Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron by Stephanie Barron

You’d think that someone who spends quality time reviewing Jane Austen-related fiction would have experienced a Jane Austen Mystery in Barron’s series before now, but apparently, the tenth one is the charm.  This was a charming exploration of Jane Austen’s England from Jane Austen’s point of view, and though there are a few discrepancies that discredit the credibility of the source, for the most part, Barron has captured Austen’s voice and mannerisms and given us an entertaining tale to boot.

As usual, the discrepancies first. When Jane is describing the behavior of the Prince Regent, she says: “Whether he dipped his head in the sea or not, remains a question for posterity; but certain it is he dipped his wick—as the Vulgar would say—in every unprotected maiden the surrounding country offered” (72-73). The isolated phrase notwithstanding, Jane would not have spoken this way. Our supposed Jane later ponders “the elation natural to a gentleman who has raped Fortune of so grand a sum as seven hundred guineas” (209). Even in a time with less sensitivity toward the subject of rape, it hardly seems likely Austen would have used that verb gratuitously. In another instance of inauthenticity of voice, Barron has Austen say she “cannot like [her] poor Fanny [Price]” and will therefore “spare the darling Henry such a cross, and bestow the lady upon her cousin Edmund—who has earned her as penance, for his utter lack of humour” (104). While it is certainly true that some modern readers find Fanny’s strict adherence to morality a little dull, there is no indication that Austen centered her story around a heroine she disliked. If any heroine posed a threat to likeability, it is, as Austen herself famously said, Emma Woodhouse, and even in that case, Austen never herself says she dislikes Emma. I like modern takes on the history, but I cannot approve modern coloring of historical views in this way. “Sober Fanny Price,” this Jane reflects, is “very nearly as quelling as [Jane’s] sister Cassandra, when she believes herself to be right, which is on almost every occasion” (52). This disparaging of a heroine and a much-beloved sister seems uncharacteristic. Barron’s Austen also seems to take a jab at novels when she mocks Miss Twining’s melodramatic refrain “I am ready to sink!” as being something she “had learnt . . . from a novel” (115). This Jane also suggests that the writing of novels is only to be done when she is “back at home, and the rain of June has descended with persistence, and there is nothing but mud and desolation to be had out-of-doors” (43).

The rest of the time, however, the character Jane seems like she certainly could be our Jane. She is close to her brother Henry, who is newly widowed, and with whom she travels to Brighton to recover from the loss. Many of her comments, and those of her family, echo books she has written. Instead of suggesting life events presage events in the novels, Barron has Austen use her own words in life after she has written them for a character; I found myself comfortable with this choice, rather than the former.  When Lord Byron (someone else will have to assess this work’s accuracy with respect to that historical figure) threatens Jane, for instance, she retorts, “You might have had name and direction, my lord . . . had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner” (30). It makes sense, of course, that Austen’s family discusses her characters as though they are real. Cassandra even deems Brighton “a very vulgar place” because “it was in Brighton that poor Lydia Bennet made her fatal choice to elope with Wickham” (21).

The story itself contains many interesting parallels to various threads from the original novels. Catherine’s brother died under Wellington’s command, and their father speaks passionately of his “martyred Richard,” much as poor Dick Musgrove’s mother does in Persuasion. This father sure sounds a lot like General Tilney—the singular circumstances of the wife’s death, the gruff demeanor—but we are not to apply the lesson Catherine Morland learns to this man. Jane’s family has a neighbor named John Middleton, and many of the gatherings and melodrama echo Northanger Abbey.

I enjoyed Barron’s imaginings of how Austen would have interacted with Byron. He, to his credit, tells the lady when they meet that “the ambitious must always know their rivals” and shortly thereafter, that Jane Austen is “a greater writer than” he is (175, 177). When, later, Jane is flushed by his presence and insulted that his attentions are not on her for the moment, she comments sardonically that “the greater writer than he, however, overcame it” (267). Barron grounds her Austen in the Chawton and Alton in which visitors today still feel her presence but also allows us to imagine that “wit and vivacity” lively in a new location and under different circumstances (credit: Mr. Collins). It is a joy to imagine.

Published in: on October 26, 2010 at 8:43 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Really great points, Natasha – I agree with you completely. About Byron, there is no way between heaven and earth he would ever have said Jane Austen was a greater writer than he was himself! I could quote Lady Catherine: “Heaven and earth, of what are you thinking!” I’ll be hearing Stephanie Barron on Friday, she’s doing the keynote speech at the JASNA AGM in Portland.

    • I’m looking forward to hearing all about it! Are you speaking as well?

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