I had the pleasure of reading this mystery novel in 2011 when it was published in the UK as The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen. I was very happy to learn that it was being published for the North American market by Sourcebooks as The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen. After a recent second reading, I can honestly state that “my affections and wishes are unchanged.”
The book opens 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, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, bovine tuberculosis, and recently Brill-Zinsser disease have all been suggested. 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, she 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 1940s on the sample of Jane Austen’s hair, she was compelled to write her novel – fiction yes, but based deeply upon fact.
Twenty-six years after Austen’s death, her dear friend 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 friend’s 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.
The narrative encompasses almost a forty-year span from 1805 when Anne and Jane are introduced at Godmersham Park, 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 that will raise more than a few eyebrows. At times I was shocked, repulsed and appalled, 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. Like Catherine Morland obsessed with Gothic fiction I could not stop. However, unlike Northanger Abbey, The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen is not a high burlesque parody. It is a serious mystery novel based on historical fact.
Ashford’s thought-provoking writing is both honest and intriguing. Bare to the bone with the 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 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 Jane Austen, by Lindsay Ashford
Sourcebooks Landmark (2013)
Trade paperback (432) pages
Cover image courtesy Sourcebooks © 2013; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2013, Austenprose.com