Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor by Stephanie Barron · 3 January 2007
What would happen if a wealth of manuscripts written by Jane Austen were suddenly discovered in the cellar of an old Baltimore home? What if they recounted Jane’s adventures and misadventures as a single woman of wit in the face of murder? This is the premise that Stephanie Barron explores, using the dearth of actual information about Jane Austen’s private life to fill in details about a time directly after her refusal of marriage to Harris Bigg-Wither. Barron writes the introduction to Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor as if the manuscripts were delivered to her hands, and the book is structured upon the supposition that Barron has simply edited Austen’s own journals and her correspondence to her sister Cassandra.
The story begins as Jane attends her dear friend Isobel, the recently married Countess of Scargrave, at her husband the Earl’s sickbed. Isobel is distraught and when the doctor arrives to attend the Earl, she dismisses her friend, leaving Jane to worry the night away in her own room and provide us readers a bit of background as to how the cast of character came to be at Scargrave Manor on this ill fated night. Jane recounts the earlier events of the evening, a celebratory ball held in honor of the newlyweds. In attendance are the characters which will eventually make up the list of murder suspects, because the good Earl does not survive the night. On the morning after his death a note is received accusing none other than Isobel of having done off with her husband. Jane immediately puts her wits to work on behalf of her friend and attempts to solve the mystery with all the decorum expected of a young woman of the period.
Barron does manage to capture the Austen perspective, one that is focused on the realities of fortune and manners, and the strict judgment that society placed on all persons based upon these measures. As she investigates the possible suspects, motives are ascribed to each character based on what they had to gain from the Earl’s death. While motives are standard mystery fare, the suppositions themselves are purely Austen. Each character is seen to have a relationship with the Earl that comprises a delicate balance of composure and dependence and Jane must ferret out exactly how the relationships fit into the relative strata of society in order to figure out what the suspects’ aims are. As the power figure upon which all their fortunes rest, the late Earl’s entire family is shown to have something to profit by from his death. Jane must untangle the puzzle of which person’s motives outstrip their affections for the man.
Barron borrows liberally from Austen’s own characters. Fitzroy Payne, the Earl’s heir, bears more than slight resemblance to Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pride and Prejudice with his constant composure and stiff manner. Lieutenant Tom Hearst, nephew to the late Earl, reminds one of Frank Churchill from Emma with his light hearted manners and easy way with women. Barron paints all the characters in the details of their daily lives. Attention is paid to the smallest of activities, and much conjecture is made of social interaction. As per many Austen stories, the characters themselves are obsessed with marriage, and with making the best match, either for themselves or for their relations. The references to one’s worth on the marriage market were literal, and the Jane character ruefully admits that as a maid of twenty-seven with little fortune and fading looks, that perhaps she should not have run from the proposal of marriage she so recently rejected.
Love and marriage are given as many possible reasons for killing the late Earl, but in the end it is Isobel and Fitzroy Payne who are accused and tried of the deed and the surrounding cover-up. Jane follows her friend to London for the final confirmation of her guilt by the House of Lords, determined to prove her innocence. In desperation Jane becomes bolder in her search. Again Barron captures the ideology of the time perfectly. Jane is engaged in a mission to save a life, yet she still balks at calling on her betters unannounced for fear of impropriety. Eventually Jane’s wit trumps the social strictures and she unravels the truth of the story.
Barron recreates a time and a voice long gone and does so with talent. Of especial delight are her “editor’s notes,” small tidbits of information about the language and customs of the time. By inserting herself into the narrative as simply the editor of Austen, Barron makes it seem even more so that we are hearing the voice of Jane Austen, as she would have been in her own life.
I imagine fans of Jane Austen to be in two camps regarding this book, and indeed the whole series. In one camp are the fans who will appreciate fresh material that deals with their beloved author. In the other camp are fans who feel that Stephanie Barron cannot possibly do justice to Jane Austen. Barron readily admits “to edit Austen is daunting. I do not pretend to her skill. I only hope that the essential spirit of the original manuscripts blazes forth from these new pages, with all the power of that remarkable mind,” and so approaches the task of bringing Austen to life in a humble and patient manner. It is to be hoped that fans in the latter group will grant Barron some latitude and allow themselves to enjoy the addition of this finely crafted homage as Barron obviously intends to enrich the world’s experience of Austen, rather than to attempt to dethrone her.