It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is everywhere at the moment. To mark 200 years since her death, the Bank of England has just immortalised her on a new tenner, and there are more spin-offs and takes on her work than you can shake an empire-line dress at.
So, while echoing Jane’s sentiment that ‘I declare after all, there is no enjoyment like reading!,’ I reserved judgment, dear reader, when it came to Four Riddles for Jane Austen (and her artful maid Tilly), by Gabrielle Mullarkey.
The setup is an immediate attention grabber: we find Jane languishing in Bath after the death of her father, eking out a precarious existence with her demanding mother, loyal sister and a feisty maid called Tilly.
The story opens with Tilly’s recollections of life chez Austen, but then alternates with ‘Jane’s own words’ as she and Tilly are drawn into a series of dastardly murders. The action moves upstairs and down, exposing the seedy underbelly of polite society and inviting the reader to join a guessing game – who is vengeful, malicious or desperate enough to kill?
Divided into four parts that link together, the book is tightly plotted, makes lots of nods to period detail, and lovingly recreates both the Georgian world and Jane Austen herself, lightening the drama at key points with shafts of Janeite wit and wisdom – tongue lodged firmly in cheek, Mullarkey suggests that Jane introduced the world to both the Heimlich manoeuvre and speed dating!
To add another layer of intrigue, Tilly is keeping more than one secret she doesn’t want even Jane to know.
Adding a final pinch of spice to the mix, Mullarkey throws several characters into Jane’s path who subsequently turn up in her own books. That’s cheeky – and inspired. My favourite was the clever take on the central characters in Pride & Prejudice. I can’t say more for fear of giving too much away, though you’ll probably recognise a certain gentleman whose name begins with D…
Despite a dash of romance, the book looks at the reality of being an impoverished spinster and penniless maid at the start of the nineteenth century. There are no clichés here; the writing is much more than a hook to hang the plot on.
Finally, if you haven’t read anything by Jane Austen, don’t be put off. The story works in its own right as a very entertaining ‘whodunit’ and they they dunit.
I’ll sum up with a few more of Jane’s own words: ‘for my own part, if a book is well written, I always find it too short.’
- Four Riddles for Jane Austen (and her artful maid Tilly) is published by Corazon Books. Available from Amazon here.
- Review by Mhairi Gold
- You can read about the ‘discovery’ that led to the book here