Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor : Being the First Jane Austen Mystery
For everyone who loves Jane Austen...a marvelously entertaining new series that turns the incomparable author into an extraordinary sleuth!
On a visit to the estate of her friend, the young and beautiful Isobel Payne, Countess of Scargrave, Jane bears witness to a tragedy. Isobel's husband--a gentleman of mature years--is felled by a mysterious and agonizing ailment. The Earl's death seems a cruel blow of fate for the newly married Isobel. Yet the bereaved widow soon finds that it's only the beginning of her misfortune...as she receives a sinister missive accusing her and the Earl's nephew of adultery--and murder. Desperately afraid that the letter will expose her to the worst sort of scandal, Isobel begs Jane for help. And Jane finds herself embroiled in a perilous investigation that will soon have her following a trail of clues that leads all the way to Newgate Prison and the House of Lords--a trail that may well place Jane's own person in the gravest jeopardy.
With this series opener, Barron catches the Jane Austen popularity wave with impeccable timing?but that may be the best that can be said of this debut. Purportedly editing Austen manuscripts found in an old Maryland estate, Barron recounts the suspicious death of the elderly Frederick Payne, Earl of Scargrave. Anonymous notes accuse Isobel, Austen's friend and Payne's young bride, and a "grey-hared Lord" of murdering the earl. Intensifying Isobel's misery is Lord Harold Trowbridge, who badgers the widow to sell him her estate in Barbados. Concerned for her friend and for Fitzroy Payne, the new earl who not-so-secretly loves Isobel, Austen undertakes snooping that leads her to a second corpse and leads Isobel and Fitzroy to trial before the House of Lords. As Austen explores a passel of suspects who are heavy-handedly cast as the originals for the characters in her novels, the reader is offered imitation scholarly footnotes. To be truly helpful, Barron might have better explained how Austen hears Big Ben, a bell cast some 40 years after her death. Austen as mystery writer is an appealing idea, but inadequately served here. Author tour.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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November 30, 1996
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Excerpt from Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor by Stephanie Barron
Journal entry, 11 December 1802, written in the small hours
"What do you make of it, Jane?" The Countess of Scargrave asked. Her fingers gripped my elbow painfully.
I gazed at the recumbent form of her husband with dismay. Frederick, Lord Scargrave, was decidedly unwell--so unwell that I had been called to his bedside an hour before dawn, an indiscretion the Earl would never have allowed while possessed of his senses. I pulled the collar of my dressing gown closer about my neck and placed my free hand over the Countess's.
"I believe that your husband is dying, Isobel," I told her.
Her fingers moved convulsively under my own, and then were still. "Dying. Were I to hear it so declared a thousand times, I still should not believe it possible."
I surveyed my friend with silent pity, uncertain how to answer such distress. The transformation wrought upon her husband's agonized countenance was indeed extraordinary--and had required but a few hours to effect. That very evening, the Earl had led his Countess down the dance in Scargrave's ballroom, revelling in the midst of a company come to toast the fortunes of them both. Despite his eight-and-forty years, he shone as a man blessed with second youth, elegant and lively, the very charm of his race crying out from every limb. And tho' he had complained of dyspepsia before, this illness came upon him of a sudden--and with a violence one may hardly credit to an overfondness for claret and pudding.
"Had he taken aught to eat or drink in the past few hours?" I asked.
My friend shook her head. "Only a milk toddy and some sweetmeats the maid brought to him upon retiring. But I do not believe he had long consumed them before the sickness laid him prostrate."
The stench of the Earl's illness rose from the fouled sheets the maids would not change for fear of paining him further. His breath was caught thick within his throat, and his strength worn down by dizzyness and a violence of puking such as one usually sees under the influence of a purgative. His eyes were rolled back in drowsy oblivion, his skin was pallid, and his features were bloated. It was a trial merely to observe such suffering; to endure it must have been fearsome.
As I watched with Isobel by his bedside, awaiting the doctor summoned in haste from London, the Earl gave forth a great moan, rose up shuddering from his sheets, and clutched his wife's hand. "Blackguards!" his shattered voice cried. "They would take me from within!" Then he fell back insensible upon his bed, and spoke no more.
Isobel was all efficiency; a compress she had in a moment, and ministered to her troubled lord, and the violence of feeling that had animated his poor body but an instant before, troubled him not again.
I am no stranger to death--I have sat watch over too many unlovely ends by the side of my clergyman father, who believes the company of a woman necessary to sustain him in the most mortal hours of his ministry--but this was a sort of dying I had never witnessed.
A chill draught wafted through the chamber door from the great hall below. I turned my head swiftly, in hope of the doctor, and saw only Marguerite, Isobel's maid.
"Milady," the Creole girl whispered, her eyes stealing from her mistress's face to the more dreadful one of the Earl, "the doctor is come." Her countenance was pale and frightened, and as I watched, she made the Papist sign of the cross hurriedly at her brow, and ducked back through the doorway.
I cannot find it in me to scold the maid for such foolishness. She is a simple girl from Isobel's native Barbadoes, who accompanied her mistress upon Isobel's removal to England two years ago. Marguerite has sorely missed her sleep tonight--it was she who fetched me hastily before dawn to the Countess's side. But even I, a child of cold-blooded England less susceptible to horrified fancy, must confess to sleeplessness these several hours past. For the Earl has uttered such moans and cries that none may shut out his agony, and all within Scargrave's walls are robbed of peace this night.
"Lady Scargrave," the physician said, breaking into my thoughts. He clicked his heels together and bowed in Isobel's direction. A young man, with all his urgency upon his face.
"Dr. Pettigrew," the Countess replied faintly, her hand going to her throat, "thank God you are come."
How Isobel could bear it! Married but three months, and to lose a husband one has but lately acquired would seem the cruellest blow of Fate. Yet still she stood, composed and upright, and waited with the terrible fortitude of women for the result of so much misery.
Dr. Pettigrew glanced at me and nodded, brushing the snow from his greatcoat and handing it to Marguerite, who bobbed a frightened curtsey and ducked out of the chamber. As the physician hastened to the Earl's bedside, I strove to read his thoughts; but his eyes were hidden behind spectacles, and his mouth held firmly in a line, and I could divine nothing from his youthful countenance. He reached for the Earl's wrist, and poor Lord Scargrave moaned and tossed upon his pillow.
"Leave us now, my dear Jane," Isobel said, her hand cool upon my cheek; "I will come to you when I may."
1. A brief explanation of English titles and modes of address may be helpful to American readers, who lack Jane's easy familiarity with both. Isobel Collins married Frederick Payne, the Earl of Scargrave, and as such became the Countess of Scargrave. She would be addressed as Lady Scargrave, but because she is a commoner by birth, she would never be addressed as Lady Isobel; that would be a courtesy title conferred on the daughter of a peer. The Earl is usually addressed as Lord Scargrave, taking his name from his title, rather than as Lord Payne, his family name, which in this account denotes his heir Fitzroy, Viscount Payne. --Editor's note.