To: Read: Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargave Manor #everythingausten

[Cross-posted to GoodReads, LibraryThing and Opinions of a Wolf. The entry chronicling my #everythingausten list, has also been updated.]
One of my, um, “hobbies” is that I’ll occasionally google authors/books/characters/worlds whatever and see if there is fan fiction for a particular pairing, no matter how bizarre or unlikely that pairing may be. Then I get obsessed for hours reading the wretched details of say Lizzy Bennett (from Pride and Prejudice) is having sex with Captain Jack Harkness from (Doctor Who/Torchwood), moments after she’s already, supposedly, banged Darcy.1 Paraliterature, which is to say materials derived from their original works but reworked/reedited/completed with additional new elements, is a twin sister to fan fiction, but in a much more structured and in some cases, academic way. Where as one can write about Draco Malfoy having sex with Hermione’s nose2 and publish it on their blog or fan fiction website, paraliterature usually requires vetting in the form of research, editors and physical publication. Another way to look at it is that paraliterature is usually in a physical book format, typically novel length while fan fiction tends to languish on the internets. And another confusing aspect of this? Paraliterature is fan fiction, but not all fan fiction is paraliterature. Right now, this is how I understand it and my definition is pretty fluid. For the rest of this piece, I’ll use “paraliterature” in the context of the above definition.

Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor: Being the First Jane Austen Mystery

With all that being said, I love Jane Austen paraliterature. I love the idea of her stories being continued, of her unfinished books being completed and of the reinterpretations of her novels. Jane Austen paraliterature has been around for nearly 100 years, according to The Republic of Pemberley, with the publication of Old Friends, New Fancies in 1913, but it’s been in the last 30 or so years that it has really skyrocketed to a whole new level. 3 I knew, then, that finding materials to read for the “Everything Austen” challenge would not be terribly difficult. I discovered Stephanie Barron and her “Jane Austen Mystery” series when I was working at $corporate_bookstore a few years ago. The books were never HUGELY popular4, but they did occasionally sell and the concept, I thought, was clever: Friends of Barron “discover” via happenstance letters/materials, secreted away in the family’s cellar in the Colonies (America), apparently having been written by Austen herself. And lo’ and behold! Austen is a sleuth! The family demurs to Barron, gentle reader, as the editor and keeper of the volumes instead of donating the material to Oxbridge or anyone of note. Each JA Mystery, then, is a portion of Austen’s “diaries” that Barron has “edited” and published for public consumption. Like I said, clever idea. While the series has spawned 10 books, with the 10th one (Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron) coming out in September, I realise the first few books would be a little rough and that it would take a few books for Barron to get her writing chops in order. But there are some picayune points that kind of drove me nuts that I wanted to address:

  • Barron claims that she wrote Scargave Manor before any of the J.A. books were made into films – for someone who has an incredibly impressive resume and worked as a CIA intelligence analyst, apparently she forwent her research skills – JA material has been on the silver screen since 1938. There has not been a decade since when something of Austen’s was not made in some capacity, so while yes, Barron’s publication of her first book was timed well with the release of BBC adaption of Pride and Prejudice, she was not the first person to write paraliterature nor did she start the fires for Austenmania.
  • Verbal anachronisms: Barron has the fictional Austen saying “fiddlesticks” a lot, which is more reminiscent of Scarlett O’Hara than of Austen (or of any Austen characters). Fiddlesticks, as an exclamation (according to the OED), made an appearance once in 1600 and was not seen again until the 1840s, decades after Austen dies. In addition to “fiddlesticks,” Austen is doing a lot of “espying,” which also according to the OED, has been long obsolete before Austen’s time, this is not something she would have said. There were also a few others, but these stuck out in particular.
  • Repetitiveness of phases: In the book, Austen (or a minor character) cannot possibly have X issue because it cannot “be born.” Fictional Austen is also running around doing a lot of “espying” (see above) on people (typically as “espied,” so always in the past tense).
  • The servant’s speech, regardless of where the servant is from, is ALWAYS Cockney. I hope Barron learns later that not all servants come from East London.
  • Barron uses a variation “It’s a truth universally acknowledged” in some format, which drives me NUTS in paraliterature, particularly in materials that are spin-offs rather than rewrites or completions.
  • The killer is announced in the first paragraph, in the last chapter which to me signals a classic rookie mistake. You never announce who the killer is in the last few paragraphs because you’re essentially telling the reader: “Hey, don’t read my stuff! Don’t use a few braincells to figure out WHODUNIT! Let me feed you the answer and save you the trouble!”
  • Unnecessary minor characters with similar names. This is nothing but filler, right thar.

Barron suffers, at least with this book, from the delusion that more flowery the language is, the closer it must be to Austen’s time. I also hope in future tales she calms down a bit on this aspect of the story. Many (not just Barron), it seems, think that JA’s time is distant enough that Modern English was still in its infancy when in actuality, they are confusing Modern English with Contemporary English5. ME has been around since the time of Shakespeare (Elizabethan – Late 1400s) but CE has only been around since the Industrial Revolution (1850s)6. The distinction is not so much how English is used but growth of vocabulary, verbal usage, and structure. The older English gets, it seems, the more erudite it becomes.
Okay, I’ll stop pontificating. Overall: a decent read. Not fantastic, but not awful either. The story flowed, mostly, and despite my above criticisms, I did not feel bored or impatient with the book. I did, however, felt that the overlap between drawing JA out as a fictional character and Barron’s attempt to emulate Austen prose kept swapping the driver’s seat. I wasn’t quite sure what voice Barron was attempting to write in and that did get confusing. The plot seemed to dip in and out of consciousness, some of the characters seemed weakly drawn while others were extremely vibrant. Barron DOES have tremendous skill at writing and what parts she was lacking in with creativity she more than made up for in talent. Would recommend with a caveat that it is the first book in a series and might be a little rough. Am extremely hopeful that book two will be much more fleshed out.

1. Yes, this pairing does exist. If you google it, it will come.
2. This also exists. See, what I do for my readers?
3. For a wonderful list of JA paraliterature, The Republic of Pemberley has wonderful list, sorted by book as well as searchable, complete with reviews.
4. Clearly Jane Austen is not as fetching as a sleuth as Stephanie Plum or as a Cat.
5. Technically, CE is not an “official” term since the CE period referred to is known academically as Late Modern English, but most people’s eyes glaze over so I just define it as Modern English and Contemporary English.
6. For the sake of argument, I’m referring to what is known as the second industrial revolution but is more commonly known as THE industrial revolution.