July 6, 2009

Jane and the Barque of Frailty by Stephanie Barron

Oy. Where to begin?

The General Idea

Brace yourself, Jane Austen fans. Do you remember that old Angela Lansbury show Murder She Wrote? Well, replace Angela Lansbury with Jane Austen. No, I'm not kidding. This is a whole series too. I'm not at all one for murder mysteries, but my mom wanted me to read this, as we are both Austen fans, so I basically read it out of obligation. In this installment, Jane Austen attempts to solve the murder of a Russian princess.

The Good

Let's see. The good. Well, Barron has a genuine writing talent (which she unfortunately consults far less than her thesaurus) and definitely did her historical research. There were also editorial notes to explain bits of history or language.

The Bad

(In which I attempt not to take the Lord's name in vain) Sweet mother of... of.... of all that is literary and... um... whatever (This is starting to read like an Avril Lavine song). There ought to be a law against this sort of thing. I mean, Jane Austen was a real person. A real person with a huge international fan base even now, a genuine literary icon, who basically invented the ideal heartthrob. It should not be allowed for someone to take this real woman's life and turn it into a Wednesday night whodunit. Making matters worse, my mom told me (and if my mom told me it must be true!) that Barron is actually related to Austen, which in my book gives her even greater accountability. That is my first objection.

I do not see the Jane Austen of my heart in this book, I see Angela Lansbury in period costume. In fact, I think Jane Austen would be horrified at this representation. Jane Austen dressing up as a hooker? Jane Austen telling lies harmful to her own reputation to a jeweler in order to protect a woman of dubious reputation that she doesn't even like? Jane Austen attempting to solve mysteries that have nothing to do with her based on the most circumstantial evidence you can possibly imagine? Don't worry Jane, I've got your back!

My second complaint is that Barron seems to rank among those writers that need to step away from the thesaurus, and Wikipedia. In her case she needs to step away from whatever historical linguistic references she uses. Let me give you an example. In an editorial note she lists the common phrases used in Jane Austen's time for "mistress." These include "barque of frailty," (with no explanation as to what the heck a barque or a frailty might be), "snug armful," "muslin company," "Cyprian,"and more. Every time her characters refer to these women, they must use a different term. It's like Barron is afraid to be repetitive, so instead she gives us the linguistic sampler package. It hurts to read. It's embarrassing. Here is an example of my own, because a baby is sleeping on me at the moment and I can't reach the book. "For a Cyprian, you'd think she'd spend more time with the rest of the Muslin Company. Who can a Snug Armful turn to for friendship if not another Barque of Frailty?"

Then there's the excessive use of punctuation. Yes, I know how to use a semi-colon, and I'm going to prove it by using as many of them as I can possibly manage in a single sentence! And, I also, just love to, use, so very many commas, as to appear, as historically correct, as possible, because you know, those Englishers, back then, just loved, their punctuation!

The Ugly

And perhaps worst of all, depending on your priorities, she doesn't even solve the crime! She pulls that old Murder She Wrote trick of just assembling everyone involved in a room and pretending you know who did it to get them to spill the beans. The inspector hides behind a curtain, the amateur detective behind another. I kid you not, she really did this, curtains and all. And her characters confess to all manner of things, except the friggin' murder! What kind of murder mystery is this anyway? You never find out who really killed the princess, you just get a general idea of what led up to the murder.

Also in one scene Austen's sister-in-law is bashed in the head with a cobblestone and a mysterious woman is seen running away. But you never find out who did this or why.

Fear not, I have solved the mystery. Barron herself, so confused about her own plot and overwhelmed by an excess of characters, herself stepped into the book, rented a hackney, and bashed Eliza in the head. Thus she was able to lay Eliza up in her bed for several days of plot, safely out of the way, so Barron could navigate her Lansbury Austen through the streets of London less encumbered.



  1. I'm glad you read this. Why? Because this review was hilarious! I think you should read more overwrought books so that we can be entertained.

    It bugs me to read a book that could be placed in any setting without but a few changes. Sure, many things are universal to humanity, but our own culture/time shape who we are. Show it. (Also why the more I know about history, the more I avoid historical fiction.)

  2. Dear me--that's a bad book. But a great review!

  3. Hahahha....I LOVED this review! Even if I were a huge fan of murder mysteries, I most likely wouldn't pick it up anyways. Thanks for the warning!

  4. I just finished reading Barque and was about to return it to the library when I realized that I still didn't know who killed the princess. So many characters that may have had a motive, yet none of them noticeably rose to the surface to give you the little thrill of "I think he/she did it!" The intrigue was mostly built around Jane boldly going where Jane Austen would never have gone and doing things the real Jane would have been loathe to consider. I agree with the reviewer of the book above. I've read others from this series and have found, for me, that Barque is not the first one that has a disappointing final scene.

  5. I don't think the book is as bad as you make it out to be but yes, her language is overdone. I think this is actually the only one where she doesn't really name a murderer but I think that's an interesting idea because sometimes we don't find out everything. To know the events surrounding an event is sometimes all we can hope to get. Not her best one - I find the political stuff quite heavy and I'm not a fan of murder mysteries anyways.


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