Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor (Being the First Jane Austen Mystery) by Stephanie Barron: Review

I need to preface this whole review by saying that Jane Austen is one of my all time favorite authors. I have read every single one of her novels (I’ve read Pride and Prejudice twice already this year bringing my total up to something like fifteen of sixteen). I studied Jane Austen’s literature extensively in school and have written multiple essays about her. This book was actually recommended to me by a professor after I wrote about Jane Austen as detective fiction in his class (it sounds weird, but I pulled it off and got an A no less). It’s taken me a long time to get around to reading this first of Stephanie Barron’s novels featuring Jane Austen as the ‘detective’ because, as much as I love Jane Austen, I’m really not that big a fan of detective stories. Given my background with Jane Austen you might imagine that I had mixed feeling picking up this novel. Would Barron do Austen justice? Would it be authentic to the times? Would the story actually be good or was Barron just trying to attract attention to a mediocre novel by using Austen’s well known and respected name? Having read the novel my feeling are mixed, but enough of this intro stuff, lets get to it.

The first few chapters of the book had me enthralled. I was, to put it bluntly, ridiculously excited, because in a very few pages I began to realize what kind of game Barron was playing at. Sprinkled throughout the pages of this novel are dozens of hints, references, and nods towards Jane Austen’s own novels. Character names, places, the personalities of the characters, there were so many things I could point to and say “AHA! I see which Austen character this is based on!” or “This is the conversation that is supposed to ‘inspire’ such and such scene in this Austen novel.” It became something like a treasure hunt, trying to pick out the specific bits that made direct references to Austen’s own  writing. It was this aspect that really got me reading and remained one of my greatest pleasures in the novel throughout. However, after a while the novelty of what Barron was doing started to wear off and I began to pay attention to the novel itself.

The plot of The Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor didn’t hold a lot of interest for me for the first half of the novel or so, but eventually I did start getting invested in the story and trying to figuring out who the culprit was and all that. Unfortunately the story was somewhat predictable, at least in the bigger aspects of the plot. I knew who’d done it, who seemed to have done it but was really innocent, and such and such, way before the big reveal at the end, but I still enjoyed reading the story to see how Barron would have all of her characters figure it out. Still, on the rare occasion that I do read detective fiction I prefer for the plots to be slightly less predictable.

It’s about time that we start coming to my major problems with this book. The novel is written in the form of a journal that was supposed to have been kept by Austen herself and that details the events of the unpleasantness that she is witness to, and involved in, at Scargrave Manor, and that’s where Barron really starts to go wrong. Since the novel is written from Austen’s perspective it, of course, needed to try and imitate her voice, and Barron did a commendably decent job. However, although Barron used Austen’s typical language, phrasing, and syntax relatively well, you could still see the more modern narrative style coming through. Had the novel been narrated from a third person perspective I think this would have been perfectly acceptable, but, since it was supposed to have been written by Jane Austen herself, it ended up seeming false and inauthentic. Even had her writing style been a complete and perfect imitation of Austen’s, Barron’s attempt would still have fallen short because of the necessity of weaving into the narrative information that we, as modern readers, needed to know but that Austen would never have included because of it being perfectly understood in her time without the need for further comment. Barron does save herself from some of this by using footnotes to explain some of the more historical information. At first these footnotes added to the authenticity that she was going for as they were presented in the guise of editor’s notes and explained such things as social class and geography or the like. Then Barron took it too far. The notes started turning to the “history” of Austen’s life. Claiming that this character in Barron’s novel was supposed to be the inspiration for this character in Austen’s novel, and that kind of thing. It was all lies. Had the foot notes been restrained to actual historical information relevant to the story it would have been fine, but I take great issue with Barron trying to twist Austen’s actual life story for her own literary aims. I understand that it’s fiction, and if this had been done to an author that I liked a bit less then I might not care, I might have even thought it was clever, but as it is I found it incredibly wrong that Barron would corrupt the history of an amazing author for her own benefit.

At some point during the novel, around when I started getting more interested in the plot and more frustrated by Barron’s false footnotes, I started trying to read the novel as just another historical novel with a detective plot rather than as anything connected to Austen, her work, or her life. While I could manage to do that I found the story to be a fun read. That, combined with the fun I had picking out all of the little Austen treasures (the real ones based on Austen’s work, not the fake stuff that Barron was making up), kept me from actually disliking this novel. It certainly won’t be ranked among my favorites, and I likely won’t continue with reading the following books in the series, but I did enjoy this book in the end.

Final recommendation. If you like Austen, and you like detective fiction, you should give this book a try. If you read this book without a strong familiarity with Austen’s works then you miss out on a lot of what makes this novel worth reading, but, on the other hand, you could probably enjoy it just for the plot and historical aspect. Final rating 2.5/5 stars. If I were rating just plot or quality of writing then I’d have rated it higher, probably 3.5/5, but I’ve got to take that extra point off for those frustrating footnotes.