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