Masterpieces and mysteries

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  January 14, 2008

Barron is a better writer than Bebris, more exact in her language and particular in her description and with a wry restraint: Barron’s invented Jane is much harder on herself than Bebris is on her invented Elizabeth. Barron is also more Austenesque, right down to her punctuation, as in this passage from the beginning of TheWandering Eye:

Lord Harold Trowbridge, my dark angel of recent adventure — confidant of the Crown, adversary of whomever he is paid to oppose, and general Rogue-about-Town — is the Dowager Duchess of Wilborough’s younger son. He is also in the throes of some trouble with a lady — nothing unusual for Lord Harold, although in this instance, the novelty of the lady’s being not only unmarried, but related to him, must give the mendacious pause. In short, his niece, Lady Desdemona Trowbridge — an Incomparable of the present Season, a girl of eighteen with all the blessings of fortune, beauty, and breeding to recommend her — has thrown off the protection of her family and friends; has left all in London whose interest should form her chief consideration and care; and has fled to the Dowager Duchess in Bath.

As a hardcore-murder-mystery writer, Barron can be faulted: times and places don’t always add up, and she short-shrifts the crucial after-solution wrap-up. (You’ll be left scratching your head over the European financial tangles of The Genius of the Place.) There’s a murderer who should know his victim and doesn’t. There’s an identity switch that, obvious to the rankest murder-mystery neophyte, nonetheless deceives Jane and everyone else.

Worst of all, the “Editor’s Afterword” to The Stillroom Maid, which tells of events yet to come, is flatly gainsaid by the events of The Ghosts of Netley, and that in regard to Lord Harold Trowbridge, the series’s most important figure save Jane. Rogue, rake, government agent, and man-about-Europe, Lord Harold moves in the most exalted circles and yet is humble enough to appreciate, in his own sharp-tongued way (“None of your missish airs, Jane, I beg”), Miss Austen’s intelligence and independence. Their pas de deux in the direction of love is slow and painful (there’s his proposal to Lady Harriot Cavendish, for starters) and, in the end, autumnal, just as the series itself is, Jane growing older and sadder as she reaches, in The Barque of Frailty, 1811. This is a measured, marginal romance, tougher and more touching than anything Miss Austen Regrets is likely to offer. Perhaps, when they tire of her novels, the Austen adapters will take it up.

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