Bridgette Redman's Reviews > Jane and the Man of the Cloth

Jane and the Man of the Cloth by Stephanie Barron
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Feb 01, 12

Read in January, 2000

Stephanie Barron has converted the infamous sophomore curse into the sophomore blessing with her publication of Jane and the Man of the Cloth. It’s fortunate, for her debut novel left much to be desired.

Indeed, I found the first book in the series to be so uninspirational, that it was several years before I picked up the second novel. I was in the midst of one of those rare bookstore visits in which I could find nothing to suit my mood. (Yes, this was in the days before Epinions and my must-read list was not so overflowing.) I was current on all the mystery and science fiction series I was following. I was in the mood for a medieval mystery, but the bookstore offered nothing I hadn’t already read. I browsed the paperback new arrivals and found Jane and the Wandering Eye, the third in the series. I had a momentary memory lapse and could not recall whether I liked the first book. I remembered only that I had read it. So I returned to the mystery shelf and found the second book in the series. With the impulse that marks most of my book buying, I ended up purchasing both. I’m glad I did.

Jane and the Man of the Cloth is a finely crafted novel. Barron has been meticulous in her research, allowing actual surviving letters of Jane Austen and other historical documents to provide the framework for her novel. It takes place in the Dorset coastal town of Lyme Regis in the late summer of 1804. The one surviving letter of the period introduces characters and stray events. Barron fleshes them out with delightful detail.

Once again, Jane finds her feelings being romantically aroused—an arousal we the readers know can come to only frustration as Jane Austen died an unmarried woman in 1818. Nonetheless, it makes for a more interesting novel, and a rare one in that the romance stays at the desire stage, never progressing even past a kiss.

Like the first novel, the book is written as if it were a series of journal entries which the author/”editor” has fastidiously footnoted. The footnotes provide important geographic, cultural, and political contexts for the reader. I’ll admit to finding the footnotes as enlightening and entertaining as the main text for they illuminate a complex culture that is more foreign to me than the Elizabethan or even the Saxon period. Austen lived in a period where stations and behaviors were strictly defined and the social graces a determinant of one’s place in life.

There are moments when the journal device stretches our willingness to suspend disbelief. The protagonist has recorded events so accurately and completely that it is hard to believe she had time to actually experience them—especially at the fast pace at which events occur. Yet, it would be a dull novel if Jane did not faithfully reproduce conversations and minute observations, so we must allow for the inconsistency for the sake of our enjoyment.

The book begins with an action-packed scene that could make a good opening to a movie. You can almost taste the rain and feel the mud splattering about your ankles. You experience the momentary panic and continued distress as the carriage the Austens have rented overturns, seriously injuring Cassandra and leaving no one but Jane to run for help. We get goosebumps with Jane as she arrives at a creepy manor house. For a moment it feels as if we are entering a gothic horror novel or Sherlock Holmes’ moor, but Jane’s sensibility restores itself and pulls us back.

We meet the brooding Mr. Geoffrey Sidmouth, who offers Jane only the most grudging of help for her family. The novel continues in the way it begins—plenty of action and plenty of mood. Jane is quickly caught up in uncovering the truth about a murderous smuggling ring and the secret identity of “the Reverend,” its ringleader.

Barron continues to ape Austen’s style, but she does so much more effectively in this novel than in the past. In the first novel, Barron tried too hard to force Austen references and make stilted suggestions about how the events she created inspired Austen’s fiction. It was a backward way of doing things. In Jane and the Man of the Cloth Barron has found her own voice and in doing so has better replicated Austen’s. Barron uses her story to postulate unknown events in Austen’s life rather than using her story to explain Austen’s fictional inspirations. It’s much more effective and makes for a more enticing story.

Although I like the third book in the series, Jane and the Wandering Eye, this second novel remains my favorite. The characters are compelling and interesting, the plot is suspenseful and intriguing, and the pacing is outstanding. The writing pulls the reader into the story. It has shed the staleness found in the first novel and builds intensity rather than detracts from it.

In instances like this, I am grateful for my flaws. Impulse buying and memory lapses were rewarded with an exuberant reading experience that I would have regretted missing. Also, since I waited so long to resume the series, books four and five have already been published.
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