“Jane and the Year Without a Summer”, by Stephanie Barron (Soho Crime)
Ah, here is the excellent Miss Jane Austen, who is obliging enough to offer the intelligence of an admirable new mystery. Don’t worry, dear reader. Miss Austen has been too particular in her intentions to secure a favorable result.
Well, you understand.
Denver author Stephanie Barron (soon to be signing books to the Tattered Cover; see details below) has penned another of her charming Jane Austen mysteries. In “Jane and the Year Without a Summer” (1816), Jane and her sister, Cassandra, travel to Cheltenham to take the waters in hopes of curing Jane’s ailments. (Barron concludes that Jane has Addison’s disease, which was unrecognized at the time.) Treatments consist mainly of rest and drinking foul-tasting water.
A doctor attributes Jane’s ill health to her celibacy because “the uterus is to blame for all sorts of ailments common to your sex, Miss Austen – nervous complaints, lassitude, strong hysterics, a dangerous desire for excessive learning “.
No wonder Jane doesn’t like him.
The two sisters take rooms at Mrs. Potter’s boarding house, with a cast of characters that includes the beautiful, wheelchair-bound Miss Williams (who faints at any inconvenience) and her companion, Miss Fox. The Garthwaits, an elderly and cunning sister and brother, and Captain Pellew, a retired sailor, are also among the guests.
Much to Jane’s delight, she discovers that the painter Raphael West is staying at the hotel next door. Jane fell in love with him in a previous book, but thought he had forgotten about her. Oh, reckless Jane.
One evening, West escorts the two sisters to a performance, hiring a private box next to Miss Williams and her friend. When Miss Williams spots the couple entering the box on Jane’s other side, she screams and passes out. To the surprise of the set at Mrs Potter, the couple are Miss Williams’ husband, Lord Portreath, and stepmother, Mrs Williams.
Lady Portreath, it seems, ran away from a miserable marriage. She despises her husband and longs for freedom. “With such animosity towards the male sex and its power, why did you ever consent to marry?” asks Joan. She had no choice, replies Lady Portreath. Under the terms of her father’s will, Lady Portreath could not touch her fortune until she married, and then would lose control of it once she became pregnant.
The ladies are inclined to please the poor wife. Her husband is a bully, who insists on removing his wife from Cheltenham, and when the macaroons he sends his wife turn out to be poisoned, Mrs Potter’s guests conclude that Lord Portreath is trying to kill his wife.
Of course, there is a murder, which I keep silent about, because it occurs late in the book. Know that it is solved nicely by Jane, with the help of West.
Murder is almost incidental to “Jane and the Year Without a Summer”. (The title refers to an 1816 volcanic eruption in Indonesia, which sent a cloud of ash around the globe, causing global climate change.) Barron’s delightful writing, his characters and the twists in their relationships, and the colored Regency frame, by themselves, are enough to carry the book.
“Jane and the Year Without a Summer” is number 14 in Barron’s Jane Austen series, and Jane’s health declines. Is the series coming to an end? It would be a shame, because the mysteries are getting better and better.
So, good reader, with gratitude to the author, enjoy this delightful addition to Jane Austen’s most excellent mystery series. You have done it again, Miss Barron, and we are indebted to you.
IF YOU ARE GOING TO
Stephanie Barron will be at the Tattered Cover Book Store on E. Colfax Avenue for a talk and book signing at 7 p.m. on Thursday, February 17. More information at tattooedcover.com.