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Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph
Feb. 2, 1997

Stephanie Barron grew up in Washington, D.C., attended prestigious schools and once worked for the CIA. So what's a nice, ambitious woman like Barron doing living in Evergreen, Colorado?

She's writing mysteries – and making a living at it.

Under the name Stephanie Barron (her middle and maiden names), she writes a critically acclaimed Jane Austen mystery series, set in 18th century England.

Under the name Francine Mathews (her first and married names), she writes the Merry Folger mysteries, a contemporary series set in New England.

Barron, 33, graduated with a degree in European history from Princeton and went into an elite training program for CIA analysts. "It was very much like working in a think tank," she says. "It was exciting, in a way, but I really hated working 8 to 5."

What she really wanted to do, after she married and moved to Colorado with her husband three years ago, was to stay at home, write full time and raise kids. Unlike most wannabe authors, she pulled it off.

Her husband was doubtful, she confesses. He said if she could write a book and sell it, she could quit her job. So she wrote her first Merry Folger mystery and sent it off to several publishers. Unknown to her, her mother-in-law sent it to an agent she knew. The agent loved it and sold it in six weeks. "That's extraordinarily lucky," Barron says.

Several years ago, she got the idea for writing the Jane Austen mysteries, which star the real-life author of the late-1700s as a journal-writing sleuth.

Barron didn't just jump on the Austen bandwagon. She's been reading Austen since she was 12 years old and has reread the author's letters and books – among them Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensability, – many times.

Writing about Jane was "baldly, a self-indulgence," Barron says. But she also wanted to enlighten people about the author's life. "I wanted to destroy the myths about Jane," Barron says. "That she was a quiet little spinster who led a short, dull life. She actually had many important connections and moved in circles that brought her into contact with many famous and interesting people.

"Jane was so much more integrated into life than woman of the '90s," Barron adds. "She had time to write letters, take walks, have real conversations, dine early if she felt like it. I envy that."

Barron says it was Austen's "special understanding for the human heart" and her ability to direct conversations that made her think Austen would be a good sleuth. After all, inquiry was about the only tool detectives had in the 18th century. "And she was always being sent to spend months at someone's country estate – that alone is enough reason for murder!" Barron says.

Writing in Austen's style was not as daunting as it might seem. Barron copied the style of Austen's letters – "punchy, wry, occasionally vicious, and intimate – rather than the formal prose found in Austen's novels.

Her knowledge of the history of the period made research easier. And when she came upon the idea of combining the character of Austen with the mystery genre, she unabashedly says, "I thought it was brilliant!" But she realized she'd have to write quickly, before someone else thought of it.

"I had to be careful, though," Barron says. "Mostly, we dislike it when a writer appropriates a real character and places them in a fictional setting. But there are so many gaps in what we know about Jane. Many of Austen's letters were destroyed by her sister and best friend, Cassandra, after Austen died. [This watercolor of Jane was drawn by Cassandra in about 1802. Credit: The World of Jane Austen by Nigel Nicolson.]

Of course, choosing a real character creates parameters that would not exist in the world of such a wholly fictional character as Merry Folger. But Barron doesn't mind; she's true to the facts about Austen and conjures believable events to fill the gaps. It is known that Austen had a failed romance, an incidence that Barron works into the plot of Man of the Cloth. In the next book, The Wandering Eye, Barron turns to a real event in Austen's life – the tragic loss of her dearest friend, who dies in a fall from a horse on Austen's birthday.

In all of the Austen books, Barron uses the technique of a journal to tell the tale. Jane's journal recounts the events that engage her interest and conversations she has or overhears, and Barron adds footnotes to explain certain references, as an editor would. "Some people like the footnotes; others are annoyed by them," Barron says. "The British publisher deletes them altogether. Partly, I include them to explain things that Jane might make reference to in her journal to herself. Mostly I include them to enrich the story, and add information for the readers who want it," Barron says.

Barron has skillfully replicated Austen's wry sense of humor in her books. "I've always found Austen fascinating, because I share her sense of humor," she says. "I love the caricatures she draws with words. The amiable man who is really a rogue. The vulgar young woman intent only on marriage. The foolish older woman. And clergymen are the most despicable of all. She really pillories men of the cloth, which I find interesting because she was the daughter of one, and there were clergymen all over her family."

Barron says she was concerned that others who love Austen as she does would be offended. She was afraid it would be interpreted as using a literary icon in a crass manner. But so far, I've only received one really outraged letter," she says. "I guess that's pretty good."

Barron, who writes one Merry Folger mystery every six months and one Austen mystery every six months, is more prolific and committed than she ever dreamed she'd be. "All I do is write and chase my 2-year-old," she says, laughing.

For her, it's a dream come true.


The Arizona Republic
Jan. 19, 1997

A fictional Jane Austen narrates [the books], but you’d never know it. The words, characters and references are so real that it is a shock to find that the author is not Austen herself, but Stephanie Barron.

The mysteries are written as if they were journals. "I wanted to suspend the belief as if she were writing the book herself," said Barron, who has spent a lot of time researching Austen's life, her letters and the early 1800s. "I think people notice the research in the historicals because it isn't our time." Many of the pages are lined with footnotes. The words "Editor’s Note" are attached to them, as if Barron were, in essence, acting as an editor of Austen’s journal, clarifying words and situations for readers. "I wanted to convey to readers that the books are rooted in Austen’s life," Barron said. [This watercolor is of Godmersham Park, home of Jane's brother Edward. Credit: Godmersham Park, Kent by Nigel Nicolson.]

Jane and the Man of the Cloth is based on a letter written by the real Austen to her sister Cassandra while Austen was visiting Lyme. The letter mentions that her mother played cards with a man known as Le Chevalier, that Austen danced two dances with a man named Crawford and that she was sorry that her sister was unable to find any ice.

"I built the whole book on that one letter," Barron said, adding that she spent a lot of time trying to figure out why Cassandra would be searching for ice. She ended up developing an incident in which a carriage overturns, causing Cassandra to bruise her temple and thus need ice. Both Le Chevalier and Crawford appear in the book, and they are decidedly Austen-like characters.

"For those who do know Austen a bit, I do have prototypes of her characters," Barron said. "There's always the roguish cad, the silly married woman."

"When I read Austen, I find I have her voice in my head for days. Her words always have a surface meaning and an implied meaning," something Barron has re-created in the books.

Barron started reading Austen when she was 12, and was captivated by her characters. The prose itself was difficult to understand, but by reading and rereading Austen’s books, she was able to comprehend the stories.

"History is my love. I think I write the books in order to research."


The Oregonian
Feb. 6, 1997

For Jane Austen, dying was a great career move.

Everybody’s favorite English novelist has been busier than ever the past few years, even though she hasn’t written a word since her short, productive life ended in 1817. Her books were made into four major movies in 1995-96. She has been the subject of countless biographies, studies and symposiums. She has a fan club, the Jane Austen Society, that is dedicated, devoted and defensive about her unimpeachable literary reputation.

She also solved mysteries in her spare time.

Well, not really. She probably wrote letters in her spare time, but Stephanie Barron has credibly made the inevitable connection between Austen and mystery writing in a new series that features Austen as an amateur sleuth who uses her wits and her unmatched understanding of human foibles and emotions to fight crime.

To assist those unfortunates who are unfamiliar with Austen, Barron helped with a short primer, below.

Jane, the Author

Austen was a clergyman’s daughter, born in 1775 in Steventon, England. The seventh of eight children, she received a crucial grounding in literature and conversation from her close, loving family. She was a precocious child, always writing something, and began with plays and parodies of the popular fiction of the day. Her six novels were published in two groups: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park came out in a three-year period, followed by Emma, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. The last two were published after her death in 1817, from what is now believed to be Addison’s disease.

Jane, the Detective

Austen is a natural, Barron figures, because "she understood the human heart, she understood motivation, she understood the society of her day. She was a strong, independent woman with a natural curiosity and a desire to figure out why people did what they did. You have to remember that in her day there was no police force, no forensics, no detectives. When I got the idea for this series, I wrote it quick because I thought someone else would get there first."
British mysteries
Jane Austen
historical mysteries

Stephanie Barron also writes contemporary thrillers under the name Francine Mathews. Click here for more information.

All content copyright 2005-2018, Stephanie Barron/Francine Mathews.

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