|Books for the Beach |
Jane and His Lordship’s Legacy
By Stephanie Barron. Bantam, 2005. 346 pages. Paperpack. $6.99.
Suspense and Sensibility (Or, First Impressions Revisited)
By Carrie Bebris. Forge Books, 2005. 301 pages. Paperback. $6.99.
North by Northanger (Or, The Shades of Pemberley)
By Carrie Bebris. Forge Books, 2006. 318 pages. Paperback. $6.99.
Reviewed by Claire Denelle Cowart.
In Jane and His Lordship’s Legacy, the eighth entry in Stephanie Barron’s successful mystery series, Jane must come to terms with the death of Lord Harold Trowbridge, a recurring character in the series since the first entry. The manner in which Lord Harold had presented himself to the world was consistent with his nickname “The Rogue,” but Jane knows that he used his reputation as a cover for clandestine activities on behalf of the government.
In this novel, Lord Harold’s true depth and complexity come to light. The legacy of the title is a trunk containing Lord Harold’s papers, left to Jane rather than to his relatives with a request that she write his memoirs. The revelations in his journals and letters prove to be an irresistible draw both for Jane and for the readers; Barron does a wonderful job with Lord Harold’s voice, making him more complex, fully realized, and sympathetic than in past novels. This sense of discovery makes Lord Harold’s loss more deeply felt. When the trunk is stolen, Jane is desperate to recover it and learn more.
The mystery of the missing trunk is cleverly mixed with facts from Austen’s own life—in this case her move along with her mother and sister to the village of Chawton, and the difficulties her brother Edward faced when the Hinton family challenged his right to inherit the property in Chawton. Barron weaves in further complications relating to the discovery of a body in the basement of Jane’s new home, ultimately connecting this mystery to some of the events described in Lord Harold’s journals. Could Barron be intending to have Jane write Lord Harold’s memoirs? If so, she could easily have a second successful series.
A writer with a newer series achieves mixed results in her latest entries. Of the second and third novels in the Mr. and Mrs. Darcy series by Carrie Bebris, one works well, while the other has serious flaws. Suspense and Sensibility links Henry Dashwood, son of John and Fanny from Sense and Sensibility, to Kitty Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. The story begins promisingly: Fanny’s character (now widowed) remains as snobbish and as controlling as in Austen’s original novel, but her son resists her influence as her husband did not. Despite Fanny’s disapproval of the match on the grounds that Kitty has no fortune, Henry follows his heart and proposes. Just as the young couple seems to be on the road to happiness, however, both the relationship and the novel take a wrong turn. Henry begins to behave suspiciously like a dissolute ancestor, Sir Francis Dashwood—gambling, drinking, womanizing, and even reviving a secret society which Sir Francis had founded. Although Bebris explains in an afterword that Sir Francis and his “Hellfire Club” actually existed, they are noticeably out of place in the world inhabited by Jane Austen’s characters. Fitzwilliam Darcy in particular seems most uncomfortable with a plot twist reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, involving a magical mirror from ancient times and a portrait of Sir Francis. A melodramatic scene in which Darcy actually confronts the mirror is particularly incongruous. The concept of bringing the Dashwood and Ferrars families into contact with Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy is a much better idea, but the novel’s focus on Sir Francis keeps Bebris from developing the relationships enough to make them truly interesting.
Supernatural elements run through this series, but Bebris wisely tones them down in the much more successful North by Northanger. The author’s gift for characterization brings Elizabeth, Darcy and assorted other characters to life. In this novel there is just a hint that the spirit of Darcy’s mother guides events which culminate in the successful delivery of the young couple’s first child. The complicating mysteries are tied, as the title suggests, to Northanger Abbey and some characters from the novel of the same name. Bebris also plays on events related to Austen’s own life, such as her aunt Leigh-Perrot’s imprisonment and trial for theft; in Bebris’s novel, Darcy and Elizabeth are falsely accused of theft after an unusual visit to Northanger Abbey. Darcy faces imprisonment until his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, offers to stand surety for him. Unfortunately, this means that Lady Catherine must stay at Pemberley with Elizabeth and Darcy for months. The resulting tension showcases Elizabeth’s independence, wit, and spirit in a way that is satisfyingly reminiscent of Austen’s own work. Bebris successfully conveys the very real, understandable concerns of Elizabeth and Darcy as they come to terms with the past and face their fears about the future. In this case, she leaves her readers anticipating the next installment with pleasure.
JASNA News v.23, no. 2, Summer 2007, p. 24
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