> Skip to content
  • Published: 30 January 2024
  • ISBN: 9780241642108
  • Imprint: Michael Joseph
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 464
  • RRP: $34.99

Miss Austen Investigates


By moonlight, Jane hitches up the hem of her muslin gown and darts across a neatly scythed lawn. The fireworks are over but the musky tang of gunpowder lingers in her throat, and the din of a raucous crowd rises above the efforts of the string quartet performing in the Tudor mansion behind her. It is nine o’clock and the ball has hardly begun. Jane, accompanied by two of her elder brothers, James and Henry, arrived less than an hour ago but already the finest society in all of Hampshire are tipsy and braying at each other over the melody.

As she crosses the manicured garden, Jane crouches behind each colossal tower of yew to check for onlookers. Her heart pounds at the ruinous prospect of being spotted. God forbid she is caught sneaking away from the party unchaperoned. Her feet are cold, and damp is seeping through her shell-pink silk slippers. They were made for pirouetting on polished mahogany, not dashing across frosty grass.

Her breath turns to steam. The bare branches of a laburnum reach out like the bony arms of a great skeleton but she races on regardless. Tonight she and her clever young man will come to their agreement. He will make her an offer of marriage, she is sure of it. Which words will Tom select for his purpose? My dearest Jane, you must allow me to tell you . . . Miss Austen, I offer myself to you . . . She will listen carefully and commit each phrase to memory. It could prove useful the next time one of her heroines receives a proposal.

Flickering lamps guide her path to the glasshouse. She presses down gently on the doorhandle, yet it creaks and the hinges groan as she slips inside. Exotic orchids perfume the misty atmosphere and she touches a hand to the back of her head. Her maid coiled her chestnut hair into a passably elegant chignon, with ringlets framing her face. If her curls turn to frizz, her brothers will guess where she’s been, and report her to their mother.

A lean figure steps out from behind a desert pine. He is fair with distinguished features, and instantly recognizable in his ivory swallowtail coat. ‘Mademoiselle.’

The deep timbre of his voice dissolves Jane’s heart and propels her towards him. Pausing just out of his reach, she gazes upwards through fluttering eyelashes. ‘It was most wicked of you to lure me here alone.’

His bright blue eyes sparkle and his mouth curls into a seductive smile. ‘You understood my message, then?’

‘I understand you perfectly, Monsieur Lefroy.’ Jane’s gaze locks on his lips and she lets herself be gathered tight into his arms. His mouth hovers over hers, and she tips her head back to accept his kiss. She is almost, but not quite, as tall as he. Their relative statures seem designed to aid their amour. Glued together, they stumble into a row of shelves. BesideJane, a terracotta pot tumbles and smashes at her feet. Dark earth spills across the clay floor tiles. She breaks free, stooping to pick up the tangle of roots and placing the plant carefully back inside its damaged pot.

Tom bends down on one knee, cupping her face in his palm. Is this the moment he will propose? He directs her eyes back to his. ‘Leave the wretched weed, Jane. It doesn’t matter.’

‘But I must! We are guests – it’s only respectful.’ Jane’s heartbeat returns to a regular rhythm as she places the orchid back on the shelf beside its neighbours. She fingers the tall stem, lined with papery chartreuse flowers, until the plant looks as if it was never disturbed. Tom kicks shards of terracotta beneath the cabinet with the toe of his dancing pump. ‘Besides, someone will know we’ve been in here . . .’

He silences her protests with kisses. Slowly, he peels one kid leather glove down her arm and pulls it free. Jane presses her naked palm to his, their fingers interlacing. Through half- closed eyes, she watches the condensation form rivulets and slide down the walls of the glasshouse, and waits for the strings to strike up again. A drop of moisture falls to the floor.

‘Wait. Something is wrong. I can’t hear the music.’ She reaches for the nearest pane of glass, rubs a spot clear and squints through it. The doors of the great hall are open to the terrace. Guests are standing about, heads bent together. The dance-floor is clear.

Tom releases her, straightening. ‘You’re right. It’s too quiet. Sir John can’t be making the toast already – not so early in the proceedings.’

‘I expect Mrs Rivers is hounding Lady Harcourt and the baronet to make the announcement. Jonathan Harcourt is the most eligible bachelor in all of Hampshire. Sophy Rivers will be champing at the bit to be congratulated on their engagement. I’d better get back. James and Henry will be looking for me. I bet them half a crown, weeks ago now, that Sophy would be the one to snare him.’

Tom’s shoulders sag in defeat. ‘You go ahead. I shall follow.’ ‘We can meet again, afterwards?’ Jane is reluctant to let the moment pass without resolution of their future together.

The glasshouse is the perfect setting for Tom to declare his intentions towards her. Yet if her family discover her missing from the ball, she risks having her limited freedom curtailed even further. ‘Back here. As soon as the dancing strikes up again?’

Tom offers her a rueful smile. ‘Go, then. Give me a few moments to compose myself.’

Jane flushes as she turns towards the door, pressing her fingers over her lips to prevent herself from laughing.

‘Wait!’ He waves her glove at her.

She runs back into his arms, giggling freely. She would look a fool returning to the ball with only one glove. Her brothers would be furious if they guessed she’d lost it in an amorous tryst with a young man so recently of her acquaintance. As much as James and Henry seem to approve of Tom, Jane is their little sister, and it’s their duty to guard her virtue. A lady’s reputation is her most precious asset. Especially a young lady like Jane, who has scant enough resources to recommend her.

She reclaims her stolen token, leaning in for one last kiss before heading out into the night. Tom may not have proposed, but from the look of wonder in his eyes and the passion in his rapturous kiss, Jane is certain of his most ardent affection for her.

The enormous studded oak doors to the great hall of Deane House are wedged open. Heat and light radiate from the crush of well- heeled guests inside. Jane hesitates, staring down at the grass stains on her slippers and along the hem of her best muslin gown. Cassandra, Jane’s elder sister, to whom the gown officially belongs, will be most vexed . But Cassandra cannot reproach Jane for ruining her gown, or for her wanton behaviour with Tom in the glasshouse, because she is not here. In preparation for joining her new family, the Fowles, Cassandra is keeping Christmas in Kintbury with her fiancé.

Hence, Jane is playing fast and loose with her virtue to secure a fiancé of her own, lest she become the only one of the Austens’ eight children to remain at Steventon Rectory. She cannot imagine a fate worse than to be a spinster all her life, forced to play nursemaid to her ageing parents in their dotage. She fills her lungs with one last breath of cool night air before she slides inside.

Below the vaulted oak ceiling of the Elizabethan hall, more than thirty families mingle and murmur to each other. Heavy-lidded ladies whisper behind fans, while gentlemen frown and shake their heads. Surely they cannot have discovered Jane’s impropriety already. With her back to the tapestries, she sidesteps along the edge of the throng. Above her head, enormous torches, placed at intervals, burn brightly in their iron sconces. On the balcony, the musicians drink and chatter, their instruments silent, laid across their laps.

Snatches of conversation float in the dense air: ‘An incident . . . Sir John called away . . .’

Thank Heaven. Something other than her own misdemeanour must have disrupted the evening; one of the party will have knocked over the punch bowl or dropped their spectacles into the soup tureen. Poor Sir John and Lady Harcourt, having to put up with such behaviour from their guests.

Sophy, the eldest of the Rivers sisters, and the rumoured object of Jonathan Harcourt’s affections, sits on a sofa, staring at the dazzling white roses on her shoes. Really, she could muster up a little more enthusiasm. What any of the Rivers girls, with their insipid beauty and thirty thousand pounds apiece, might have to frown about, Jane does not know. Especially Sophy – who has apparently ensnared the most sought-after bachelor in the county, and wears a diamond choker with, in her usual style of modesty, an ivory cameo of herself dangling from it.

Yet Sophy’s grey eyes are hard, and the corners of her mouth turn down. She must be anxious to have the matter publicly squared away. It is a precarious position for a young lady to be in, her good name attached to a gentleman, without the protection of having taken his in return. The widowed Mrs Rivers stands over her daughter, making up for Sophy’s moroseness by yapping loudly. The late Mr Rivers’s fortune was built on cotton, but his widow favours silks and furs. Tonight she is resplendent in black bombazine trimmed with sarsenet.

Across the hall, Jonathan Harcourt’s rangy frame is swallowed by the door to the main wing of the house. Perhaps he is already repining the prospect of attaching himself to the daughter of a brazen parvenue. Jonathan has only just returned from his Grand Tour of the Continent. Jane likes him all the better for his having been away, but not so much that she wishes she was his bride-to-be.

Jonathan and his elder brother, Edwin, were Jane’s father’s pupils, and spent their early years living alongside her at Steventon Rectory. She has the same problem with all the single gentlemen in her locality. Having seen far too much of them as schoolboys, she cannot quite bring herself to view any as a potential lover.

Her interest is only ever piqued by newcomers, such as the delectable Tom Lefroy. And perhaps Douglas Fitzgerald, the young clergyman-in-waiting,who is having his ear bent by Mrs Rivers. The hall is crawling with clergymen, but none quite like this one. He is the natural son of Mrs Rivers’s brother-in-law, Captain Jerry Rivers. Captain Rivers owns a plantation in Jamaica and has sent Mr Fitzgerald home to England to be educated. The young man is extremely tall and striking, and wears a silver peruke, which contrasts with his deep brown complexion.

Jane will find James and Henry and reassure them that her behaviour befits a young lady of her station. Then, as soon as Sir John has dealt with whatever incident has taken place, and the string quartet take up their bows, she will dash back to the glasshouse to hear Tom out. She smiles to herself as she snatches a crystal goblet of Madeira wine from a passing footman and takes a long sip, attempting to quench her thirst. It is served warm, and tastes of orange peel and burnt sugar.

James stands at the rear of the hall. He is lean, and lofty, dressed in ecclesiastical apparel, his shoulder- length curls dusted with powder. His features are a distorted reflection of Jane’s own. The Austen siblings all have the same bright hazel eyes, high forehead and long, straight nose, with a small mouth and full pink lips. James is the eldest – an accident of birth he regards as Divine Providence.

‘There you are!’ He pushes his way through the sea of people towards her. ‘Where have you been? I’ve searched for you everywhere.’

‘I went looking for a fresh glass,’ Jane lies, holding up her wine as evidence. ‘I didn’t want to be caught empty-handed when the speeches were made.’

James rubs the back of his long neck. ‘I’m not sure there

will be any toasts now.’

‘Why? Has Jonathan made a last-ditch attempt to escape the marital noose?’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, Jane. Jonathan wouldn’t dare disappoint his parents so. Not after . . .’

Edwin. Five years previously, Jonathan’s elder brother, Edwin, was thrown from his thoroughbred stallion on the eve of his marriage to the daughter of a duke. He died instantly, simultaneously breaking his neck and his parents’ hearts. The tragedy heightened Lady Harcourt’s already nervous disposition. Even now, she grips the arm of a footman, twisting her head towards her guests so that her monstrous coiffure wobbles like a freshly set jelly.

‘Where’s Henry?’ Jane surveys the crowded hall. If the incident is serious, she dearly hopes her brother is not caught up in it. Henry should be easy to spot. Of those assembled, almost all the ladies are in pale gowns while the gentlemen wear dark blue or black. Only Tom Lefroy bucks the trend by masquerading as English literature’s most affable rake, Tom Jones, in his frightful ivory coat, while Henry has been strutting around like a peacock in his scarlet regimentals.

James grimaces. ‘Last seen dancing with the amiable Mrs Chute.’

Mrs Chute is six-and-twenty, with a lively character and a handsome countenance. She is recently married to a rich old man who shuns company and will not, therefore, be in attendance. It is infuriating that Henry does not have to guard his flirtations as closely as Jane does.

From across the room, Tom flashes Jane a rueful grin, making her flush with warmth. He must have slid into the hall immediately after her.

Behind James, the door to the house swings open once again, and Mrs Twistleton, the Harcourts’ housekeeper, slinks through it. With her almond-shaped eyes, black silk dress and white lace cuffs, she reminds Jane of the Austens’ best mouser – the smallest cat in the yard has black fur with white paws. She sits in the sun all day licking her claws and waiting for her next kill.

Mrs Twistleton grabs the butler’s arm. As she mouths a few words into his ear, the man’s eyes bulge and his face pales. What disaster could have befallen the Harcourts to cause their usually stony- faced butler to lose all outward sign of composure? Jane slides her wrist through the crook of James’s elbow, suddenly grateful for the familiar shape of her brother beside her.

The butler recovers himself and rings his brass bell, calling in a crisp, high-pitched voice: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, is there a doctor in attendance?’

A gasp reverberates through the hall. The local physician staggers up from his seat, red-faced and swaying, then falls hard on his well-padded backside. Jane tuts. He’s clearly in his cups. Mrs Twistleton raises herself on tiptoe to speak into the butler’s ear. He recoils. She lifts her dark brows and nods.

The butler stares at her open-mouthed, before giving the bell another shake. ‘Do excuse me. Ladies and gentlemen, is there a – a clergyman present?’

Nervous laughter ripples through the crowd. More than half of the men here are members of the clergy. Hampshire is overrun with them.

James spreads his arms wide, then lets them fall to his sides. He just so happens to be the man of the cloth standing in closest proximity to the servants. ‘I should go. Will you be all right?’

‘I’ll come with you.’ Jane passes her half-empty goblet to a nearby footman. ‘Just to check it’s not Henry.’

The crease in James’s brow deepens as he hastens towards the door. Jane follows. She’ll make sure that Henry hasn’t got himself into any trouble, then slip away. Hopefully, all is not lost, and Tom will have another opportunity to declare himself before the night is over. She tries to catch his eye before she leaves, but he turns his back to her as he is pressed into the milieu.

James reaches the entrance to the main wing of the house at exactly the same moment as Mr Fitzgerald. They bump shoulders. Mr Fitzgerald may not yet have his Geneva bands, but the soon-to-be clergyman is most eager to perform his priestly duties. He blinks, bowing from the waist to signify that James and Jane should proceed. Beeswax candles flicker in their brass sconces, throwing light and shadow over the oil portraits lining the walls. From within the paintings, generations of Harcourts stare at her coldly. Jane recognizes the same long face, beaked nose and pointed chin as the current title-holder and his son. The housekeeper’s and Mr Fitzgerald’s footsteps echo close behind.

They emerge into the grand entrance hall. A weighty chain suspends a brass chandelier from the double-height ceiling. Scores of candles illuminate the oak panelling and the ornate carved staircase leading to the upper floors of the mansion. Henry stands guard in front of a small door left ajar in the panelling. With his feet planted hip distance apart, his right hand resting on the handle of his glinting sabre, he is dazzling in his officer’s finery. The double- breasted scarlet jacket shows off his tall figure, and the gold epaulettes sit well on his broad shoulders. In protest at the powder tax, he’s cut his chestnut hair short – giving himself a raffish air. He looks so much like a tin soldier that Jane wants to laugh with relief at the sight of him.

‘What’s happened?’ asks James.

But Henry remains silent, his face uncharacteristically grim. He nods to Mrs Chute, who sits opposite on a blood-red damask sofa, sobbing into a handkerchief. A housemaid kneels at her feet, proffering a green glass bottle of smelling salts. A younger maid stands by, with a mop dipped into a bucket of soapy water. She is a small round girl, with broad features and a thick neck. Her complexion is ghostly, and she is trembling.

The pale gold ostrich feathers of Mrs Chute’s headdress bob and weave as she blows her nose. ‘I had no idea she was there. I almost tripped over her.’

Jane places a hand to her throat. ‘Who is in there?’

‘Damned if any of us know.’ Sir John Harcourt stamps up and down the Turkey runner. Beneath the sausage curls of his fat-bottomed peruke, his complexion is puce. He has always made an imposing figure, with his great belly and flapping jowls. Tonight he is especially threatening.

Henry steps aside. ‘I’m afraid we found a . . . well, a body.’

James pushes open the door. He balks. Jane sidles up beside him, squinting into the room. It is a small closet. There is a ghastly metallic smell coming from inside, like a butcher’s shop. On the floor, from the light spilling in from the hallway, Jane can just make out a chintz-patterned skirt.

It is heavily stained with a dark substance. Two brown laced shoes poke out from beneath it. They are ladies’ shoes, with a well-worn leather sole.

‘I wouldn’t.’ Henry places a hand on Jane’s upper arm,

lightly restraining her.

Mr Fitzgerald edges past with a lit taper. He kneels beside the skirt, throwing light into the cramped space.

Jane catches bile in the back of her throat.

It is a young woman – her arms flung wide, her pallor ashen and her features frozen in abject terror. Her mouth gapes, and her glassy eyes stare blankly. Blood congeals at an enormous gash in her temple and puddles around her on the floor.

‘Dear God.’ Jane takes a step back, but she cannot tear away her eyes.

Mr Fitzgerald stoops, placing his ear to the woman’s chest, listening for her breath. After a few moments, he lays two fingers on her neck, then shakes his head. ‘May the Lord, in his forgiveness, grant her eternal peace,’ he says softly, stretching his thumb and forefinger over her face and attempting to close her eyes.

He falters. Her eyelids are stuck fast.

Withdrawing his hand, he bows his head and makes the sign of the cross. As he does so, candlelight flickers across the lifeless form and a spark of recognition stirs. Jane lets out a high-pitched scream. It is so unlike her that even she is shocked by it. Her knees buckle. She clings to James’s lapels for support as she stares at the familiar face.

It must have been early October, for the chill was not yet in the air, when Jane first saw the woman’s delicate features. She had travelled to Basingstoke with Alethea Bigg, and stumbled across the milliner, Madame Renault, perched upon a wooden stool in the marketplace. On a table covered with green baize cloth, Madame Renault had arranged a few straw hats and several delicate lace caps. Her clothes, while not fashionable, were neat and clean. She wore a chintz gown with a gold and pearl chain tucked into the bodice, and one of her own lace-trimmed caps over her dark hair. Jane considered buying a gift for Cassandra. Some of the caps were so fine, they would make a pretty headdress for a bride.

But, as usual, Jane’s vanity overcame her good intentions. She bought one of the straw hats for herself instead. She had meant to try it on for a lark, but she looked so very well in it. Jane tried to negotiate on the price by saying she didn’t think she’d brought enough and would have to come back for it another day. Madame Renault shrugged, indifferent.

In broken English, she explained she spent most of her time working to order and rented the stall only when she had stock to spare. She couldn’t guarantee when, or even if, she would be in Basingstoke again. She might be persuaded to take a commission, if she had time.

Alethea thought the milliner arrogant, but Jane was so impressed by her confidence that she paid her the full twelve shillings and sixpence. Evidently Madame Renault knew the value of her artistry and trusted her handiwork to be in demand. How liberating to belong to a class of women who could openly take pride in their work.

The encounter lent Jane the audacity to imagine herself sitting behind a stall in the marketplace, with all of her manuscripts neatly copied out, tied between marble boards and resting on green baize . . .

Now, she places her fist to her mouth, biting back a sob as she stands transfixed by the milliner’s brutally battered corpse.

James’s arms circle her shoulders. ‘Come away, Jane. Don’t upset yourself.’

‘But I can’t. I know her.’

Everyone looks at Jane expectantly.

‘Then who the devil is she?’ Sir John thumps his fat fist on the mahogany sideboard. ‘And what’s she doing lying dead in my laundry closet?’

Jane slips out of James’s hold, stepping into the doorway the better to see the woman’s blood-spattered face. She must be certain before she says anything.

Mr Fitzgerald holds the taper beside the woman’s cheek, and Jane is overcome by weariness. Everything has changed. The evening is no longer one of frivolity. She will not receive her romantic proposal or enjoy any more secret kisses with her lover in the glasshouse tonight. ‘Her name is Madame Renault. She was a milliner – I bought a hat from her in Basingstoke market.’

Henry nods, as if this information tells him all he needs to know. ‘I’ve sent for the parish constable. The magistrate is expected anyway, for the ball.’

Mr Fitzgerald covers Madame Renault with a blanket, tucking it around her shoulders with care, as if it might keep her warm even now.

James steers Jane towards the main entrance. ‘Come, let me help you into the carriage and take you home. This has been a terrible shock for all of us.’

As Jane stumbles towards the door, she cranes her neck to take one last look at Madame Renault. A fresh wave of nausea comes over her at the pool of blood seeping into the blanket Mr Fitzgerald had used to cover the corpse. How could such a monstrous act have been committed, here, in the midst of such gaiety? Violence and murder have no place in Jane’s safe, staid little world. And yet there Madame Renault lies, bludgeoned to death by someone who, by all accounts, cannot be too far away from where Jane is standing. Who, among Jane’s society, could have carried out this heinous crime?

Miss Austen Investigates Jessica Bull

It is a truth universally acknowledged that every good mystery is in need of a brilliant sleuth... A Jane Austen-inspired murder mystery for fans of Richard Osman and Janice Hallett

Buy now
Buy now

More extracts

See all
Moonlight and the Pearler's Daughter

Eliza has never seen a land that looks so very much like blood.

The Fine Art of Invisible Detection

Umiko Wada wasn’t a private detective. She just worked for one.

The Titanic Secret

The sky over Manhattan was the color of old pewter.

The Second Sleep

Late on the afternoon of Tuesday the ninth of April in the Year of Our Risen Lord 1468, a solitary traveller was to be observed picking his way on horseback across the wild moorland...

You'll Never See Me Again

The wind and heavy rain coming right off the sea rattled the cottage windows and pounded on the glass.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton

I never would have done what they say I’ve done, to Madame, because I loved her. Yet they say I must be put to death for it, and they want me to confess. But how can I confess what I don’t believe I’ve done?

Once Upon a River

There was once an inn that sat peacefully on the bank of the Thames at Radcot, a long day’s walk from the source.

The House Across the Street

At the bang of a car door out in the street, Katy glanced out of the bedroom window.

The Wolf

He came up from South America by bus.

The Power Game

Bart Harefield loved laughing at them. The ones who thought they had power.

The Spy

Dear Mr.

The Unmourned

Prologue Parramatta, November 1825 He really must do something about that door, he thought as he crossed the yard back to his quarters.