A few weeks ago I spotted a mention that the Woman’s Hour Book of the Week was going to be ‘The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen’ by crime writer Lindsay Ashford. I liked the sound of it and was too impatient to listen to daily episodes so I bought it for my Kindle. And what a revelation it was! Told by Jane Austen’s closest friend outside the family, Anne Sharp, who was at one time governess to Edward Austen Knight’s daughter Fanny, the story begins in 1843 when Miss Sharp has heard of scientific tests that can be performed on hair. She sends a lock of Jane’s hair for analysis and when the report arrives this is what it says:
“The lady, at the time of her demise, had quantities of arsenic in her person more than fifteen times that observed in the body’s state. You have told me that the persons with whom she dwelt…all survived her by a decade or more. I must conclude, therefore, that the source of the poison was not anything common to the household such as corruption of the water supply. Nor could any remedy the lady received – if indeed arsenic was administered – account for the great quantity present in her hair. It may be conjectured, then, that Miss J.A. was intentionally poisoned.” (My Bold)
This, of course, is fiction but it’s not giving away any spoilers to quote the note at the end of the book which mentions an authenticated lock of Jane Austen’s hair which, via several possessors, was ultimately presented for display at the cottage at Chawton in Hampshire, now known as Jane Austen’s house. The last owner, a Mr Henry G Burke of Baltimore, had the hair tested in a bid to discover the cause of her death and the result was shocking – the hair contained levels of arsenic far exceeding that observed in the body’s natural state.
Back to the mystery: From the beginning in 1843, we travel back to 1805, to Godmersham in Kent and to Anne Sharp’s first meeting with her charges’ aunt Jane, come on a visit. Using Jane Austen’s real letters, interweaving snippets of history, and a little bit of judicious conjecture, the story becomes an intriguing puzzle as Anne begins to notice things out of kilter, people behaving oddly – and indeed, people behaving badly. Anne keeps all her concerns close to her chest as her friendship with the fascinating, flirtatious, unsettled Jane grows and her grief as Jane’s illness takes hold of her is moving and poignant.
I’m not letting any more cats out of the bag about whodunit (according to the author) or why, just to say that it’s an inventive and extremely plausible explanation of a really shocking mystery – that whether deliberately dosed with arsenic or not, Jane Austen certainly appears to have died of it.
Once I’d finished Lindsay Ashford’s fascinating mystery I didn’t want to let Jane Austen go so I took another look at one of my favourite of the recent crop of films about her, ‘Miss Austen Regrets’. Starring Olivia Williams as the older Jane, it gives us a revealing and probably true picture of an oddly difficult woman – difficult in the sense that she didn’t fit the expected mould and her family had no idea how to handle her – and nor did she. Very different from the Victorian image of the saintly Miss Austen, in cap and mittens, wielding her quill pen as she wrote her novels in the quiet peace of a Hampshire village. As the title suggests, the film is full of regrets, Jane’s and Cassandra’s, the whole family, people who knew her and in a slight embroidery of what might have happened, a romance that vanished before it had a chance to bloom. Her sister-in-law’s brother, Brook Edward Bridges, who is mentioned in a letter to Cassandra.
In 1805 during a visit to Godmersham, her brother Edward’s estate in Kent, Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra: “[W]e could not begin dinner till six. We were agreeably surprised by Edward Bridges’s company to it. . . . It is impossible to do justice to the hospitality of his attentions towards me; he made a point of ordering toasted cheese for supper entirely on my account” (27 August 1805).
The film suggests that Edward Bridges really loved her and their meeting not long before Jane’s death is very touching, but for me the only mystery is how on earth anyone could have turned down Hugh Bonneville who plays Edward with a wistful nostalgia and charm.
If you haven’t seen the film, do – it’s well worth it. And if you like the sound of the mystery novel, that’s well worth a look too!
And now a commercial (of course). A fabulous review of The Dead Queen’s Garden from Myshelf.com. Reviewer Rachel A Hyde says: Young widow Charlotte Richmond is now living a quiet and respectable life in a small Hampshire town, but once she led a more adventurous life in her native Australia. It is 1858 and nearly Christmas. She will be spending it with her late (fortunately) husband’s relations. There is a christening to attend, a dying friend to spend time with, a job offer to consider and of course a murder or two to solve (or prevent).
An enjoyable series featuring a resourceful and lively heroine and amusing escapades. It can be classified as a cozy, of the sort that combines a house party with goings-on in a picturesque village. Charlotte gets to meet Florence Nightingale, meet up with a former acquaintance that knows about her past and enjoy a Victorian Christmas. There is a good period ambience in this novel, which wears its research lightly but nonetheless appears grounded in the 1850s. The author is knowledgeable about how people behaved, what they wore and did and this adds a dimension to the book that is sadly missing in many other historical novels. Plenty happens too, happy and tragic, amusing and exciting and it was exactly the right length, leaving me hoping that the next one won’t be too long in the offing. Highly recommended to anybody in search of a good murder mystery with a 19th century setting.
And that made me cry – knowing you can make people laugh and cry and enter a world that you’ve created is the real reason most authors keep going. (Money is nice too, of course, so it will be great when the ebook of The Dead Queen’s Garden is available from 30th April – tell your friends!)