Jane Austen, private detective

Francine Mathews writes historical mystery novels. Nothing unusual about that - expect that their narrator and sleuth is based on one of our greatest authors.
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Francine Mathews believes that pregnancy may be a semi-hallucinatory state. "I had car accidents when I was pregnant. I forgot to feed my dogs. I started to hear voices. Oh, I'm exaggerating grossly, but one of the voices was Jane's. When I was reading Austen - I reread all her books every year - her voice just stayed in my head."

At first Francine, a mystery writer, former CIA analyst and lover of Jane Austen, didn't know what to do with this voice with its peculiar 18th-century way of speaking. "Then I just tried to sustain it, and then I cast it in the form I am most comfortable with, which is a mystery plot," she explains, sitting forward on the sofa in her mountainside home south of Denver, Colorado. The result was her first Jane Austen mystery, Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor, published under the pen-name Stephanie Barron.

Now, dear reader, I know what you are thinking. You think that Francine Mathews must be a little touched in the head, or perhaps just too wild and wacky for her own good. But you would be wrong. "Oh, there is nothing wild or wacky about Francine," says a friend.

Nor, aside from the fact that she really does see Jane Austen as a person, is she crazier than most. The house Francine shares with her lawyer husband and their two-year-old son shows quiet good taste and is immaculate. Her way of speaking is just as tidy. She studied the Napoleonic Wars at Princeton and Latin American history at Stanford, and loves the details of ages past as only a historian can. After university she went to the CIA as an "overt" foreign policy analyst specialising in Europe. "I started when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and so it was a very interesting time."

But not, as it turns out, interesting enough. "Well, I did it for four years, and I realised that I just hated working nine-to-five!" Her husband was not impressed. "He said: `You know, Francine, you are paid to think. Do you know how few people in this world can make that claim? Grow up!' "

She told him that she wanted an integrated life - like, in fact, that of Jane Austen, whom she has been reading since she fell in love with Pride and Prejudice at the age of 12. "I said, look at Jane. She got up in the morning and took a walk. She'd write letters, have a meal and write for a few hours. Then she'd do a little work in the garden. Her sister Cassandra would sketch. They would change for dinner, have a really interesting conversation and that was the day. It was not a day dominated by work.

"The lives of my generation - I am 34 - in this country are completely dominated by work. We have to live them in the hour between washing the dishes and going to bed. That appals me. I told my husband that I was not born for this. I wasn't educated to have this impoverished a life and I'm not going to stand for it!" Francine laughs. "So I said that I wanted to write novels from home and raise my own children and not have to pay someone else to do it badly for me."

In the end they made a deal: if she could finish a book and get it published, then they would talk again. She did just that - the result was the first of her other mystery series, starring modern-day policewoman Merry Folger of Nantucket - and by 1994 Francine was pregnant, living in the Colorado mountains and listening to Jane Austen's voice.

"You know, the idea of Jane as a sleuth isn't that wild in the context of American mystery fiction, particularly in the historical mystery sub- genre," she says, noting that she wrote the first one before Austen mania took hold. "There is a tendency within that to take historical figures and manipulate them. There have been books using Ben Franklin, Charles Dickens, Freud. Humphrey Bogart's son has just done one using his father."

She takes a bite of the cranberry tart she has made for my visit. As we talk she is printing out the latest Merry Folger. Altogether she has published five books (three Merrys, two Janes). She writes one every six months, alternating between series and pen-names. She explains this as we stand over her desk looking out on a wild Colorado mountainside. It's not exactly Hampshire, that's for sure. "Oh, I know. We have a mountain lion across the way," says Francine.

On the whole, Americans like the idea of "Jane Austen: genteel gumshoe", as one headline put it. "The skillful rendering of Austen's style, attuned to picking up the most delicate fluctuations in social behaviour, reveals it to be an ideal vehicle for the classic cosy murder mystery," says the New York Times. Jane, says USA Today, is as "worthy a detective as Columbo and with better manners".

Britain, however, is less amused and even the books reflect that, with the US editions showing much more style. "Well, you could say the comments have been short. Or you could say they are cruel. They are usually one or two lines that say something like: "The author - who is American - has written a book with Jane Austen as a sleuth and the result shows neither sense nor sensibility." Francine says this lightly, but it obviously niggles. "I think it is the fact I am American that bothers them. I don't think they have read the books."

The books are constructed as Jane writing in first person - with occasional inserts of letters to Cassandra - but are loosely set around real events. So, for instance, the first takes place just after Jane refuses the marriage proposal of Harris Bigg-Wither. ("No one can believe that was really his name!") Francine explains: "At that age she was looking spinsterhood full in the face. It's an important moment. I wanted to start the series there."

The second book is a smuggler's tale set in Lyme Regis, and the third (which comes out later this year in the US) revolves around blackmail and Regency eye portraits in Bath - a city that Jane Austen loathed. "Of course I had to use the fact she disliked it so much. I can be very vicious, too, and I've always appreciated that in Jane and enjoyed and admired it. She was always suffering pangs of remorse about it but it is part of her brilliance." Francine quotes a (real) letter to Cassandra after a particularly unpleasant visit from a group of women: "I was as civil to them as their bad breath allowed me," wrote Jane.

The books are clever but Francine does not pretend to write as Austen did. The whole idea is mischievous though she admits to worrying about what other members of the Jane Austen Society would make of it all. Most are complimentary though not all. "I did get one vitriolic letter from an elderly woman in Florida, who opened by saying: `You have relegated the great Jane Austen to a mere hack mystery writer.' You know, I couldn't argue with her! But I knew when I sat down to write this that I was almost striking a Faustian bargain. I was invoking Jane for my purposes, something she would never have conceived, and that was somehow diabolical on my part. But it was just too delicious to pass up. I couldn't resist because I love using her voice. It's like a second language to me."

What would Jane make of it all? By now I almost see her on the sofa with us, nibbling a slice of cranberry tart, sitting bolt upright in an empire dress. It seems odd when Francine, thoroughly up-to-date in shorts and crimson toenails, responds: "Oh, she'd enjoy all of this immensely. She loved to deflate pomposity and I allow her to do that a great deal in these books. I think she would find it amusing that she is now taken so seriously. It would delight her no end. I think about this all the time.

She is a person to me." This is just as well because Francine has just signed another three-book deal for the Austen series. "I'm under contract until 2001." Jane and the Millennium loom largen

`Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor' and `Jane and the Man of the Cloth' by Stephanie Barron are published by Headline Books.

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