Jane Austen and The Abbey: Mystery, Mayhem, and Muslin in Portland

Plenary Speakers

Stephanie Barron
Carol Medine Moss Keynote Lecturer

Suspicious Characters, Red Herrings, and Unreliable Detectives: Elements of Mystery in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey
Published in Persuasions 32 (2010). “Suspicious Characters, Red Herrings, and Unreliable Detectives: Elements of Mystery in Jane Austen’s Northanger AbbeyPersuasions 32 (2010): 60-67.
Friday, October 29

Stephanie Barron

Stephanie Barron writes the charming and thoroughly researched Jane Austen mysteries, set in 18th century England.  Her dual background, as a historian (degrees in European History from Princeton and Stanford) and as an analyst for the CIA, give heightened reality to her work.  As Francine Mathews, she also writes the popular Merry Folger mysteries, a contemporary series set in New England.

As a devoted Janeite, Stephanie Barron hesitates to pigeonhole any of Austen’s works—they transcend the genre labels of romance or suspense—but as a writer, she recognizes that the canny Jane employed many of the techniques still used by successful detective novelists to structure a compelling plot.  In this, Jane was well ahead of her time.  In this talk, Ms. Barron will briefly pinpoint the major devices common to writers of mystery fiction, and the ways in which Jane anticipated them as she plunged Catherine Morland into a world of heart-pounding intrigue.


Juliet McMaster
JASNA North American Scholar

“A surmise of such horror”: Catherine Morland’s Imagination
Published in Persuasions 32 (2010). “‘A surmise of such horror’: Catherine Morland’s Imagination” Persuasions 32 (2010): 15-27.
Saturday, October 30

Juliet McMaster

Henry James, among his intricate ruminations on the art of fiction, lays it down that we as readers (or at least the readers he prefers) “care … comparatively little for what happens to the stupid, the coarse and the blind”:  we prefer to linger over the Hamlets and Lears of literature, those who are “finely aware and richly responsible.”  Catherine Morland, “cheerful, open,” and with a “mind about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is” (NA 18), is certainly no Hamlet or Lear; and yet she lays hold on our attention and sympathy as firmly as many a more intricate Jamesian character.  Why is this?

Dr. McMaster plans to explore how Catherine, who is at base a kind and sensible girl, comes to entertain “a surmise of such horror” (NA 197) about her host, when she feeds her imagination on a narrative of murder and/or incarceration by the General of his wife.  The short answer of course is that she is suggestible, and her reading among Gothic novels provides her with a fictional model that she proceeds to apply to reality.  But Dr. McMaster wants to examine the quality of Catherine’s mind, the combination of innocence and wisdom, imagination and common sense, that make up a heroine who does indeed become “finely aware and richly responsible.”