My Dear Charlotte is a recent novel written in epistolary form by British mystery writer Hazel Holt, who uses Jane Austen’s letters to her sister Cassandra for her inspiration. The main character of the book and the writer of the letters is Elinor Cowper (pronounced Cooper), who lives in Lyme Regis with her parents. She writes faithfully to her older sister Charlotte in Bath. In the letters Ms. Holt includes all the minutia of daily life that Jane wrote down, such as purchasing cloth, refurbishing bonnets, exchanging recipes, and attending balls and assemblies. Jan Ferfus, Professor of English Emerita, Lehigh University writes in the introduction:
“Of course, you don’t have to love Austen to love this book. If you enjoy detective novels, you will find here a completely satisfying murder mystery, coupled with a romance (or more than one, in fact). My Dear Charlotte gives you, in addition to mystery and romance, a portrait of the world of the English gentry at around 1815, immediately after the defeat of Napoleon–its manners and its moral certainty. As in Austen, Napoleon is not directly mentioned, but his shadow is there: one brother of the heroine is a sailor and the other a junior diplomat at the Congress of Vienna. It’s the social world at home that is central, however, with its balls, visits, courtships, gossip, and of course murder, underlining the tensions and rifts within that apparently civilized society.
The book is based on the premise that Jane’s letters make for interesting reading. As the publisher says, “While the story is new, the details having to do with balls, dinners, and other social events are given in the words of Jane Austen herself.” This excerpt describes events just after Mrs. Woodstock’s murder:
Of course it cannot be denied that Mr Woodstock himself will lead a happier life without his formidable spouse, though I do not believe that he could have summoned up the courage to dispose of her!
Mr Rivers will be glad to be rid of one who would have put obstacles in the way of his plans for the Barbados estate, but I do not think that may be considered a sufficient reason for an honourable man to take a life.
Mrs West, however, seems to me to lack such scruples if they stood in the way of her daughter’s advancement. I do not at present see how she could have brought about Mrs Woodstock’s demise, but no doubt, if I give my mind to it, I may presently think of something.
Poor John coachman also had reason to wish his mistress dead, since his whole happiness (and that of Sarah) depended upon keeping his position at Holcombe and if he had been turned away without a character his case would have been miserable indeed.
So you see, there are a number of people who will be happy at Mrs Woodstock’s death. Perhaps I should add myself to the list for the sake of those hours of tedium and the many irritations she has subjected me to!
The above passage represents the book at its most exciting because it concentrates on the plot. As far as I am concerned, Jane Austen’s letters are not all that interesting when taken out of context. The letters to Cassandra are important because they reveal something (anything) about Jane’s life and thoughts. Those that I read from the Brabourne edition seem like watered down pap when compared to the tart and satiric observations of her novels. There were times when I stopped reading My Dear Charlotte, for the book was bogged down by the minutia of daily life instead of clues about the murder. The details were meant to give authenticity, but they should have been used more sparingly. I found the epistolary format also problematic, for it allowed for too much exposition and very little dialogue, and I felt that I was receiving my information third-hand. Instead of getting into Elinor’s head, I was reading about her recipes! In fact, Elinor reveals as little of her thoughts, ideas, and hopes in her letters to Charlotte as Jane did to Cassandra. I would have preferred that Ms. Holt had used the rich dialogue and language in Jane’s books for inspiration, rather than her uneventful life.
Hazel Holt would most likely disagree with my assessment of Jane’s letters. She describes the process of writing My Dear Charlotte in a recent interview, in which she revealed that she found Jane’s letters delightfully chatty:
I thought – holding my breath – that since they are such wonderfully informal, chatty letters, I might just manage to create a sort of facsimile of her world if I wrote my novel in the form of letters, inserting extracts of Austen’s where they would fit in with the story – the perfect, authentic background.
Ms. Holt DOES capture Jane’s ascerbic wit on a few occasions by directly quoting her and weaving these gems into the plot:
“Mrs Holder’s niece, Miss Porter, is recently come into the neighborhood but is not much admired; the good-natured world, as usual, extolled her beauty so highly, that all of Lyme have had the pleasure of being disappointed.”
“I do not remember if I told you that Mrs Heathcote wrote to tell us that Miss Blackford is married, but I have never seen it in the papers, and one may as well be single if the wedding is not in print.”
Perhaps I was expecting too much from the start and didn’t give this book the chance it deserved. As a successful mystery writer, I expected Ms. Holt to wow me from page one. To be fair, as the book progressed and as the characters were introduced and more fully formed, I found myself becoming more involved in the plot. Ms. Holt knows how to write a mystery, though I took a stab in the dark and guessed the murderer early on. Searching the Internet for reviews and comments about My Dear Charlotte, I discovered that many people liked it immensely and gave it rave reviews. As for me, I rate this book two out of three regency fans.
My Dear Charlotte: With the assistance of Jane Austens letters (Paperback), Hazel Holt. ISBN #’s
Large Print Books: 978-1-60381-041-8
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