Thursday, December 30, 2010

Book One: Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor

"It is rare to find a woman who places her personal happiness above her fears for the future.  You refused Mr. Bigg-Wither, refused his offer of a home, a family, and the comfortable means they assured, to retain your independence, despite the counsel of all who wished you well and threw their weight behind the match.  What strength!"
     "Did you know Mr. Bigg-Wither, you would think me less noble," I said.  "There cannot be two men so likely to meet with refusal in the entire country."
When I wrote that snippet of dialogue in the opening pages of Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor, I unconsciously betrayed the inspiration for the entire series.  What was a young woman of six-and-twenty to do in the year 1802, knowing that she had no fortune and no immediate prospect of passionate romance, as the Years of Danger (as Jane once phrased them) approached?  Did she grasp at the only acceptable offer of marriage that came her way--with no more than tolerable liking for her life partner--or did she embark on the far lonelier proposition of spinsterhood, with all the privations and burdens that entailed?

Jane did both, within a twenty-four hour period; and the consequences determined the course of her life.

When I decided to write a mystery series featuring Jane Austen as an amateur detective, I knew only a few things: I wanted to write about Jane herself, rather than attempting a continuation of one of her novels.  I wanted to use the richness of her distinctive language--the intimate and acerbic tone of her private letters as well as her narrative voice.  I wanted to set Jane within the frame of her time: the late Georgian and Regency periods, when constant warfare on land and sea deprived the ballrooms of eligible gentlemen, and a lady was actually accorded a good deal more freedom than the subsequent Victorian era would allow.   And I wanted to give her a mystery to solve. 

Why a mystery?  Because Jane understood nothing so well as human motivation--the crux of every conflict and murderous impulse.  Hearts and minds were her preferred playgrounds.  Several of her books--Emma and Northanger Abbey come to mind--can be read as early novels of detection.  She loved to offer her readers false suspects and hidden clues.  In an era when all law enforcement was informal--when England had no police force, and justice was administered by the wellborn as one of the privileges of birth--an amateur detective was the norm.  That Jane was a woman seemed no bar to the adventures I'd planned for her.  She had access to every level of the English power structure through her brothers--a wealthy landowner, a banker, a clergyman, and two captains in the Royal Navy. 

I had studied Napoleonic France as an undergraduate, so I was familiar with the period.  I had been reading Austen's novels for decades, and had an echo of her voice in my head.  But I realized I knew more about Eliza Bennet or Anne Elliott than I did about Jane herself.  Once I had a bevy of biographies under my belt, I knew I had to write about Jane before she was Austen: the successful writer.  It was the uncertain young woman who interested me--the woman confronting age, potential poverty, and the terrifying challenge of independence.  This was a Jane who was often rootless, who moved from hired lodging to hired lodging before landing, finally, in her thirties, in the sanctuary of Chawton; who suffered grief at the loss of people she loved and the evanescence of certain dreams.  It was clear I had to start Scargrave Manor at a pivotal moment in Jane's life--when she accepted Harris Bigg-Wither's offer of marriage, only to jilt him the following morning.  It was perhaps the most courageous and reckless act of her nearly twenty-seven years; and those of us who cherish her prose owe her a debt of gratitude for turning her back on a loveless marriage. 

Had she consented to become Mrs. Harris Bigg-Wither, we would probably never have known her name.

Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor drops our unsuspecting heroine into the sort of life she might have chosen: a marriage of convenience, with disastrous consequences.  Jane's friend Isobel Payne rescues her from the mortification of her broken engagement with an invitation to Christmas at Scargrave Manor, where Jane meets a cast of characters reminiscent of some of her own.  George Hearst, the clergyman; his brother, the dissolute Lieutenant Tom Hearst; Fitzroy Payne, an inscrutable, proud, and handsome young heir to an earldom; Fanny Delahoussaye, whose behaviour would make Lydia Bennet's look tame.  When one of the company is poisoned, all are suspect--and Jane is compelled to learn the truth.

Along the way she encounters a man she rightly believes capable of every intrigue and violence, a man she describes as malevolent--and yet, by the end of the novel, chooses to call her Dark Angel: Lord Harold Trowbridge.

When I introduced Lord Harold in Scargrave Manor, I never imagined he'd become an obsession for so many readers.  But the Gentleman Rogue, as Jane and her world know him, has a subtle charm that makes him hard to ignore.  He cropped up in book after book, almost without my intending it. The silver-haired second son of a duke, Lord Harold is the constant subject of idle gossip, rampant envy, and malicious intrigue. Negligently at home in the breathless halls of the ton--London's Great--he chooses to devote his time and energy to the foiling of Napoleon Bonaparte's plans.  From the moment he meets Jane, he compels her with his intelligence; and his appreciation of her own is something Jane cherishes.  They make a fitful, star-crossed and unwittingly romantic pair.  But in Scargrave Manor, this is all in the future; I knew nothing of it myself, when I wrote the book back in 1994.

I have to confess that I'm ambivalent about Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor.  When I look through it now, the language feels correct but stiff, the footnotes overly-pedantic.  I'm struck by how much more familiar Jane has become over the past sixteen years.  We scraped an acquaintance at Scargrave; it was only later that she unbent, and shared her vicious sense of humor, her uncanny wisdom, her love of absurdity and some of her pain.  Those are the best Austen gifts--the kind that return us again and again to her remarkable novels, the kind we carry with us always.

Reading Group Questions for Scargrave Manor

1. Jane Austen is nearly twenty-seven when this novel begins, and is considered long since "on the shelf," as her contemporaries would put it--meaning well past the marriageable age for a woman, which in her time was roughly between fifteen and twenty-two.  Lacking any dowry or personal fortune, she had only her looks to recommend her, as she would later write of the Bennet girls in Pride and Prejudice.  Well-born women of her day were prohibited from pursuing any sort of income-producing profession, and unless they married, were regarded as a financial burden on the male members of their families.  Given these considerations, does Jane show great courage--or great selfishness--in refusing an excellent offer of marriage?  Discuss.

2. A woman's life was often short in the late Georgian and Regency period.  Three of Jane's sisters-in-law would die by the age of thirty-five, all three as a result of childbirth, and Jane herself lived only to forty-one.  Did the shortness of one's span make individual life choices more or less important?  Did a woman of Austen's time have the luxury of pursuing personal ambitions and dreams, or was her focus primarily on her family or community?  Do these considerations make Jane's particular choices more or less remarkable? 

3. In a society that placed inordinate importance on both beauty and wealth, was Jane's intellect a gift or a handicap?
 
4. Justice in Austen's day was largely administered by the wellborn and well-connected.  There was no police force, no presumption of innocence, no conception of evidence collection and few rights accorded to defendants during trials.  Has the justice system benefited or suffered with the passage of time? 
 
5. Fans of Austen's work frequently cite the civility of society in her day, as evidenced in the ritualized behavior of men and women in both public and private venues, and contrast it negatively with our own.  Is this an idealized version of Austen's time, or an accurate one?  How does Isobel Payne's experience inform your thinking on this question?  Is she protected by the implicit civility of her society--or a victim of her limited capacity to defend herself? 

Stephanie

14 comments:

  1. Dear Stephanie:
    Do you mean Lady Lucas and Lady Catherine from Pride and Prejudice? If so, I would guess it's because Lady Lucas derives her title from her husband--who was knighted. She is a commoner herself, and the "Lady" in front of her name is what's known as a courtesy title. Lady Catherine, on the other hand, was born the daughter of a nobleman, and her title--which is also a courtesy one, because she wouldn't have been her father's heir--is Lady Catherine at birth. It derives from her father. We can guess he was an earl, because Colonel Fitzwilliam, her nephew, is the second son of an earl--presumably Lady Catherine's brother--and Darcy's mother was Lady Anne. The courtesy title of an earl's children dies with them, so Lady Catherine's daughter is just Anne de Bourgh. She's a commoner, like Darcy. If this seems confusing, consider Winston Churchill. His father was Lord Randolph, as the second son of a duke; his mother was Lady Randolph (courtesy title due to marriage; she wouldn't have been Lady Jennie), and Winston was just Mr. Churchill. His cousin, however, was Duke of Marlborough. Go figure.
    All of this confusing detail is laid out, by the way, in a helpful table in the book WHAT JANE AUSTEN ATE AND CHARLES DICKENS KNEW, if you want to research it further. Hope that helps!
    Stephanie

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  2. I just completed book number one. I really enjoyed it- although I am familiar with her publications, I've never read any of Jane Austen's work and most likely will now. What a clever idea you have hit upon. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the Jane mysteries. They await at my bedside!

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  3. Hi Stephanie,

    My comment wasn't clear. What I meant is that the explanation in the footnotes of The Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor as to why it's Lady Catherine (a daughter of a peer) as opposed to Lady Lucas (the wife of a mere knight) was one of the things I really liked about the book. It was a round about way of saying that I didn't think the footnotes were "pedantic."

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  4. Mimi: Glad you got through Scargrave (and even gladder to hear you're going to read Jane.) If you liked book one, you'll probably like the rest of the series even more. Or so I hope.

    Brooke: I'm sorry I was so dense. Chalk it up to all the eggnog over the past few days...
    Happy New Year, all!

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  5. Hi Stephanie, I just finished re-reading Scargrave Manor for the 4th or 5th time, and loved it just as much as I did the 1st time I read it! My review is here, if you're interested: http://booktalkandmore.blogspot.com/2011/01/review-jane-and-unpleasantness-at.html
    And let me just say, thank you for creating Lord Harold's character...I adore him! :)

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  6. Dear Ruth: You've read this four or five times? You have my infinite respect. I think I accord that level of dedication to only two writers--Dorothy Sayers and Georgette Heyer--besides our Beloved Jane. Deepest thanks for the lengthy review--

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  7. Stephanie thanks for your lovely insights into your mindset when your wrote Scargrave Manor. I just finished re-reading it after some 15 years and still marvel in your awesome ability to channel my dear Jane. Your group questions are very intriguing and I shall ponder them over a glass of port and your next novel in the series! Thanks again. LA

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  8. Stephanie, As I said in a comment on Austenprose, I "discovered" you when you spoke (most enjoyable) at the AGM in Portland, and immediately bought a few of your books at the JA Bookstore table there. I am enjoying them IMMENSELY having started way before the "challenge" even came up. One thing I do want you to know is how much I am enjoying the footnotes. They truely add to depth and understanding of the books! And I'm amazed how you could get these out one after another! They're great! I love them Thanks!! Angela

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  9. Dear Angela: I go back and forth about the utility of the footnotes, and if you continue with the series you'll notice they diminish in frequency over time. Originally I hoped they'd increase the reader's sense that I was merely the editor of Jane's found journals--not the writer of them (as obviously I am). Then I heard an audio version of Scargrave Manor, and found the narrator's constant self-interruption to read a footnote incredibly annoying! Now I confine myself to marginal comments only when I consider the fact really interesting, or likely to add to the reader's understanding of the story. Some reviewers have described the footnotes as "pretentious," and one British editor told me confidently that "we know all this already, so the footnotes are irrelevant." I guess the value of them remains debatable! Thanks for starting the series--and I'm glad to hear you enjoyed Portland.

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  10. Stephanie, why in the world would an editor think that everyone who may ever reads your novels "already knows" everything there is to know about the nuances of Regency England life? Obsurd observation in my thoughts!! I can see how it might be annoying, like you said, when listening to it on an audio version, but I do still really enjoy the "extra" learning you provided in that way!

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  11. You know, Angela, I suspect there are a few readers in England who aren't perfectly familiar with every nuance of life on their island two hundred years ago; but being tutored by an American is probably unpalatable! We all write about Jane at our peril--

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  12. I never thought of it (the peril) that way, but very true!!

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  13. Stephanie,
    I have been reading your series for about five years now. I enjoy the footnotes. I have never listened to your books on tape (who reads them? Donada Peters is my favorite!), but I can see your point about how they would detract from the story during a reading.
    The footnotes topic actually brings me to what I value most about your works and their role in my life. I found your works at a time when my personal learning was stagnant. I had finished my Master's a couple of years before and had been teaching the same literature to fourteen-year-olds for five years. Your works awakened a desire inme to learn again! So, I read the work mentioned in the first post, I found a cookbook with Martha Lloyd's recipes (even one for white soup!), I read about the Navy during the Regency (I adore the movie Master & Commander, though I have never read the books), I bought Dierdre LeFaye's edited letters, and read so much more non-fiction about Jane and her time because of these works. I even asked for (and received) a membership to the JASNA and was so excited to find that one of your books was dedicated to the JASNA; I annoyed my husband greatly with my week of telling him that you had dedicated a book to me!
    Speaking of my husband brings me to question #4. My husband is a police officer in our small town. I never cease to be amazed at all of the hoops he has to jump through to prove that someone is guilty. I do believe that guilt in JA's time was too easy to "prove," but I also believe that "innocence" in our time is too easily come by. I do not think that either of our times has it right, but I would rather live in our time. I think in both times, those active participants (like Sir William, not like a random judge) really did seek for justice.
    Question: Based on Lydia Bennett and Fammy Delahoussaye's experience, was an indiscretion like fornication really just forgotten if one married (anyone)?

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  14. Naj/darcykwentworthMarch 16, 2011 at 10:52 PM

    I'm playing catch up as this is mid-March and I just discovered the challenge last night. I have been meaning to reread these mysteries but always turn to that ever-present stack of night-stand books I'm sure many of us accumulate from recommendations of friends or reviews or meanderings through book stores; Austen, Heyer, and Rowland are typically the only books I reread frequently besides the books I read with my students year after year.
    I am so pleased to have reread Scargrave; I'd forgotten that Trowbridge came into the series this early and associated with the later books--what a wonderful denouement with his arrival in Jane's bedroom no less! He saves our Jane! As with many readers, I adore Trowbridge--he's Peter Wimsey-ish with a delicious dash of Rhett-roguishness.

    I'm struck with how beautifully Austen's syntax and diction and wit are recreated; the allusions to Austen's works and characters delight, though I'm sure there are more references embedded, like Hidden Mickeys, than I perceived. And the Georgian cum Regency world is so wonderfully captured here. I love the rich detail but am ambivalent about the footnotes mentioned in earlier posts. The considerate "editor" in including the footnotes saved me from running to Poole's What Jane Austen Knew, but I think, too, footnotes diminish the illusion of being in another world where explanations are unnecessary b/c meanings are self-evident. Hmm, I don't think I'm articulating this well. Like Heyer, Ms. Barron's knack for detail allows us readers to immerse ourselves in Austen's time, but footnotes remind us we're still in the--oh my gosh, I can't even say twentieth century but must say twenty-first century. I suppose my vote must be for endnotes--I know I found myself checking and rechecking White Garden for them.
    Bravo and thank you for a most entertaining read--I have Book Two waiting to take me to Lyme Regis where I will be on the lookout for the Cobb, some naval officers, and perhaps a dashing model for (be still heart) Fredrick Wentworth.

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