Tuesday, January 25, 2011

There Must Be Murder by Margaret C. Sullivan

Today is lovely novella review day, the second of which was just as delightful as the first (read my review of Young Master Darcy here). There Must Be Murder is a continuation of Northanger Abbey by Margaret C.  Sullivan, better known to the blogosphere as Mags, editrix of the fabulously snarky AustenBlog. There is a shortage of Northanger Abbey fanfiction out there, and if this sadly overlooked novel (one of my very favorites that Austen wrote, right after Persuasion) can be said to be safe in anyone's hands, it is Ms. Sullivan's, long time devotee to both the book and its fabulous hero, Mr. Tilney (again, one of my favorites, right after Mr. Darcy). Our story takes place two months into Henry and Catherine's marriage, when they return to Bath in order to honor the town which brought them together. It is so in keeping with Austen's original tale that it is nearly seamlessly, beautifully capturing her characterizations, tone, and subject matter. Now a wiser woman, Catherine has learned to distinguish fantasy from reality, the probable from the improbable, but not everyone she encounters has similarly learned to check their active imaginations. The book is littered with characters anxious to both view and live their lives as dramatically as those in Mrs. Radcliffe's tales, which Henry reads aloud to Catherine when they retire in the evenings (those who know that my husband and I engage in very similar activities, though usually with Georgette Heyer as our entertainment, will be well able to imagine how touching I found this portrayal of the newlywed's activities). I love their bantering commentary regarding Udolpho, as in this scene:
The first time Catherine read Udolpho, she had wept over this passage; but when Henry read Valancourt's dialogue, he used such a simpering, affected voice that she found herself laughing at the poor Chevalier's distress.

"'Why should we confide the happiness of or whole lives to the will of people, who have no right to interrupt, and, except in giving you to me, have no power to promote it? O Emily! Venture to trust your own heart, venture to be mine forever!' His voice trembled, and he was silent; Emily continued to weep, and was silent also, when Valancourt proceeded to propose an immediate marriage, and that, at an early hour on the following morning, she should quit Madame Montoni's house, and be conducted by him to the church of the Augustines, where a friar should await to unite them."

Henry stopped reading and pondered for a moment. "The banns were not published? No license obtained? A curious business; I dare say that the brave Valancourt might have found the Augustine friar less receptive to his scheme than he anticipated."

"It is only a story, Henry," said Catherine in the patient tone used to educate the slow-witted.

"Forgive me, my sweet. It was a matter of professional interest. To continue: The silence, with which she listened to a proposal, dictated by love and despair, and enforced at a moment, when it seemed scarcely possible for her to oppose it; - when her heart was softened by the sorrows of a separation, that might be eternal, and her reason obscured by the illusions of love and terror, encouraged him to hope, that it would not be rejected. 'Speak, my Emily!' said Valancourt eagerly, 'let me hear your voice, let me hear you confirm my fate.' She spoke not; her cheek was cold, and her senses seemed to fail her, but she did not faint. To Valancourt's terrified imagination she appeared to be dying; he called upon her name, rose to go to the chateau for assistance, and then, recollecting her situation, feared to go, or to leave her for a moment."

Henry paused and glanced down at his wife's rapt face. "I am glad that you are not of a swooning disposition, Cat. It must be terribly uncomfortable to have a girl forever falling insensible at inconvenient times, when she is most in need of all her faculties. It is well that you did not swoon when I offered you marriage. It might have put me off my mission."

Catherine sighed in delight. "I assure you, I felt no inclination to swoon. That was the happiest moment of my life. I should not have liked to miss it because I was insensible."
Now, I admit to finding Mrs. Radcliffe's writing pretty painful (Udolpho is one of three books I have ever, in my life, not finished once I started it), but if I could listen to Mr. Tilney recite her novels, this scene leads me to believe I would find it not only tolerable, but highly amusing. 

The plot of the story surrounds familial acquaintances of the Tilney's: one Lady Beauclerk, recently widowed, and her daughter. Along with her nephew and heir to her late husband's estate, the rakish Sir Philip, the Beauclerks have descended on Bath with General Tilney in tow, as he is paying court to Lady Beauclerk. As Henry and Catherine have not been in contact with the General since their marriage, this state of affairs comes as a surprise, and not necessarily a pleasant one. All the Beauclerks seem to be playing an unknown, but very deep, game, made further mysterious when the manner of the late baronet's death comes into question. On a more agreeable note, also come to Bath are the former Eleanor Tilney and her new husband, Lord Whiting, who, quite naturally, become Catherine and Henry's chosen companions during their sojourn in the spa town (other than their charming Newfoundland, MacGuffin).

In Ms. Sullivan's hands, the Tilney's marriage lives up to all the promise with which Austen infused it. Romantic while not being tawdry, mysterious without relying on needless drama, There Must Be Murder is a beautiful and loving homage to both Jane Austen and her first full-length novel. I highly recommend it to all fans of Northanger Abbey, and if you have never bothered to read this sadly neglected novel, I urge you to make haste in rectifying this grievous oversight. 


  1. Ah! I loved There Must Be Murder when I read it online. Despite my difference in approach to Austen, I find Ms. Sullivan's grasp of Catherine and Henry delightful, and her plot genuinely engaging and enjoyable.

    I must disagree about Ms. Radcliffe, however. I've not had to read Mysteries of Udolpho, but I did read Romance of the Forest for class a year ago, and found it delightfully insane - rather like todays wampire novels (appropriate, since those novels continue Radcliffe's gothic tradition). Not anywhere as close as Austen to provoking awe and adoration, but amusement and laughter, and perhaps even a sigh or two...

  2. Hi ibmiller! I can't comment on Romance of the Forest, but I got about 150 pages into Udolpho before I abandoned it, as there was still over 500 to go, and I thought it agonizing - the characters and the plot so annoying I wanted to throw the book at a wall. However, I also don't care in the slightest for what you call "wampire" novels, so this certainly can be chocked up to personal preference.

  3. I agree with the dislike if vampire books. In a weak moment I bought Amanda Grange's Mr. Darcy, Vampire. I found it today and groaned. What was I thinking? I certainly didn't read it. I realize that Jane Austen was reading the Gothic novel as that was what was available . But, I'm thinking that she wouldn't read it if she had a broader range of fiction to read. That's just my thought, anyway. I will definitely read this adaptation of NA!

  4. Hi Karen. I too wasn't impressed by Ms. Grange's novel, which was very much like one of Radcliffe's, but there are some other vampire/Austen novels that are far better. Still, I prefer Austen in its pure form, and this book keeps very nicely within her original purview. I hope you enjoy it!