Just the other day, when a friend of mine and I were arguing about Virginia Woolf, I told her that, however good it may be, you just can't write with that kind of acrobatic Victorian ornament anymore. "You'd sound like a dingleberry," I remarked.
She disagreed -- and if Stephanie Barron's Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron is any indication, I might be proved wrong -- but not (because I'm seldom wrong) without a couple of caveats.
Caveat one: Initially, Barron sounded to me like a dingleberry. After all, the book is not only written in the florid style of Jane Austen, it's written from the perspective of Jane Austen. Who is the main character. And also solves mysteries. About Lord Byron.
Could it get cornier?
Probably not, but by mid-chapter, the sheer cheeseballery of the conceit started to make me kind of admire Barron's audacity as it dawned on me that Barron is actually an adroit writer, capable -- even with the lack of context that comes from jumping into a randomly selected chapter -- of drawing me into her yarn within the space of just a couple of pages. The singularity of Lord Byron as the killer notwithstanding, the old murder-mystery is a pretty hoary conceit, but Barron uses it effectively.
Furthermore, it's not hard to believe that, if Jane Austen had written first-person murder-mysteries, they'd come off something like this. Consider the following excerpt, where Jane and her Brother Henry, along with a handyman named Young Bob (who, humorously, is old), are trying to figure out how to open a panel in a secret passageway:
I glanced down. The candlelight, being raised almost to ceiling height, had left our feet in welling darkness. But it was as Young Bob said: when one studied the ground, one espied a grooved board laid beneath the panelled wall -- as tho' the entire thing was meant to slide back. Suppressing a most unladylike oath, I turned to Henry.
As an imitation of Austen's writing style, it's pretty spot-on -- but even more than by her ability to use antiquated spellings and verb forms, one is impressed (see what I did there?) by her ability to capture Austen's ebbing cadence and sly delivery. If imitation is, as they say, the sincerest form of flattery, there's no doubt Austen would be flattered.
But that brings me to my second caveat, which is that, ultimately, imitation is what this book amounts to -- and though it's perhaps more adeptly written, in terms of originality, it's no different from those thousands of books and stories out there not by J.K. Rowling and starring Harry Potter: It's fan fiction. Does that make it bad? Not necessarily, but it also makes it hard to take seriously as a work of literature.
And if the writing style were applied to an original concept not mentioning Jane Austen or any of her characters? Well, one gets the impression one might just sound like a dingleberry.
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