After a two-year hiatus, Lord Harold Trowbridge, the Gentleman Rogue, once again calls upon Jane Austen (Jane and the Prisoner of Wool House, 2001) to investigate a crime.
At his summons, Jane is swung aboard a naval ship on a wooden bosun’s chair. Two months earlier, in August 1808, England had defeated Bonaparte’s troops decisively in Vimiero, Portugal, and promptly threw away most of the victory in a disgracefully lenient armistice. Now Lord Harold blames the seductive powers of Lady Sophia Challoner, a beautiful English ex-patriot living in Portugal, for that disgrace and incidentally the betrayal of his own heart. Uneasy about Lord Harold’s emotional involvement, Jane agrees to spy on Lady Sophia, recently back in England, for the sake of her country and Lord Harold’s peace of mind. England’s continuing persecution of Catholics raises suspicions about the association of Lady Sophia, who lives alongside the ruins of a Catholic abbey dissolved by Henry VIII, with powerful English Catholics. The night after Jane accepts Lord Harold’s commission, sabotage incinerates a naval gunship near Netley Abbey. Lord Harold thinks Sophia is responsible, but, in spite of mysterious hooded figures flitting about the Abbey, secret passageways, and Latin incantations, Jane can’t find it in herself to judge Sophia—charming, complex, sympathetic—seditious.
Barron escapes having to create a romance for the biographically unattached Jane Austen in a dramatic development that makes betraying one’s feelings a crime as deadly as treason.