Jane and the Year Without a Summer (Being a Jane Austen Mystery)

Written by Stephanie Barron
Review by Beth Kanell

This 14th in Barron’s Jane Austen series sets the noted British author close to her own death, as the year is 1816 and the real-life writer died in 1817. Indeed, in her guise as family financial support and accidental investigator, Jane’s already feeling poorly when Barron’s new tale opens. Her condition motivates a fortnight’s visit to the lesser-known spa town of Cheltenham, where she and her sister Cassandra propose to drink the restorative (and sulfurous) well waters and savor the pleasures of playful society. Alas, the other guests at the boardinghouse they’ve chosen are not well-tuned to such pleasant relief.

Most trying is the presence of a fragile beauty in an invalid’s chair, composing poetry and demanding the attention of all around her. The Beauty in the Basket Chair, “Miss Williams,” is a constant self-absorbed threat to everyone else’s peace. When her husband Lord Portreath arrives in town in pursuit of her, Jane and all other sensible adults attempt at first to protect the frail young woman from what she declares are threats to her life from her estranged husband, who desires her submission and, even more, her fortune.

Barron deftly weaves delights of the early 19th century into the twists of plot, from poisoned delicacies to a masquerade ball, and the rights and rebellions of women of the time. She is also a clever plotter (this is one of two series she writes) and offers well-chosen dialogue and desires of the period. In the glow of Napoleon’s 1815 defeat at Waterloo, Barron demonstrates a growing sense of rebellion among women, even as Jane chooses to hide her own successful career as a novelist—but also to reveal her own fierce intelligence.