Thursday, December 15, 2011

Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron: A Fatal Charm

The tenth Jane Austen Mystery, Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron, throws together two of history's literary greats--and the two who seem least likely to have met.  Yes, they were contemporaries; but Jane was "retiring" and George Gordon, Lord Byron, outrageous.  No doubt their conversations, had they encountered one another, must have been compelling.  But would the occasion ever have arisen?

I began to wonder about six degrees of separation in Jane Austen's world when I was researching and writing a very different book, A Flaw in the Blood, which is set in 1864 and concerns Queen Victoria.  In the course of learning about her world, I naturally read David Cecil's excellent biography Melbourne.  Victoria's first prime minister--already aging when she ascended the throne, but a Regency Buck of the First Stare, a remarkable personality and intellect--utterly bewitched the young queen, whose partiality for William Lamb, Lord Melbourne, was so marked that raucous crowds heckled her with cries of "Mrs. Melbourne!" when she rode abroad in Rotten Row.  She was perhaps 18 when this "grand pash" occurred, and not yet married to Albert; and she seems not to have cared one whit for public opinion.  I'd have swooned over Melbourne, too.

Caro dressed as a page
The real Mrs. Melbourne, of course, was long since dead; but Lady Caroline Lamb's storied reputation lived on long after her time.  The author of Glenarvon, she was most famous for her brief affair with Lord Byron, which ended in public scandal because she refused to give up her obsession--becoming possibly the first recorded Celebrity Stalker.  Regency fans will always be fascinated by Caro Lamb--she was a Ponsonby by birth, the daughter of the unfortunate Countess of Bessborough, who was a victim of domestic violence, a friend of Sheridan and Charles James Fox, and sister of that Georgian Incomparable, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.  Caroline Ponsonby grew up in the hectic atmosphere of her aunt Georgiana's Devonshire House and Chatsworth.  Ironically, Byron would eventually marry Caro's cousin, Annabella--his sole disastrous foray into marriage.

Researching Melbourne, reading about Caro, and thinking about Regency personalities inevitably led me to a biography of Byron himself.  Naturally, it's littered with love affairs and remarkable women, none of whom--not even his half-sister, with whom he had an incestuous child--appears to have been able to resist him.  A gallery of some of them may be viewed below.
Annabella, Lady Byron, mother of Byron's
legitimate daughter

Augusta Leigh, Byron's half-sister,
mother of an incestuous daughter

Jane Elizabeth, Lady Oxford

Claire Claremont, Mary Shelley's step-sister,
mother of an illegitimate daughter

A single fact at the end of Byron's life gave me pause: he was refused a public funeral or burial in Westminster Abbey in 1824 due to his scandalous life.  Instead, his biographer tells us, he was laid out for viewing at the London home of  Sir Edward Knatchbull.  Yes, Janeites--Byron's wake was held in Fanny Austen Knight Knatchbull's London house.  How did George Gordon end up in with Jane Austen's niece?  I have never been able to find out.  But the link between the two families was all the permission I needed.  I decided Jane MUST encounter some madness in Brighton in 1813.

One more interesting degree of separation: Byron was always in Dun Territory--always at the mercy of his creditors--and when he finally sold his birthright, a crumbling estate called Newstead Abbey, he sold it to the brother of Fanny Austen Knight's Kentish neighbor, James Wildman, of Chilham Castle.  (For more about the Wildman family, see Jane and the Canterbury Tale.)

Happy Winter Reading!


Monday, December 12, 2011

Past Master: Appreciating Margery Allingham

It has been uncharacteristically cold, gray, and snowy here in Denver.  I took a break from twining greens around the house this weekend to curl up on the couch with an icon of Golden Age Detective Fiction--Margery Allingham.

And found myself wondering, as I always do, why she is so rarely read anymore.

Allingham created her amateur British detective, Albert Campion, at the end of the 1920s, as one of those plausible, aristocratic, deceptively foolish young men who look decorative at weekend houseparties and have a knack for solving murders.  Campion reads like a dangerous foil to Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey--his background is deliberately vague, possibly criminal, and his aristocratic family seems to have cast him off.  His valet Lugg--unlike Wimsey's Bunter--is an ex-con.  It's a calculated inversion of a detective fiction trope; and this sinister bent becomes more pronounced as Allingham's writing career evolved and deepened.  I could talk about the excellent classic fiction Allingham turned out in the Thirties--The Fashion in Shrouds, Dancers in Mourning, Black Plumes--but I won't. It's her later fiction that brings me to my knees.

By the 1950s, Allingham abandoned amateur detection for the police procedural, introducing a series of related characters affiliated with Scotland Yard, who call upon the middle-aged Campion as a sort of eminence grise of crime.  More importantly, in such novels as The Tiger in the Smoke and Tether's End, Allingham abandons completely the mystery novel architecture--in favor of a thriller's arc.  She infiltrates the minds of her killers, carrying the reader along with her, in a deft examination of amorality, luck, calculated and cold-blooded murder, and the happy element of chance that unravels a sociopath's world.  She is masterful at inspiring dread, so that even when you've put down the book her characters whisper quietly in the back of your mind and surface at night in your dreams.  Her treatment of trust and its violation, her exploration of the charm of plausible con men and the innocents who care about them, and the final desperation of her trapped criminals, are timeless; her books retain a depth and power entirely due to their complex characterizations.

Allingham's not available in digital format yet, and this neglect--similarly visited upon another Golden Age great, Ngaio Marsh--is a gap in the market SOMEBODY should exploit.  In the meantime, comb your remaining sources of secondhand mystery fiction and snap up the yellowed paperbacks with the deceptively silly covers.  There are forgotten marvels waiting--perfect for a snowy weekend in December.

For a comprehensive wallow in all things Allingham, check out the official website of the Margery Allingham Society.


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Channeling Harriette in Barque of Frailty

Alright, I admit it: there's something of the bodice-ripper in the cover of this particular Jane Austen Mystery--but I love it all the same.  The extraordinary quality of light and movement, the combination of pearl and gold, and the Pauline de Borghese-like quality of the murdered woman's limbs--it all works for a book about sex, blackmail, and power.  And what does any of that have to do with Jane Austen, you ask?

Everything, my friends.

Thinking of Our Jane as a prudish spinster writing in peaceful retirement has always been something of a mistake.  In April, 1811, when Jane and the Barque of Frailty begins, the London Season is in full swing--and Jane Austen is paying an extended visit to her banker-brother Henry and glamorous sister-in-law, Eliza, Comtesse de Feuillide.  Jane is in London to proof the first typeset pages of Sense and Sensibility, publication of which Henry and Eliza have generously underwritten.  Impossible, however, for Jane to escape intrigue--given the nature of the Sloane Street neighborhood the Henry Austens inhabit, and the wildly variable nature of their social acquaintance.  Nearby in Hans Crescent, actress Dolly Jordan--the comic genius of her age, the Duke of Clarence's deserted mistress and mother of his ten children--has set up housekeeping; Lord Moira, one of Henry's banking clients and a member of the dangerous Carlton House Set, is enamored of Eliza; and among their friends are the French emigre Comte d'Entraigues and his opera-singer wife--whose curious political activities would destroy them the following year.  Jane refers to all of these people in her letters from London, and describes the whirl of activity she experienced during the Season, with drollery and satisfaction.  She might have been laboring over her page proofs, but she was also having a darn good time.

The year 1811 was pivotal in British history, ushering in the Prince Regent's nine years of caretaker monarchy and the exit in a straitjacket of his father, George III.  The protracted war in the Peninsula was ending in victory for England, and politicians were squaring off to support or oppose the new Regent.  Against this backdrop of political change London pursued its dissipations with abandon--chief among them, the patronage of powerful men for a class of women known variously as lightskirts, fair Cyprians, the Muslin Company, or Barques of Frailty: courtesans of the demimonde offered carte blanche--full funding--in exchange for their favors.

Jane had long been aware of the proclivity of powerful men for entertaining young women of easy virtue--she touches on the theme in Sense and Sensibility through the saga of Willoughby, a young buck on the Town blessed with handsome looks, charming manners, complete freedom and the prospect of future inheritance, who thinks nothing of seducing the ward of his acquaintance, Colonel Brandon, and abandoning her once she is with child.  In Mansfield Park, she gives the charming Crawfords a naval uncle who insists upon his mistress living with him--which drives his worldly and fashionable young niece out of his home.  As Jane knew, such affairs were not limited to Town life--she refers to the Fowle family's patron, Lord Craven, in a letter dated as early as 8 January 1801, as "having a Mistress now living with him at Ashdown Park...the only unpleasing circumstance about him." Lord Craven was the man responsible for sending Cassandra Austen's fiance, Tom Fowle, to the West Indies in 1792, where he died of yellow fever; in 1801, Craven was created 1st Earl Craven (second creation).  He was quite the dashing figure: a military man, an aide-de-camp to the King, Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire, and eventually the husband of a  famous actress, Louisa Brunton, after whom he named his yacht.  When Jane mentions him, he was about thirty-one years old; his Mistress, we now know, was fifteen--and detested Craven's "ugly white nightcap" as much as Marianne Dashwood deplored flannel.  She ran away from Ashdown Park and embarked upon a storied career preserved forever in one of the Great Reads of the Regency Period: Harriette Wilson's Memoirs.

"The debauched coterie": A depiction of some of the famous members of the ton Wilson named in her Memoirs

Harriette was my guide through the demimondaine's world as I set out to write Barque of Frailty.  Never mind that she's a notoriously unreliable witness--she mailed copies of her manuscript to every client mentioned in its pages, offering to remove them for an exorbitant sum of money, which means the public figures she cheerfully pillories are the ones who stiffed her (no pun intended).  However vicious her portrait of the Duke of Wellington, for example--who famously told her to "publish and be damned!"--her depiction of courtesan life is vivid, entertaining, revelatory, and unsparing.  She was a smart woman living by her wits without much sentimentality, determined to present herself and her friends as victims of Tragic Love.  She made money hand over fist, and was as famous when she ventured into Hyde Park as any of the Society ladies who offered her the Cut Direct.  After publishing her Memoirs, however, she seems to have found it expedient to quit London for the Continent.

Barque of Frailty closes with a scene Harriette would have recognized: The Cyprian's Ball at the Argyle Rooms.  I offer here Cruikshank's lampoon of the event, which was as famous among a certain set as anything Almack's Assembly could offer--and much more enthusiastically patronized.



Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Jane Austen Made Me Do It

Just got my Author Copy of this new anthology of up-to-the-minute Austen-inspired stories (can I find anything else to hyphenate? Oh, yes: It's hot-off-the-press), edited by Austen Maven Laurel Ann Nattress.  The book doesn't officially launch until next Friday night in Ft. Worth, TX--in the warm penumbra of the Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America--but I'm exulting in the advance copy.  So many stories!!!  From so many fabulous pens!!!  Some are modern riffs on the JA world, others are continuations, meditations, improvisations on Jane and her work.  Yes, I have an entry--"Jane and the Gentleman Rogue," in which the much-lamented Lord Harold returns--but who wants to read her own stuff when she can read everybody else's?

For more on the book, check out Laurel Ann's website:

I can't attend the JASNA conference itself this year, because I committed to a charity event in Golden, CO--Books & Brunch--on Saturday Oct. 15th; but I'll be in Ft. Worth Friday night, Oct. 14th, at the Jane Austen Made Me Do It book launch party!  If you're in the area, by all means come!  Lots of great JAMMDI authors will be there, along with Laurel Ann, to sign the anthology--and any other books we're simultaneously peddling.

October 14, 6:30-8:00 pm
Launch Party for Jane Austen Made Me Do It
Barnes & Noble Booksellers
Sundance Square
401 Commerce Street
Fort Worth, TX 76102
(817) 332-7178 

Looking forward--


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Tea with Jane in Scottsdale

As the week winds to a close, I'm about to set off for The Poisoned Pen Bookstore in beautiful Scottsdale, Arizona, where the lovely and talented Barbara Peters and her staff make bookselling look easy.  We're sitting down for a Jane Austen Tea at 2 p.m. this Saturday, September 17th.  I'm expecting a good conversation about all things Jane, and Canterbury Tale in particular. If you're planning to stop by, brings lots of questions--and be sure to read the previous post about Edward Austen-Knight's home, Godmersham Park, in Kent, where Canterbury Tale is set.

Looking forward to a cozy nosh with mystery fans!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Walking the Backroads of Kent: Jane and the Canterbury Tale

One of the particular pleasures of writing about Jane Austen is...the travel!  Oh, the travel!  After her father's retirement and death, Jane moved with depressing regularity in her twenties and thirties--several lodgings in Bath alone, followed by Southampton and eventually Chawton--and she made frequent side trips to visit relatives in Staffordshire (Edward Cooper and his family at  Hamstall-Ridware), Kent (brother Edward at Godmersham), and Warwickshire (a flying visit with strange bedfellows to Stoneleigh Abbey).  She often stayed with her brother Henry in his various London homes, and enjoyed summer visits to towns along the Channel Coast, such as Lyme Regis.  Scholars dispute whether she ever got as far north as Derbyshire--she mentions the town of Bakewell in Pride & Prejudice--but I for one believe that she did. 

And having elected, sometime in the closing years of the last century, to write about Jane myself--I had little choice but to follow where she led.  I have traipsed around the English countryside in the grip of obsession, hunting for the obvious and the obscure among the Monuments to Jane.  I've lost myself in hedgerows searching for Edward Cooper's parsonage, slept in a canopied bed in a Palladian villa outside of Bath, and traced the remnants of a Humphrey Repton garden; but some of my loveliest memories are of Godmersham Park, Edward Austen Knight's estate about eight miles outside Canterbury, in Kent.  And I never even looked inside the house.

Godmersham in Jane and Edward's day
Edward, as most Janeites know, was considered the most fortunate of the six Austen sons, because he was adopted at the age of twelve by Thomas Knight, a childless but wealthy cousin.   Edward inherited Godmersham in Kent, along with Chawton Great House in Hampshire and some other landholdings; he was occasionally plagued with lawsuits disputing his right to inherit Thomas Knight's property, and he was required to take the Knight name--but in general, he settled with apparent happiness and few regrets into the life of a country gentleman. 

The Front Hall at Godmersham
His eleven children grew up in affluence, with public school educations and good hunting for the boys; the girls suffered a parade of governesses--Jane befriended some of these, like Anne Sharpe, and passed over others, like the Miss Clewes who figures in Canterbury Tale.   The Austen-Knights entertained everybody, and were entertained in return, in their neighborhood in Kent: the Wildmans at Chilham Castle, the Finch-Hattons at Eastwell Park, and their various Bridges cousins.  Godmersham was a large and handsome house, set into a fold of the hills, with the River Stour running between it and the road; from Jane's letters, written in October and November of 1813, it seems like a house constantly full of people.  The local MP and Master of Hounds, Mr. Lushington, arrives to dine and spend the night; Young Edward's friends drop in and out of the guest bedrooms prior to his departure for Oxford; the Moores arrive for a week and install their son in the nursery.  Jane herself spends two months at Godmersham that autumn, and is able to collect considerable material for the book she is thinking of writing--a book called Emma.  She revels in the comfort and society of the place, the opportunity for stimulation, and her drives into the walled cathedral town of Canterbury.  On one of those junkets, Edward--who is First Magistrate--takes her through the Canterbury Gaol at Westgate.

Years later, I walked through Canterbury myself, looking for the old gaol.  I bought some Regency fashion plates--I collect them--at a small bookseller's in one of the town's winding streets, then caught a bus that dropped me without ceremony at the end of Godmersham Park's long drive.

Sheep on the Godmersham Downs
At the time, the house was a corporate headquarters.  I was free to walk up the driveway, however, and traverse the grounds--all of which look remarkably as they must have done in Jane's day--because Godmersham sits on the ancient Pilgrim's Way, the footpath between London and Canterbury Cathedral.  The Pilgrim's Way is open to hikers, as are all public footpaths in England, regardless of whose property they cross.  For a while that sunny July morning I was able to pretend I was one of Chaucer's merry band of fellow-travellers, telling stories to pass the time.  And I could imagine Jane, spinning tales of her own, as she walked the high hills of Edward's estate, dotted with specimen trees and sheep.  I went on to set two books at Godmersham:  Jane and the Genius of the Place, which occurs during the summer of 1805, known as the Great Terror, when Kent was braced for Napoleon's expected invasion; and now the eleventh Austen mystery, Jane and the Canterbury Tale.  This story revisits the Austen-Knights eight years later, in 1813--when Elizabeth Austen is long since dead, her children growing up, and her husband Edward still mourning her.  It is very much a family story, about love and loss, and the endurance of such things through time.  It is also, by design, a story of fellow-travelers, and the adventurous tales they weave about the past, rather as Chaucer's Pilgrims did in that other Canterbury Tale.

It is possible this is the last Jane Austen mystery I will write.  I don't regret leaving my Jane here, where I first felt I truly found her--hurrying with her pen and small, handsewn book of paper toward the little temple set on a hill, to gaze out over Edward's paradise, and dream her particular dreams.  I hope you find your own Jane Austen in this Canterbury Tale, too.



Monday, August 8, 2011

Austenesque Extravaganza: An Interview With Lord Harold

Portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence.
Without question, the most beloved and intriguing gentleman in the entire Being a Jane Austen Mystery Series is Lord Harold Trowbridge, second son of the Fifth Duke of Wilborough: ardent Whig  and debonair clubman; unrepentant duellist and Man-about-Town; trusted confidant of the Crown and implacable enemy of Buonaparte--otherwise known as the Gentleman Rogue.  Lord Harold first made his appearance in Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor; having suffered an untimely demise in Jane and the Ghosts of Netley, he nonetheless reappears in a forthcoming short story, "Jane and the Gentleman Rogue," set in 1805 Bath, and presently to be published in Jane Austen Made Me Do It (Random House, October 2011, Laurel Ann Nattress, editor.)  The following is an informal interview with Lord Harold, conducted on the fly by The Author.

The AuthorHow did you come to make such a mull of your affair with Jane?

Lord Harold: Good God!  You might spare a fellow a very little!  Do you not think I've been asking myself the same damned question--and for all eternity?  I am one of those who are fated, perhaps, only to apprehend the worth of a creature once she is past all reclaiming.  We exist, you know--in our own particular Hell.  She was an excellent woman, Jane--unmatched, indeed, in her time and sphere.  No beauty to speak of, mind--except, perhaps, for her very speaking eyes.  When they did not mourn, they laughed irrepressibly, at some inner voice of ridicule she alone heard, that subjected all humanity to its scorn--as no eyes I've ever seen, before or since, have laughed.  So must God Himself have roared, to witness our absurdity!  It was her wit I loved; I confess it unashamedly.  Lord Harold, enamored of a Bluestocking!  She ruined me for every other woman.

And her hair!  How I should have loved to have seen it unbound.  I itched to loose those pins, at times, in the close conference of my carriage, when we two were locked together in the swaying conveyance; an intimate and separate world, whose tragic dignity was preserved only by my restraint--the forbearance of a gentleman.  What is forbearance, after all, when its sole reward is the grave?  I might have run my fingers through those chestnut locks, and held her fast, within the span of what little time remained to me--

The Author: But you did not; and she died unwed--though perhaps not unloved.

Lord Harold:  Her works outlived her.  I predicted that much, you know--it was I who told her she must write, as I lay gasping from the effects of the knife-wound that despatched me.  She should never have achieved the greatness she did, had I once loosed that glorious hair, and taken her to wife; she should have become something quite else--Lady Harold, a formidable figure, tricked out by the most expensive modiste, which I dare swear she would have gloried in.  But her writing?  A thing for the fireside; for the amusement of children and indolent cousins, hanging on her sleeve.  No: She was better by far, left to Genius, than claimed by me. 

The Author:  You are eloquent in your own defense.

Lord Harold:  Naturally.  Eloquence is the most necessary weapon of a gentleman's arsenal; it disarms reproof, even as it wounds.  An art lost to your age--but one that defined mine.  Recollect: A gentleman is nothing without Honour; and what is honour stripped of eloquence?  A poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage--a Buonaparte, in fact, glorying in the sacrifice of better men.

The Author:  You devoted your life to defeating Napoleon.

Lord Harold: I see you call him by the name he chose, rather than the one to which he was born.  I was never one to pander to a shortened stature, puffed up by bravado--except when it was called Nelson.  For the Hero of Trafalgar, one must always make exception.

The Author: Hah!  You are an adept, I see, at turning the conversation.  But we are to talk of Jane--and so I must ask you, my lord, about the curious cask you bequeathed her.  A chest full of papers, kept safe by your solicitors, and bearing your entire history--not to mention the history of your generation.  A dangerous gift, was it not?  And one contested by the Trowbridge family?  Your brother the Sixth Duke was most incensed.  Such names as he called Miss Austen!   

Lord Harold:  My brother is a fool.  --Reason enough to have guarded my papers.  Wilborough should have burnt them--but Jane knew how to use them.

The Author: The very fact of the bequest argues that you anticipated your death.

Lord Harold: But of course.  We are all merely borrowers of Time.  It is a wise man who banks upon nonexistence.

 The Author:  But what of those who gain Immortality?

Lord Harold:  Such as Jane, you would mean?  Why else cultivate Genius?  I would not be sitting under your eye, my dear Authoress, were it not for my extraordinary discernment--in having seen in Miss Austen, what no one else of her circle recognised: that she possessed the animating flame, unique to herself and her age, that should prove imperishable.  I warmed myself at that flame while I lived; I was perhaps scorched by it; but it has kept the cold of the grave forever at bay for us both.  And what is the transitory state of a mere Lady Harold, after all, compared to that?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Rogue is Sped: Jane and the Ghosts of Netley

It's not too much to say that I've received more mail--and more of it outraged--in response to Jane and the Ghosts of Netley than the rest of the series combined.  This has to do, of course, with the ending--which, if you haven't yet read the novel, I won't spoil for you.  I will only say that Lord Harold Trowbridge himself dictated it to me, and I had no choice but to write down what he said. 

This is a phenomenon most readers can't believe: that the characters we create live their own lives, well beyond our control, and are anything but subject to our authorial impulses.  The Gentleman Rogue has always gone his own way--and I was never one to bridle him.

The book is set in the autumn of 1808, in a ruined abbey that still sits across the Solent from Jane Austen's home in Southampton.  Netley Abbey was of Cistercian founding, long since destroyed; and we know from Jane's letters that she was in the habit of visiting it.  In this book, she discovers a nest of spies operating from the ruined abbey's height, which afforded an excellent view of the waterway. 

But of greater interest to me, perhaps, is the secondary tale that runs through the novel--of Maria Fitzherbert, the cast-off Catholic "wife" (as she certainly believed herself to be) of the Prince of Wales.  The twice-widowed Maria, prevented by her religion and commoner status from a sanctified marriage with the Prince, consented to marry him morganatically in 1786--ten years before he married his cousin, Princess Caroline of Brunswick, at his father George III's instigation.  Discarded in favor of other paramours as she aged, Maria Fitzherbert nonethless remained a friend of the Prince of Wales--and in all probability, the mother of his illegitimate offspring.  The notion of an heir to the throne, the product of an illegal Catholic marriage, was so socially explosive--and so politically volatile--that any such child would only survive in secrecy.  It is that story I explore in Ghosts of Netley.

If this novel stirs your interest in the history of Charles Carroll of Carrollton and his descendants, by all means pick up a copy of Sisters of Fortune, by Jehane Wake.  The story of the four beautiful Caton sisters--Charles Carroll's granddaughters--took Europe by storm in Jane Austen's day: painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence, beloved of Wellington, and the epitome of convention-shattering American women.  If they knew Maria Fitzherbert's secret, they never breathed a word.



Monday, June 13, 2011

A Fine Naval Fervour: Jane and the Prisoner of Wool House

One of the great indulgences in the life of an Austen fan is a trip designed to follow in her footsteps.  I've naturally had to travel in Austen country a number of times in order to research the various books in this detective series, but oddly enough, I never find the terrain tedious.  One of my favorites stops is Portsmouth--blasted nearly to oblivion in the second World War, but home nonetheless to a replica of Nelson's flagship, Victory, and the Royal Navy's fabulous maritime museum.  This is pure jam for anybody who cut her literary eyeteeth on C.S. Forestor's Horatio, or Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey--or anyone who finds Captain Frank Austen one of the more interesting of Jane's brothers.

Frank was on shore leave during the course of the sixth Jane Austen mystery, Jane and the Prisoner of Wool House, living with his young wife, Mary, his future wife, Martha, and the female members of his family in hired lodgings in Southampton, a short sail up the Solent from Portsmouth.  Although Southampton suffered terribly from German bombing runs on the docks, vestiges of the old walled city Jane knew can still be found--a sort of treasure hunt for any Austen fan with a copy of In the Footsteps of Jane Austen tucked into her purse.  There's Castle Square (although the house is gone) where Jane lived and the Dolphin Inn, with its bow window, where she danced at the Assembly despite her advancing spinsterhood.

I stayed at the Dolphin while I was in town--and although it has since been smartly renovated, the arched carriage entrance to the inner courtyard still gives a sense of  the coaching inn it must have been two hundred years ago.  One imagines all sorts of people hastening from London to take ship in Southampton, and stopping the night at the Dolphin; I would use it again in the next novel, Jane and the  Ghosts of Netley, when Lord Harold Trowbridge gave Jane a lesson in the use of his dueling pistols in the Dolphin's yard.

And of course, there is the Wool House still sitting as it has for seven hundred years facing the quay, a square, utilitarian, medieval building erected by Cistercian monks--the same ones who were housed at Netley Abbey across the Solent in the 14th century.  It was once a center of the English wool trade, most recently it housed Southampton's Maritime Museum, and is currently up for redevelopment by the town council--but in Jane's day, the Wool House served as a temporary prison for French seamen.  She must have passed it often as she walked briskly down the High and turned left, toward the little theatre where she enjoyed attending plays.

The French sailors kept in the Wool House would have been held only temporarily, awaiting exchange for English sailors taken in battle with the French.  The notion of exchange is a strange one for most of us moderns; we assume that once taken prisoner, a seaman would be sidelined for the duration of the war.  But in Jane's day, POW camps were unheard of.  Officers taken prisoner were often housed by their Enemy brethren, and treated with the respect demanded by rank, dining at table with their former combatants and attempting to converse in each other's language.  In a matter of days or weeks they returned cordially to the business of killing each other.  The process seems almost civilized, in retrospect--an honourable approach to the notion of warfare that probably ended decades later somewhere in the Crimea.

Standing in front of Wool House one July day, however, I felt a shiver as I imagined the men held within, and Jane walking by.  The Wool House's windows would have offered glimpses of unknown French faces, or snatches of French song drifting to the street.  Or perhaps a plea for aid, from a French prisoner to an unknown Enlishwoman, whose brother was a naval officer...

The cover of this particular novel is my favorite of all the Jane books.  It so perfectly captures the color of the sea, the sense of wind off the Solent, even the possibility of hope--as Jane gazes out at the horizon.  Enjoy!


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Anatomising Jane: The Stillroom Maid

For any person with a knowledge of history, traveling in Derbyshire is an emotional venture.  It was here that an entire village quarantined itself, the inhabitants slowly dying of the plague, in an extraordinary act of communal stoicism that is creatively reimagined in Geraldine Brooks's novel, Year of Wonders.  In Derbyshire, too, is Thomas Banks's masterpiece, a marble statue of little Penelope Boothby, which draws countless visitors to Ashbourne Church.  The child died at the age of five in 1793, and the anguished inscription of her parents is profoundly moving:
She was in form and intellect most exquisite.  The unfortunate parents ventured their all on this frail Bark.  And the wreck was total.

Penelope rests on her side, cheek cradled by a pillow, her hands cupped beneath her chin; the very image of a sleeping child.  The statue is heartbreaking.  We're told people mourned their dead children less in past centuries, because mortality rates were so high; but this is clearly false comfort.  I carried the image of Penelope in my mind as I toured Derbyshire, and the death of children wound its way into the plot of The Stillroom Maid.
Derbyshire boasts the great estate of Chatsworth, of course--still haunted by the ghost of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and the extraordinary risks she took at the gaming tables and beyond; haunted, too, by the memory of Kick Kennedy, Jack's little sister, who married Devonshire's heir Billy Hartington in 1944, in the teeth of family outrage, only to have him killed by a German sniper five weeks later.  Kick died tragically young and is buried in the Devonshire plot at Edensour, a few miles from Chatsworth; but her puckish grin still blazes from the portrait gallery's walls. 

In a story that revolves around Lord Harold Trowbridge, second son of a duke and Rogue-About-Town, it was impossible not to use Chatsworth--it was a center of Whig politics in Jane Austen's day, and Lord Harold was nothing if not a Whig.  He would certainly have known the Incomparable Georgiana, who has recently died at the opening of this book.  From Lord Harold to Jane, dancing at Chatsworth, is but a step. 

Jane describes the little town of Bakewell, three miles from Chatsworth, in some critical chapters of Pride and Prejudice.  But as I mention in the introduction to Jane and the Stillroom Maid, most Austen scholars assume Jane never saw Derbyshire at all, because no letter exists dated from the county.  Some of us suspect otherwise.  She writes about the Peak District as she wrote about Lyme Regis in Persuasion, with the sort of contained passion for a place she lovedAs a writer myself, I find it categorically unlikely that she would choose to place Pemberley, much less the pivotal encounter between Darcy and Elizabeth, in a place she'd never seen.  d'Arcy was the family name of the Earls of Holderness, local to Derbyshire.

A wall placque in The Rutland Arms in Bakewell declares that Jane Austen stayed there during the summer of 1811, but that is unlikely--the family record has her elsewhere.  She might, however, have visited in 1806, while staying with her cousin Edward Cooper in neighboring Staffordshire.  During Jane's six-week visit to the parsonage at Hamstall Ridware, the numerous Cooper progeny contracted a virulent strain of whooping cough, and it seems plausible that Cousin Edward might suggest a side-trip for his guests to the beauties of Matlock and Dove Dale, while his children hacked away at home under the harassed attentions of his long-suffering wife.  The absurdities of Edward Cooper are one of the delights, for me, of this book.

Thus, the setting of The Stillroom Maid. 

Murder, however?  And maids?

The plot arose from various influences.  Chief among them was a portrait I saw in a country-house hotel outside of Bath.  I'd stayed at Ston Easton Park while researching The Genius of the Place--the beautiful Palladian-style house still boasted the remnants of a garden designed by Humphrey Repton, and the owners had one of Repton's famous Red Books, outlining his proposed changes, in their library.  In another room, however, hung a group portrait of the servants resident during Jane Austen's time.  Among them were the housekeeper--a truculent looking middle-aged woman in a white cap--the steward, a dark and wiry fellow with a determined jaw--and the stillroom maid.  Her hands were folded and her gaze was demure; but her gaze was suggestive.  She was young, and her features were delicate. She was flirting with the painter. 

I asked about the portrait--was it usual to commission a study of one's servants?

"There's a story about that," the Ston Easton staffer confided.  "Apparently the steward had an affair with the stillroom maid, and the housekeeper murdered her in a fit of jealous rage."

In the Austen household, Cassandra served as stillroom maid.  The stillroom was where produce was preserved, fruit wines were made, and simple medicines were distilled.  Hence the term, "still room."  A stillroom book would have been a household's compilation of both recipes and remedies. 

I've researched and reconstructed a number of stillroom receipts for my character, Tess Arnold.  But I feel compelled to add, in the interest of my readers' health:  Don't try these at home....


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Surveying Jane's Landscape: Jane and the Genius of the Place

It's not every day that a complete stranger walks up to you in the middle of a crowded bookstore and confesses, in a distinctly audible voice, My mother was a whore.

There are a range of possible responses every author has mastered.  Fixed smile, sympathetic nod, sidelong glance at bookstore security--or just the polite question: "And how would you like your book signed?"  Two things prevented me from completely embarrassing myself on this occasion, however--the speaker's English accent, and her burst of laughter immediately following her extraordinary confidence.

She meant Hoare, of course.  As in: My mother was raised in one of the most privileged banking families in Britain.

Henry Hoare II and his heirs created Stourhead, a glorious Wiltshire estate that should be on every garden-lover's bucket list.  (If you've seen the movie Barry Lyndon, you've seen Stourhead--it was partly filmed there.)  I was fortunate enough to wander through its extraordinary valley, beautiful woodland paths, and around its lake--complete with grotto and statuary hermit--on a day of fitful rain, when visitors were few.  Stourhead must be seen to be fully appreciated, much less believed--a constructed landscape that appears to have existed forever; a staggeringly expensive undertaking intended to reach its apogee long after its architects were dead.  I used it as a model for The Larches, home of banker Mr. Grey and his mysterious wife, in Jane and the Genius of the Place.

A friend of mine insists that my titles in the Jane series are ridiculously complicated, and probably put readers off.  She advises me to name each of my books Jane and Mr. Darcy.  She figures they'd sell gangbusters if I did.  And Genius of the Place wins her prize for Stupid Title of All Time.  I mean, what was I thinking?

I was thinking of Alexander Pope, who once wrote: "In laying out a garden, the first and chief thing to be considered is the genius of the place."  By this he meant the atmosphere, the animating spirit, the overwhelming emotional sensation one receives in a particular spot--and that the gardener violates it at her peril.  In ancient times, it was common to believe in the actual Spirit of the place--Horace refers to the resident genie--and propitiate it with sacrifices. 

What does all this have to do with Jane Austen?

She thought about landscape a good deal, although her novelistic descriptions are famously brief.  There was a rage for landscape design in the late Georgian and Regency periods, as the naturalistic concepts of Lancelot Capability Brown gave way to the Gothic vogue of Humphrey Repton.  The "improvement of the estate" became the object of every gentleman of Fashion; and Jane's tongue-in-cheek treatment of this bit of pop culture is most obvious in Mansfield Park.  Poor, dull, Mr. Rushworth hankers after an Improver for his estate at Sotherton; his friend Smith has employed Repton; his affianced bride is certain only Mr. Repton will do for her--and Rushworth even states, with careless insouciance, that Repton's terms are five guineas a day, an astronomic sum that signifies Rushworth's wealth.  (Mansfield Park, Oxford edition, p. 53).  How did Jane know all this?  One of her relatives employed Repton to transform Stoneleigh Abbey when he inherited it--the estate Jane is commonly thought to have used as a model for Rushworth's Sotherton.  She would have made a point of getting the man's fees exactly right.

But of course, landscape is chiefly valuable as metaphor, in Austen's work--Rushworth's need to dress up his noble pile is unwitting evidence of a value for form over substance.  His sham landscape--decorated with faux Gothic ruins and other Follies--is a metaphor for his sham marriage, where all the expense in the world cannot compensate for a lack of real feeling.  Similarly, Henry Crawford--the consummate Improver--tries to remake simple Edmund's honest home in the style of a gentleman--representing a clergyman's living as a fashionable residence for a man of the world, which is what Edmund has no desire to pretend to be.  Even Mary Crawford unconsciously invokes Alexander Pope in urging her brother's help:  "Only think how useful he was at Sotherton!  Only think what grand things were produced there by our all going with him one hot day in August to drive about the grounds, and see his genius take fire."  (Emphasis mine.  MP, p. 244). 

Jane and the Genius of the Place is a riff on all of these themes.  It features an Improver rather like Humphrey Repton, one Julian Southey, who possesses a charm that masks a peculiar agenda.  Set at Godmersham, Edward Austen's home in Kent, during the summer of the Great Terror--1805--when the entire Channel coast was braced for Napoleon's invasion, it is a tale that blends horse racing, French spies, local militia movements, and the rhythms of country house life with brutal murder.  Southey is the particular friend of one of Edward's neighbours--Mr. Finch-Hatton--whose son, George, appears as a principal character in the forthcoming Jane and the Canterbury Tale, due out in late September 2011.  (And yes: those of you who remember Isak Dinesen and Beryl Markham's separate accounts of their love affairs in Africa with Denys Finch-Hatton are not mistaken--he was a descendant of the same family.  Charm is genetic.)

Enjoy--and may we all realize our peculiar Genius!


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Art and Drama of Bath: Jane and the Wandering Eye

Lord Harold Trowbridge, my dark angel of recent adventure--confidant of the Crown, adversary of whomever he is paid to oppose, and general Rogue-about-Town--is the Dowager Duchess of Wilborough's younger son.  He is also in the throes of some trouble with a lady--nothing unusual for Lord Harold, although in this instance, the novelty of the lady's being not only unmarried, but related to him, must give the mendacious pause.
When I wrote the third Jane Austen mystery, Jane and the Wandering Eye, I was in the throes of passion for a relic of late Georgian England known as the eye portrait.  This is a diminutive painting of a human eye, generally executed by an accomplished miniaturist, and worn as a locket or other piece of jewelry. 

Eye portraits are reputed to have come into fashion when the Prince of Wales commissioned Sir Richard Cosway to paint the eye of Maria Fitzherbert; by some accounts, he wore it next to his heart all his life, and was even buried with it--although this is probably unproved.  (Maria herself he certainly did not retain so long.)  The portraits became known as lovers' tokens--for only with the eye of love can one see truly.  Eye portraits were suggestive of hidden passion, illicit amour, and clandestine love, as well--for an eye is difficult to identify, when abstracted from a face.  It might be anybody's. 

What a perfect clue to drop at the scene of murder!

Jane and the Wandering Eye is set in Bath in 1804, during the Christmas Season.  This is an important time in Jane Austen's life, because it marks the high tide of her young womanhood.  A month later, in January 1805, her clergyman father would unexpectedly die, throwing his widow and two unmarried daughters into domestic upheaval.  Although Jane never loved Bath, she was soon to leave it, as the Austen ladies embarked upon a series of short-term lodgings and impermanent households throughout the south of England.  This, then, is Jane Before the Flood--able to enjoy the frivolities and absurdities of a watering-hole she describes so vividly in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.  In depicting Bath  in 1804, I hoped to paint a town that was not yet a backwater, but a fashionable alternative to London and Brighton, the Prince of Wales's preferred escape.  To do that, I consciously tapped into the culture of painting and of the theatre--eye portraits and Shakespearean actors--to serve as backdrop to Jane's detective adventure.

On occasion, readers ask where I find my ideas for novels.  Invariably, I tell them that I stumble on a subject I wish to research--and build a story around it.  This was true of the portrait painting of the period, and also of the state of the theatre at the time.  Both were flourishing enterprises, and both served on occasion to elevate their foremost practitioners from the fringe of society to its heights.  The aforementioned Sir Richard Cosway received his title for services to the Crown; his estranged wife, the enchanting Maria Cosway, was a compelling painter herself whom Napoleon chose to catalogue his breathtaking collection of stolen paintings--which became the foundation of the Louvre Museum.  While in Paris on this errand, Maria Cosway fell in love with Thomas Jefferson.  As the fashion for Georgian styles of painting, exemplified by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Gainsborough, waned, however, the freer and clearly more "modern" hand of Thomas Lawrence came into vogue.  He emerges as a chief character in Jane and the Wandering Eye for several reasons: he had personal ties to principal acting families of the period, and his popularity as a portraitist among the wealthy and influential meant that he had access throughout late Georgian--early Regency Society.  His career reached its apogee--and he received his title--when he was commissioned to paint both the Regent and the heroes of Waterloo (including the Duke of Wellington, left) whose portraits now hang in the famous Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle.

Researching the theatre of the time was equally compelling, as plays fell broadly into two categories--tragedy and comedy--and most accomplished actors or actresses excelled at one or the other.  Sarah Siddons exemplified tragedy; her brothers, John and Charles Kemble, the ultimate in Shakespearean interpretation; and Dolly Jordan the comic muse.  Dolly Jordan embodies an actress who moved between two worlds--that of the stage, which was regarded as disreputable for a woman to grace in Austen's time, and that of the haute ton; as the Duke of Clarence's mistress, she bore ten children known as the FitzClarences.  For those interested in Dolly, I suggest Claire Tomalin's excellent biography and study of theatre in Austen's day, Mrs. Jordan's Profession.

The most successful transition from boards to bedroom, however, was effected by the comic beauty Elizabeth Farren--who, after years of hopeful passion for the Earl of Derby, became his second countess when his first wife finally died.  The connections between art, theatre, and the Great World come together in Sir Thomas Lawrence's famous portrait of Elizabeth Farren, seen here. 

Weaving all of these elements into a story for Jane and Lord Harold--whose wilfull niece, Desdemona, makes her first appearance in the series in Wandering Eye--was a delightful exercise.  Naturally, Mona would have her portrait painted by Lawrence...

Many readers have commented that this novel is reminiscent of a Georgette Heyer book; and I never argue the point.  Heyer, for those who have not yet read her, created what we think of as the Regency novel--and any portrait of Bath during Austen's lifetime must inevitably evoke the Heyer atmosphere.  If you enjoy Wandering Eye, have read Austen's novels set in Bath, and still want more of the place and period--by all means consult Heyer.  My favorite of her Bath novels include Bath Tangle and The Black Sheep.


Sunday, February 20, 2011

Jane and the Man of the Cloth: Enjoying the Gentlemen of the Night

Your account of Weymouth contains nothing which strikes me so forcibly as there being no Ice in the Town; for every other vexation I was in some measure prepared;. . . .But for there being no Ice, what could prepare me!  Weymouth is altogether a shocking place, I perceive, without recommendation of any kind. . .
From Letter No. 39, dated 14 September 1804, to Cassandra Austen
Jane Austen's Letters, 3rd Edition (Oxford University Press, Deirdre Le Faye, editor.)

This second novel in the Jane Austen Mystery Series is one of my absolute favorites--so much so, that I often tell readers to start with Book 2, rather than Scargrave Manor.  Why?  I suppose because it combines so many of the things I love about writing the series: fidelity to one of Jane's actual letters; espionage during the Napoleonic Wars; and immersion in a particular place we know Jane loved--Lyme Regis.  Finally, the story is woven around a mystery in Jane's life, something that has come to be called her "nameless, dateless" romance.  The vaguest of tales has filtered through the years from a chance comment of Caroline Austen's, who said that Cassandra once mentioned that Jane fell in love with a clergyman while traveling along the Channel Coast one summer, between 1802 and 1804; and that she expected to meet up with her lover further along the coast--expected, indeed, a proposal of marriage from him--but upon arriving at her destination, learned instead that the clergyman was...dead.

It is virtually impossible for a mystery writer to read this and not think about murder.  Or imagine that perhaps the clergyman was no clergyman at all, but a notorious smuggler known by his soubriquet of The Reverend--because he was a "man of the cloth," a dealer in smuggled silks. 

The book's fundamental inspiration, however, was Jane's letter No. 39 to Cassandra, written from Lyme Regis in September of 1804.  I've excerpted it above--and that excerpt raised a host of questions in my mind.  First, why did Cassandra leave her family and journey on from Lyme to Weymouth?  Why was Jane obsessed by the lack of ice?  (In all probability, she was teasing Cassandra about a chance comment, but to a novelist, simple explanations are never enough.)  I decided Cassandra was in DIRE NEED of ice, because she'd sustained a concussion when the Austen carriage overturned in a vicious storm upon arrival in Lyme--and was thus sent on to Weymouth for her health.  And so the book begins.

Throughout this series of novels featuring Jane Austen and her family, I've chosen one of two paths in composing the plots: Either I fill a gap in the existing correspondence--a blank hole where no letter of Jane's survives to tell us how she lived during the period in question--or I take one of her letters and use it as a blueprint for her schedule, habits, dress, entertainments, conversation and intimate circle during the course of the story.  The minor addition of a murder and its investigation is woven, I hope fairly seamlessly, into the actual record of her days.  Man of the Cloth is the most thorough example of this method.  Jane wrote in such detail from Lyme in 1804 that I was forced to incorporate her life during that period in every respect.  She mentions the name of her manservant, and the fact that he led her to an evening's entertainment with a lanthorn--a sign that it was a night without moonlight, considered dangerous for travel abroad; she mentions bathing at Charmouth on a particular day; she describes her mother losing a sum of money during a game of whist with a man she names only as Le Chevalier.  She also names the local surgeon--and it was my great good fortune, in reading a history of Lyme by the noted novelist John Fowles, to discover that Jane's surgeon was also the coroner for the town.  Every murder mystery MUST have its coroner--and Jane had already met him.  She told Cassandra so.

In this sense, Man of the Cloth is a true mosaic of fact and fiction, a sort of treasure hunt for readers familiar with Letter No. 39.  If you haven't read it, I encourage you to do so--and then compare Jane's actual life with the adventure I give her in my book.  It is essential, too, to reread Persuasion--her love song to Lyme, and the possibility of love triumphant, the most poignant and heartfelt, in my opinion, of her novels.
Happy reading!