Thursday, December 15, 2011

Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron: A Fatal Charm

The tenth Jane Austen Mystery, Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron, throws together two of history's literary greats--and the two who seem least likely to have met.  Yes, they were contemporaries; but Jane was "retiring" and George Gordon, Lord Byron, outrageous.  No doubt their conversations, had they encountered one another, must have been compelling.  But would the occasion ever have arisen?

I began to wonder about six degrees of separation in Jane Austen's world when I was researching and writing a very different book, A Flaw in the Blood, which is set in 1864 and concerns Queen Victoria.  In the course of learning about her world, I naturally read David Cecil's excellent biography Melbourne.  Victoria's first prime minister--already aging when she ascended the throne, but a Regency Buck of the First Stare, a remarkable personality and intellect--utterly bewitched the young queen, whose partiality for William Lamb, Lord Melbourne, was so marked that raucous crowds heckled her with cries of "Mrs. Melbourne!" when she rode abroad in Rotten Row.  She was perhaps 18 when this "grand pash" occurred, and not yet married to Albert; and she seems not to have cared one whit for public opinion.  I'd have swooned over Melbourne, too.

Caro dressed as a page
The real Mrs. Melbourne, of course, was long since dead; but Lady Caroline Lamb's storied reputation lived on long after her time.  The author of Glenarvon, she was most famous for her brief affair with Lord Byron, which ended in public scandal because she refused to give up her obsession--becoming possibly the first recorded Celebrity Stalker.  Regency fans will always be fascinated by Caro Lamb--she was a Ponsonby by birth, the daughter of the unfortunate Countess of Bessborough, who was a victim of domestic violence, a friend of Sheridan and Charles James Fox, and sister of that Georgian Incomparable, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.  Caroline Ponsonby grew up in the hectic atmosphere of her aunt Georgiana's Devonshire House and Chatsworth.  Ironically, Byron would eventually marry Caro's cousin, Annabella--his sole disastrous foray into marriage.

Researching Melbourne, reading about Caro, and thinking about Regency personalities inevitably led me to a biography of Byron himself.  Naturally, it's littered with love affairs and remarkable women, none of whom--not even his half-sister, with whom he had an incestuous child--appears to have been able to resist him.  A gallery of some of them may be viewed below.
Annabella, Lady Byron, mother of Byron's
legitimate daughter

Augusta Leigh, Byron's half-sister,
mother of an incestuous daughter

Jane Elizabeth, Lady Oxford

Claire Claremont, Mary Shelley's step-sister,
mother of an illegitimate daughter

A single fact at the end of Byron's life gave me pause: he was refused a public funeral or burial in Westminster Abbey in 1824 due to his scandalous life.  Instead, his biographer tells us, he was laid out for viewing at the London home of  Sir Edward Knatchbull.  Yes, Janeites--Byron's wake was held in Fanny Austen Knight Knatchbull's London house.  How did George Gordon end up in with Jane Austen's niece?  I have never been able to find out.  But the link between the two families was all the permission I needed.  I decided Jane MUST encounter some madness in Brighton in 1813.

One more interesting degree of separation: Byron was always in Dun Territory--always at the mercy of his creditors--and when he finally sold his birthright, a crumbling estate called Newstead Abbey, he sold it to the brother of Fanny Austen Knight's Kentish neighbor, James Wildman, of Chilham Castle.  (For more about the Wildman family, see Jane and the Canterbury Tale.)

Happy Winter Reading!


Monday, December 12, 2011

Past Master: Appreciating Margery Allingham

It has been uncharacteristically cold, gray, and snowy here in Denver.  I took a break from twining greens around the house this weekend to curl up on the couch with an icon of Golden Age Detective Fiction--Margery Allingham.

And found myself wondering, as I always do, why she is so rarely read anymore.

Allingham created her amateur British detective, Albert Campion, at the end of the 1920s, as one of those plausible, aristocratic, deceptively foolish young men who look decorative at weekend houseparties and have a knack for solving murders.  Campion reads like a dangerous foil to Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey--his background is deliberately vague, possibly criminal, and his aristocratic family seems to have cast him off.  His valet Lugg--unlike Wimsey's Bunter--is an ex-con.  It's a calculated inversion of a detective fiction trope; and this sinister bent becomes more pronounced as Allingham's writing career evolved and deepened.  I could talk about the excellent classic fiction Allingham turned out in the Thirties--The Fashion in Shrouds, Dancers in Mourning, Black Plumes--but I won't. It's her later fiction that brings me to my knees.

By the 1950s, Allingham abandoned amateur detection for the police procedural, introducing a series of related characters affiliated with Scotland Yard, who call upon the middle-aged Campion as a sort of eminence grise of crime.  More importantly, in such novels as The Tiger in the Smoke and Tether's End, Allingham abandons completely the mystery novel architecture--in favor of a thriller's arc.  She infiltrates the minds of her killers, carrying the reader along with her, in a deft examination of amorality, luck, calculated and cold-blooded murder, and the happy element of chance that unravels a sociopath's world.  She is masterful at inspiring dread, so that even when you've put down the book her characters whisper quietly in the back of your mind and surface at night in your dreams.  Her treatment of trust and its violation, her exploration of the charm of plausible con men and the innocents who care about them, and the final desperation of her trapped criminals, are timeless; her books retain a depth and power entirely due to their complex characterizations.

Allingham's not available in digital format yet, and this neglect--similarly visited upon another Golden Age great, Ngaio Marsh--is a gap in the market SOMEBODY should exploit.  In the meantime, comb your remaining sources of secondhand mystery fiction and snap up the yellowed paperbacks with the deceptively silly covers.  There are forgotten marvels waiting--perfect for a snowy weekend in December.

For a comprehensive wallow in all things Allingham, check out the official website of the Margery Allingham Society.