Katherine Armstrong has worked in publishing for over six years. She is a crime fiction Editor for an independent publishing company in London.
I am an unapologetic Jane Austen fan. I can even stand her heroine Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, a character famously described by Austen’s own mother as ‘insipid’, but admittedly only years after having to study Mansfield Park for A-Level. Having just finished PD James’ Death Comes to Pemberley, I was in the right mood (and century) for Lindsay Ashford’s fictionalised account of how Jane Austen died – or perhaps not so fictionalised…
The truth is that no one can say for certain how Jane Austen died. There’s a lot of conflicting written material but Ashford’s novel puts forward a very compelling view that Jane Austen died of arsenic poisoning. Popular theory has Austen suffering from either Hodgkin’s lymphoma or Addison’s disease, but other theories include bovine tuberculosis and Bill-Zinsser disease (a form of typhus according to Wikipedia), and back in the eighteenth century arsenic was used in many medicines, as well as taken in small doses as stimulants. The bottom line however is that we just don’t know. This paves the way for writers like Lindsay Ashford to speculate and imagine ‘what if’ Jane Austen was murdered. Who would murder her (she lived such a sedentary life) and why?
The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen is a good read. Anne Sharp, the protagonist, is a mildly sympathetic character, though not one that you automatically warm to. She’s a poor, single governess who, in her own words, ‘belonged neither above stairs nor below,’ but she’s prickly and, similar to Fanny Price, a bit moralistic. Like the governess in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw there is ambiguity in Miss Sharp’s suspicions and what she sees, or what she believes she sees. Is she witnessing some serious intrigue or is she merely a fanciful, hysterical woman whose admiration and love for Jane Austen has led her to create a scenario that doesn’t exist in order to get close to the object of her affections?
For die-hard Austenites The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen might seem like sacrilege, although there are already a number of US crime novels where Jane Austen is the detective or the Darcys’ solve crimes. Lindsay Ashford has taken fact and added a good dollop of fiction to create this enjoyable entertainment that works on the assertion of what Mr Weston states in Emma, that ‘there are secrets in all families, you know’.