Sunday, February 20, 2011

Jane and the Man of the Cloth: Enjoying the Gentlemen of the Night

Your account of Weymouth contains nothing which strikes me so forcibly as there being no Ice in the Town; for every other vexation I was in some measure prepared;. . . .But for there being no Ice, what could prepare me!  Weymouth is altogether a shocking place, I perceive, without recommendation of any kind. . .
From Letter No. 39, dated 14 September 1804, to Cassandra Austen
Jane Austen's Letters, 3rd Edition (Oxford University Press, Deirdre Le Faye, editor.)

This second novel in the Jane Austen Mystery Series is one of my absolute favorites--so much so, that I often tell readers to start with Book 2, rather than Scargrave Manor.  Why?  I suppose because it combines so many of the things I love about writing the series: fidelity to one of Jane's actual letters; espionage during the Napoleonic Wars; and immersion in a particular place we know Jane loved--Lyme Regis.  Finally, the story is woven around a mystery in Jane's life, something that has come to be called her "nameless, dateless" romance.  The vaguest of tales has filtered through the years from a chance comment of Caroline Austen's, who said that Cassandra once mentioned that Jane fell in love with a clergyman while traveling along the Channel Coast one summer, between 1802 and 1804; and that she expected to meet up with her lover further along the coast--expected, indeed, a proposal of marriage from him--but upon arriving at her destination, learned instead that the clergyman was...dead.

It is virtually impossible for a mystery writer to read this and not think about murder.  Or imagine that perhaps the clergyman was no clergyman at all, but a notorious smuggler known by his soubriquet of The Reverend--because he was a "man of the cloth," a dealer in smuggled silks. 

The book's fundamental inspiration, however, was Jane's letter No. 39 to Cassandra, written from Lyme Regis in September of 1804.  I've excerpted it above--and that excerpt raised a host of questions in my mind.  First, why did Cassandra leave her family and journey on from Lyme to Weymouth?  Why was Jane obsessed by the lack of ice?  (In all probability, she was teasing Cassandra about a chance comment, but to a novelist, simple explanations are never enough.)  I decided Cassandra was in DIRE NEED of ice, because she'd sustained a concussion when the Austen carriage overturned in a vicious storm upon arrival in Lyme--and was thus sent on to Weymouth for her health.  And so the book begins.

Throughout this series of novels featuring Jane Austen and her family, I've chosen one of two paths in composing the plots: Either I fill a gap in the existing correspondence--a blank hole where no letter of Jane's survives to tell us how she lived during the period in question--or I take one of her letters and use it as a blueprint for her schedule, habits, dress, entertainments, conversation and intimate circle during the course of the story.  The minor addition of a murder and its investigation is woven, I hope fairly seamlessly, into the actual record of her days.  Man of the Cloth is the most thorough example of this method.  Jane wrote in such detail from Lyme in 1804 that I was forced to incorporate her life during that period in every respect.  She mentions the name of her manservant, and the fact that he led her to an evening's entertainment with a lanthorn--a sign that it was a night without moonlight, considered dangerous for travel abroad; she mentions bathing at Charmouth on a particular day; she describes her mother losing a sum of money during a game of whist with a man she names only as Le Chevalier.  She also names the local surgeon--and it was my great good fortune, in reading a history of Lyme by the noted novelist John Fowles, to discover that Jane's surgeon was also the coroner for the town.  Every murder mystery MUST have its coroner--and Jane had already met him.  She told Cassandra so.

In this sense, Man of the Cloth is a true mosaic of fact and fiction, a sort of treasure hunt for readers familiar with Letter No. 39.  If you haven't read it, I encourage you to do so--and then compare Jane's actual life with the adventure I give her in my book.  It is essential, too, to reread Persuasion--her love song to Lyme, and the possibility of love triumphant, the most poignant and heartfelt, in my opinion, of her novels.
Happy reading!