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!


  1. I do enjoy reading the remaining letters Jane wrote to Cassandra. I think it's great pity that Cassandra burnt so many after Jane's death.

    I didn't realize how much smuggling went on in that day.

  2. Wonderful insights on your inspiration for the mystery Stephanie. It was all so real to me while I was reading it that I never once thought that it wasn't just as it had happened in Jane's life. Thanks again.

  3. You know, Brooke, the whole smuggling world at that time is pretty fascinating. The naval blockade Frank and Charles Austen served, particularly in 1804 prior to the destruction of the French fleet at Trafalgar in 1805, meant that England was cut off from a ton of European goods--or had to buy them at jacked-up prices. Most of the Channel-coast towns have legends of tunnels running from taverns or great houses down to the sea; and Lyme Regis is no exception. One of my favorite novels about this period is Georgette Heyer's THE UNKNOWN AJAX. The final chapters, in which a boy who's been shot by the Revenue men pretends to be playing a drunken hand of cards to avoid arrest, are among the finest she wrote. If you haven't read the book, give it a whirl.

  4. It is purposed, perhaps, that I came across this blog this morning. I just watched (re-watched, of course :) my favorite version of Persuasion produced by BBC Video in 2008 starrting Sally Hawkins. I highly recommed for avid Austen fans.

    One of the reasons I so love this version compared with earlier ones is that its visuals of Lyme are raw and mirror the storm of emotion Anne feels regarding Wentworth.

    I second Laurel's comment: reading the Man of the Cloth, in additon to the rest of the series, feels so real as the reader that it very well could have been Jane's real life!

    Can you imagine what fun could be had if Cassandra hadn't burned so many letters? Nevertheless, learning about the history of the time only enriches my enjoyment of reading the novels.

    Many thanks,


  5. My question in re-reading Jane's letter to Cassandra...why is the word "ice" capitalized? Interesting...perhaps "Ice" is a person?

  6. And that's the great thing, Olivia, about fiction--putting your own spin on a word like Ice! Personally, I'm grateful Cassandra left a few holes in the record. They're too much fun to fill.

    I'll have to look for the 2008 Persuasion. I've been faithful to the Ciaran Hinds version for a long time.

  7. I loved the blend of history and fiction in Man of the Cloth! I revisited the novel and posted my review of it earlier this month - it was even better than I remembered!

  8. I would love to see these books made into a series for T.V. Anything in the works?

  9. Dear Ruth: Thanks so much for your kindness in noticing the novel. I appreciate the spilling of (digital) ink on Jane's behalf.

    About television plans in the works: There are none, sadly. I'd like to see them filmed, too!

  10. Naj/darcykwentworthMarch 19, 2011 at 4:20 PM

    As much as I enjoyed Scargrave, Man of the Cloth was even more fun! Not only were the details of the seaside so appealing (it's storming here in California this weekend and I'm determined to head to the coast tomorrow to walk as Jane did when sea and sky were in tumult), but this book seemed to give more details of daily life. I'm curious about when Jane left her old gloves at Milsop's; their "spotted" state would have rendered them unusable for anything? And Captain Fielding, seemingly the man wronged by Sidmouth, is Wickham to a misjudged Darcy while Jane falls prey to the same sort of prejudice as did Lizzy? I think Austen started First Impressions before this Lyme trip--she and Cassandra mention LIzzy--but revised it before publication a few years later; again, I love finding so much of Austen's life and fiction woven into these mysteries.

    Language, too, is so elegant here: No mere "those idiots pissed me off" but "I merely felt all the strength of honest resentment in being roused so early by a party of brawling fisherfolk." Gorgeous!

    Finally, i was so struck by Jane's relative helplessness when their carriage flipped; how much I take for granted being able to call 911 or run to the emergency if a loved one meets disaster. The scene was written so well that Jane's anguish was palpable. Fun! On to book three to catch up with this challenge...