Friday, November 5, 2010

Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron

I have been a fan of Jane (Austen that is) since I was in grade school and got Pride and Prejudice from the scholastic book fair thinking it was about racial prejudice - only to find out it was quite a different subject matter and style. Only later did I realize it was supposed to be funny. I've read all of her novels and her letters and some of the other stuff. And have seen a bunch of the movies - and Clueless - as well. The Jane Austen Book Club I found dreadful but the others were pretty good. Of her novels,  Emma is an especial favorite along with P and P and Persuasion.

Earlier this year I read Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World,' by Claire Harman (2010, Henry Holt. 277 pp. $26). Quite an engaging and witty look at Jane's life, ideas, and writing and her ever growing world of fans. The story of how her posthumous  reputation grew and changed and who liked her (Disraeli, Franz Fanon) and who didn't (the odious and over-wrought Charlotte Bronte)  is quite fun to read. I recommend it highly if you are an Austen fan. Here are some interesting  reviews:

Jane was not a dainty innocent village miss  but rather a knowledgeable professional writer who wanted and sought publication and fame, if at least initially, anonymously. Her life may have been rather retired and obscure but she lived during the tumultuous and lively Regency Period (read Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman for a horrifying glimpse into the real life of the Regency ton) and she was involved in the events of her day and knew about high society although she chose not to write about it. Her brother Henry was married to a French countess whose first husband died on the guillotine, another brother was adopted by rich people, and two other brothers were admirals in the Royal Navy and fought in the Napoleonic Wars.

In her book, Harman  is rather shocked (and apparently rather horrified) to find out that Stephanie Barron writes a crime novel series in which Jane Austen is the detective. As if it's almost as bad as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies! (a topic for another bog- not!).

I don't think that Harmon had read Stephanie Barron's Jane Austen series.   I have read  Barron's series at first with skepticism and then utter enjoyment. These are well researched, well-written, tightly plotted and historically interesting crime novels and the Jane Austen references, history, biography and wit are dead on. The dialogue is witty and quick and there are few false notes. Barron has done her homework; she's read all of the novels and letters and a great deal more besides that she references on her website. There is a certain element of fantasy that many Austen fans share - they want her to have a kicking romance worthy of her charm and wit but there is no evidence that she ever did. To that end Barron invented the wicked, ingenuous, and noble Lord Harold Trowbridge as Jane's mentor and rather slow-moving suitor. Of course this secret romance is doomed. We all know Jane never married, may have had brief romance or two,  and was only briefly engaged. It is also rather sad as she died young, at 41.

In the latest novel, she meets the poet Lord Byron in Brighton (and Barron freely admits there is no evidence she ever went to Brighton or met Byron). The novel is well plotted and full of well-developed fictionalized real characters (Byron, Lady Caro Lamb, Lady Oxford, the Prince Regent, Jane and Henry Austen) and fictional ones (the Earl and Countess Swithen). The setting is sparkling and vividly described. Well worth reading for the historical, literary, atypical detective crime novel sub-genre fans.

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