A Conversation with Stephanie Barron

Stephanie Barron

This is part of the blog tour for Jane and the Year Without a Summer by Stephanie Barron.

We started reading Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen Mysteries series around the time the fifth book, Jane and the Stillroom Maid, came out in 2000, though being a completist naturally we read the first four first, in order. It made perfect sense to us then, and does now, that Jane Austen would be a dab hand at solving mysteries, and we were happy to suspend disbelief to allow that the “Editor” of the mysteries had discovered a cache of Jane’s forgotten journals in a British estate house describing her doing so. It could happen! And we’ve continued enjoying the series ever since.

The first time we met Ms. Barron in person was at the 2008 JASNA AGM in Chicago, where the Editrix was presenting a poster session about this very blog, and the authoress unwarily wandered by at a quiet moment so we were able to fangirl all over her. (Actually we rather shyly muttered something about being “a really big fan” a la Kathy Bates in Misery and she was quite gracious.) So we are delighted to be participating in the blog tour for the latest Jane Austen Mystery, Jane and the Year Without a Summer, fourteenth in the series, and the opportunity to pester Ms. Barron, Lady Catherine-like, with our impertinent questions.

We’re sure you have answered this many times before, but why and how did you decide to write the Jane Austen Mysteries? We know you already were a published mystery author under your real name, Francine Mathews.

I love answering this question because it’s so deeply personal. I was pregnant during most of 1994, and I found it a hallucinatory experience. My mind frequently wandered from my usual strict control into fields of semi-conscious wool-gathering, and I was definitely hearing voices—in this case, Jane Austen’s. I’d been reading her extensively that year, and started speaking in what I call Austenese—that passive-construction, sedately curated narrative voice of the late Georgian period—when responding to the simplest question. I realized how effectively her language communicated multiple levels of meaning, particularly the dialogue, and knew that I wanted to be able to use that voice in current fiction. But I was uninterested in writing a continuation of one of Austen’s novels—I firmly believe that as readers, we hold zealously to our individual conceptions of her principal characters, and I didn’t want to violate anyone else’s mental image of Anne Elliot or Eliza Bennet. I felt, however, that Jane herself was less well understood or envisioned by her readers, and that I might usefully embody her in a way readers found interesting. I thought by giving her a cracking good mystery plot to solve, readers might be willing to embrace her as a guide to a very different world of England two hundred years ago.

I also believe that one reason we return again and again to Austen’s novels is due to her profound understanding of the human heart—or in criminal terms, human motivation. She shows us constantly how people manipulate others to get what they want; how they assume masks and deceive; how the women in her stories must in fact be detectives solving the riddle of the men before them—about whom they know very little, and must penetrate (an Austen word) the truth of their characters, because those men and their motives may determine happiness or misery for the rest of the heroines’ lives. Jane was a natural detective, and she lived in an era when there was no formal police force. Everyone was an amateur in her world.

Tell our Gentle Readers a little about your background prior to writing novels. Did your experience working for the CIA help you with writing about Jane analyzing clues and solving mysteries?

I would say rather that the same cognitive bent directed me to both activities—I’m what’s known as a High Analytic, which means I’m adept at studying information and forming a coherent, predictive narrative from disparate facts. That made me useful as an intelligence analyst, where information is always partial and must be parsed for meaning; but it also helped me plot mystery novels and consider the technical uses of character in advancing a story. There’s an architecture to every novel, and I think it has to be well-planned and constructed for a story to satisfy readers. Jane, too, understood this—the late Yale literary critic Harold Bloom tells us that Persuasion is the turning point in the timeline of modern literature’s development, because it is so tightly-constructed and beautifully concise: there’s not a word or scene wasted. That is distinctly different from the meandering narratives Jane absorbed as a child (think Ann Radcliffe, Fanny Burney.) She learned from and advanced the form.

Do you get ideas for the books from the events of Austen’s life, or do you have ideas for the plot and then see where they will fit in her life? Have you been waiting FOREVER to write something about the Year Without a Summer?

My source material for the fourteen novels to date is primarily Austen’s letters, but they vary in their composition in one of two ways: I either am intentionally filling a gap in that epistolary record—when no letters exist to record Jane’s activities, and that gap can be usefully filled with fiction—or I am creating a mosaic of fact and fiction from a strict record of a particular period in Austen’s life that is recorded in her letters. For example, Jane and the Stillroom Maid falls into a gap, and sends Jane to Derbyshire and Chatsworth, where some Austen scholars believe she never actually traveled. (I happen to believe she did—while visiting her cousin Edward Cooper in neighboring Staffordshire). Other novels, such as Jane and the Man of the Cloth, Jane and the Waterloo Map, Jane and the Genius of the Place—derive quite strictly from events, people, and issues she refers to in surviving letters. Because she and her family were quite peripatetic during the years before they settled at Chawton Cottage, I wanted to place her in each of the locations she lived, and consulted both the letters and events in contemporaneous British history for each location/period I used to set a book. The stories arise from the conjunction among Jane’s letters, her location, and events in a given year.

As for the year 1816, which comes down to us in history as the Year Without a Summer, due to the climactic impact of the 1815 eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia, I knew I wanted to use Jane’s trip to Cheltenham Spa to take the waters—and only understood the worldwide impact of climate that year once I began to research it. I lucked into the Summer.

One of our problems with some of the novels and films about Jane Austen’s life are that some of them suggest she “lived” the events in her books and didn’t make them up out of her own head. We don’t get that from your books. There are parallels, certainly—all authors “take” elements from their own lives—but they are never overkill. How do you approach melding Jane’s real life with your fictional version of it?

Well, I know as a writer that I don’t write from my own life. My fiction is not autobiographical. So it never occurred to me that Jane’s novels were faithful cullings of personal experience. Her brilliance lies in her perception of universal human foibles, follies, self-indulgences, blindness, charity, hopes and humor—these are what she mined for her indelible character studies and moving human dramas. In casting Jane into fiction herself, it was important to me to underline her wicked and sometimes vicious sense of humor, which is apparent in the intimate, first-person voice of her letters. I wanted to capture her occasional cynicism, as well as her gentleness with regard to human failing; her ability to reward, condemn and forgive with equal strength. I also hoped to present a fairly faithful picture of her world, in terms of technology, daily life, politics and social development. I wanted to echo themes in her novels on occasion without being slavish. I hope that mix has come out fairly evenly on the whole.

Can we talk about the men? We mean, you give Jane actual boyfriends. Lord Harold was fascinating, but certainly frustrating. Geoffrey Sidmouth, the Clergyman By The Sea, was the one who got away; and Rafael West is a comfort to us middle-aged ladies that our charms are not completely faded.

Jane obviously relished a complex male—we get that vividly in her novels. She nods in passing to the simpler minds (the Bingleys, the Edward Ferrars, the Captain Harvilles) but she reserves her most intense interest for men of subtlety and power, who demand a deeper engagement. She clearly gloried in verbal sparring, craved news of the broader world that well-educated interlocuters provided, appreciated charm. All those qualities threw her own gifts into sharp relief in company, which in turn made her feel appreciated, empowered, and seen. I need more than the company of brothers, however worthy, or her sister Cassandra (Jane’s constant emphasis on Cassandra’s goodness suggests someone who was admirable, but a trifle dull?) to provide Jane’s jewelry-box setting. Creating fascinating men serves that purpose.

Lord Harold is fascinating in part because he’s drawn as a composite of several notable Whig politicians of Jane’s era—William Lamb, who was eventually Lord Melbourne; And Lord Holland, whose Memoirs of the Whig Party was one of my sources. He’s deliberately chosen because he has power to manipulate Society and Government—both in public, and far more effectively, behind the scenes. Raphael West, on the other hand, is Jane’s actual historical contemporary, although little is known or recorded of his life other than various portraits his father painted of him, and his own sketches (a catalogue of which I was able to find.) I chose him as a counterpart to Jane because I find painters of the period fascinating—Sir Thomas Lawrence is another example, and a character in Jane and the Wandering Eye. Painters like writers had a certain social fluidity in Georgian England; they both served and joined the ranks of the powerful. Like Jane, West is a Creative, an observer of human nature, and moves with comfort across social class lines.

Would you like to tell us a little about your research for this latest book, or anything interesting about researching the previous books?

There’s very little written about Jane and Cassandra’s trip to Cheltenham Spa on May 23, 1816. Biographers tend to rush past it, as a result. I was able to find an article entitled “Jane and Cassandra in Cheltenham” in the UK Jane Austen Society Collected Reports: 2001-2005, by Carolyn S. Greet, that filled in the context and provided a contemporaneous map. From there, I pulled up 1816 editions of the Cheltenham Chronicle from those weeks, and was able to learn the name of a local Coroner, for example, who would have presided over an inquest, and the names of Cheltenham inns where the Coroner liked to hold court.

Cheltenham was known, however, as the home of a notable physician, Edward Jenner—who developed the first innoculation practice and the first vaccine—both words he coined—for smallpox. In researching Jenner, I learned that James Austen was an acquaintance of his, and that James, Mary and Caroline Austen (at least) were vaccinated against smallpox by Jenner. Similarly, I learned that Madame Anne Lefroy, Jane’s lifelong mentor and friend, was a vocal advocate of Jenner’s methods who read his pamphlet on vaccination aloud at social gatherings. Madame Lefroy apparently vaccinated the people in her husband’s parish. I think it is highly likely, therefore, that Jane was vaccinated. Madame Lefroy would have seen it done.

Finally, I unearthed something I find fascinating, and potentially instrumental in Jane’s death. Various Austen scholars have suggested possible culprits for her untimely end: Addison’s Disease (which is an autoimmune disease that destroys the adrenal glands, and thus, the management of sodium levels in the bloodstream), pancreatic cancer, liver cancer, or as biographer Claire Tomlin suggests, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I’ve researched Addison’s before, while writing my spy novel about Jack Kennedy, Jack 1939. What struck me as unusual about Jane’s case was the sudden onset of symptoms at roughly age 40 (late 1815-1816) with swift death a year and a half later. Being of a certain age myself, I wondered whether there was any connection between menopause and Addison’s. When I went searching, there it was—in a study conducted by NIH in 2002. It turns out that women who experience early-onset menopause (defined as age 40 or younger) are three hundred times more likely to develop Addison’s Disease. I have to wonder if that’s what happened to Jane.

We found the evocation of the social whirl of Cheltenham fascinating—masked balls, exhibitions, theater. These supposedly sick people certainly enjoyed themselves. What are your thoughts about life in Cheltenham in 1816?

That it was very raw, socially fluid, and full of opportunity for those looking to make a buck. Bath, of course, is the genteel place we associate with “taking the waters” in Austen’s fiction, but as the Musgrave and Elliot families illustrate, it, too, was a socially-fluid place where the gentry—think Viscountess Dalrymple and the Honourable Miss Carteret—mix with the unscrupulous, newly-moneyed, and shabby genteel (William Elliot, Esq., Mrs. Smith, and Mrs. Clay.) The “farmer’s daughters,” Louisa and Henrietta Musgrave, are the products of finishing-school, and thus anxious that if the family removes to Bath, they must be “in a good situation, no Queen Squares for us.” Nobody except the impoverished Charlotte Smith is particularly ill or thinking much of taking the waters; the spa towns are for rest, relaxation, and hearty social enjoyment.

I believe Jane traveled to Cheltenham because it was a newer, and therefore less expensive, place to take a rest cure than Bath. I would not be surprised if much that she observed there found its way into Sanditon.

We adored the Garthwaites, incidentally, but poor Thucydides! And Captain Pellew is certainly a name to bring a swoon to this Horatian (by which we mean a fan of the Hornblower books and films). Would you like to talk about them?

In thinking about the sorts of people one might encounter as fellow-lodgers in a boarding house on Cheltenham High Street, I considered a range of personalities: those who, like Jane and Cassandra, found the neighboring hotel too expensive; those who needed lodgings for more permanent reasons, like a diction-coach at the local theatre; and those hoping to avoid the social notice and discovery that might be a risk if staying at a fashionable hotel. I thought it was important to have a Voice of Doom during an apocalyptic season like the Year Without a Summer; just as during the recent pandemic, we’ve had a number of Prophets of the End Times blaring in our ears. Hence the Garthwaites. As far as Pellew is concerned, I chose the name because of its Naval significance but also its regional origin—I wanted a sailing family from Cornwall. Plus, Jane mentions Admiral Sir Edward Pellew in connection with her brother Frank’s career in a letter from 1811, so I knew she was familiar with Pellew’s history.

Part of the plot talks of the issues of marriage in Austen’s time, how hard it was for women to have a life without it, and yet how hard if they enter the state for the wrong reasons—as they so frequently did. Was this a theme you wanted to discuss, or did it develop from the plot?

Oh, I built the plot around the theme. Jane explicitly addresses the fate of married women in her letters throughout her life—because she watched three sisters-in-law die in childbed (Anne Mathew, James first wife; Elizabeth, Edward’s wife; and Fanny, Charles’s wife.) A fourth sister-in-law, Frank’s wife Mary, also died from childbirth after Jane had passed. She deplored the constant breeding going on around her, and pitied the women she knew for their inability to avoid it. This is clearly evident in her comments about Anna Austen Lefroy, James’s eldest daughter, whom she refers to as being unable to escape perpetual childbearing. Add to this the fact that as a woman, one was either the property of one’s father or one’s spouse—or dependent financially, as Jane was for most of her life, on one’s brothers—and the invidious position of women in amplified. Autonomy was the rare privilege of such women as commanded independent fortunes, and they were few on the ground. The vast majority of women were subject to male discipline, authority, and financial power. In researching this, as well as the common “nervous complaints” women embraced (think: Mrs. Bennet, Lady Bertram, Mary Musgrave), I learned that physicians of the time believed women were governed by the debilitating hormonal influence of their uteruses—which rendered them unfit for intellectual effort or self-governance. Women were frequently dosed with laudanum, therefore, to “strengthen the nerves.” One female response to male control was a refusal of nourishment—anorexia—which in turn could cause infertility, thus defeating the ultimate male purpose. The subjectivity of women to male power is a common theme throughout Austen’s work, and I do believe in at least this instance her fiction springs from her direct experience.

We have long thought it was interesting that Austen was writing a book about a wannabe health resort in Sanditon as she was growing weaker from her final illness. She was working on Persuasion during the events of the latest book. What elements of that book did you seed into yours? (No spoilers, of course.)

Persuasion is my favorite of Austen’s novels—although I certainly love others, as well. I suppose some of the Naval elements of that book are echoed in Year Without a Summer, along with the representation of life in a spa town. There’s also a certain sensation of Jane looking backward, as Anne Elliot does in Persuasion, with greater wisdom and understanding of her youthful self.

And let’s talk a little specifically about the gentleman of the most recent books, Rafael West. He was a real person, unlike the previous gentlemen in your Jane’s life, and being a Philadelphian, we’re rather a fan of his papa. Why did you choose him to be Jane’s companion in your books?

From references in her letters, Jane appears to have enjoyed picture exhibitions—and refers to the art of Benjamin West. She explicitly mentions seeing his latest great historical painting in a letter to Cassandra from September, 1814, while visiting Henry in London. As West only exhibited his work in his private home’s gallery space, I realized she had actually gone there. As always when I discover Jane’s proximity to someone remarkable from her time, I like to throw her in his way. Once I learned about West’s sons—Raphael, the elder, and Benjamin, the younger—and saw the Regency-era portrait of them their father painted, the employment of Raphael was irresistible. He’s incredibly handsome, and he worked with his father until the older man died. That the entire family lived and worked in Revolutionary France, only returning to England when Napoleon became an autocrat, dovetailed nicely with the political themes and intrigues of this series. Raphael is both of British society and outside it, which makes him an effective partner for Jane.

This is something we’ve been fearing for a while reading the series: that the current book takes place in the late spring of 1816, and, well, we all know what happens in July 1817. The ending has a decided finality to it. Will there be any more books in the series? Will they make us cry? (The latest one did, just to put that out there.)

Jane and the Winchester Schoolboy will be the final book in the series. Although that’s just a working title. I hope it doesn’t make you cry.

Relatedly, what’s next for Stephanie Barron and Francine Mathews?

I have a new Meredith Folger Nantucket mystery forthcoming this November 1, 2022—called Death on a Winter Stroll. And I recently signed an option agreement with a UK showrunner and production company to develop the Jane Austen mysteries for streaming television. I can’t say any more about that at present.

(Ed: *muppet flail*)

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