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? 


The Being a Jane Austen Mystery Challenge

The Austen faeries at Austenprose have sprinkled their stardust over my very own Jane, with interesting results for the coming New Year:  Laurel Ann Nattress, Austen Maven Extraordinaire, has issued the following challenge--read several (or all eleven, yes eleven) of the Jane Austen Mysteries, which she'll review in order each month throughout 2011, and you may be eligible for a few prizes!

As part of the Challenge, I'll be blogging here each month about my particular Jane: the inspiration for each novel, the sources I found most intriguing and useful, the period in Jane's personal history each story amplifies, and the rich veins of late Georgian and Regency life I mined for background to the stories.  I'll also be offering a brief Reader's Guide specific to each mystery. 

It's an indulgence and a gift to revisit so many books I wrote over the past sixteen years--but my chief hope is to spur conversation.  Check back after you've read some of the Austen Mysteries, toss me your questions or thoughts, and with luck we'll all learn something.

For details of the Challenge, do read Laurel Ann's invitation below--or go to .


Being a Jane Austen Mystery Reading Challenge 2011

We are very pleased to announce the Being a Jane Austen Mystery Reading Challenge 2011. If you have not discovered one of her wonderful mysteries, this is a great opportunity to join the challenge along with other Janeites, historical fiction and mystery lovers.

Novels in the Series

Challenge Details

Time-line: The Being a Jane Austen Mystery Challenge runs January 1, through December 31, 2011.
Levels of participation: Neophyte: 1 – 4 novels, Disciple 5 – 8 novels, Aficionada 9 – 11 novels.
Enrollment: Sign up’s are open until July 01, 2011. First, select your level of participation.  Second, copy the Being a Jane Austen Mystery Reading Challenge graphic and include it in your blog post detailing the mysteries that you will read in 2011. Third, leave a comment linking back to your blog post in the comments of this announcement post. If you do not have a blog you can still participate. Just leave your commitment to the challenge in the comments below.
Check Back Monthly: The Being a Jane Austen Mystery Challenge 2011 officially begins on Wednesday, January 12, 2010 with my review of the first mystery in the series, Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor. Check back on the 2nd Wednesday of each month for my next review in the challenge.
Your Participation: Once the challenge starts you will see a tab included at the top of Austenprose called Reading Challenges. Click on the tab and select Being a Jane Austen Mystery Reading Challenge 2011. Leave a comment including the mystery that you finished and a link to your blog review. If you do not have a blog, just leave a comment about which book you finished with a brief reaction or remark. It’s that easy.

The Prizes

Oh, of course there are prizes! Author Stephanie Barron has very generously offered one signed hardcover or paperback copy of each of the novels that we will be reviewing each month here on Austenprose to be drawn from comments left with each post, and one signed paperback copy of each of the eleven novels in the series to one lucky Grand Prize Winner to be drawn from comments left at any and all of the reviews left on this blog or yours. Yes, that means that your readers who comment on your challenge reviews have a chance to win too. Winners will be announced monthly two weeks after the blog post, and Grand Prize winner will be announced on January 01, 2012. Shipment to US or Canadian address only.
Bonus Stuff: Yes, of course there is more to get happy about. Availability of each of the novels in the series is great. The books can be purchased or eBooks download at most online etailers and brick and mortar stores. Since the series is so popular, your local library should be a great resource too.
One of the delights of the series is the incredible historical detail that parallel Jane Austen’s life. To expand upon our reading journey in 2011, author Stephanie Barron will be blogging about researching and writing each of the novels as we progress through the series at her Stephanie Barron blog. What an incredible resource and motivation for your reading challenge!
So, make haste and join the challenge today. I am so looking forward to revisiting all the novels in the Being a Jane Austen Mystery series in 2011 and hope you can join in too.

Laurel Ann

  1. Laurel Ann – Austenprose
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  3. Ruth – Book Talk and More
  4. Ruchama
  5. Karen Field
  6. Joanne – Slice of Life
  7. Kimberly – Reflections of a Book Addict
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  10. Dana – Much Madness is Divinest Sense
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  12. Staci – Life in the Thumb Reading Challenges
© 2007 – 2010 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose
Being a Jane Austen Mystery Reading Challenge Graphic by Katherine Cox of November’s Autumn

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Austen Short Story Contest!!!!

Laurel Ann Nattress, blogger extraordinaire of Austenprose, is the happy editor of a new Jane Austen fan fiction anthology entitled Jane Austen Made Me Do It, to be published by Ballantine Books in October, 2011.  (Now THERE'S a reason to ring in the New Year.)  She already has twenty-two submissions from known Austenesque writers--I've contributed a story featuring the late, lamented Lord Harold Trowbridge entitled "Jane and the Gentleman Rogue," for instance--but she's Looking For Just One More. 

It could be yours.

The short story contest winner will be published in the anthology.  Entries will be posted at the Republic of Pemberley, where readers can vote for their favorites!   FOR COMPLETE SUBMISSION GUIDELINES, CONTEST DATES, AND RULES, FOLLOW THE LINK to Austenprose.

And good luck, Janeites!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Yes, Virginia, There is a Jane Austen

I'm not the sort of writer whose books are found stuffed into the seat pocket of every airplane.  My sales are modest and my fame is derived more from the exploits of my sons than from any work I turn in during a given year.  So it was a bit of a shock when a friend emailed the other day to tell me my name had come up.  Her daughter likes those desktop calendars that offered a teaser-a-day: jokes about lawyers, inspirational quotations, gardening tips, yadda yadda.  This one happened to be a Jeopardy! calendar.  Question:  "This author had the sense and sensibility to turn Jane Austen into a sleuth in a mystery series."  I was the answer.

Is that weird, or what?

When I started writing about Jane, I thought I was talking to a certain audience: people (OK, mostly women) who cherished her novels and wanted to know a bit more about her.  I've loved the Regency and Napoleonic France for a long time.  I yearned to use a semblance of Austen language, and luxuriate in Jane's particular settings and obessions: Lyme Regis, Bath, all things Royal Navy and the occasional bout of London shopping.  What I NEVER anticipated was that I'd writing, in large part, for readers who did not know her name.

This was a shock delivered repeatedly in unexpected ways.  Somebody at a signing asked if Jane Austen had founded Hull House in Chicago.  (Wrong era, wrong woman, wrong continent.)  My son's preschool teacher (yes, teacher) asked if she'd written Jane Eyre.   An acquaintance gave me a COPY of Jane Eyre, because she knew how much I loved to write about her....And then there was my bank teller, pausing in the act of processing my transaction, who said, "This Jane Austen you write about.  She...lived?"

I've tried different aids to enlightenment.  I mention Colin Firth as Darcy.  Emma Thompson and her academy award for Sense and Sensibility.  I've even invoked Keira Knightley for the benefit of a younger generation, although I loathe that version of P&P.  And whenever a faintly snobbish sort of Janeite asks me pointedly why, with so much knowledge of Austen and the period under my belt, I haven't written a real book about Jane--meaning a nonfiction one--I patiently explain the lesson I've learned.  My series of ten detective novels may have introduced more people to Austen's work than any historic monograph I could  have written.  I get no greater pleasure than hearing this oft-repeated phrase:  "I actually went and read one of Austen's books after reading Jane and the..." whatever it might be. 

Yes, Virginia, there IS a Jane Austen--and some of us wander through the world pretending there always will be.

I've asked my friend to save her daughter's calendar sheet for me.  I think I might frame it.  Or at least stick it on my refrigerator. 

Happy Holidays, everyone!