A couple of weeks ago, I released the second novel in my Austenesque mystery series, Miss Mary Investigates. In this new book, Death in Highbury: An Emma Mystery, Mary Bennet travels to Highbury, Surrey, where she helps to solve a perplexing series of unexplained deaths.
As you probably gather from the title, this is the same Highbury where Emma Woodhouse sits regnant over her local society. And, as you probably imagine, most of our favourite characters from Jane Austen’s Emma are there as well.
I’m far from the first person to have characters cross into different stories, and I certainly won’t be the last. Because really, there is a certain joy in imagining just how Austen’s various creations, both charming and vile, would get along.
Think, for example, about who Mr. Bingley would hang around with at the clubs in Town. Colonel Brandon? No, not at all. They would greet each other politely, think the other was a fine chap, and then head in separate directions. But Bingley might enjoy a drink and a game of billiards with Willoughby.
What about John Thorpe from Northanger Abbey? He’s a manipulative womanizer, out to puff himself up with the approbation of his betters. I can see him and Wickham having a few things in common. And I certainly wouldn’t want to be around when they finally run out of beer.
One of the things I am really loving about the Miss Mary Investigates books is discovering how Mary rubs along with the other characters she encounters. Of the planned six books in this series, I have written four, so Mary has met quite a few of them.
In book 4, for example (no title or projected release date yet), Mary encounters Elinor Dashwood at a bookshop. How do you envision their meeting? This is what I had in mind.
There was Mrs. Roche’s book. She picked up a copy and turned to the first page. Was it horrible like Clermont? Or worse, like The Mysteries of Udolfo? She had never dared to read something as scandalous as Udolfo, but she had heard so much about it… Perhaps she would do better with Mrs. Brunton’s Discipline. She replaced the copy of The Monastery of St. Columb and reached for Discipline instead. But rather than her hand alighting upon the cool hard cover of a book, she touched soft flesh instead. She pulled her hand back as if burned, only to see another young woman do exactly the same thing.
“Please forgive me,” Mary blurted out, as the other woman exclaimed, “Oh, I am so sorry!”
Then both of them smiled and both began to laugh, which brought the young clerk around to ask them to please be a little quieter.
“Have you read Mrs. Brunton’s book?” Mary asked the other lady.
“No, although I do wish to. But I must hide it from my sister. She thinks me far too serious to read novels! I saw you looking at The Monastery. Do you like the Gothick stories?”
Mary felt herself blush and hoped the red did not go badly with her mustard yellow pelisse. “Oh no! That is, I dare not. I am far too sober-minded for that! Although I must confess I would like to see what it is about…”
The other lady began to laugh again and then quickly quietened down to a delicate titter. “We are much alike then. Which shall you buy?”
Mary pinched her lips together and frowned. “I cannot say! I would like to read both, but dare not spend that much money.”
“And I likewise.”
“I have a grand idea!” Mary beamed. She felt a great connection with this unknown lady, who seemed so similar to her and who had such excellent taste in books. “Perhaps I can buy the one and you the other, and when we have read them through, we might meet and lend each other our books so we can read both.”
“How very clever! Here, may I introduce myself? It is not quite the thing, and yet there is no one else to do the honours. My name is Elinor Dashwood and I am staying in town with my cousin for some months.”
As I mentioned above, Death in Highbury features the cast from Emma. I had to think hard about how Emma would take to Mary Bennet. Would she be pleased to have another protegee to usher around and guide? Mary is, after all, only a year or two younger than Emma, and much more sophisticated and educated than Harriet Smith. Or would Emma feel a bit put out by Mary’s presence?
Likewise, what about Mary and Jane Fairfax? How would they get along? And (gasp!) what about Frank Churchill? Mary might be the plainest of the Bennet sisters, but all five were accounted to be very pretty girls, after all. The plainest of a lovely lot could still be quite beautiful indeed.
And matters get even more interesting when Alexander Lyons, the detective who helped Mary in Death of a Clergyman, shows up in town. Suddenly Emma has another handsome face to admire… and Mary is not too pleased about this!
What a tangled web, and we haven’t even got to the mystery yet.
Here is an excerpt from Death in Highbury. Mary is unexpectedly stuck in Highbury and is invited to stay with Emma at Hartfield. On her first night in town, she comes down to meet the Woodhouses’ guests.
“Yes, indeed, Miss Bennet!” Emma seemed quite keen to escape Miss Bates’ monologue, “Please let me introduce you to our other guests.” She took her leave of the foursome and hustled Mary across to the pianoforte where a very elegant young lady sat at the keyboard, not playing but talking to a smart young man who stood sorting through a pile of music.
“Here, perhaps this one, Miss Fairfax,” he spoke rather loudly as Mary and Emma approached, and handed the lady a selection he had pulled from the stack.
The lady herself blushed and took it to set upon the stand before turning her gaze to Mary. Emma made the introductions once more. Jane Fairfax was quite lovely in a very different way to Emma Woodhouse. Her beauty was of the classic and refined variety, where Emma’s was broad and extravagant; and where Emma’s eyes sparkled with ideas and emotions only just suppressed, Miss Fairfax’s betrayed nothing.
“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Bennet.” Jane Fairfax’s manners were as quiet and elegant as her appearance. “Are you to be in the neighbourhood for long?”
Mary explained the situation as best she could in a few short sentences. “Only until it is safe to return to London, or until my sister and her husband decide to continue with their plans to visit the area.”
“I will enjoy our acquaintance, then, as short as it might be. Please feel free to call whilst you are in Highbury.” There was a coolness to her manner, but it bespoke a reserved nature rather than a disinclination towards the connection, and Mary replied that she would be pleased to accept. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a momentary wave of irritation pass across Emma’s face, and she decided she had yet another mystery to solve, namely the cause of Emma’s dislike of Miss Fairfax.
Could the answer to that be the young gentleman who was standing between the ladies? He had been introduced as Frank Churchill, Mr. Weston’s son. He beamed broadly at Emma and flirted most shamefully with her, but his eyes, Mary noticed, flitted towards Miss Fairfax just as Mr. Knightley’s had flitted constantly towards Emma. Oh my, this was quite a mare’s nest she had landed in! How fortunate that all the parties seemed amicable, if not the closest of friends, lest it turn into a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.
“I say, Miss Bennet,” Mr. Churchill beamed at her, “I do hope you have a fine frock with you, or Miss Woodhouse may give you use of one of hers, for we are to have a ball the day after tomorrow, at the Crown!” He named the inn where Mary had sat as she read her brother Darcy’s letter. “Its planning has quite consumed us for some time, and I would not enjoy it at all were you not to attend! May I request a set of dances? My first is promised already, but I beg you to accept me for the second set.”
Not one to put herself forward and happy enough to watch others at the activity, Mary seldom took to the dance floor, but such was Mr. Churchill’s charm and easy appeal that she found she could not refuse him. He smiled as if she were the most interesting creature he had met in a long while and oozed flattery from every pore, albeit without encouraging anything other than an acceptance to a reel or polonaise.
Perhaps, for her short stay in Highbury, Mary could adopt a new persona, that of a social creature who enjoyed all the attentions of society. What good was there in being in an unexpected situation, after all, if one could not learn something from it. “Thank you, Mr. Churchill,” she tried her own smile. “I would be honoured. I shall see if my trunks contain something suitable to wear.”
Emma began to talk about what gowns she might own that Mary could borrow if need be, and once more, Mary felt herself secondary in the conversation to Emma’s desire to be publicly useful.
As Emma accounted for each of her suitable frocks, Mary’s eyes dropped to the sheet of music that Mr. Churchill had handed to Miss Fairfax. It was a short piece by Mr. Beethoven for voice and pianoforte, beyond her abilities but lovely. “That is a beautiful song,” she offered with animation. “I have begun to learn it myself, although I cannot play and sing at the same time. Indeed, I believe I should never sing in public at all, for all that I enjoy the activity.”
“You play, Miss Bennet? How delightful!” There was a spark of genuine interest in Miss Fairfax’s guarded eyes. “When you come to visit—and we must set an engagement—perhaps you will oblige me by joining me in a set of duets I have only now acquired. There is no one else to play them with me, and I would dearly love to hear them in their entirety. Do say you will come! I have a sweet-toned instrument,” her eyes dropped to her hands and a blush stole over her cheeks, “which is wanting for performers.”
This was a welcome invitation. Miss Woodhouse was, to be honest, intimidating with her extravagant friendliness and her officious manner, no matter how kindly meant. Being so much more reserved herself, Mary felt herself more drawn to this quiet and subdued young woman with her interest in music and her promise of a beautiful instrument to play.
“Thank you, I would like that.” Mary curtseyed and saw Emma force a smile.
“Tomorrow morning, then? I shall inform my aunt and grandmother. We will be most delighted to welcome you.”
“Yes,” Emma murmured. “Delighted.”
I hope you enjoyed this excerpt. To celebrate the release of Death in Highbury, I am giving away two copies of the eBook worldwide. To enter, please drop a comment below. Are you a mystery fan? What do you think of Mary Bennet? What characters from different novels do you think would get on particularly well, or particularly poorly?
I will take comments until February 19, but winners won’t be announced until the 28th of February because of the big Austen Authors Winter Quarterly Give-away. Good luck!
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