“Jane and the Year Without a Summer,” by Stephanie Barron (Soho Crime)
Ah, here is the excellent Miss Jane Austen, who is so obliging as to offer intelligence of an admirable new mystery. Do not be troubling yourself, dear reader. Miss Austen has been over-particular in her intentions to secure a favorable result.
Well, you get it.
Denver author Stephanie Barron (who will be signing books at the Tattered Cover soon; see details below) has written another of her charming Jane Austen mysteries. In “Jane and the Year Without a Summer” (1816), Jane and her sister, Cassandra, journey to Cheltenham to take the waters in hopes of treating Jane’s ailments. (Barron concludes that Jane suffers from Addison’s disease, which was unrecognized at the time.) Treatments pretty much consist of resting and drinking foul-tasting water.
A doctor blames Jane’s poor health on her spinsterhood because “the uterus is to blame for every kind of affliction common to your sex, Miss Austen — nervous complaints, lassitude, strong hysterics, a dangerous desire for excessive learning.”
No surprise Jane doesn’t like him.
The two sisters take rooms at Mrs. Potter’s boarding house, with a cast of characters that includes the beautiful wheelchair-bound Miss Williams (who faints when faced with any unpleasantness) and her companion, Miss Fox. The Garthwaits, an elderly and shrewish sister and brother, and retired naval man Captain Pellew are also among the guests.
To Jane’s delight, she discovers that the painter Raphael West is staying at the hotel next door. Jane fell in love with him in a previous book, but thought he had forgotten her. Oh feckless Jane.
One evening, West escorts the two sisters to a performance, engaging a private box next to Miss Williams and her friend. When Miss Williams spies the couple entering the box on the other side of Jane, she screams and faints. To the surprise of the ensemble at Mrs. Potter’s, the couple is Miss Williams’ husband, Lord Portreath, and her stepmother, Mrs. Williams.
Lady Portreath, it seems, has run away from a wretched marriage. She regrets her husband and longs for freedom. “With such animus towards the male sex and its power, why did you ever consent to marry?” Jane asks. Ella she had no choice, Lady Portreath replies. By the terms of her father’s will, Lady Portreath could not touch her fortune until she married, then she would lose control of it once she got pregnant.
The ladies are inclined to indulge the poor wife. Her husband de ella is a brute, who insists on removing his wife from Cheltenham, and when the macaroons he sends his wife turn out to be poisoned, Mrs. Potter’s guests conclude Lord Portreath is trying to kill his wife de el.
Of course there is a murder, about which I remain silent, since it occurs late in the book. Be aware that it is nicely solved by Jane, with the help of West.
The murder is almost incidental to “Jane and the Year Without a Summer.” (The title refers to a 1816 volcano eruption in Indonesia, which sent a cloud of ash around the globe, causing worldwide climate change.) Barron’s delightful writing, her characters and the twists and turns of their relationships, and the colorful Regency setting, by themselves, are enough to carry the book.
“Jane and the Year Without a Summer” is No. 14 in Barron’s Jane Austen series, and Jane’s health is declining. Is the series winding down? That would be a pity, because the mysteries just get better and better.
So, good reader, with gratitude to the author, enjoy this charming addition to the most excellent Jane Austen mystery series. You have done it again, Miss Barron, and we are in your debt.
IF YOU GO
Stephanie Barron will be at the Tattered Cover Book Store on E. Colfax Avenue for a discussion and book-signing at 7 pm on Thursday, Feb. 17. More information at tatteredcover.com.