Stephanie Barron Stephanie Barron
Stephanie Barron Francine Mathews Jane Austen
Jane Austen
About Stephanie
The White Garden
A Flaw in the Blood
The Waterloo Map
The Twelve Days of Christmas
The Canterbury Tale
The Madness of Lord Byron
The Barque of Frailty
His Lordship's Legacy
The Ghosts of Netley
The Prisoner of Wool House
The Stillroom Maid
The Genius of the Place
The Wandering Eye
The Man of the Cloth
The Unpleasantness of Scargrave Manor
On Writing
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Jane Austen

Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron:

Your ten-book series about Jane Austen as detective has carried readers through more than a decade of the novelist's life, from December, 1802, to what is now the spring of 1813 in Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron. How closely do you follow the historical record of Austen's life, and how much of the series is pure fiction?

A: Some of the books are so faithful to Jane's letters that I've used the actual calendar of her week as the structure of the novel—and included everyone she mentions as a character. But others, like Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron, are complete invention. Although Jane chose Brighton as the site of Lydia Bennet's infamous elopement in Pride and Prejudice, there's no record of her ever having visited the town, for example, and certainly none of her having met Lord Byron. And to be fair, the man was never taken up for murder in 1813. But I knew Jane had seen almost every major town on the Channel Coast over the years; I knew she read Byron's poetry—she refers to several of the poems in her letters, and in her novel Persuasion—and they had acquaintances in common. It was just within the realm of possibility for them to meet. I like the realm of possibility; it's the bedrock of all my writing, and far more interesting than the known world. When I saw that Byron was writing that spring about a doomed love affair and a drowned girl—and that he loved to sail in Brighton—I knew I had to place Jane in the town.

It seems like the last place she'd be comfortable. In fact, she derides Brighton in Pride and Prejudice.

A: True. But she was always happy to go anywhere a friend was willing to take her, which is why her brother Henry is so vital to the story. Henry was fashionable and ambitious and well-connected to people in the Prince of Wales's set, who would have descended on Brighton by April for the Regent's birthday. Henry would absolutely love the frivolity and display, the pretty and available women, the horse races and the crowd of gamblers at Raggett's Club. Given that he was in mourning—and that we know Jane spent both late April and late May in London with him—it seemed logical to send them off to the seaside during the intervening weeks, to recover from the death of the incomparable Eliza.

Was Byron as promiscuous as you suggest?

A: He was far more promiscuous than I suggest! He seemed to require constant sexual stimulation, from a variety of women—usually twenty years his senior—and young boys. There's a suggestion he forced himself on Lady Oxford's eleven year-old daughter while staying at her estate, Eywood; and he certainly had an incestuous relationship with his half-sister Arabella, and fathered one of her children. When he eventually married Annabella Millbanke—a cousin of Caro Lamb's—the relationship lasted barely a year. Although she would never disclose what Byron had done to her, Annabella was probably physically and sexually abused. Byron was not a mentally healthy man.

Byron is called a mad poet in this novel, but frankly Lady Caroline Lamb seems a bit more unhinged. How faithful to the actual woman is your portrait?

A: Oh, my goodness—I was probably far kinder to poor Caro than she deserves! I think today she'd be diagnosed as manic-depressive. Or possibly a narcissist. Or both. She was certainly volatile in her moods, violent in her rages, compulsive in her attachments, and extreme in her self-destruction. A few months after Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron ends, in July 1813, Caro put herself completely beyond the pale of good society by attending a waltz party at the home of one Lady Heathcote. She encountered Byron in the dining room, and when he avoided her, she smashed a wine goblet and tried to slash her wrists with the shards of glass. She had to be carried screaming from the party, and from that moment forward, she was rarely invited anywhere again. William Lamb, her husband, nearly divorced her that time—but he found it impossible to abandon Caro. He sent her into exile at his family's country estate instead, which for Caroline Lamb, was probably a kind of death-in-life.

Speaking of death-in-life, how deeply attached was Jane to her cousin and sister-in-law, Eliza de Feuillide, whose death opens the book?

A: I think Jane was one of the few Austens, other than Henry, who truly loved her. Jane was witty and sophisticated enough to enjoy Eliza's essential nature, which was frivolous, fun-loving, and profoundly of the moment. Eliza connected Jane to the Great World, and her kind-heartedness and intelligence would more than make up for any French pretensions she persisted in displaying. The rest of the Austens seemed to mistrust Eliza as a Bad Influence. But her amusements seem so tame—she never appears to have hurt Henry in any way, and added greatly to his consequence and comfort—that one wonders whether there was not a bit of envy at the base of the family's poor opinion.

And yet, Jane and Henry go on.

A: You had to go on, in those days. People died left and right. In the course of her life, Jane would lose five sisters-in-law, most in childbirth. She lost her father, of course, and her close friend Madame Lefroy. And eventually the Austen family would lose Jane herself, far too young. To be a citizen of the world in 1813 was to be intimate with death.

You make use of a very convenient tunnel in this book. Is that an invention, too?

A: Actually, no. The Prince Regent liked to get around Brighton without being seen—particularly in his later years, when he was obese and somewhat crippled by his size. He had a number of tunnels built to and from the Pavilion, and three of them survive in the present-day Royal Pavilion complex, connecting concert and public performance venues erected in the former stable block.

What's ahead for Jane Austen?

A: She's going to travel to Kent in the autumn of 1813, for a protracted visit to her wealthy brother Edward. At this point in her life she's publishing her third novel, Mansfield Park, and gathering material for Emma, which she's forced to dedicate to the Regent! Kent is another secure and comfortable world full of rich and famous families; but the Pilgrim's Way to Canterbury Cathedral also runs through Edward's estate, Godmersham. A mysterious stranger will find his end there, in Jane and the Canterbury Tale.

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.

Jane Austen
mystery novels