stephanie Barron
Bantam Books (2000)
Mass market paperback (384) pages
This is my fourth selection in the Being a Jane Austen Mystery Reading Challenge 2011. You can still join the reading challenge in progress until July 1, 2011. Participants, please leave comments and or place links to your reviews on the official reading challenge page by following this link.
Author Stephanie Barron has generously offered a signed hardcover copy of Jane and the Genius of the Place 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, April 27, 2011. Winner to be announced on Thursday, April 28, 2011. Shipment to US and Canadian addresses only. Good luck!
© 2007 – 2011 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose