Being the Sixth Jane Austen Mystery, by Stephanie Barron. The Misses Austens and their mother are now removed to Southampton. Following a recuperation from whooping cough (in spite of their escape from Mr. Cooper’s ill children, Jane still managed to contract it), the ladies make their move to reside with Post Captain Frank Austen and his new (and expecting) bride, Mary. The five of them are living in rooms of an inn until their larger hired lodgings at Castle Square are ready. Their loyal servant, Jenny (with them since Lyme-see Jane and the Man of the Cloth), is with them and plays a not insignificant role in solving this book’s murder mystery.

As Frank is generally expected to be away at sea, it is only logical for his sisters and mother to find a home with him and Mary. The Misses and Mrs. Austens need a more fixed place to call home and Mary will need assistance once her confinement begins and the baby is born. All are looking forward to a more permanent home.

The character Jane Austen has been quite endearing throughout this series. She is unconventional, constantly breaking the bonds of womanhood in word and deed. Yet she still retains her femininity and revels in it. Of the six mysteries thus far, Jane and the Prisoner of Wool House opens with the best line: “Had I suffered the misfortune to be born a man…” In that one phrase, Jane reveals her pleasure in being a woman despite the encumbrances placed upon the females of our species. She may not fully agree with the social norms of her day, but she would never trade womanhood for manhood!

In Jane’s previous adventure at Derbyshire, we had a reprieve from talk of Napoleon’s war. This time around, being at Southampton and surrounded by those in, or connected to, the Royal Navy, we are just about embroiled in the war. Before the story even begins, a war crime accusation is made that affects the Austen household. Additionally, prisoners of war are being held in the Wool House (former dockside warehouse) where Jane ends up ministering to the sick French prisoners. She befriends one prisoner in particular, a man who says he is a ship’s surgeon and witnessed the alleged war crime of which Frank’s friend and peer Thomas Seagrave is accused. The Frenchman has a vital role in the unraveling of the truth. Seagrave is then later gaoled (jailed) for the murder of his accuser.

Jane has yet another close relation to convert to her way of doing things. Frank confides in Jane the particulars of the accusation and his concern for his friend. Regardless, he attempts to shield her from other details and not let her get involved. Naturally, this is in vain. Jane is hardly one to be left out (she does respect the protocol of the navy and does not press to attend Seagrave’s court-martial). Jane ends up giving counsel to Frank as he becomes Jane’s Lord Harold in solving the crimes. He goes where Jane cannot-this time it isn’t the upper classes of Lord Harold’s peers, but the seedier sections of town and the naval vessels and higher offices of the navy. Even though Frank is a member of the Royal Navy, Frank displays naiveté where none is expected from an experienced sailor. Frank is appalled at the supposition of treachery on the part of a high-ranking official. Jane compares Frank to her “cynical friend, Lord Harold Trowbridge…” calling Frank’s position as post captain, innocent. It must be a post captain is not as worldly as someone of Lord Harold’s rank and employment, or, Frank has not had much exposure to war-time conspiracies.

As for Lord Harold, he is not to be expected in Southampton. It was made clear in their parting at the end of the previous summer that their paths would not meet. Mrs. Austen and Cassandra are pleased with his absence. Jane barely mentions him at this point in her writing. Perhaps she is too occupied in securing Seagrave’s freedom and compassion for others involved to pine for him.

Being unfamiliar with the Royal Navy, I frequently found myself looking up naval terms and terms used for the different waterways around Southampton and nearby Portsmouth (some of the action takes place there as well). Ms. Barron’s physical descriptions of the land and ports and the activities occurring around them make it easy to imagine what life was like for the landlubbers and sailors (while in port) in the early 1800s. I could feel the chill of the cold February air biting through the layers Jane wrapped around her slight frame and smell the salty air. I’m not sure which I prefer better, Ms. Barron’s remarkable imagery or the stories themselves.

Referring back to the first sentence once more, Jane continues on saying, “…I should have torn myself early from the affections of my family and all the comforts of home, and thrown my fate upon the mercy of the seas.” Jane is a puzzle. She is not fond of being on the water, but embraces coastal living and braves a clandestine trip overwater. She wants the comforts and stability afforded a married woman of her station, but rather enjoys her independence that would be lacking if she were married (unless, of course, she was married to the right man ). Jane is a series of contrasts, born well before her time. In further reading of Jane’s own publications, it is amazing how well Ms. Barron is portraying Jane as a character. It is easy to imagine Jane saying and doing all that Ms. Barron has conceived.


Being the Fifth Jane Austen Mystery, by Stephanie Barron. Jane, her mother and Cassandra are off to Staffordshire to spend some time with Mr. Edward Cooper, cousin to Jane and Cassandra and rector at Fellow of All Souls. The visit is interrupted by an outbreak of whooping cough amongst the Reverend’s eight children, precipitating a journey to Bakewell, Derbyshire, escorted by Mr. Cooper. All appearances lead one to believe this to be, at long last, a true respite from the bothers of Jane’s previous travels. No noisy children, a turn in an inn, country air with long healthful walks among hill and dale; all of this is at Jane’s disposal. As usual, however, rest and an easy mind are not to be Jane’s. A fishing excursion to a quiet spot a few miles outside of Bakewell is interrupted by her discovery of the body of a gentleman (we find out very quickly it is not a man, but a woman), shot and mutilated. Thus, Jane’s vacation comes to an end as she endeavours to find the murderer. She is plunged yet again into the life of high society, partnering with her Gentleman Rogue once more, out to save the life of an innocent man.

Mr. Cooper, besides being the responsible male (responsible for Mrs. Austen, Cassandra and Jane, the delicate and fairer of the sexes), provides comic relief amid the seriousness of the murder investigation. His great joy in life is to praise God through song, as loudly as his lungs allow. Unfortunately, his voice is one not fully appreciated by discerning ears. Propriety keeps Mr. Cooper’s companions enduring his vocal outpourings of faith. Finally, an encounter with Lord Harold silences him and puts Lord Harold another rank lower in the eyes of Cassandra and Mrs. Austen (although everyone is glad of the break). Mr. Cooper is the only real male wary of Jane’s participation with the murderous affair, not only because Jane is a woman, but out of concern for what his patron will think about Mr. Cooper’s own involvement. Naturally, Jane prevails in her sleuthing (after all, she discovered the body and can’t allow an innocent to take the blame). Poor Mr. Cooper is just about cast into the shadows; many conversations pass as if he isn’t even present in the room.

Other characters introduced to us seem less inclined to keep Jane out of the investigation. Lord Harold is in Derbyshire; he has influenced their thinking. If he is able to convince gentlemen unknown to Jane or her to them, it is apparent he is well respected. Jane is merely a visitor to the region and knows absolutely no one outside of her own party. With the influence of Lord Harold and her own astute skills, she quickly reveals herself to be an asset in the investigation.

The presence of Lord Harold comes as a surprise to Jane as hers is to him. They have not seen one another since Bath the previous Christmastide (Jane and the Wandering Eye). Jane has kept tabs on him through the public journals. Stories of his political excursions and rumours of his romantic dalliances have kept Jane wondering about him. Through this admittance, she divulges how enamoured she is with him, even though he is out of her league (she frequently reminds herself of this throughout the series). Jane’s presence in Derbyshire is by chance; Lord Harold’s by design. He is paying a mourning call upon the Ducal House of Devonshire. Upon hearing Jane is near, he is inclined to see her. His niece, Lady Swithin (Desdemona of Wandering Eye), desires some time with Jane. It is interesting that Lord Harold comes to extend the invitation to Jane rather than Lady Desdemona. There could be many reasons of propriety for Lord Harold to make the call. In the course of their conversation, Jane unveils to the Gentleman Rogue that the Austens shall not return to Bath. Instead, they will go to Southampton to reside with her brother, Post Captain Frank Austen. Lord Harold reacts strongly, certainly out of surprise and perhaps a bit of disappointment. However much of a difference exists between Lord Harold and Jane’s social status (and Lord Harold’s romances. Just how strong are his feelings for Jane?), they both appear to harbor a little more than fondness towards each other. Later, Jane further reveals her adoration of Lord Harold, admiring him as a part of the beauty of the landscape (pp. 145, 149). Their parting in the end is filled with veiled affection.

The victim in this case turns out to be a woman. She was Tess Arnold, the stillroom maid at Penfolds Hall, an estate near to where she was found. The stillroom maid was responsible for food preservation. Tess concocted home remedies for a variety of ailments as well. Some called her a witch. The fact that she was found attired in the clothing of the master of the house does more harm to her reputation, even in light of the savageness committed upon her body. Ms. Barron includes excerpts from Tess Arnold’s “Stillroom Book” at the end of each chapter, sometimes a rather ironic remedy apropos to an “ailment” in the chapter.

I have finally begun reading Jane Austen’s own work. I am now able to fully appreciate the literary style used by Ms. Barron. She really is able to channel Jane and write the journals in much the same way Jane would have written. I was previously perplexed by the conversation style. There is confusion in conversation as to who is speaking when. At times, a couple of readings of a conversational passage are needed to discern the speakers. Now, becoming familiar with Jane’s style, I have found this to be pervasive throughout her own writings. Nevertheless, even having cleared that up, it continues to confuse this reader!

The Austens travels this time around take them to the Midlands of England. This is the farthest they have traveled to the north so far. The landscape is quite different from the southern portion of the nation. A web search of the area shows many places and sites worth visiting, including Chatsworth, the home of the Duke of Devonshire. Although it is somewhat altered from how it was in Jane’s time, it is still open for tours-the one way Jane expected to see Chatsworth. She saw Chatsworth as a guest of the estate, thanks to Lord Harold!