Masterpieces and mysteries

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  January 14, 2008

For all that she’s done her period homework, Bebris’s writing is mostly Bodice Ripper 101. Here’s our introduction to Henry Dashwood:

Whilst the Middletons were thus besieged, three gentlemen entered the room. Two of them appeared very much alike: large, athletic young men who looked like they could sit a horse or box in Jackson’s Rooms with equal skill. They wore close-fitting single-breasted coats — one claret, one brown — and fair hair carefully styled to appear as tousled as if they had just come in from a foxhunt. The third gentleman wore his dark locks in the same mode, as deliberately arranged as his cravat. He had a more slender but no less vigorous build, his broad shoulders and narrow waist shown to advantage by a blue dress coat so up-to-the-minute in fashion that it could have been cut that morning. Tight-fitting pantaloons and silk stockings revealed muscular legs, and his polished shoes competed with the chandelier for shine.

In this fairy-tale Regency world, Darcy is tall, dark, handsome, and witty, and the couple’s tastefully risqué cooing is borderline mushy. Bebris also indulges her own interest in magic and the supernatural (there are rings with a spell on them, and a mirror), and she bestows on Elizabeth not just an infallible intuition but something like extrasensory perception — all of which takes away from the mystery plots. The real puzzler, though, is how she’s going to make anything clever out of Austen’s remaining three titles (“Perspicacity and Persuasion”?), and whether she’ll be able to continue once those are exhausted.

Stephanie Barron’s “Jane Austen Mystery” series, which debuted back in 1996, is a more daring enterprise, deriving from the ostensible discovery, in 1995 in Baltimore, of Austen’s diaries, which Barron, tongue in cheek, has edited and presents to us as Jane’s record of her own hitherto unsuspected adventures. Each story is anchored in its time and place. Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor finds our heroine visiting her friend Isobel Payne in Hertfordshire in December of 1802, directly after having accepted and then rejected a proposal from Harris Bigg-Wither. From there Barron takes us to Lyme Regis (The Man of the Cloth), Bath (The Wandering Eye), Kent (The Genius of the Place), Derbyshire (The Stillroom Maid), Southampton (The Prisoner of Wool House and The Ghosts of Netley), Hampshire (His Lordship’s Legacy), and London (The Barque of Frailty), in every case following Austen where she went or, in one case, might reasonably be presumed to have gone. Along the way we share in Jane’s losses (the deaths of her friend Anne Lefroy in 1804 and her father in 1805 and her sister-in-law Elizabeth Austen in 1808), and we learn, more than we do from her own novels, about the world she lived in: smuggling in The Man of the Cloth; the theater in The Wandering Eye; the debate over the Picturesque in landscape art in The Genius of the Place (which, set during Canterbury Race Week, takes its title from Alexander Pope); the affairs of the Royal Navy (Austen’s brothers Frank and Charles were both naval officers) in The Prisoner of Wool House; Catholic Emancipation in The Ghosts of Netley. The “Monster,” Napoleon, is everywhere; The Genius of the Place unfolds in the shadow of his threatened 1805 invasion.

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