Jane and the Man of the Cloth
By Stephanie Barron
Bantam Books, 1997, 335 pp
Reviewed by J. Ashley
This is the second book in the Jane Austen series; the first is Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor, and the third, just out, is Jane and the Wandering Eye.
As a raving Austenite, I picked up this book with interest, but I had a very mixed reaction to it. Some aspects I liked very much, others, I found irritating.
Jane Austen, her mother and father, and her sister, Cassandra, travel from Bath to spend some time in Lyme, a seaside town, which, the author tells us (repeatedly), was one of the settings used in Persuasion. During a storm on the road, the carriage overturns, Cassandra is hurt, and Jane tramps over the fields to the nearest house, finding the handsome and taciturn Mr. Sidmouth and his strange houseguest, Seraphine. Jane begs refuge for her sister, and Sidmouth, with every show of reluctance, takes them in until Cassandra recovers and the road is clear enough for them to continue to Lyme.
After arriving at their holiday cottage in Lyme, Jane and her family meet other residents, Dalgleish, the surgeons' assistant who falls embarrassingly in love with Cassandra, Mr. Crawford who collects fossils, Crawford's sister and neice, and Captain Fielding, a wooden-legged ex-naval officer who is convinced that Mr. Sidmouth is none other than a notorious smuggler called "The Reverand."
One morning a gibbet with a man hanging from it is found at the end of the Cobb, a stone breakwater featured in (you guessed it) Persuasion. Jane, intrigued, questions her new acquaintance, and does some hands-on investigating of her own. From this, from day-to-day events, and from Jane's (strangely frequent) midnight explorations, Jane unravels the secrets of Lyme and the truth about The Reverand and those who wish to destroy him.
The plot of this story was interesting, the writing good, the characters amusing. I should have liked it. But several things distracted me and put it in the realm of "average read." First, the foreword explains that this is a speculative story about a missing episode from Jane Austen's life, during which, family members hint, Jane had an "unfortunate love affair." While that isn't annoying in itself, it is difficult to reconcile a few cryptic passages in Austen's journals with Barron's melodramatic plot and gothic romance-like ending. Enjoyable if I'm in the mood for a romance, perhaps, but not terribly believable.
Another distraction--the book is peppered with footnotes (just like those scholarly editions of Austen's novels). You can't read more than five pages without explanations of how this conversation was used almost verbatim in an Austen novel or what a cottilion is, and so on, until I was gritting my teeth. I'd prefer an author's note at the end of the book, or even a glossary in case I have the burning desire to know what a barouche is (which I know anyway from reading Jane Austen). When I want to read, I want to read, not to be interrupted by the author's research notes.
In addition, Barron repeatedly hits you over the head with "authenticities" that do little to add to the story (for example a two-page aside showing Jane writing her unpublished The Watsons). Why? I kept asking myself. Perhaps because without it, we'd never have realized this story is about Jane Austen. The character could have been called Jane Witherspoon and it wouldn't have made any difference at all.
So, the book is a fairly enjoyable read about smuggling and seaside resort towns in the English Regency period, with some melodramatic romance thrown in. If you want a decent read to kill time, fine. If you're a rabid fan of Jane Austen the novelist, you may be disappointed.
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