Jane Austen’s personal life is a bit of an enigma. We know a bit about her day-to-day life from her remaining personal correspondence; of which a few snippets allude to her beaux and friends. Readers are often puzzled how a spinster wrote so perceptively about romance and the human heart. One would think that first-hand experience would be a requirement. I have always thought that she had her fair share of romance. We are just not privy to the details. We do, however, know a little about of one of her dear female friendships.
Anne Sharp was governess to Jane’s niece Fanny Knight from 1804 to 1806 at Godmersham Park where Anne and Jane were introduced in 1805. Even though the social chasm between Anne as a servant and Jane as the sister of the wealthy land owner should have prevented them from closer acquaintance, they became life-long friends. Jane felt so highly of Miss Sharp that she was the only person beyond family, and Countess Morley, a professional commitment, to receive one of twelve presentation copies of her novel Emma when it was published in 1815. When that copy resurfaced into the public eye at the London Bonhams Auction House sale in 2008, I was intrigued. Since we are often a reflection of who our friends are, I was compelled to discover who Anne Sharp was – and why Jane Austen, who had a small circle of personal acquaintance beyond her large family – chose Anne as her close friend? If I discovered this, I might learn more about my favorite author.
My research expedition through my own reference books, the library, and online turned up some interesting facts about Anne’s life and her friendship with Jane, but not nearly enough to satisfy my inquisitive mind. Anne Sharp had indeed become an obsession within my Jane Austen obsession. Since I had almost exhausted all known primary sources, the next best step to quell my curiosity was fiction. I visualized a novel of the events in my mind. I felt that there was a compelling story to be told but sadly lacked the skills of execution.
Enter novelist Lindsay Ashford. Little did I know that at the same time that I was researching Anne and Jane, she was moving to Hampshire to live on the Chawton House estate, one of two grand manor houses where Jane’s older brother Edward Austen and his family had lived, and, a stone’s throw from Chawton Cottage, the home that Edward provided for his widowed mother and sisters Cassandra and Jane. Lindsay had arrived at Chawton ready to write her next contemporary crime novel. Fate would intercede, changing her course from gritty urban crime thriller to an historical novel heavily steeped in one of the greatest literary mysteries of all – Jane Austen’s untimely death! The result is The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen. It is unsettling and powerful. You will not view Jane Austen and her family in the same light after completing it. I continually reminded myself while I was reading it that it was fiction. Or is it?
Up front, the author boldly presents the reader with this shocking question. Did Jane Austen die of natural causes or was she murdered? The possibility sent shivers down the back of my neck. Like many Janeites, I have read of the many theories (and much speculation) on the fatal illnesses that may have caused Jane Austen’s death at age forty-one in 1817. Addison’s disease has been the fore runner since Dr. Vincent Cope’s 1964 diagnosis based on her own observations documented in her letters. The other possibilities have been described as Hodgkin’s lymphoma, bovine tuberculosis, and recently Brill-Zinsser disease, a recurrent form of typhus. From these descriptions, modern medicine can only evaluate and speculatively conclude. Forensic science could deduce many irrefutable facts. That requires human remains. Exhuming Jane Austen’s body from her Winchester Cathedral resting place to conduct these tests is a repelling notion to many, including this writer who unlike Mark Twain, is not ready to “to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone” to solve a mystery close to two hundred years old. There is, however, one element that could solve the mystery. Her hair. We know her sister Cassandra sent sections of it to family members and to Miss Sharp as mementos after her death. Some examples still exist. The Jane Austen House Museum at Chawton owns one. If tested it might reveal the truth.
We know that Jane Austen was a perceptive observer of people and events in her novels and in her own life. In 1817 when she had a brief remission in her fatal illness and wrote a letter on March 23rd to her favorite niece Fanny Knight. In it she supplies us with some very important evidence of her physical condition and the appearance of her face:
“I certainly have not been very well for many weeks, and about a week ago I was very poorly, I have had a good deal of fever at times and indifferent nights, but am considerably better now and recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour. I must not depend upon ever being blooming again. Sickness is a dangerous indulgence at my time of life.”
These six words piqued Lindsay Ashford’s training in criminology from Queens’ College, Cambridge. Severe discoloring of the face are signs of arsenic poisoning. Coupled with the amazing discovery that arsenic testing had been conducted in the 1940’s on the sample of Jane Austen’s hair, she was compelled her to write her novel – fiction yes, but based deeply upon fact.
The novel opens in 1843, twenty-six years after Jane Austen’s death. Anne Sharp has learned of the new Marsh test that can be conducted on human hair to discover if arsenic poisoning might have killed its owner. Torn between departing with the memento and learning the truth, she sends it off to be analyzed. The results will inspire her to write down a memoir of her friend and all of the events that lay out her theories and why. A catharsis act to release all the years of pent up frustration and anger of her dear friends death, which she truly believes was not natural, but by design. And, by someone, who had both strong motive and means in Jane’s family circle.
She begins in 1805 when Anne and Jane were introduced at Godmersham Park in Kent and continues through 1843 with the result of the test that concludes her suspicions. What unfolds is a fascinating journey into the Austen family dynamics. What is revealed will raise more than a few eyebrows. At times, I was shocked, repulsed and offended, but, I read on, and on, so mesmerized by the story that Miss Sharp reveals of her employer Edward Knight, his brothers James and Henry, their wives and their children that I read into the wee hours of the night. Like Catherine Morland obsessed with Gothic fiction I could not stop. However, unlike Northanger Abbey, The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen is not a high burlesque parody. It is a serious mystery novel based on historical fact.
Ashford’s writing is honest, grating and intriguing. Bare to the bone with human folly of biblical proportions, I am purposely vague in my plot description for fear of revealing anything that would spoil the discovery and surprise for the reader. Ashford has captured the Jane Austen, and her intimate family circle, within my mind’s eye with sensitivity, perception and reproving guile. What unfolds is a gripping, page turning, toxic sugar plum unlike any other Austenesque novel I have ever read. Be brave. Be beguiled. Be uncertain. I dare you.
5 out of 5 Stars
The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen, by Lindsay Ashford
Trade paperback (331) pages
Cover image courtesy of Hono © 2011; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2011, Austenprose.com
I hadn’t been at all acquainted with her early death before now. I haven’t even read all her own books yet. Therefore, I’m all the more disturbed and saddened by what I’ve learned here. In order to have quick access to this book once I’ve finished reading the rather large and weighty tome I’m reading currently, “Amelia Peabody’s Egypt: A Compendium,” I’ve downloaded Lindsay Ashford’s book.
I’ve not yet been quite ready to embrace the alternate and more intense looks into the aspects of Jane Austen’s characters’ views and actions in later life–one only so far. I’ve far too many other books that I want to read sometime, but this book is a whole other matter. This concerns what happened after she stopped writing, more of a biography. Maybe I’ll get to read TMDoMA a little faster than her other books.
Thanks for telling us about this interesting book, Laurel Ann.
BTW, I wouldn’t have known what Jane’s symptoms could have meant. After all arsenic isn’t being much used any more and I don’t read a lot of mysteries. I love history and archaeology; hence, the Egypt compendium.
I read that Amelia Peabody Compendium too, Ranurgis. You should pick up her other non-fiction archeology books too under the name Barbara Mertz if you haven’t already. Good stuff!
I absolutely loved this book- so much seemed to ring true, but at the end of the day it is a novel, and I must admit I’ve enjoyed exploring that ‘alternative Austen universe’ myself in the book I’ve just finished writing. I particularly enjoyed the very sensitive way Lindsay handled Anne Sharpe’s relationship, and I thought so much was so cleverly interpreted especially Jane’s Winchester Races poem which I’ve always thought had a double meaning!
Sound very interesting plot. Perhaps someone can get a psyche get JA to cross over.
Fascinating review, Laurel Ann, especially since I know of your interest in Anne Sharpe. The review is deliciously compelling and I have just now bought The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen on Kindle and will put aside my writing to read it.
Thank you for this wonderful description.
Hope you are as mesmerized as I am Monica.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Laurel Ann! I had this one on my list but was desirious of finding out more information! Sounds like a fascinating story!
I have this one on my list too. It does sound fascinating and after reading the review, it is a must-have.
Well, it certainly does sound interesting and I will have to read it. I must admit to a very keen interest in Jane’s death and the reason for it. What would have been had she lived? What other novels would we have. If only…
This is my first introduction to this book. Your review was not vague, but I appreciate that you were careful about spoilers. Like others before me, I am adding a new book to my TBR pile- Jane Austen and mystery, what more could a gal want.
Thanks for posting!
This very intriguing review has piqued my curiosity further. I, too, have been interested in Jane’s untimely death and its cause. I have done research into the opinions and thoughts of some as to what might have been the reason for it. I have wanted a more definitive answer so this story, even though fiction, sounds like an excellent way to see other possibilities, especially since it is based on fact. I look forward to the opportunity of reading it.
Laurel Ann, I now have your book and am enjoying it immensely. Thank you for such a great collection of authors and wonderful stories! Will there be another in the not too distant future?
Hi Janet, I hope you have the opportunity to read it. It is still haunting me.
Thanks for your complements on Jane Austen Made Me Do It. I hope that there is a second book. Shall we call it Jane Austen Made Me Do It, Again?
Or how about “Jane Austen Keeps Making Me Do It”?
I’ve read Cassandra’s incredible letter and tribute informing her family of Jane’s death.(What a writer Cassandra was in her own right!) I felt a sense of mourning as if I had lost a dear friend too. We will never know what Miss Austen’s untimely death might have robbed future generations of. We can only glory in what we she has left us. Her death is a genuine mystery isn’t it? Addison’s disease? Cancer? Foul play? Sounds like the makings of great story doesn’t it? You giving it 5 stars, Laurel Ann, makes it a must read for me.
I had the pleasure of meeting Lindsay in Fort Worth at the AGM. I’m reading her story now. The writing is wonderful.!
I’ve always been fascinated by Anne Sharpe, too, so I was especially intrigued when I first heard about this book. Your review only wants to make me read it more.
Is this book available only in e book form? I really like to have hard copies of all my JA books, fanfiction and the nonfiction.
Great review! I’m sold.
Christina – you can borrow my copy, but this one I want back!
No, no. Thank you for the offer but I am planning to buy my own copy. A must for my ever expanding collection, of course.
To answer a few questions posted, yes this is an intriguing read, but it will offend some, so be prepared for some surprise story twists. It will curly your hair. It is not an atypical Austenesque novel. Forewarned is forearmed.
Karen, it is available in print format in the UK and EBook through Kindle here in the US. I searched for it today at The Book Depository and they do not carry it yet. Amazon.UK may be the only source to US buyers. It is worth the extra pewter.
Wow, this review gave me shivers up my spine! I really want to read this book. I’ve put it on my “to read” list and will have to start looking for a copy.