Barron has captured Austen’s tone, if not Austen herself, with early 19th century humor and genteel snark. The story takes place in an English country house called The Vyne, a huge manor filled with secret doors and hidden passages. The Vyne is a real place and many of the characters are based on real people—Austen’s contemporaries, family, and friends.
Beginning with a crash of carriages on a frigid night, the winter cold freezes your fingers right through the pages. A carriage warmed by heated stones is a welcome pleasure. A fire burning in an expansive salon offers little comfort unless one gets a seat near it. Water is frozen in the wash basin by morning, and it’s too cold to get out of bed until the servant lights the fire. (How does the servant manage?) One’s shoes get wet and icy when walking in the snow. And in this story, snow is a menace.
It’s Christmas 1814, and Jane and her family are invited to spend the 12 days of Christmas at The Vyne, hosted by the Chutes. William Chute was a real country squire, and a member of Parliament from 1790-1820. He and his wife Elizabeth (Eliza) were known to host their friends often, especially for hunting parties.
That’s the plan this time, but the Chutes and their guests are soon snowed in. The roads are impassable and it’s too cold to go out hunting with the hounds. Stuck in the grand house, Mrs. Chute devises games for her guests. On the first night a charade, having to do with an illegitimate child, offends Miss Gambier, a young lady who’s visiting along with her brother and aunt. Some of Miss Gambier’s relations are historical figures, and in this case some are not, or at least Google doesn’t know about them.
Among the guests is Raphael West, also based in history. He’s a fine painter, and son of the great painter Benjamin West. Jane finds herself attracted to him, though being in her late 30’s she believes she’s not marriageable and tries to talk herself out of her feelings. But when a messenger departs two days after Christmas and is dispatched in an unfortunate way, Jane begins to suspect not only West, but everyone else in the party. The only person who has entered their party from the snow was the messenger, and he can’t tell them what happened.
Against the backdrop of Napoleon Buonaparte and the Treaty of Ghent, Jane puzzles over a motive. It could be political or romantic, as love, sorrow, and intrigue thread throughout the tale. Barron leads us to suspect everyone and no one, so when the killer is revealed we are surprised and yet not surprised. I take that as a sign of a good mystery, because the author hid the killer from me, yet motive and opportunity are believable.
You might call this novel a confection, and it is, but Barron knows her stuff and creates a well-built story based in fact. She pays homage to delicious details of food and décor, and of clothing in particular. The book is so well-researched that the reader falls softly and happily into the customs and manners of the early 1800s.
Jane’s brother James has taken the position of Vicar upon their father’s death, and he’s much more priggish than their father ever was. There’s plenty of back-and-forthing about what is respectably Christian and what is not. A celebration of Christmas, for example, is not acceptable to James. Because the book is a bit of frivolity as well as a murder mystery, it’s a comment upon itself, and a charming read for the holidays.
Some gems from Barron’s Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas:
“Absurdity is a blessing that is best shared.”
“To be continually underestimated is a woman’s lot.”
Makes me want to read Austen again.
Photo, top right: Corbit Sharp house decorated for the Jane Austen Christmas Exhibit; HistoricOdessa.org.
Petrea Burchard is a Pasadena photographer, blogger, voice-over talent and author. Her story “Portraits” is included in Literary Pasadena (Prospect Park Books, 2013). She contributes book reviews to Hometown Pasadena, for which we and our readers are very grateful. Find more Petrea doings, writings, and photography at PetreaBurchard.com and LivingVicuriously.
Petrea’s new release Act As If is available from Amazon (Kindle and paperback), and locally at Flintridge Bookstore & Coffeehouse, as well as at Hoopla! in Altadena.