AustenBlog is delighted to be a stop on the blog tour for Jane and the Year Without a Summer, the latest entry in the Jane Austen Mysteries series by Stephanie Barron.
We have long been delighted by Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen Mysteries series, though as it continues and the timeline grows closer to the fateful year of 1817, we find ourself wondering, how will it end? For end it must, as Jane Austen’s own life ended, much too soon, to the grief of her family, her friends, and her fans over the past two centuries. But if Jane must leave us, Stephanie Barron has determined she shall do so with style.
When we last left Jane Austen in Jane and the Waterloo Map, it was late 1815 and Jane was in London seeing her Emma through publication, nursing her brother Henry back to health after a severe fever, and oh yeah, solving a murder on the side, with the fascinating painter Raphael West in close attendance. Mr. West’s feelings about our Jane seem clear, though his intentions are anything but. Jane tries to protect herself by putting him off a bit at the end—but one suspects this—can we call it a romance?–is not quite over.
At the beginning of Jane and the Year Without a Summer, it is the early summer of 1816, and the citizens of the United Kingdom await the return of summer, though this year in vain. They don’t realize it, but the explosion of the volcano Mount Tambora in distant Indonesia in 1815 caused a “volcanic winter,” meaning the big damp foggy island nor-nor’east of Ushant* is a great deal damper and foggier than usual. The rain is unremitting, and the reader feels the wet chill of it as Jane and Cassandra travel to the spa town of Cheltenham so that Jane can take the waters. Her family is concerned that such a course was recommended by her physician, but Jane breezily makes little of it, though she has been feeling ill for some time: fatigue, pain in her back, disordered bowels, and loss of appetite. The knowledgeable Janeite will read these signs with alarm. Time is growing ever shorter.
*A quotation from Robert Lindsay as Sir Edward Pellew in the episode “The Duchess and the Devil” from the first season of the Hornblower TV series. That my mind turns to the delightful Sir Edward will make sense later in this review.
Nonetheless the sisters travel to Cheltenham, Jane happy to spend a little of her profits from Emma to give them a fortnight’s treat, and to perhaps feel better herself. (The Austen sisters did indeed make this trip in real life.) As all the biographies mention, they take a room at Mrs. Potter’s establishment. Their fellow lodgers are a mixed group, just fit for an observer of human nature such as Jane Austen to enjoy: a fire-and-brimstone preacher who insists The End Is Near and seems perfectly delighted about it, accompanied by his snobby, nosy sister; a beautiful, young but sickly woman and her companion; a Royal Navy captain named Pellew (a distant relation of Sir Edward Pellew, who was a real-life naval hero as well as a character in the Hornblower series); and a young woman calling herself Mrs. Smith, who works with actresses at the town theater who need help with attaining an aristocratic accent and demeanor. And then Raphael West also arrives in Cheltenham to take Jane (and Cassandra, of course) to the theater, and to dine, and for walks in the rain, and eventually to dance at a public assembly. Everything is delightfully arranged; if only the sun would come out!
Several people, unsurprisingly, turn out to not be who they seem; various creatures are sadly poisoned, and then people are also poisoned, which is not good. It’s a murder mystery, so we must needs have a body, and one turns up. Is it murder? It is, and Jane turns her still-considerable talents to finding out who was responsible, ably assisted by the attentive Mr. West.
This series really gets better with every book, and we loved every word of this one. It’s a delightful story, and an interesting mystery, and it’s always fun to stand behind Jane Austen’s eyes and see what she might have. Of course it’s fiction; one can lose oneself in the story and forget that, but ultimately it is one writer’s version of Jane Austen, and each reader must decide if it works for them. If we were writing it, would we make some different decisions? Possibly; but Barron’s Jane is delightful, intelligent, witty, everything a fan could want in her Jane Austen, and absolutely human as well; and as a fan we are so happy to read her having a romance, even so very late in her life; even when it rips our heart out at the end (and stomps on it, and sets it on fire, and kicks it down the street, and oh dear we may have issues). We’re not sure where Barron will take the series from here; perhaps this is the end, and if so, the series ends with a flourish. This is the best book yet in the series.
We expected the book to be good, but we didn’t expect it to be so darned entertaining. We feel like Dog Rates on Twitter and want to give it the elusive 15/10. We were reading it on the train and didn’t realize that we had reached our station (the last one on the line, so we didn’t miss it) and the train had stopped until the conductor came in and said, “Um, you have to get off the train now.” We apologized and explained, “I was really into my book.” He said, “I guess you were!” We guess we were. Five very enthusiastic stars.
Disclaimer: We received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.