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Why Jane Austen makes a surprisingly decent sleuth... and why Elizabeth I may not.

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Thursday, Jan 20, 2011
In Jane and the Stillroom Maid, The Devonshires provide the emotional flourishes, Mr. Collins provides the comedy relief, and early-19th-century medicine the fascination that drives this increasingly dark murder mystery.
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Jane and the Stillroom Maid: Being the Fifth Jane Austen Mystery

Stephanie Barron

I’m not ordinarily a huge fan of novelists that use real historical figures. Even if the author is skilled enough to incorporate fact into fiction without coming off as annoyingly arch about their own cleverness, their affection inevitably starts to come off as blatant hero-worship, what I believe is known these days as a ‘Canon Sue’.


This happens to Bruce Alexander’s Sir John Fielding series after awhile. The first three or four, before Jeremy becomes fairly convinced that his boss is God or the closest earthly equivalent, are still very readable. When you then start slamming Benjamin Franklin, though… you’d better be wielding more than “younger brother of the guy who wrote Tom Jones”.

  
Barron’s Jane Austen pastiches have managed to hold off the pitfalls admirably thus far. Credit is due to any author who can sketch out a star-crossed romance between Austen and an aristocratic secret agent without giving the reader cause to believe the lady herself would laugh it out of court.


There’s a general air of easy respect here, of detail assured but not emphasised, that’s very likeable; Barron is clearly neither a dry scholar nor a book-club cuddler. If her pen can never be as fine as the original’s it is nevertheless imbued with a warm understanding and appreciation of who her subject really was, not what she would like her to be. Which is not something the authors of, say, Darcy’s Story can always avoid.


From there it’s a short step to convincing us of just how much fun the real Jane, trapped as she generally was in her middle-class family circle, would be having as an amateur detective. Revelling in the chance to use her formidable powers to the full… as a lot of historical females might, come to realise. Hey, the Brontes come with built-in brooding moors, people! Get on it.


Even so, Jane never seems to be moving out of her ordinary sphere—off her two inches of ivory, you might say. Thus these are period novels that happen to feature murders, not Historical Mysteries. The methods she uses to dissect ‘real’ motives are convincingly reminiscent of the ones she would later employ in her novels. Physical action is kept to a minimum; clues are largely found in violations of etiquette, and unravelled within that same framework.


The temptation to give her an admiring young sidekick to ‘translate’ her greatness to the reader, a la the Fielding books, is mercifully avoided; luckily, the real-life Austen family was large and flamboyant enough for an entire series of adventures. Regency Britain likewise makes a suitably anything-can-happen backdrop, so that you’d think would be a wild case of Jessica Fletcher Syndrome is actually largely avoided. One of the major upsides of setting any crime drama in bygone ages: the further back you go, the more pfundamental a matter it is that people kill and are killed. So long as you avoid the temptation to stage CSI: Whitechapel, you’re in.


Which all sounds obvious, until you start reading Karen Harper’s Elizabeth I series, which very quickly devolve into standard ‘tough chick’ mysteries that just happen to involve one of the most ferociously intelligent and arrogant female monarchs in history. Again, it’s plausible enough that Elizabeth would take a personal interest in crimes close to the throne that it’s been the subject of dozens of similar novels… that she’d bother badinaging with a bunch of romance-novel-reject Scoobies in the process is not.


Still, the Tudor era was never short of melodrama, and it all might have been rousing good fun enough, except Harper never picked up on a crucial objection of Elizabeth’s in re: her supposed secret love life: she was never left alone. Sneaking out in the wee hours would’ve literally required stepping over the maids sleeping nearby. The most historically clueless of readers might balk at an absolute monarch racing around the countryside in disguise spying on bad guys Nancy Drew-style.


Anyway, Jane the sardonic society sleuth. Barron is guilty of a bit too much byplay as ‘editor’, commenting on the over-obvious ‘inspirations’ behind the Austen canon; I’m not sure why implications of this type always bother me this much, but they do. Perhaps it’s something to do with mis-appropriation of genius; while the game of picking up on obscure epigrams can be flattering for both author and reader… the deeper you go, the more you’re denying exactly who both have come to homage. That is, I’m very sure Austen was at least capable of writing her own dialogue.


On a related note, there’s the constant danger when using real people to flesh out your mystery (one that Harper’s series also noticeably fails to avoid, kind of the way James Dean noticeably failed to avoid that other car) of ending up with a case in which all but a few of the suspects have real-life alibis in the form of, y’know, never having been convicted of murder. Evidence in the British Museum and everything. Meaning, again, your target audience is actually the one least likely to be impressed by your painstakingly—ah—Byzantine plot twists, because they already know how ‘process of elimination’ works.


Barron is more skillful. Much dramatic obfuscation is made of Jane’s encounters with Regency reality, mainly via that same secret agent, himself a real if shadowy historical figure named Lord Harold Trowbridge. Culminating, in Stillroom Maid, with the Duke of Devonshire’s family.


They, as it turns out, are old friends of the tragic family across the moor whose stillroom (basically, apothecary) maid has just been found dead—a family headed by one Charles Danforth, who was clearly written with a certain C. Firth in mind. The Devonshires provide the emotional flourishes, the ‘original’ for Mr. Collins provides the comedy relief, and minutiae re: early-19th-century medicine the fascination that drives the increasingly dark murder mystery. What more could you ask for in a reading experience, besides a decent cup of tea?


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