Jane Austen in London?
And not just Jane Austen, but a fictional Jane brought so inventively to life, and solving mysteries! That has been my treat, as I was fortunate to bring to London with me a copy of Jane And the Waterloo Map, the thirteenth Jane Austen novel by Stephanie Barron. I have loved these clever tales of Jane's adventures since the very first book, and with this one I've had the pleasure of following in Jane's footsteps, both real and imagined.
Here's Stephanie to tell us about Jane and the Waterloo Map.
23 Hans Place, by Laurel Ann Nattress, www.austenprose.com
I’m filling in this backstory for two reasons: It’s the basis of my thirteenth Jane Austen mystery novel, Jane and the Waterloo Map (Soho Crime, February 2, 2016), but it’s also important to understanding, I think, so much of Jane Austen’s work. Although she was concerned about Henry’s health and that of his bank, Jane was really in London for entirely personal reasons during November and December of 1815. She was proofing the typeset pages of her fourth novel, Emma, which was published by John Murray two hundred years ago.
Dedication page, Emma
Murray was taking a chance on Emma. He was accustomed to putting out books by sweeping British male authors—Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott being two horses in his stable. Jane’s previous book, Mansfield Park, hadn’t equaled her early success with Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice. And in a poor economy, people were less likely to spend their pence on books. From Jane’s letters that fall we know Murray tried to take advantage of her—offering to buy Emma’s copyright only if she sold him the rights to her backlist as well. She refused, retaining the rights to Emma, financing the book’s publication at her own expense, and according Murray a ten percent commission for his trouble. Unusual enough as a lady novelist, she had now become a woman of business as well.
I find Austen’s commentary on the vagaries of publishing fascinating, of course—the more things change, the more they stay the same. (Murray went on to remainder Austen’s books four years after her death, another personal slight familiar to contemporary novelists.) But when I sat down to write about this period in her life in Waterloo Map, I felt a stronger kinship with her than ever before. That sensation was due entirely to Emma.
Readers of mystery fiction like to argue the merits and names of the first true detective novelists. Some invoke Sheridan Le Fanu, others Wilkie Collins, still others Edgar Allen Poe. But for me, the first novel of detection will always be Emma. Austen’s cleverness in disguising a tale of duplicity, betrayal, false witness and eventual social redemption as a lighthearted romance is one reason I chose her for the role of fictional detective myself.
I’m not the only writer to recognize the mystery genre’s conventions in Austen. The Great Dame, as I like to think of her—P.D. James—outlined them in a lecture entitled “Emma Considered as a Detective Story” that she gave to the U.K.’s Jane Austen Society in 1998. One suspects that Dame P.D. continued to mull the parallels between Austen and murder fiction for years before she gave way to temptation and wrote her pastiche on both, Death Comes to Pemberley. Emma is apparently the story of a self-absorbed young woman of birth, wealth and beauty, who sets out to play matchmaker among the benighted souls of her acquaintance. But in fact, Emma Woodhouse is unwittingly engaged in solving a mystery hidden at the heart of the book—nothing involving murder, but a social outrage nonetheless. Eligible and charming Frank Churchill, who should be flirting with Emma herself, has contracted a secret engagement with impoverished Jane Fairfax against the expressed wishes of his adoptive parents. By suppressing the truth, and forcing Miss Fairfax to do the same, Frank descends into a series of impostures that deceive and betray the friends and family nearest to his heart. He wounds his beloved Jane to the point of self-martyrdom. Emma, the reader’s guide through these social labyrinths, is the original unreliable detective—she misinterprets the motives, actions, and desires of everyone about her with a destructive confidence that nearly ruins all their lives. The village of Highbury is turned on its head. Only when Frank’s “crime” is revealed and justice accorded to Jane Fairfax, is order restored in Emma Woodhouse’s small Eden.
Austen’s construction of the story is both subtle and ferociously clever. The perceptive reader finds clues that generally reveal themselves only upon a second journey through the book. Evidence is analyzed and false conclusions drawn. Witnesses offer testimonies that conflict and obscure the truth. Red herrings abound. And Emma, who blithely embarked on this elaborate investigation, realizes almost too late that the most deceived and benighted person in Highbury is herself. Austen seems to be warning us that the greatest mystery we can penetrate—a word she often used--is the motivation of the human heart, which can destroy or construct as much happiness as it chooses.
Carlton House main staircase. William Henry Pyne’s History of the Royal Residences, 1818-1819.
What Jane called penetration—perceptivity and empathic understanding—are critical to both writers and detectives. It is the crux of her endurance as an author: we return to her books because they persist in revealing us to ourselves. But Jane’s penetration is also the reason I decided, two decades ago, to steal her life and voice for the main character in a series of mystery novels.
I took up with Jane when she was at a personal crossroad: she had just turned twenty-six, another wretched Christmas; she had accepted and then hastily rejected an offer of marriage from a man she did not love. She chose personal truth over comfort, risk and possible want over economic security—and had she done otherwise, we would never have known her name. She would have become Mrs. Harris Bigg-Wither instead of Jane Austen, the mistress of a fine drawing room and park at Manydown House, but not of Fitzwilliam Darcy or Emma Woodhouse.
Carlton House main hall, William Henry Pyne’s History of the Royal Residences, 1818-1819.
Over the years I have followed Jane around England, from Bath to Southampton, Chawton to Canterbury. We have grown old in each other’s company; one of us has raised two children. Waterloo Map finds Jane at Carlton House, home of the Prince Regent, a man she despises. HRH is a fan of Jane’s work—and he has ordered her to dedicate Emma to him. (This is true.) And as she enters the remarkable library at Carlton House in November of 1815, she stumbles over the body of a Hero of Waterloo....
Only I know, at this point in Jane’s story, that she has a bare eighteen months to live. Her fears for brother Henry ought better to have been kept for herself. I have no idea how many more adventures she and I will share before pain and illness close her eyes in 1817, but I relish the ones we have known thus far. She has taught me so much about penetration, that Jane—with her subtle and ferocious heart.