Jane and the Genius of the Place

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that in the novels of Stephanie Barron, Jane Austen attracts dead bodies as a single woman in possession of a good fortune draws suitors. In the waning days of the summer of 1805, Miss Austen ventures into Kent to visit her brother Edward. At the Canterbury Races her brother Henry loses a race and Francoise Lamartine Grey loses her life. Since Mrs. Grey is disliked by the entire neighborhood, suspects abound. Her body tumbles from the carriage of Denys Collingworth, a desperate character believed to be her lover, who flees the scene of the crime. Valentine Grey does not grieve much for his late wife; he does not even attend her funeral. Captain Arthur Woodford and the Reverend Edward Bridges owe large sums to Mrs. Grey. And what is one to make of the mysterious French courier who visits Mrs. Grey the day of her murder, or the Comte de Penfleur, who grew up with Francoise and has apparently sent her a letter urging her to elope with him? As Justice of the Peace, Edward Austen Knight is charged with finding the murderer, while his scribbling sister records and helps sort out developments.

Lurking off the coast of England is Napoleon’s navy, ready to invade at any moment. Barron conjures up the tense mood of the period, with its obscure troop movements and evacuation orders in Kent, and still more mysterious machinations in the various capitals of Europe. With equal aplomb, Barron recreates the era, with its jellied chicken, cap sleeves, phaetons, and the craze for “improving” one’s grounds by mortifying nature to make prospects appear more natural. All is done with Barron’s light touch, which yields a pleasant book with which to wile away a few summer afternoons.