Bridgette Redman's Reviews > Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor

Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor by Stephanie Barron
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Feb 01, 12

Read in January, 2000

It is rare for me to write that the first book in a series I am fond of is a dud. Perhaps that is because if the first book is unenjoyable, it is rare for me to read any further in the series. One exception to this rule is Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen series.

The first book in the series, Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor is rather forgettable. So forgettable, that when I decided to review the first three books in the series, I realized there was little I could recall about the book, except that one of Jane’s friends was accused of killing her husband. So off to the library I went (the copy of the book I owned having been destroyed in a basement flood), and checked out the book to re-read it. So little of it had stuck with me that the revelation of the murderer remained suspenseful until the end. Not a common occurrence when re-reading a mystery novel.

The Good

That the book was suspenseful and well-plotted are definitely points in its favor. The Earl of Scargrave dies after a winter ball celebrating his nuptials with Isobel, a friend of Jane Austen. Isobel’s maid leaves the house and accuses Isobel of murdering her husband. It is left to the wits of Miss Austen to prove the innocence of her friend and unravel the mystery.

As a pure exercise in characterization, the novel is wonderful. Barron paints very rich characters—Austen not the least of them. She shows us each character through Austen’s yes and we’re inclined to take Austen’s judgement much of the time. Barron adopts the cultural gentility that is present in Austen’s own writing and our critiques of characters are often made with the standards of the time—1802, rather than by our modern standards.

Barron also does a beautiful job of recreating Austen’s writing style. The story is presented in a series of diary entries and a few letters to her sister Cassandra. I think Barron originally meant to use more letters but as she wrote the book found the diary entries more convenient as the letters disappear as a device.

There is the usual prologue often used in novels about historical characters claiming that the manuscripts were recently “found” and are being made public for the first time. I have mixed feelings about the device, for while it gives the writer an excuse to use historical figures as literary ones, I’d rather they simply took the characters and offered us no excuses except fine writing and plotting.

The Bad

I may be committing sacrilege here, but as much as I enjoy the stories of Jane Austen, I am not a big fan of her writing style (despite admitting that it is much better than anything I’ll ever achieve). Barron imitates Austen to a fault and not always the strongest points of Austen’s writing. Also, Barron is sometimes clumsy in her imitation in this book, sacrificing her own voice to Austen’s, something that can be most dangerous for any writer.

This novel has a tendency to plod. It takes too many pages to say too little. The reader can anticipate much of what is going to happen long before it does. I do exclude the final denouement from the previous statement. The novel’s end has several interesting and unexpected twists.

Jane’s acquaintances often remark on her wit and cleverness, but the reader sees very little of said wit displayed. We must take the word of her flatterers. It is one of Barron’s biggest flaws in the novel—she tells rather than shows.

OK, but read it anyway

Despite these criticisms and the slow pace of the book, I still recommend you read it. The rest of the series is very good. It is almost as if this is a mere practice novel for Barron for she certainly gets it right in subsequent books.

The other books in the series are:

Jane and the Man of the Cloth
Jane and the Wandering Eye
Jane and the Genius of the Place
Jane and the Stillroom Maid
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