The cover promotes this story this way: “If Jane Austen had written Miss Marple, she would have been Dido Kent.”—Kirkus Reviews The back cover cites the Richmond Times-Dispatch as praising the text’s “Austen-like prose.” I was ready to like this, and like it I did.
This Regency mystery begins with a letter written by an ironic writer (who says things like, “as soon as the fortune is made and the country estate [is] purchased,” it is incumbent for “every family which has any claim at all to grandeur” to have a ghost 8) and interrupted by a very annoying sister-in-law who would rather talk about anything than let her sister finish the letter. We, meanwhile, want to hear what Dido has to relate (to Eliza, her biological sister), but we know it’s only a matter of time before Margaret interrupts again. Dido, it seems, is living with her brother, Francis, and his wife, and somewhat beholden to them. The situation of the heroine parallels Austen’s own in the matters of there being two unmarried sisters, at least one sailor brother, and problems of where the sisters are to live. Even the story has sparks of Austen—silly-minded girls being drawn to mysterious abbeys, and a young woman falling off stairs and being rescued by a naval man.
We’re immediately interested to learn more about Mr. Lomax, whose response to her ghost suspicions Dido imagines in the way that Emma does Mr. Knightley’s reactions to her silly ideas. Dido worries that her imagined disputes speak “of too great a dependence upon his opinions” because “there was so little rational conversation to be had in the vicarage” (19). And he often wins their debates, “even when he [is] not present” (19). We have to wait for him to appear on scene, and by the time he does, there is quite a mystery to be solved.
Dido’s friend Harriet insists on caring for their fallen friend alone, and her sister Lucy immediately says what made Penelope fall was a ghost. But we learn soon that Lucy is a fake—not only with her appearance (claiming to be “indifferent” but sustaining her curls with “the constant use of papers” and handling freckles with “generous, but unavailing, applications of Gowland’s Lotion”) but also in her manner of deliberate speech (33). Several women have attractions to a captain Dido distrusts. Then the surgeon slips a private note among letters for Mrs. Harman-Foote, who is housing the fallen victim, and we learn that Mr. Lomax had already proposed to Dido! Is it possible the doctor and the lady of the house are conspiring to keep Penelope quiet? The son (Georgie) of the Harman-Footes is a psychotic mess who takes pleasure in torturing a doll while he reenacts the fall. The difficult little boy has a bruise whose origin he lies about, and Captain Laurence is looking surreptitiously “into the gallery with a look of great calculation on his face” (40). Then a skeleton is found! We’re hooked. So many details to sort!
Little things—the slight scent of tobacco, a casual dinner statement—assume great significance as the community explores the death of a governess 15 yrs before. At the same time, we want to know more about Dido’s would-be romance. Dido is 36—positively old by the marital standards of her time—and rejected Lomax because he asked her to control her curiosity (84). He is granted permission, however, to ask her again when his son’s debts are cleared, so he—and we—have hope. Dido does manage to anger Mr. Lomax with her erroneous and bold interpretations (in a way that reminded me of Mr. Knightley being angry with Emma). When Mr. Lomax arrives, he quite soon decides not to “make [himself] ridiculous by offering counsel [to stop trying to solve mysteries] which [he] know[s] will be disregarded” (210). Instead, he helps. Good man.
There are so many little Austen parallels throughout the text—even a distracted Dido nearly colliding with a “gentleman” who shows her “a look of earnest admiration” when “descending the steps of his house” (did you catch it? Anne meeting Mr. Eliot for the first time) (292). I knew some lines sounded familiar, but I was tempted to think maybe people just spoke that way in Regency England. When Dido says, however, ” Oh, . . . the comfort of being sometimes alone,” that’s no Regency idiom; it’s Austen’s Jane Fairfax (232). We don’t know much about Dido’s sister, Eliza, except, like Jane Bennet, she has a “remarkable talent for thinking only the best of (her) fellow men and women” whereas Dido, like Elizabeth, does not (160).
I was disappointed only once by her (if Dido is so clever, how could she tell her man, “there is to be open and honest discussion between you and I”?! 305). The nice message at the end mollified me—a bit. We always say that men and women hardly understand each other. Dido thinks that any real union is “doomed to failure because there is an established barrier—a kind of chasm—between men and women” (381). What she learns, however, is that if a man and a woman “trust one another implicitly . . . that trust can bridge the divide which lies between” them (383).