Every now and again a really special book, a near-perfect book comes along, and My Dear Charlotte by Hazel Holt is one of those books. This is the next-best thing to another novel by Jane Austen herself.
Using many of Jane Austen's letters, weaving them into the letters of Emily Cowper to her sister, Charlotte, Hazel Holt has created an epistolary novel in the style of the early 19th century with lively characters, a bit of romance, with a mystery included for added focus. The plot is distantly related to Emma but the characters of Emily and Charlotte are clearly based on those of Jane and her sister Cassandra.
The story begins, as Austen stories so often do, with new arrivals in the neighborhood. The nephew of Mrs Woodstock, an imperious neighbor, arrives at her command just as a nephew of the lady's husband appears, newly arrived from Barbados where he is the manager of Mr Woodstock's affairs. Also new to Lyme, where the Cowpers live, is Sir Edward Hampton, a widower with two small boys. Sir Edward Hampton, has just been named a magistrate, a role he takes very seriously.
A widow, Mrs West, has come to Lyme for the sake of her daughter, Caroline, whose health, we are told, has not been robust. Caroline is a great beauty and her health seems perfectly fine to Emily. Along with a few old friends and other neighboring families, the local doctor, and a couple of gossiping maiden ladies the society of Lyme goes about its normal life, with periodical assemblies, dinner parties, balls, shopping, visits to the lending library, and walks along the Cobb.
Until they hear the news that one of their neighbors is dead, of angina, the doctor says. She died in her sleep, unexpectedly. Her demise will change the lives of many of the people in Lyme and will put a few of them under suspicion as Sir Edward, at the behest of a relative from London, investigates the death as a possible murder.
This novel is pitch perfect. It sounds like Jane Austen and it conveys the feeling of lively interest in one's neighbors' doings, which gown to wear to a dance, what to serve for dinner when the magistrate is among the party, and what book to borrow from the circulating library next. (Evelina, perhaps? Or Sir Charles Grandison?)
2012 No 107