Jane and the Canterbury Tale by Stephanie Barron

Jane Austen is so clever; that’s really what we love most about her, isn’t it? Barron’s Jane uses her cleverness to solve murder mysteries while absorbing ideas she will later use in the fiction we treasure, and it is a pleasure to watch the mind we think we know personally work with such material.

Barron’s Jane is very much a personal one. She narrates the story (I’m not entirely certain she knew her phrases would be “immortal,” and I was definitely put out by Jane’s supposed phrase “frivolity of writing,” in reference to her career) (4, 34) and sounds, for the most part, much as I imagine she would. When Jane tries to read a particular novel, she dislikes it because it lacks “anything of nature or probability” (20). When Jane describes Mr. Lushington, she says that he is “ambitious and insincere—your short men often are” but that he “speaks so well of Milton” she can’t help but be a little in love with him (50). With the full support and aid of her brother Edward, Jane unpacks and analyzes the details around her; in this story, a murder in Kent. Her openness and frank statements are just what we expect from the creator of Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse.

Both heroines figure prominently in this murder mystery, largely because, at this point, Austen had already written Pride and Prejudice, and was working on Emma. Mr. Bennet’s line about living to “make sport of our neighbours” is in Jane’s mouth here as she describes what qualities she dislikes in Mr. Moore, a clergyman who “harp[s] upon the grim vicissitudes of human existence” (18). The thoughts of Fanny, Jane’s niece, are said to be “more tolerably engaged” than they would be were she actually listening to the Moores’ marital squabble, as Darcy’s are when he is contemplating Elizabeth’s fine eyes (19). In some instances, the allusion helps shape our thinking; in the previous example, for instance, we wonder if the subject of Fanny’s reverie will turn out as well as Darcy’s did. Caroline Bingley’s comments get a fairer voice when Jane comments that Fanny’s petticoats must be six inches deep in mud, and  Jane’s words to Fanny about John Plumptre sound like Elizabeth’s to Jane about Bingley, which makes us wonder whether we should take warning from the fact that Elizabeth, at least in the short-term, is wrong (21, 89). Fanny reacts to one arrest by crying, a là Lizzy Bennet, “every feeling revolts” (182)!

Emma figures less prominently (though there is some concern with the lot of governesses, which sounds like a set up for Jane Fairfax and her plight, and though an annoying character claims he’s going for a hair-cut, like Frank Churchill, when he’s really doing something else) until the very end, when Jane makes clear that, while Fanny is also “twenty years of age and the mistress of her father’s establishment,” Emma has a much easier time of things—being “happy and vain, secure and carefree, bossy and endearing—“ while Fanny reminds Jane more of Jane’s own self “in the aftermath of . . . Tom Lefroy’s abandonment” (303-04).

Fanny’s happiness, indeed, is not the central concern of this work, and, in fact, though I don’t consider myself a fan of the mystery novel, this one was hard to stop reading. There are so many suspicious characters, even before any murder occurs—Julian Thane, dancing scandalously close to Fanny (8), whoever sent the mysterious pouch with dark brown beans that arrives for the bride and leaves her disturbed (15), Jupiter Finch-Hatton, who wants to play billiards right after he might have shot a man (37), Mr. Moore, a minister who seems to know a lot of details about the honeymoon plans of the woman he once loved (45), even the bride’s mother, whom we know to watch because Jane is (12).

Jane’s comments, in addition to being insightful, are delightfully funny. Of herself, she observes, “It is unbecoming in a spinster to dwell upon the ominous at a wedding feast” (6). Of Mr. Lushington (the names are positively Dickensian), she observes, “he appeared to hesitate, tho’ perhaps he was merely digesting his sausage” (51). To us, she perhaps implicitly advises, “I had secured my bona fides, from a simple complex of confidence and presumption” (94). We might do the same.

This text uses several expressions with which I had not been familiar. “Jackanapes” is a dis (10). Two characters are described as “smelling of April and May for years together,” which I think indicates some sort of love interest (178). (It appears Georgette Heyer fans have a distinct advantage here because she regularly uses these Regency expressions.) And the word “Corinthian” is used so frequently I had to think about it (and double-check yahoo answers to get “a most desirable man, top-of-the-trees”).

In short, this was a fun read; it really feels like our Jane, or like our Jane mixed with Angela Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher.

Published in: on November 13, 2011 at 9:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

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