November is certainly a month for Austenites who also love a bit of intrigue and murder. By far, the most trumpeted novel is Death Comes to Pemberley from P D James, taking the characters of Pride and Prejudice into a new story. However, there is another novel awaiting your delectation, one that is the Welsh Books Council’s Book of the Month for November, and it concerns the life – or death, to be more precise – of Jane Austen herself: The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen by Lindsay Ashford. Austen’s tragically early death has long been the subject of speculation. One theory is that she died of Addison’s disease, although as recently as 2009 the theory was put forward that tuberculosis was the cause.
Lindsay Ashford, an author of contemporary crime thriller novels, moved to Chawton three years ago. At Chawton, she soon found her plans of writing another such novel dashed as she became inspired by her surroundings and her research in the library. When she organised a short story competition on behalf Chawton House Library, the American winner asked her if she had seen the lock of Austen’s hair at the museum. It transpired that the winner had known the couple who donated it; between buying it at auction at Sotheby’s and donating it to the museum, they had had the hair tested for arsenic. The positive result could only lead to the conclusion that Austen had ingested the poison in the months before her death. But was this an accident, foul play or possibly even murder? Armed with this knowledge, Ashford’s reading of the family letters took on another dimension. The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen is a product of this reading and research, and is a work of fiction.
Ashford’s tale is told from the point of view of Anne Sharp, best friend to Jane Austen and one time governess to her niece Fanny, daughter of Edward Austen. Anne’s friendship with Jane develops when she is a visitor to Edward’s Godmersham home. Another brother, Henry Austen is also a frequent visitor, and Anne becomes suspicious that he is having an affair with Edward’s wife. Jane too, eventually opens up to having similar suspicions. By the time Jane dies, Anne has long moved on, but she is devastated by her sudden and early death. When another family member dies shortly afterwards, Anne’s suspicions are aroused further and she is determined to seek the truth of the nature of Jane’s death…
The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen is a satisfying tale of the lives of the Austens and the development of the friendship between Anne and Jane. It may be Ashford’s first historical novel, but there is no sign of a novice pen at hand here: the story vividly portrays the lives and times, with a prose faithful to the period. Given its opening, with a letter confirming the presence of an unusually high level of arsenic in Jane’s body, the facts that unfold in the chronological story can only be read with layer upon layer of suspicion and foreboding in accompaniment. All characters are well drawn, although there are many of them. (A family tree at the start would prove useful here.) The children, and their innocence, are delightfully portrayed.
The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen should definitely appeal to Austenites, although the story is not without an element of potential controversy. And for those who enjoy a murder mystery, this is an intriguing and compelling variation on the theory of the death of Jane Austen.
The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen is published by Honno and can also be bought at Amazon here. Lindsay Ashford is a former BBC journalist and the first woman to graduate from Queen’s College Cambridge with a degree in criminology. Find out more about the author and the novel’s genesis here.
‘There are secrets in all families, you know…’ Emma, Jane Austen.
Austenites may also be interested in a forthcoming title, also from Honno – Wooing Mr Wickham – an anthology of the winning entries in Chawton House Library’s Jane Austen Short Story Award 2010, edited by Michele Roberts.