PW: What led you to select Jane Austen as a sleuth?
SB: I've always been an Austen reader and studied European history and Napoleonic France in my undergraduate days. The mystery format seemed appropriate for a modern reader, rather than a novel of manners. Since Austen is less well known than her characters, I thought it would be interesting to do something with Austen's life itself.
PW: Unlike Austen's novels, yours are written in the first person. Why is that?
SB: It was a self-indulgent thing with me, to see if I could use the language of the period. In my novels I deliberately mimic a particular Austen voice, which is that of her letters and is very immediate and very intimate.
PW: Austen's sister Cassandra destroyed a lot of the letters shortly after Jane's death. Do these "mysteries" fill in the gaps in the correspondence?
SB: Yes! Quite deliberately. This was a huge gift for anybody who has a penchant for fabrication because there are periods when there are no letters at all. I started the series in the fall of 1802 because there are things that are conjectured about the Austen family's lives at that period, but there is no hard data and you can play with that. In other cases I have taken a letter that is extant and used it as a sort of pattern for the book. In Jane and the Man of the Cloth [second in the series], Jane was in Lyme Regis and she wrote an extensive letter to Cassandra and mentioned everyone she had met that week, how many times she had danced and with whom, the day she went bathing and so on. Every person she mentions is a character in my book, which follows the schedule of what she actually did.
PW: What audience were you writing for when you started this series?
SB: When I started writing these books, I thought I was writing for an Austen audience, but I've come to realize that I'm writing for a general audience, many of whom have never heard Jane Austen's name. Those people don't realize the underpinnings, that these are a mosaic of fact and fiction. For members of the Jane Austen Society, however, it's obvious when I am quoting from a letter or a passage from a novel.
PW: As "editor" of these manuscripts, you write that they were found in a house in Baltimore. Why Baltimore, rather than some place in England with Austen connections?
SB: The descendants of Austen's brother Frank, who's a character in Jane and the Prisoner of Wool House (see review p. 45), ended up in the U.S. and in the U.S. Navy, so there is an American connection in the Austen family.
PW: What can we expect in the next Jane Austen Mystery?
SB: I'm in the plotting stage. It's set in mid-October of 1808, when Jane is still in Southampton but is about to move to Chawton, which becomes her final home, and hinges on a major family event—the death of her wealthy brother Edward's wife in childbirth. The larger political scene is the beginning of Wellington's campaign in the peninsular war against Napoleon, in which Edward ends up being somewhat involved. I also want to explore a bit what it meant to be Roman Catholic at that time in England. The working title is Jane and the Ghosts of Netley, because Netley Abbey was a popular expedition site for Southampton at the time.
PW: Do you have any thoughts of writing another series?
SB: I really cannot, because I already write two books a year. The other is a series of contemporary women's political thrillers, which I write as Francine Mathews. The Cutout has just come out in paperback. But it's also such fun to work on the Regency—it's such an exciting time politically and socially.