A Guest Review by Elizabeth Michaels
Jane and the Man of the Cloth is the second in Stephanie Barron’s series of ‘Jane Austen Mysteries’. As in the first book, she continues to fill in the gaps of Austen’s life, this time beginning in 1804. Barron sets her scenes well, and fleshes out the characters of Jane, her sister Cassandra, and their mother and father.
The Austens have left Bath for a small vacation to the coastal town of Lyme Regis (the town immortalized in Jane Austen’s Persuasion). Before they arrive, Cassandra is injured in a carriage accident, forcing the family to take refuge at a farm, High Down Grange, just outside town. Immediately intrigue abounds, not only in the master of the manor Geoffrey Sidmouth, but in his beautiful young French cousin Seraphine as well. There is also the matter of the decidedly non-farming activity that occurs during the night.
When Cassandra is strong enough, the family move to their lodgings in Lyme. A few mornings later, a man is discovered swinging from a new gibbet set up at the end of the Cobb (a stone walkway jutting out and forming part of the town’s harbor). Though an inquest is held, Jane can’t help but notice that no one cares very much to find the guilty party responsible. In fact, the townspeople all seem to agree that the executed man only received his just deserts from the one they call “The Reverend”. Jane remembers overhearing the dead man insulting Seraphine – and she knows Mr. Sidmouth has a reputation for a fierce and unforgiving temper. She also knows he and his cousin openly hate a Captain Fielding – for no apparent reason. Can Geoffrey Sidmouth be responsible for the hanging? Can he be “The Reverend?” Due to her growing attraction for him, Jane finds it difficult to admit such a possibility.
Meanwhile, Lyme’s social life continues, with the Austens as active participants in all activities but smuggling. Everyone else, however, has a hand in this illegal occupation, whether in shipping, storage, carting, selling, or even bringing the practitioners to justice. Jane, while walking one morning, observes Captain Fielding doing just that. His dragoon of soldiers overtakes a party unloading a ship, injuring some smugglers, including their leader. In a dashing move, Geoffrey Sidmouth gallops out of the mist and rescues the man. That he had been watching the smuggling is only too obvious. Jane is horrified at his apparent involvement, as well as at her increasing feelings for him.
A few mornings later Captain Fielding is found dead on the road outside Lyme. Highwaymen are allegedly suspected, but the physical evidence rests heavily against Mr. Sidmouth and he is arrested. Jane cannot deny the whispers of her heart, and must for her own peace of mind ferret out either his innocence or his guilt – but how? Enter Lord Cavendish, the Customs man, under orders from His Majesty to stop the smuggling business in Lyme. He asks Jane to help him not only bring the murderer of Captain Fielding to justice, but also to help uncover the identity of “The Reverend”.
From here, I think the story falls apart for several reasons. For one, I really don’t think the Customs man would ask a visiting spinster lady to undertake those tasks. Later on, Jane is remarkably lucky to investigate a smuggler’s tunnel in the dead of night, with two ruffians about, and not get caught. She also gains too-easy access to the Lyme jail to interview Geoffrey Sidmouth. And in the end Jane is saved and justice is served by the very last moment appearance of Lord Harold Trowbridge – a sad case of deus ex machina.
One personal note about this book. Apparently the Austen family actually visited Lyme Regis several times. In 1803 or 1804 Jane was seriously attracted to a clergyman, but that one fact is all that is known. Barron’s character Geoffrey Sidmouth reads very much like Mr. Darcy from Pride & Prejudice, and I gather Barron’s thinking was that Jane’s romance inspired the character portrayal. So I, while turning these pages, quite frequently felt as if I was passing between several dimensional planes – from Jane’s real romance, to Pride & Prejudice, and then to the Stephanie Barron book in my hand. And back again! That to me indicates exceptional writing talent, and makes Barron’s use of the deus ex machina especially disappointing.
2 out of 5 Stars